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BP, the Bible, and the Butterfly Effect

Over the years I have noticed that when it comes to the recitation of the Shema prayer, most Jews readily chant the first paragraph of the Shema with enthusiasm. The first paragraph reads:

Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.  Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today. Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates (Deut. 6:4-9).

The recitation of the second and third paragraph of the Shema  generally fails to inspire the same kind of enthusiasm. Here is the passage in question:

“If, then, you truly heed my commandments which I enjoin on you today, loving and serving the LORD, your God, with all your heart and all your soul, I will give the seasonal rain to your land, the early rain and the late rain, that you may have your grain, wine and oil to gather in; and I will bring forth grass in your fields for your animals. Thus you may eat your fill. But be careful lest your heart be so lured away that you serve other gods and worship them. For then the wrath of the LORD will flare up against you and he will close up the heavens, so that no rain will fall, and the soil will not yield its crops, and you will soon perish from the good land he is giving you. “Therefore, take these words of mine into your heart and soul. Bind them at your wrist as a sign, and let them be a pendant on your forehead. Teach them to your children, speaking of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. And write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates, so that, as long as the heavens are above the earth, you and your children may live on in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers he would give them” (Deut. 11:13-21).

Simply put, actions matter. Actions have consequences. Moderns might feel uncomfortable with the carrot-and-stick approach of Deuteronomy, but its message is still compelling.

Our scientific age is certainly far more sophisticated than anything the ancients might have imagined, yet the meaning of the second paragraph of the Shema conveys an idea that is surprisingly modern and contemporary.

An ecological appreciation of the world reveals that all lifeforms are interconnected. The old paradigm of Newtonian and Cartesian physics conceived of the world through the metaphor of the clock. The universe was once seen as  a set of simple systems resembling a well-tuned ticking pendulum. These systems, if disturbed, may malfunction if their behavior is veers from normalcy. Their movements seemed predictable and manageable in its very nature.

Now we have discovered that there are in a manner of speaking, clocks within clocks–exponentiated. The inner workings of our world are so  exquisitely sensitive to circumstance that even the smallest disturbance produces large and ever-growing changes in their behavior that are difficult to fully calculate.

The meteorologist Ed Lorenz observed while studying  the earth’s weather systems that the smallest variation in the input to his equations produced exponentiatingly large deviations in the behavior of his solutions.  He referred to this cascade of changes as the “butterfly effect.”  Thus, a butterfly stirring the air with its wings in the African jungle today will generate consequences for the storm systems affecting Boston within three weeks. Since our knowledge about African butterflies is limited, detailed long-term weather forecasting will prove to be difficult to anticipate–but the effects are nevertheless in a perpetual state of causality. (By the way, this same kind movement can also be applied with respect to economics, as seen this past year’s gyrations of the stock market.)

Actions matter–and what applies to the realm of natural events especially applies to the moral events we as individuals make. With the recent BP oil spill disaster, we can see an ecological impact that effects not just the Gulf region, but ultimately the lifeforms of the entire planet!

The Gulf of Mexico has been the home for tons of marine and aquatic lifeforms that are going to be drastically affected. According to one article,  the North Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, whales, dolphins, pelicans, oysters, shrimp, and blue crab. The Bluefin Tuna, which are famous for sushi, spawn in the Gulf of Mexico around mid-April to mid-June. Since the oil has been spewing into the waters where they hatch all throughout this time, they are now in danger of becoming extinct.

Marine animals like whales and dolphins not only live in the water, but need to surface to breathe. Therefore, the oil within the water is not the only threat to them. As they surface above the water to breathe the fresh air, the toxins that the oil gives off are inhaled.

The Brown Pelican recently came off the endangered species list in 2009 and is in grave danger yet again. Their breeding season is in the spring, during the spill, and their eggs are now incubating. The oil is posing a significant threat to this tropical bird.

When nature is injured and harmed by human greed, it will exert an economic impact on millions of people, whose livelihoods depend upon the ethical and mindful stewardship of their environment. The sea-food industry, for example, produces vast assortments of oysters, shrimp, and crab.

Residual effects of the oil and hydrocarbons will prove to be toxic to oysters for decades because hydrocarbons can be retained in coastal sediments for months or even years. Estimates so far indicate there will be a loss of $13 billion alone in tourism, and $11 billion in oil.  Florida and the entire Gulf region depends upon the revenue generated by these important industries.

Who knows how much damage will result from BP’s arrogance and greed? When a corporation worries about its profits more than the ethical operation of its operations, disasters such as the BP oil spill will impact humans and non-human lifeforms for generations to come.

So are the words of the Shema’s second paragraph relevant for our age? You betcha! We dare not ignore its spiritual message and importance in a postmodern era such as ours. The idols of today are much more subtle than the idols of antiquity. Today’s idols are the symbols of power and money; the love of money creates a society that values material goods over life itself. BP’s justification has been cavalier and disturbing. We can only hope that this tragedy will move nations in the direction of finding practical alternatives to oil.



Discussion

  1. Jill Goodman  July 30, 2010

    Thanks for emphasizing the important and amazing connections of nature & actions with Judaism.

    (reply)
  2. Judith Schechtman  July 30, 2010

    Dear Rabbi,
    This is an outstanding article. I don’t think scientists know how severe the eological disaster is from the BP oil well damage. They can only speculate. Everything in the planet is interconnected. It is truly a shame that corporate greed does not understand what they are doing to the planet.
    The Shema prayer teaches us a most valuable lesson.
    Judith Schechtman

    (reply)

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