(A sermon on Chukkat)
I love the Sunday comics. My wife laughs at me every week because as soon as the newspaper arrives, the first thing I do is open up to the comics. One comic, which is actually not among my favorites – is Family Circus. It tells about the daily life of a family with young children. And although it’s not a particularly funny comic strip, there is one motif that I think is brilliant. It’s the “Not Me” motif. Here’s how it works: Something has gone wrong. Maybe a lamp is broken, or a mess has been made. And when the parents ask who is responsible, all of the kids answer, “Not me!” And in the background, a shadowy figure called “Not Me” is seen escaping from the room.
I couldn’t stop thinking about “Not Me” as I read this week’s Torah portion. In Chukkat, our people are in the midst of the desert, doing what they do best – complaining. In Numbers 20, it says that after the death of Miriam:
The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron. 3 The people quarreled with Moses, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the LORD! Why have you brought the LORD’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there? Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!”
We all know what happens next – God tells Moses to speak to a rock and water would come out. But Moses – so angry with the people – instead hits the rock twice. And he is condemned to die before entering the Promised Land.
So I couldn’t help but ask, who’s really at fault here? Moses is right to be angry – he’s led the people through the desert for 40 years, given them food and water and shelter. And the minute something goes wrong, they all pull out the “Not Me” motif. “It’s your fault, Moses! You get us some water. How dare you lead us into this desert.” It’s probably the most self-centered, infantile response that the people could possibly have had in the situation.
It’s easy to condemn that bunch of slaves who couldn’t stop complaining about water, until you compare the way we tend behave around a certain other liquid that we can’t live without. At this moment, there are between 40 and 90 million gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Balls of tar are washing up on beaches from Florida to Louisiana, and the precious wetlands of my home state are being changed – probably forever – by oil.
And people are angry. Around the country, we are demanding answers. We’re angry at the government – Why weren’t the regulations tighter? We’re angry at the President – Why didn’t he respond more quickly? We’re angry at the Oil Executives – Why didn’t their safeguards prevent this and why can’t they seem to figure out how to stop it 2 months later? But there is one group that we don’t seem to be angry at, and that’s ourselves.
I recently say a political cartoon in the Observer. It showed a man ranting and raving about the oil spill – ranting about the wetlands, about Obama, about BP and the executives. And then it zoomed out, and you saw that while he was ranting, the man was filling up his SUV with gas. No matter how angry we are about the oil in our gulf, most of us have not changed the way we live. We’re trying to pull the “Not Me” motif.
Ranting and raving and boycotting may make us feel better, but it won’t solve the problem of what to do about the oil companies. As Sharon Begley wrote in Newsweek last week:
They’re drilling because of America’s—and the world’s—insatiable lust for oil. The U.S. consumes 800 million gallons of petroleum per week…. The only way to make this the last oil spill in the gulf is to make oil obsolete.
And she adds, only somewhat facetiously…
Shall we all hop on our bicycles, charge our plug-in hybrids with wind-generated electricity, swap out the heating oil or natural gas warming our homes for geothermal wells and passive solar?
Blogger Stephen Markley writes similarly:
We can’t go careening from “Drill, Baby, Drill!” to “No More Blood for Oil!” and expect anything to improve unless we take a hard look at our own behavior.
“Not Me” isn’t going to do us any good here. We will need policy changes; we will need cultural changes; we will need lifestyle changes. We will need for each of us to look at our own lives and consider the changes we might be able to make. Can we carpool? Can we raise our thermostats? Can we consider hybrid or electric for our next cars? Can we grow gardens and cut down on the fuel used in transporting vegetables across the world? Can we produce less waste and buy fewer things? Can we turn off our idling computers, unplug our phone chargers, and wean ourselves off of plastic water bottles and grocery bags? There are little things we can do to change the way we live and cut down on the Petroleum that we use.
This isn’t only our problem to fix, of course. We need help from from policymakers and corporate executives. But we have to at least send the message that we’re willing to do our part. Otherwise, we’re just complaining in the desert.
A Jew once came to his rabbi in tears, and said: “I’ve tried to repair the world but the world is still broken.” The rabbi said to the man: “Before you can change the world, you have to start with yourself. And after you’ve repaired yourself, repair your community. And after your community, repair your nation. And then, you will have begun to repair the world.”
It’s a long journey toward repairing the world. Much longer than 40 years in the desert; much longer than any one generation can handle on its own. But let’s see if we can’t begin that journey together now.