How Are You Feeling, Oceans?

How Are You Feeling, Oceans?

When Jewish people have happy festivals, we sing the Hallel, a group of psalms of thanksgiving. And one of those psalms begins: Mah Lecha Hayam, which means, “What’s going on with you, Sea? How are you feeling, Sea?

How is the sea feeling these days? How are our oceans doing?

Recently, one of our wonderful young people, Michael Shweky, became a Bar Mitzvah. Michael and his family have a special cause, something they believe in and work hard on: Taking care of the oceans. Michael has created a character, Vortex Man, a hero for the environment. The family wants to raise our consciousness, through very creative means, because we need to realize what human beings have done to the oceans and what human beings can do about it.

This is a very urgent issue. The seas are not feeling well. Let me emphasize one part of the issue: Plastic. Plastic pollution is a devastating problem for the world’s oceans and marine life. According to the UN, about 8 million tons of plastic waste is dumped in the seas annually. It has been discovered at the deepest point of ocean, in Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean. Scientists now believe that plastic is literally everywhere.

You might ask: What’s the big deal?

We live on the land, so we forget that the earth is primarily a marine habitat. The ocean governs climate and weather, and provides the cornerstone of the life-support system for all creatures on our planet, from deep-sea starfish to desert sagebrush. That’s why the ocean matters. If the sea is sick, we’ll feel it. If it dies, we die. Our future and the state of the oceans are one.

In Sea Change: A Message of the Oceans, Sylvia Earle, Chief Scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), describes how essential the oceans are to life on our planet and how badly we’ve damaged them. The oceans account for 97 percent of the earth’s water and more than 95 percent of the earth’s biosphere, that is, the earth’s living space.

We now know that the oceans are where life on our planet began. One important way the oceans continue to make our planet inhabitable is by absorbing roughly one-third of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activity, slowing the buildup of heat-trapping gasses and working against
global warming.

Due to indifference, ignorance, and greed, we’ve placed our oceans under extreme stress and compromised their ability to sustain a healthy planet.

We have overfished them and upset the delicate balance of animal life.

We have thrown vast amounts of pollutants and trash into them.

And, as the oceans absorb more and more of our excess carbon, they become more acidic and increasingly hostile to the ecology of life they have sustained in the past.

Oceans can no longer play the life-giving role they have played in our planet’s ecosystem. And as carbon dioxide builds in the atmosphere and temperatures rise, so will sea levels, directly threatening human communities in their path. “We have the power to damage the sea,” says Earle, “but no sure way to heal the harm.”

Before the Bible, people thought of the primeval ocean as a monster of chaos. According to the Bible, G-d had to subdue the primeval ocean that existed before creation in order to create an inhabitable world (Gen. 1:2).

We now know more about the oceans than our ancestors did, and we must build a new theology and a new ethics about the oceans based on that knowledge. We now know that the sea is not a monster of chaos that threatens our lives but a huge living organism that originated life and that continues to sustain all life on earth. It can no longer be treated as G-d’s enemy that must be subdued, but it must be treated as a part of G-d’s creation that gave us life and continues to make life possible for us.

The Bible attributes the sea to G-d’s wisdom, picturing it teeming with the life that continues to surprise and awe modern scientists (Psalm 104:24-25). Any human attitude or act that diminishes this world of life is an act counter to G-d’s wisdom for the world of creation.

When we were little, our parents taught us: When you make a mess, you have to clean it up yourself. We’ve made a mess; G-d is our parent, He created us and He created a beautiful earth. And now He’s commanding us to do something about it.

Rabbi Scolnic