Shanah Tovah, I feel blessed to stand before you this evening and celebrate the New Year with you. It is an amazing thing to be given the gift of another year of life. It is an amazing thing to hold a newborn baby in your arms, as Uzi and I had the privileged of doing just two months ago. They are such symbols of hope and they are our future. It is that future that I want to talk with you about today – a future that concerns me as much as it concerns all of us.
We read in the Psalms:
“The Earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; The world, and they that dwell therein. For He hath founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods.” (Psalm 24)
But how much do we think about the Earth as belonging to God? It is easy for us to forget who owns it especially when we think about ourselves at the top of the proverbial ‘food chain.’
As a student at Hebrew Union College, one of my joys was visiting the rare book room in the library. It had the most interesting books, including a Talmud covered in pig skin from the Middle Ages. (The set belonged to a Christian scholar of sacred text.) You could see inside of several books, on their title page, the various owners inscribed their names. If you were curious you could get a pair of white gloves, examine the book and learn about its journey around Ashkenazi Europe.
For me this thought is symbolic for the story of all human possessions. All of our belongings travel and we only have a lease on them for a short while. Take a moment to think about your possessions. How many of you have pieces which belonged to a family member or maybe even many family members before it ended up into your possession? Then think about what you want to pass on to the next generation.
Today, I wonder if we remember that we are only short play actors on the world’s stage.
When I watch shows like “Buried Alive” on TLC about people who are hoarders, I see people whose stuff has taken over their lives. When I watch HGTV and see people redesigning their homes so that it has their design aesthetic and they throw away working appliances I start to wonder - who is controlling who? When I see closet organization ideas to store all of the stuff that we accumulate and listen to complaints about the lack of storage in old houses - I really start to wonder.
Why do we have so many more things than our parents did? Do we really need them? And what is their actual cost to our lives? Our community? What is the cost of owning all of this stuff?
When we open the Bible, the first thing we read is that the author must have been a naturalist. The descriptions of all of the plant life are wonderful. God did not begin by describing life up a mountain or inside of a Temple, but among fruit trees, shade trees, bushes, shrubs and flowers. The description of the Garden of Eden was designed to make us feel and think of a lush paradise full of natural beauties and abundance. While we were expelled from the actual garden, that growing splendor was always a part of our world. It sustains the spirit. Just think about how refreshed you feel after a walk in nature. Even as our scientific knowledge grows I find the intricate web of life described from the valued insects, dead leaves and soil under our feet allow for such amazing green growth above and around us.
The Bible offers us a history of creation by defining the good, beautiful, radiant Garden of Eden. We are supposed to be reminded of that amazing place so that perhaps we can nostalgically think back and treasure it - perhaps even to reestablish it in the present world.
“Believe in the future, but do not scorn the past. Out of what is good in yesterday, build your tomorrow.” ((The Bible says))
“Believe in the future, but do not scorn the past. Out of what is good in yesterday, build your tomorrow.” ((The Bible says))
Let us think about our past. What has been good that we may need to restore? What old way of creating can we learn from and items can we treasure? What can we look at and recreate as our joy today? Does living a more simplistic life free our spirit?
While the relationship of humanity to nature began when the world was created, and is something that we honor on Rosh Hashanah, it is something which is becoming more and more strained. We seem to be destroying the lush garden around us in greedy pursuit of quick wealth. We tore apart the forest which took thousands of years to create, we stripped below the soil for coal and now we go even further as we mine shale for gas.
Our quest for cheap product is striping the Earth around us of valuable resources. Our oceans are becoming more acidic as we pollute the air around us, over fill our landfills and fail to act as stewards of the Earth. The cost of our greed and materialism seems to be our own destruction.
As we start to think about who we are this Rosh Hashanah, we are told that we must judge and purify ourselves in the light of God’s standards. The prayers teach us of the birthday of the world, the celebration of the rebirth to something better. We are described in the Book of Genesis as individuals in a covenant with God.
But are we really honoring that covenant by our actions?
Are we acting with righteousness? Am I being useful to my family, to my community and to society?
Am I honoring my obligations?
When we read the creation story in the Book of Genesis, God tells humanity to fill the Earth and ‘master it’. We have mastered it. We may have taken that commandment literarily.
Rachel Carson’s famous book “The Silent Spring” describes the over use of poison insecticides which are able to destroy entire food chains from small insects, to fish, to birds to shrubs and instead leave wide areas of destruction. The destruction led ultimately to the decline of the song bird population, leaving our garden paradise silent. The book written from 1958-1962 ignited the environmental movement, took on the chemical industry and asked important questions.
Rachel Carson went on to tell a congregational subcommittee, a year after the book was published: “Our heedless and destructive acts enter the vast cycles of the earth and in time return to bring hazard to ourselves.” The amazing thing that Rachel Carson did was question the amazement of modernity by examining its impacts on the natural world. She wrote that: “We are rightly appalled by the genetic effects of radiation, how then, can we be indifferent to the same effect in chemicals that we disseminate widely in our environment?”
Before congress, Rachel Carson made a valuable comment: “If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.” We want to trust that the products around us are manufactured in a safe and sustainable way. But instead of being allowed to self-examine and self-reflect our response to such questions as a society shuts down the possibility of that important act.
Not long after Carson published her book, she was attacked by the chemical companies and accused of being a communist, a crazy spinster with too many cats and made to look looney. Yet she was able to hold her own before congress, on CBS in a special hour long interview and whenever questioned. Her science was thought to be forward thinking and accurate.
