Parshat Haazinu - Extinction Rebellion and the Torah's Approach to Making Your Mark


Extinction Rebellion (abbreviated as XR) is a socio-political movement with the stated aim of using civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance to compel government action on climate breakdown, biodiversity loss, and the risk of social and ecological collapse.

The group was established in the United Kingdom in May 2018 with about one hundred academics signing a call to action in support in October 2018 and launched at the end of October by activists Roger Hallam and Gail Bradbrook, and others from the campaign group Rising Up!

Extinction Rebellion's website, at the time of the group's inception in the UK, stated the following aims:

  1. Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.
  2. Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss (ie extinction of animal and plant species in their natural habitats) and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2025.
  3. Government must create, and be led by the decisions of, a citizens' assembly on climate and ecological justice.

In November 2018, five bridges across our lovely River Thames were blocked

In April, Extinction Rebellion occupied five prominent sites in central London: Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Circus, Marble Arch, Waterloo Bridge, and the area around Parliament Square.

Last week, XR commandeered an old fire truck and tried to spray fake blood onto the outside of the Treasury. They lost control of the hose and the stunt backfired. Five people were arrested for criminal damage.

Reading XR's list of grievences, there are many that I find I can agree with.

We are in a situation where the environment is under threat and both animal and plant species are at existential risk and I do sympathise with XR's concerns but when stunts like last week's both end up causing damage, at the expense of ridiculing the perpetrators - I wonder if there is a better way to act?

What's the Jewish way to save the world?

Maybe we can learn something from this week's Parasha.

In the very last mitzvah of the Torah #613, we are told:

(יט) וְעַתָּ֗ה כִּתְב֤וּ לָכֶם֙ אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את וְלַמְּדָ֥הּ אֶת־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל שִׂימָ֣הּ בְּפִיהֶ֑ם לְמַ֨עַן תִּהְיֶה־לִּ֜י הַשִּׁירָ֥ה הַזֹּ֛את לְעֵ֖ד בִּבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (כ) כִּֽי־אֲבִיאֶ֜נּוּ אֶֽל־הָאֲדָמָ֣ה ׀ אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֣עְתִּי לַאֲבֹתָ֗יו זָבַ֤ת חָלָב֙ וּדְבַ֔שׁ וְאָכַ֥ל וְשָׂבַ֖ע וְדָשֵׁ֑ן וּפָנָ֞ה אֶל־אֱלֹקִ֤ים אֲחֵרִים֙ וַעֲבָד֔וּם וְנִ֣אֲצ֔וּנִי וְהֵפֵ֖ר אֶת־בְּרִיתִֽי׃ (כא) וְ֠הָיָה כִּֽי־תִמְצֶ֨אןָ אֹת֜וֹ רָע֣וֹת רַבּוֹת֮ וְצָרוֹת֒ וְ֠עָנְתָה הַשִּׁירָ֨ה הַזֹּ֤את לְפָנָיו֙ לְעֵ֔ד כִּ֛י לֹ֥א תִשָּׁכַ֖ח מִפִּ֣י זַרְע֑וֹ כִּ֧י יָדַ֣עְתִּי אֶת־יִצְר֗וֹ אֲשֶׁ֨ר ה֤וּא עֹשֶׂה֙ הַיּ֔וֹם בְּטֶ֣רֶם אֲבִיאֶ֔נּוּ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבָּֽעְתִּי׃ (כב) וַיִּכְתֹּ֥ב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא וַֽיְלַמְּדָ֖הּ אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

(19) Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness against the people of Israel.

(20) When I bring them into the land flowing with milk and honey that I promised on oath to their fathers, and they eat their fill and grow fat and turn to other gods and serve them, spurning Me and breaking My covenant,

(21) and the many evils and troubles befall them—then this poem shall confront them as a witness, since it will never be lost from the mouth of their offspring. For I know what plans they are devising even now, before I bring them into the land that I promised on oath.

