Earth Day at 50: Climate Change, the Coronavirus, and the 3 Sabbath Spirals

This week, people celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. The first Earth Day, in 1970, gave people throughout the world their first opportunity to contemplate their planet and their relationship to it. The inspiration for the first Earth Day was a nascent awareness that the relentless pace of human society’s exploitation of the earth was responsible for levels of air and water pollution from industrial activities that endangered not just human health but the health of all living beings and ecosystems. Now, at Earth Day 50, the effects of climate change and the imperative need for clean energy have become the focus. Earth Day is now widely regarded as the largest secular observance in the world, one that inspires action to change human behavior and bring about policy and behavioral changes on local, national, and even international levels.

This Earth Day is different from all previous Earth Days. This Earth Day, we’re of course but not only focusing on exploring ways to change our individual and collective behavior to reduce the frequency and severity of such extreme events as torrential rains and flooding, drought, heat waves, fires so intense that they create their own weather systems, and inexorable sea-level rise caused by polar ice melt. This Earth Day, we’re conducting our planetary self-examination under the cloud of a deadly pandemic that forces us – while segregated from our larger communities in order to contain the contagion from the covid-19 coronavirus – to consider the connection between that coronavirus itself and climate change.

But this Earth Day is different from all previous Earth Days in another, and much more positive, way. It’s a way that’s connected to the number 50 itself and it comes from some of our oldest spiritual traditions, found in the Books of Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes that “one of the most important aspects of Jewish tradition and practice is that time is seen as a spiral…in which we are always drawing on the past in order to move to the future.” This spiral approach to “reflective” time is found in the several forms of Sabbath (shabbat): the Sabbath day (in Judaism, where yom rishon (the first day) is Sunday, shabbat is every Saturday, the 7th day); the shmitah, or sabbath year, which occurs every seventh year; and the yovel or Jubilee year, which occurs in the year after the end of the seventh cycle of seven years (the 50th year).

There are three Sabbath spirals. Each of them is designed for rest from physical labor (any work) in order to allow for self-reflection, refreshment, and renewal – for the individual, for the community, for animals, and for the land itself. Every 7th day, we are commanded to “remember the sabbath and keep it holy” (the 4th of the 10 commandments, expressed both in Exodus 31:13-17 and 20:8 and in Deuteronomy 5:12-15). Every 7th year, “…there shall be a Sabbath of Sabbath-ceasing for the land, a Sabbath of YHVH [Adonai or G-d]” (Leviticus: 25:4). As for the third Sabbath spiral, Leviticus 25:8-23 tells us:

You shall count off seven sabbaths of years, seven times seven years….And you shall make holy the fiftieth year,

and proclaim release throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof. It shall be to you a Jubilee [the Jewish

word, yovel, can be translated as “home-bringing”]. So you – every one of you – shall return to your own ancestral

holding; every one of you, to your family….You shall not sow, nor reap what grows, nor gather the grapes

of the unpruned vines….And the land shall not be permanently sold – For the land is Mine.  You are strangers and

visitors with Me.

The words “…release throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof” refer to the forgiveness of debts and to the release of slaves from bondage. The Rev. Carol M. Cox wrote that “the jubilee year provided a fresh start for everyone and a very powerful reminder, once in a lifetime, that our life depends on God.”

Leviticus 26:32-35 is unambiguously forceful regarding the consequences of human failure to observe this commandment:

Then I will make desolate, I Myself, the land, so that your enemies who settle in it will be appalled at the desolation

in it. And you I will scatter among the nations; I will unsheathe the sword against you, so that your land becomes

a desolation and your cities become a wasteland. Then…throughout the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the

rest that it did not observe in your sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it. The need to observe the 3

sabbath spirals is, as Rabbi Waskow writes, a law of gravity: “the earth does rest. If you rest with it, celebrating

joyfully, then all is joyful. But if you try to prevent it from resting, it will rest anyway – upon your head. Through

famine, drought, exile, desolation, it will rest.”

And, as we are discovering on this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, our prolonged failure to observe these Sabbath spirals also results in hurricanes, flooding…and pandemic caused, in part, by our clear-cutting of forests and other habitat destruction to make space for more cities and pasturing and crop-growing land which, in turn, brings us into more intimate contact with bats, birds, monkeys, civets, pangolins, and other animals whose viruses become more easily transmitted to us – the phenomenon of zoonosis.

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade, an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, wrote about the one bright spot she found in the coronavirus pandemic: “This might be the first time since the beginning of the Industrial Age that Earth is finally getting a break from the relentless activity and growth of human industrial production.” Schade argues that our response to climate change should not be drastic, like it must be for covid-19, but rather – as Vijay Kolinjivadi writes – “a just climate transition which ensures the protection of the poor and most vulnerable and which is integrated into our pandemic response.” Schade identifies the biblical concept for this kind of “system-wide societal justice” as the Jubilee Year, and she remarks how “uncanny” it is that the Earth is finally getting its Jubilee Year on Earth Day 50.

The connections to Scripture are also present here. Some scholars believe that Jesus began his ministry, in Luke 4:16-19, with allusion to these traditions. Whether or not that connection can be made, Jesus’ ministry was continually focused on the just treatment and the full inclusion of the less privileged and the poor. Further, the Lord’s Prayer may actually be a Jubilee prayer, meant to carry references to this neglected tradition. As Schade notes, “in the 50th year, [the people] were commanded to take care of each other. No interest charged on debts. No price-gouging. ‘If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them,’ (Lev. 25:35). The working poor are to be released from their debts. Everyone is set free, including the very Earth itself.”

Let us celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day by connecting the spiritual, ecological, economic, and political threads of personal (adam) and earth (adamah) sustainability that are the substance of each of the three Sabbath spirals. Let us use the coincidence of the covid-19 coronavirus pandemic and the increasing severity of the climate crisis to recognize that our commitment to our personal health and the health of our planet are and can only be one and the same commitment. We are all inextricably linked to each other. Let us honor that linkage as our obligation and let the fulfillment of that obligation be our blessing.

Jonathan Sebastian Leo and Rev. Penny Greer – Nebraska Interfaith Power & Light