"Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for Adonai had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder."Exodus 19:19-20
Shazam! The idea struck me like a bolt of lightning.
One of the great joys of living in Jerusalem is participating in the all-night Torah study sessions offered for free around town into the wee hours of the holiday of Shavuot (Pentecost) – celebrating the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai approximately 3,700 years ago.
I have to admit that as I age, my ability to focus late into the night has waned and my mind wanders, as a good Jew’s often does, to some of the Big Issues of the day.
On this particular holy night, as the rabbi was teaching about the giving of the Law, I worried about the destruction of the Amazon, the rapid melting of the icecaps, the food and water scarcity that is looming, new climate-driven pandemics, wildfires in Israel and California, 600 million Africans without power, Gazans with rockets but no water, super-charged typhoons battering the Philippines and more.
What an indulgence, I thought to myself, to sit here and glean lessons from ancient texts while God’s world burns at the hands of the Creator’s creatures. We are, indeed, a self-destructive species, knowingly and greedily exploiting the world to our own detriment.
Perhaps, at the genesis of Creation, the prosecuting angels had indeed been correct to lobby God not to create humanity, with our evil inclination and freedom of choice.
Five years ago on Shavuot, the founding father of utility-scale solar energy on Earth and one of my mentors, the legendary Arnold Goldman, ascended to heaven. His children asked me to give a sermon in his honor at the one-year anniversary of Arnold’s passing.
Arnold, who was drawn to the renewable energy of mysticism, died when the Torah reading was the giving of the Torah, on a mountain trembling with geothermal energy, engulfed by lightning and buffeted by wind. The reading of the prophets for the day was Ezekiel, the only place where “electricity in the eye of the fire” (Ezekiel 1:4) is mentioned in the Bible.
And so, with my mind circling the Earth and its problems, and the rabbi speaking of Moses in the background, the lightning bolt came out of nowhere and pierced my soul – perhaps sent by Arnold. The United Nations Climate Change Conference, in proximity to Mount Sinai, could be the prime time for the force of religion to speak climate truth to dirty power. For the world, and especially for Israel!
Three months later, I found myself humming George Harrison’s “I really want to see you, Lord” while climbing Mount Sinai with friends in the heat of August, the hottest and driest month, in search of a climate miracle. Or at least a message. Or maybe 10 of them.
We know that the 27th United Nations gathering of world leaders, commonly referred to as COP27, taking place in Sinai, is unlikely to change the course of climate and human history as we accelerate toward the doomsday cliff.
Greenhouse gas emissions continue rising, with fossil fuel companies controlling the energy agenda in nearly every country and exploiting the war in Ukraine to continue drilling worldwide. The Israeli delegation went to COP27 empty-handed and willfully blind, a week after its fifth election in four years, with both leading candidates for prime minister – Benjamin Netanyahu and Yair Lapid – idolizing the destructive gas companies.
As a climate activist and solar pioneer, one of the few places where I find hope are what I call “the climate kids,” officially known as Strike4Fridays, the Greta-affiliated group in Israel. They speak prophetic truth to power, in the Knesset, on the streets, and on Zoom.
Their moral power was on full display on Friday, October 28, when more than 10,000 young people converged in Tel Aviv for Israel’s climate march, days before our national election and a week or so before the UN Climate Change Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh.
During the previous election campaign last year, the youth conducted the first climate debate of candidates among six parties, which was broadcast on DemocraTV. They wrangled climate promises from candidates, and nearly all parties penned climate platforms – all firsts in Israeli political life. A Green Voter campaign of the environmental movement even rated the parties, giving Lapid’s Yesh Atid the highest rating of the major parties.
A year later, the climate kids feel betrayed, since in the government of change Yesh Atid controlled the Ministry of Energy and renewed gas and oil drilling, proceeded with more gas pipelines, nixed meaningful proposed climate laws, refused to increase Israel’s modest renewables’ goals and made only symbolic progress. Outgoing Prime Minister Lapid refused to meet with them, as did his predecessor, Naftali Bennett.
When my friends Nika Berdichevsky, 17, from Tel Aviv and Yarden Israeli, 16, from Rehovot speak, they carry a lot of authority, not only because they have done their homework but also because they, like the other climate kids, authentically speak for an entire generation. The two moderated this year’s election climate debate on October 24, co-sponsored by the major environmental groups, including the Israel Union for Environmental Defense.
The body language of the Knesset members said it all: Despite their good intentions, Israel is still on the wrong side of climate history.
When the lightning bolt hit me in the still of that Jerusalem night, I thought of Nika, Yarden and their friends. COP27 in Sharm may fail, but Providence ensured that the world’s leaders were gathering less than three hours away from the most consequential mountain, a moral platform if there ever was one, for a spiritual and compelling cry to humanity to change our destructive ways and prove the prosecuting angels at Creation wrong.