(22) That day, Moses wrote down this poem and taught it to the Israelites.

Our Rabbis explain that this last mitzvah was for every Jew to write his own Sefer Torah, which would contain the poem that makes us the bulk of this week's parasha of Haazinu.

A poem which describes what will happen if we enter the Land of Israel and stray from the worship of Gd.

It is interesting to note that the fundemental message contained therein came in the shape of a poem or a song.

What is the significance of a poem?

Let us think back to the start of Moses' leadership of the Israelites.

When did it really begin?

At the shores of the Sea of Reeds.

Each day, we sing the Shira - the song that our ancestors sang after they witnessed the miracle of the splitting of the sea. It was the precursor to the provision of manna and the giving of the Torah. It described the way we felt about Gd, our independence, our salvation from Pharaoh and the Egyptians and the bright future that lay ahead.

It opened the way to our journey towards the Promised Land.

And here, we complete that journey with another song. Forty years later, as Moses completes his last journey on the day of his death.

In both cases, the Torah uses a poem or song to describe our emotions and feelings.

Can there be a better way to convey a message, than through the medium of song?

When we think of those significant moments in our lives, how many of them are accompanied by some sort of soundtrack?

Whether it is the clapping and singing at barmitzvah/batmitzvah or wedding or sadly, the mournful sound of a memorial prayer when we bid farewell to our loved ones - music is our companion through life.

It accompanies us wherever we go and whenever we arrive at our destination.

The harsh words that comprise some of the verses of Haazinu are somehow softened by the magnificent language used in the verses.

(יד) חֶמְאַ֨ת בָּקָ֜ר וַחֲלֵ֣ב צֹ֗אן עִם־חֵ֨לֶב כָּרִ֜ים וְאֵילִ֤ים בְּנֵֽי־בָשָׁן֙ וְעַתּוּדִ֔ים עִם־חֵ֖לֶב כִּלְי֣וֹת חִטָּ֑ה וְדַם־עֵנָ֖ב תִּשְׁתֶּה־חָֽמֶר׃ (טו) וַיִּשְׁמַ֤ן יְשֻׁרוּן֙ וַיִּבְעָ֔ט שָׁמַ֖נְתָּ עָבִ֣יתָ כָּשִׂ֑יתָ וַיִּטֹּשׁ֙ אֱל֣וֹקַ עָשָׂ֔הוּ וַיְנַבֵּ֖ל צ֥וּר יְשֻׁעָתֽוֹ׃ (טז) יַקְנִאֻ֖הוּ בְּזָרִ֑ים בְּתוֹעֵבֹ֖ת יַכְעִיסֻֽהוּ׃ (יז) יִזְבְּח֗וּ לַשֵּׁדִים֙ לֹ֣א אֱלֹ֔הַ אֱלֹקִ֖ים לֹ֣א יְדָע֑וּם חֲדָשִׁים֙ מִקָּרֹ֣ב בָּ֔אוּ לֹ֥א שְׂעָר֖וּם אֲבֹתֵיכֶֽם׃ (יח) צ֥וּר יְלָדְךָ֖ תֶּ֑שִׁי וַתִּשְׁכַּ֖ח אֵ֥ל מְחֹלְלֶֽךָ׃

(14) Curd of kine and milk of flocks;

With the best of lambs,

And rams of Bashan, and he-goats;

With the very finest wheat

— And foaming grape-blood was your drink.

(15) So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked—

You grew fat and gross and coarse—

He forsook the God who made him

And spurned the Rock of his support.

(16) They incensed Him with alien things,

Vexed Him with abominations.

(17) They sacrificed to demons, no-gods,

Gods they had never known,

New ones, who came but lately,

Who stirred not your fathers’ fears.

(18) You neglected the Rock that begot you,

Forgot the God who brought you forth.

Yet, throughout this, Gd will not forsake us.