What we now see is that same type of attack from those same types of companies against people who question them. The book, “Silent Spring” was so effective, was because it was the first book of its type to argue so eloquently the issues of environmentalism. Since that time, the issue of environmentalism has become politicized and now there is a partisan reaction to a topic which effects everyone a topic which should not be open for partisan debate. Even today, Rachel Carson is accused of using “soft science” and blamed for malaria around the world. Though leading scientist agree that after time DDT looses its effectiveness and would not have worked against fighting malaria vindicating her. There are still websites denying the accuracy of what she represented.
When we left the Garden of Eden, God asked Adam a powerful question: Acha? Where are you now?
Where are we now? Are we choosing to be in denial about something we know to be true? Are we focused on greed? Are we choosing to be in denial and look at the topic as partisan? Are you labeling me as the liberal rabbi from the north for even bringing this topic forward on Rosh Hashanah?
Regardless of where we are, we must live with the consequence of our actions.
Again, I look to the book of Genesis, to find insight into understanding that very consequence of human progression and denial.
We can learn four specific truths according to Nehama Leibowitz –
We read in Genesis from the creation of humanity which gradually unfolded by “the deeds and habits of man, his inmost thoughts and secrets intrigues and true motives of his actions,” to the repudiation of the sovereignty of God.
The first sin was committed by Adam. It was not that he simply ate from a tree of knowledge. There were many trees in the Garden. He was specifically told not to eat one tree. In this we see that Adam’s true test was a test of discipline and his true acceptance of the yoke of heaven. Adam’s transgression was that he chose to do as he chose as if he was master of all and failed to obey God.
The second sin of humanity was homicide. The Torah does not explicitly state the reason that Cain killed his brother Abel. The rabbis offered several midrashim as to why this tragedy happened. In one specific story they focus on an argument that the brothers had about how the world was divided. One said the clothing was his and the other said the land was his. This specific midrash continues by offering another reason that what they were fighting. They were arguing about where the Temple should be built and what materials the Temple should be made from. The last option was that the brothers were really fighting over Eve. What the rabbis were describing was not simply the specific case of Cain and Abel, but understanding the motivations that we have to commit such a crime. The midrash therefore offers three considerations as to why we resolve to violence. The first is economic considerations, they quarrel over material possessions. The second reason is bloodshed is over ideological grounds – where and how the Temple should be built. The last view is over sexual passions – they were fighting over Eve.
The third major unfolding is of Lemech, a descendent of Cain. Lemech and his son Tuval Cain were forgers of brass and iron instruments. We read that Lemech boasted: “For I have slain a man for wounding me, and a young man for bruising me.” (Genesis 4:23-24). What is it that he was boasting? That he had created more powerful weapons that he was able to lord over his fellows and commit indiscriminate murder even for a small offense of causing a bruise to form.
The last group of sins in the first bit of Genesis is the verse: “And they took for themselves wives whomsoever they chose.” Thus we moved from having domain over the vegetable and animal worlds to domain over each other. Rabbi David Kimhi points out in the Hebrew that Elohim and ish are used to describe the nobility, while adam alludes to the oppressed class.
We therefore see that the moral standards decline as material development and civilizations progress forgoing to take into account God.
Yet even if we achieve great and amazing things, then we have achieved nothing if what is left behind is destruction. The next event in Genesis is the flood and we read that all of Cain’s descendants aside from Noah die. That is a devastating consequence for committing sin.
Even though our society is urbanized, with amazing technological resources we are dependent upon the Earth. Peter Goldmark, the former Rockefeller Foundation president, puts it well: “The death of our civilization is no longer a theory or an academic possibility; it is the road we are on.”
Why do we discuss this topic? I am not speaking for the perspective of politics, but of spirituality. We are stewards of the world around us. We need to take that stewardship seriously.
I have hope that this situation can be turned around. That we can limit desertification by soil erosion, over use of our water tables, over population,
Following the destruction at Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt turned the country from a peaceful economy to a war based economy. He planned on the production of 45,000 tanks, 60,000 planes and several thousand ships. By 1944 the US had made 60,000 war planes, 2229,600 aircraft, and 5,000 ships. It was a huge shift from a peacetime economy to a wartime economy. It did not take restructuring in decades, it was able to do it in a matter of months.
I believe that when we hit a tipping point we will ultimately start to change our environmental policy. We will work at a grassroots level and encourage our government to create policies that will save our planet. Whether it is the issue of tax restructuring to create an honest marketplace, enhance the recycling program here in Huntsville to include glass, work to support family planning programs to shrink the population or encourage TVA to get its power from sustainable sources over coal we can make a difference.
You may look and say that this is impossible. Change is too hard to effect.
When we form a sacred community, we do so based on trust. When we look around the world and see so many people whose motivation is cheap, intentions are dubious and actions make us sick we have to look no further than our sacred community to counter that. One of the things that is amazing about a sacred community is that in its simplicity and beauty of those around us, we find people who we can trust, putting our hearts in their hands. I pray that God guard us against the feelings of cynicism and instead remind us by gazing up them, that they have created a little Garden of Eden here. That if we can do it here, we can do it around us as well.
Our world is not a safe world. We are poisoning the land, air and sea. We are under threat of terrorism and violence where disillusionment of the good of humanity is dominate. We pause now and wish for a new kind of year.
Just as we pray in the morning blessings: “Praise to You Adonai, our God and Universal Ruler, who – in partnership with Wisdom – formed and created crevices and channels within humankind; it is shown and known in front of Your honorable throne that if one of them were to be [inappropriately] opened or closed, it would be impossible to continue facing You, even for a single hour. Praise to You Adonai, Healer of Flesh, inspiring in what You can do.” Please inspire us to be able to find the power to work to reopen crevices and channels both in our soul and in the world around us to heal and perfect it.