What if from Mount Sinai a new climate covenant was declared, with two tablets featuring 10 climate commandments?
Over a Friday coffee on Emek Refaim in Jerusalem with my friend and co-conspirator David Miron Wapner, we noodled the idea. “What if it is a multi-faith call to action from Mount Sinai,” suggested David, who also serves as chairman of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development. “The politicians have failed us; let’s bring the voice of religious leaders and youth to Sinai.” But how?
At that time Moshe was engaged in prayer for a long while, so the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him, “My beloved ones are drowning in the sea and you are prolonging prayer before Me!” He said to Him, “Lord of the Universe, what can I do?” He replied to him, “Speak to the Children of Israel that they should advance. And you lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand” (Sotah 36b - 37a).
When I walked into the ultra-modern Peace Department headquarters in New York, one of its whiteboards was filled with arrows and formulas on how to solve food shortages in Egypt – a modern Joseph story. “The war in Ukraine is destabilizing food security worldwide, but especially in Egypt,” says James Sternlicht, 31, founder of the Peace Department.
Sternlicht is a model of a new generation of activists – media-savvy, strategic, well connected, fearless and with access to financial resources. He also happens to be Jewish. The first time I met Sternlicht he was deeply upset about the Russian war against Ukraine, but unlike the rest of us, he was in touch with Ukrainian and other influential European leaders and was plotting to bring a multi-faith delegation to Ukraine in solidarity.
He partnered with Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein, who directs the Elijah Interfaith Institute and has a global network of high-level religious leaders. Together with religious leaders, they staged a solidarity event – Faith in Ukraine – in April during the war that was seen by more than 300 million people, with even the pope weighing in with a support video.
After seeing the whiteboard about food shortages in Egypt, I asked, “James, are you thinking of going to the UN climate conference in Egypt? If so, why not replicate your success in Ukraine and bring your interfaith model for the climate issue to Mount Sinai?”
SHAZAM! MORE lightning bolts began flying. James started brainstorming at lightning speed about how to beam a climate covenant ceremony live from Mount Sinai via satellite, engage social media, reach out to world leaders, expand religious input to include First Nations, and invite the secretary general of the UN and other dignitaries. “It all depends on if we can get official permission from the government of Egypt,” said James. “This could be big. I will make some calls.”
Sternlicht joined up again with the Elijah Interfaith Institute and brought in the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, which secured three slots for official press conferences at the UN conference to share the 10 climate commandments and video from what was expected to be a historic interfaith climate gathering at Mount Sinai on Sunday, November 13.
I scored a Newsweek column announcing the plan, where I floated the first draft of the 10 climate commandments and received support from the Roadburg Foundation, which funds climate action in Canada. Hazon recruited a delegation of youth leaders from Israel and the US, and Nika from Strike4Fridays convinced her mother to agree to come with us. We embarked on an advance trip, booked hotels and flights, hired staff, reserved camels, and ascended Mount Sinai on a hot August night to see sunrise at the summit for a practice run.
COP27 in Sinai wouldn’t be the first divine intervention in the UN climate conference. I was privileged with my friend David to be part of the Israeli delegation at the Paris conference in 2015, billed as the last best chance to strike a deal to keep global warming to a manageable 1.5 degrees. These conferences are two-week affairs. Each one begins with a sense of optimism that the world is serious about changing course, with an array of world leaders gathering in the first two days and saying all the right things.
After they jet off, however, negotiations begin. Since 197 country delegations must agree on every word, I saw firsthand how Iran and Saudi Arabia would object in committee meetings, along with China and India, to language that would be binding. As the sea levels were rising, these countries were watering down the draft agreements, and the 30,000 people gathered, myself included, started losing hope. On the weekend, however, massive climate protests swept Paris and restored momentum.
And then, to reciprocate the energy of the weekend protests, the finger of God appeared, like the one that etched in stone the first set of 10 commandments. A plague of air pollution darkness descended on Beijing, and super-charged monsoons rained down on India. Just like this year’s floods in Pakistan and Mississippi and Hurricane Ian in Florida.
The hearts of leaders melted like ice caps, and a good, first-step Earth-saving deal was miraculously inked. I celebrated with friends ecstatically in the front row of a Madonna concert in Paris that night, singing “Like a Prayer” as if it were Moses’s Song of the Sea.
But will God appear at COP27 in Sinai – and is there anything we can do to summon divine intervention?
Then you shall go with the elders of Israel to the king of Egypt and you shall say to him, the God of the Hebrews became manifest to us. Now therefore, let us go a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to our God (Exodus 3:18).