(כו) אָמַ֖רְתִּי אַפְאֵיהֶ֑ם אַשְׁבִּ֥יתָה מֵאֱנ֖וֹשׁ זִכְרָֽם׃ (כז) לוּלֵ֗י כַּ֤עַס אוֹיֵב֙ אָג֔וּר פֶּֽן־יְנַכְּר֖וּ צָרֵ֑ימוֹ פֶּן־יֹֽאמְרוּ֙ יָדֵ֣ינוּ רָ֔מָה וְלֹ֥א ה' פָּעַ֥ל כָּל־זֹֽאת׃ (כח) כִּי־ג֛וֹי אֹבַ֥ד עֵצ֖וֹת הֵ֑מָּה וְאֵ֥ין בָּהֶ֖ם תְּבוּנָֽה׃ (כט) ל֥וּ חָכְמ֖וּ יַשְׂכִּ֣ילוּ זֹ֑את יָבִ֖ינוּ לְאַחֲרִיתָֽם׃

(26) I might have reduced them to naught,

Made their memory cease among men,

(27) But for fear of the taunts of the foe,

Their enemies who might misjudge

And say, “Our own hand has prevailed;

None of this was wrought by the LORD!”

28) For they are a folk void of sense,

Lacking in all discernment.

(29) Were they wise, they would think upon this,

Gain insight into their future:

(ל) אֵיכָ֞ה יִרְדֹּ֤ף אֶחָד֙ אֶ֔לֶף וּשְׁנַ֖יִם יָנִ֣יסוּ רְבָבָ֑ה אִם־לֹא֙ כִּי־צוּרָ֣ם מְכָרָ֔ם וַֽה' הִסְגִּירָֽם׃ (לא) כִּ֛י לֹ֥א כְצוּרֵ֖נוּ צוּרָ֑ם וְאֹיְבֵ֖ינוּ פְּלִילִֽים׃ (לב) כִּֽי־מִגֶּ֤פֶן סְדֹם֙ גַּפְנָ֔ם וּמִשַּׁדְמֹ֖ת עֲמֹרָ֑ה עֲנָבֵ֙מוֹ֙ עִנְּבֵי־ר֔וֹשׁ אַשְׁכְּלֹ֥ת מְרֹרֹ֖ת לָֽמוֹ׃

(30) “How could one have routed a thousand,

Or two put ten thousand to flight,

Unless their Rock had sold them,

The LORD had given them up?”

(31) For their rock is not like our Rock,

In our enemies’ own estimation.

(32) Ah! The vine for them is from Sodom,

From the vineyards of Gomorrah;

The grapes for them are poison,

A bitter growth their clusters.

You can deliver a devastating message, but you need to consider the medium that you are employing.

And this is where I believe that XR has missed the proverbial 'trick'.

Blocking bridges, occupying the centre of London and spray-painting Government buildings is counter-productive. If you want to really get your message across, do so intelligently - as we have learned, the medium is as important as the message.

You can have the greatest message, but if you don't know how to utilise the medium, it's like drinking the finest quality wine poured out of a watering can.

Perhaps we haven't completely taken in the lessons that we read year-in and year-out from the Torah. We are still making mistakes and some of our less salubrious brethren have indeed grown fat, gross and coarse. The Jewish man whose reprehensible behaviour led to the rise of the '#metoo' movement is a sad but relevant example.

But that doesn't mean the messages are any less relevant today than they were 3,300 years ago.

We know that we can all strive to do better - and the Torah tells us how we can go about this.

In a few weeks time, we will read about the sin of the Garden of Eden, when we first abrogated our responsibility for 'looking after the environment' by the eating of the fruit - and the subsequent banishment which led to all kinds of disasters.

Had Adam and Eve looked at the consequences of their actions, maybe they would have made different decisions.

I'm not in PR and I don't have the answers but if XR wants to get its message across in a succinct, refined and more successful manner, they could do a lot worse than looking at the Torah for ideas.

Sometimes the smallest activities have the greatest impact.

Shabbat Shalom.