Drowning in a Flood of Instant Gratification (Tu Bishvat 2020)

Tel Aviv, Israel, December 25, 2019; View of a winter storm on the beach of Tel Aviv in the afternoon.

By Andrés Spokoiny

Stav Harari and Dean Shoshani, both 25, had just started their lives together in a new apartment in the colorful Hatikvah Quarter in South Tel Aviv. Dean was ecstatic, telling his sister that “my dream is coming true every day.”

On January 5, the young couple entered the elevator of their building. Outside, it had started to rain, and apparently the water short-circuited the elevator, which got stuck. Probably when they first got trapped, Stav and Dean joked, maybe even made a racy comment about being stuck together in a tiny space. As Israelis they were conditioned to make light of stressful situations. But in a few minutes, they realized that their situation was no laughing matter. The rain outside had become a torrential storm and water started to seep slowly but relentlessly into the elevator. After three hours punctuated by Stav and Dean’s desperate calls and knocks, rescue personnel were finally able to extract them from their metal cage. But by then they were dead. Stav and Dean saw their death coming at them in slow motion. For three hours. 10,800 seconds. If drowning is a horrible way of dying, imagine drowning very slowly.

Climate change is Stav and Dean’s story, not some abstract disquisition of television pundits. Climate change is, not just glaciers you’ve never going to visit melting in some unknown countries, not just polar bears and penguins in distress, but two young Israelis with all their lives ahead dying a slow and horrific death.

The storms that hit Tel Aviv on January 5 broke records, but meteorologists predict that they’ll become the new normal. And while Israel is prepared to deal with wars, it’s not prepared for floods. Nor was Tel Aviv the only city in trouble: People died in Nahariya, and streets flooded all over the country. People got trapped in floating cars and got carried away by torrents of rainfall. And to boot, a full squadron of F16 jets got completely immersed in water, and will demand millions of shekels in repairs. IDF military tracks and armored personnel carriers had to be moved from the volatile Lebanese border to help evacuate residents. And no, that kind rainfall is not good for Israel. While Israel needs rain in the mountains to create a staged and gradual irrigation of the entire country, the rain that falls on Tel Aviv gets washed into the sea. On January 5, the mountains remained eerily dry.

Climate change means that in Israel the weather becomes extreme and unpredictable. While Tel Aviv floods, the Dead Sea sees record-high temperatures, as high as 122 degrees last summer, the highest temperature ever recorded in Israel since the State’s creation. It was so hot that some cars caught on fire. But we’d better get used to it: “Warming will continue, so we expect an increase in the number of extreme heat waves and a higher probability of breaking more temperature records,” said a statement from the Israel Meteorological. Indeed, the record that was broken was just the one from the previous year. Extreme weather events that took place once in 50 years now happen every two or three. The Arab war cry of 1948 to “drive the Jews into the sea” is being realized on the inverse; we are ourselves driving the sea into the Jews.

Climate change is relevant to almost all Jewish holidays because they all have an agricultural and ecological dimension. If spring disappears and we have only two seasons, “hot and hotter,” what happens to Passover, aka “Chag HaAviv,” the holiday of spring? How do we celebrate the Shavuot harvest when our fields are scorched? But Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the Trees, is the ecological holiday “par excellence.” Tu Bishvat celebrates the importance of trees in our lives, and modern science has proved something that our tradition seemed to know already: that trees are at the center of any ecological system. “Collapse, the landmark Jared Diamond book shows how deforestation and careless management of woodlands sets off a chain reaction of ecological calamity that, in many cases, brings about the collapse of a civilization. But Tu Bishvat has another message that is counter-cultural for our times and closely linked to the root cause of climate change: The notion of delayed gratification.

According to the Torah, one is forbidden to eat a tree’s fruits until a full three years after its planting. Tu Bishvat serves as the milestone by which these three years are counted. It has been suggested that the practice of waiting made good agricultural sense. The tree gets pruned in the first three years and produces better harvests later. There is, however, another message, one related to the importance of deferred gratification. The gorgeous fruits are there, tantalizingly close, and yet, we are asked to wait three years to consume them. The Torah tells us to sacrifice the pleasure of immediate satisfaction for a more sustainable, genuine well-being – both material and spiritual – later.

Delayed gratification is present in many Jewish rituals, as anybody who waited two hours for the food at the Seder table can attest. Even on normal days, before taking a bite of food or a sip of drink we are commanded to stop and say a blessing.

But today, we live in a time that glorifies instant gratification. We are a generation with no patience, one willing to mortgage our future for the sake of immediate gain. Climate change is one example among many of instant gratification gone rogue. Besides the few flat-earthers that still deny climate change, the rational objection to environmental measures are that they limit economic growth. Assuming one accepts that fighting climate change does in fact hurt the economy (which has not been proven), it’s a trade-off between immediate economic growth and future potential catastrophe. In other words, gratification now instead of well-being later. And even if one believes that climate change is already irreversible, societies have been largely reluctant to invest in the mitigating infrastructure because of the immediate economic cost. It’s not (only) because governments are callous and inept, but because societies aren’t willing to sacrifice even a fraction of their short-term interests.

Indeed, our culture of instant gratification shows itself in other ways: rising budget deficits that will need to be paid with sacrifices from later generations; negative rates of saving; short-termism in the evaluation of stocks and assets; cutting corners when designing aircrafts; etc. It would be easy to blame policymakers for, say, tax cuts that create growth today and deficit later, but in a democratic country they are responding to the expectations of the society. And indeed, the society has ceased to believe in sacrificing today on behalf of the future. We are all parroting lines like “live in the moment” without really understanding the full implications of that philosophy. The book “The Power of Now” is an international bestseller (I read it twice). We take the saying “Carpe Diem” in the meaning that Robin Williams’ character gave it in the 1989 film “Dead Poets Society”: “enjoy the day.” But Carpe Diem meant something very different for the ancients: It urged people to “seize the day” and not let it go by without doing something meaningful and important for the future. No wonder that members of the Millennial generation in America (and much of the Western world) are the first in modern times to be worse off than their parents.

This is important also in terms of Jewish identity: Instant gratification is affecting the way in which our communities operate. We assume that we live in an era with no patience, and that makes us disinvest from any initiative that demands a long-term commitment, like serious Jewish learning.

Tu Bishvat should move us reflect on the catastrophic effects of our obsession with instant gratification. But Tu Bishvat also offers optimism, because it doesn’t take this state of affairs with fatalism or resignation. It tries to teach us that character, self-discipline and delayed gratification are learnable. They are like a muscle that grows and strengthens when exercised. We can and must strive for a society that knows the value of now, but also gives a voice to the future; a society that understands that instant gratification is fleeting and unsatisfying, for it doesn’t leave us with the feeling of having done something meaningful but with an empty and compulsive desire for more. Imagine the deep sense of accomplishment of ancient Israelites when eating those juicy fruits for which they toiled and waited four years, and compare that to the ephemeral dopamine rush we get in our compulsive shopping sprees.

Sometimes, abstract concepts are hard to grasp, and general principles are difficult to internalize. So, if the dangers of instant gratifications are too abstruse, just think of Stav and Dean in their elevator deathtrap. Let’s remember them this Tu Bishvat, because it’s on all of us to learn the lesson, and make sure that their absurd, avoidable deaths were not in vain.

Andrés Spokoiny is President & CEO, Jewish Funders Network.