Parshat T'tzaveh: A Theology of Sacred Ecosystems and Interconnection

T'tzaveh, Exodus 27:20−30:10

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Hilly Haber

The Earth groans in a plurality of pains…. All that is good and bad is interconnected, touching our human condition and shaping our perceptions of the world. We are the ones who suffer it in our flesh, feeling the pain of others and the suffering of the planet.
-Ivone Gebara, Planetary Solidarity

Brazilian nun and ecofeminist Ivone Gebara writes from the frontlines of climate and economic disaster. Attuned to the plurality of pains crying out locally and echoing across the globe, Gebara weaves together a theology of ecosystem and interconnection, one that recognizes the vast webs of relationship binding all life in shared fate. Gebara offers a vision for human and ecological flourishing that starts with an honest account of communal and environmental degradation.

Gebara pushes us beyond recognizing the detrimental consequences of climate change and extreme weather conditions. Instead, her theology helps us see overlapping structures of injury and injustice, which "gradually undermine the balance of our common home and make us fear for the future of life on our planet." Gebara continues, "Climate injustice is an expression of the social, political, and economic injustice that we commit against each other" (Ivone Gebara, Planetary Solidarity).

Gebara's reflection imbues places of pain with theological import, as she first names and diagnoses the root of injustice, and then finds hope and possibility even where there is decay and despair.

Such sites of overlapping pain exist across the United States. In their article, "Prisons as LULUs: Understanding the Parallels between Prison Proliferation and Environmental Injustices," Professors Tara Opsal and Stephanie A. Malin apply the lens and language of environmental justice-namely the term "LULU" (locally undesirable land uses)-to the ecosystems of prisons and jails in the United States.

LULUs-for example, hazardous waste facilities-inflict costs on their surroundings, making it risky to live, work, and play in their vicinity. Opsal and Malin note that across the U.S., "LULUs are sited in primarily minority, poor neighborhoods and linked…to deliberate and institutionalized practices targeting vulnerable populations, and practices of environmental racism" (Opsal and Malin). To see a prison or jail as a LULU helps us see not only the internal human ecosystem of the prison as a site of torture and punishment, but also the external environmental consequences to the surrounding area: for example, the disproportionate amount of waste produced, and resources used to confine hundreds or thousands of people in a relatively small area (Opsal and Malin).

Further, in the United States, prisons and jails are often built on or near existing LULUs. Rikers Island, for example, is built on a toxic waste landfill. To understand prisons as LULUs, then, is also to recognize a plurality of pain caused by "the historical and spatial layering of one LULU on top of another" (Opsal and Malin), a piling-up of human and ecological decay in which people on the inside, who are cut off from their communities, live at the intersection of environmental, racial, and economic injustice.

How do our sacred texts guide us in addressing these overlapping systems of oppression? Scholar Willie James Jennings reminds us that theological reflection not only helps us see injustice, but "can open up possibilities of a new world beyond the tragedy…. Theology in this regard is indeed filled with hope…. Theological reflection also opens up the possibility of a conversation that has yet to happen" (Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race).

Thus, reflecting theologically on the nexus between the carceral system and environmental justice helps us see the overlapping systems of oppression which create these conditions, and also the possibility of reversal: creating ecosystems in which people and the earth can heal and flourish.

What are the theologies and ethics which undergird thriving and healthy communities? Parshat T'tzaveh offers a glimpse. The Israelites, dwelling in hostile wilderness surroundings, are taught to organize themselves around a sanctuary, with Torah-divine instruction-at the center. The key verb employed in this parasha is l'kadeish-"to sanctify"; its concern is with the uplifting of the mundane. Parshat T'tzaveh narrates the process by which natural resources, people, and places are elevated and made sacred, rather than exploited, degraded, abandoned, or cast out.

As the Israelites build their holy community with God in the wilderness, T'tzaveh focuses on the priestly garments and the rite of priestly consecration. Brilliantly colored fabrics adorned with precious stones and metals-all donated by the community-are woven together and made holy through ritual. Individuals are imbued with sacred purpose as the priests are ordained and dedicated to communal service. Symbolic of this role, the High Priest wears a head covering inscribed with the words " kodesh l'Adonai" -holy to God (Exodus 29:45-46). And upon his shoulders he wears avnei zikaron-two "stones of remembrance" bearing the names of the 12 tribes of Israel. The engraving of the Israelite names makes visible our web of holy connection. It's as if kodesh l'Adonai is engraved on each of our bodies as well. As God says to Moses of the Israelites, "you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6).

T'tzaveh expresses a theology of ecosystem and interconnection, one which imbues resources, people, and places with sacred meaning and worth. All members of the community are knit together in a web of mutual obligation and responsibility, sanctified as they work together to achieve sacred purposes.

As we contemplate the sites of human suffering and environmental degradation that blight our country, the holy community we view in T'tzaveh offers a higher ethic. The sacred community of T'tzaveh calls us to account for the plurality of pains which echo across our country and work toward building communities in which all people can flourish and thrive, and our wounded land can be healed.

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