Pharaoh famously turned down the Israelites’ request for a prayer service in the desert, so we don’t have a good track record going in with today’s Egyptian leaders for the Sinai climate prayer plan request.
“Feelings of duty and honor have long driven humanity to do great things,” said Sternlicht. “Our mission is to solve coordination failures at scale, and we see this Sinai activation as a stepping stone to a global coordination system, where religion and science and eventually politics can work together to guide humanity toward a brighter future.”
Sternlicht and his partners approached the military governor of Sinai to request permission for an interfaith repentance ceremony for Mother Earth on Mount Sinai on Sunday, November 13, the halfway point in the UN conference, when negotiations were expected to stall and when the usual civil society demonstrations would be banned in Sharm.
The request was forwarded to government offices in Cairo. “Not now,” came back the response as The Jerusalem Report went to print. And then the tour operators and hotels canceled the reservations for the event, essentially drowning the endeavor.
During the advance trip, we understood better that Egypt was on the brink of a severe economic downspin, that political tensions would be rising drastically, and our vision to bring 10 climate commandments from religious leaders down from Mount Sinai would be fraught with challenges. Yet the religious leaders of the Elijah Interfaith Institute had prepared inspiring and powerful action calls to humanity. Could we still get them out to the world?
We knew it would be tough going, so I turned heavenward to get some guidance. At the foot of the mountain on that cloudless and balmy summer day, I looked up to the sky to pose the question to the Creator, knowing that the average August rainfall there over the past 50 years was zero.
“Creator of the Universe, send us a sign that we should proceed with the climate covenant, the 10 climate commandments, here at Mount Sinai during COP27.”A personal prayer
“Creator of the Universe, send us a sign that we should proceed with the climate covenant, the 10 climate commandments, here at Mount Sinai during COP27,” I prayed, with my eyes and hands pointed up with hope and in fear. I waited four seconds.
And, at that very moment – Shazam! – the skies opened up, heavy rain pelted us, and thunder bolted an unequivocal answer from Above – all captured on 49 seconds of video. Thank God for Plan B. Stay tuned! ■
Yosef Israel Abramowitz, an award-winning journalist and frequent contributor to The Jerusalem Report, was nominated by 12 African countries for the Nobel Peace Prize for his climate work, is a member of the Wexner and Toniic Climate groups and a leader of President Isaac Herzog’s Climate Forum. He serves as CEO of Gigawatt Global, an impact investment platform for green energy, and is a judge and ambassador of the Climate Solutions Prize. He can be followed @KaptainSunshine. To find and comment on the final 10 climate commandments and to track the unfolding of Plan B, log onto www.thepeacedepartment.org, www.Elijah-Interfaith.org or www.InterfaithSustain.com.
Jerusalem Interfaith Climate Declaration
On November 3, a joint statement, authored primarily by Rabbi Yonatan Neril and David Miron Wapner, was signed by religious leaders at the Israeli Foreign Ministry in a joint program with the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development. Here is a copy of the text:
- Inspired by the values and principles of our belief systems, faith, values, and ethics, we recognize that the climate crisis is caused by unrestrained human activity. We have failed to protect Earth’s capacity to support life, impacting especially the poor and marginalized. As people of faith, we must with humility challenge greed, instant self-gratification, and short-term thinking. Abusing and degrading God’s creation for current and future generations is sinful behavior. We must urgently adopt a new development paradigm that integrates our common moral and spiritual values towards a new one of sustainable well-being.
- We affirm the power of religion to lead an essential transformation in human society, action, and behavior. We call upon our faithful to act in accord with our shared beliefs:
- The one living God created Earth as one interdependent life-supporting whole. All of us are called to care for, love, protect and glory in God’s creation. We shall not worship idols of greed, consumption, and consumerism and shall make time for sacred rest, to gratefully embrace in joyous awe all of creation.
- Humankind shall act with justice and awareness, using and allocating Earth’s resources wisely and equitably. At this crucial moment, we must responsibly protect the purity of air, soil, and water as sources of human life and flourishing.
- Respect Earth’s capacity for sustainable growth, living in ecological harmony and balance. We call upon humanity to safeguard, respect and bless all life, as human and non-human biodiversity are sacred. You shall not steal from others and future generations. Honor, cherish and respect ancestors, the entire human family, all species, and future generations.
- We call upon all religions, governments, UN entities, civil society, as well as our own constituencies, to act urgently to address the root causes of the climate crises, to repair our world based on our common spiritual and cultural values of justice and ethics.
- We commit ourselves to lead by example, to act and practice what we preach, and to become protectors of this earth, to strive to live in balance, harmony, and sustainability, through our daily lives and actions.