Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Rosh Hashanah Evening 5780/2019: Birthing a New World



Tomorrow as we sound the shofar we will proclaim: Hayom harat olam—today is the birthday of the world!  As always, we’ll revel in the miracle of creation with songs of praise, honeyed treats and communal wishes for a sweet new year. 

And yet. . . If we acknowledge today’s urgent reality of human-caused climate change, our Rosh Hashanah celebration is also tinged with sorrow. How can we fully rejoice in our world’s birth, given the havoc we are wreaking upon God’s handiwork?  That question—which lies at the heart of this sermon—is uncomfortable to pose, and to answer.  It’s painful to acknowledge the shadow looming over our future.  But this is precisely what our tradition asks of us tonight. Rosh Hashanah has always been a challenging holiday because there can be no teshuvah—no healing—without an honest reckoning.   To return to the right path, we must first recognize that we have gone astray.

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Let us then begin, as our people often do, with a classic Jewish argument.

The 9th century sage Rav Saadia Gaon lauds humanity as the crown of creation.  In his book Sefer Emunot v’Deot, he points to the opening chapter of Genesis, where God grants us dominion over all living things.  Accordingly, Saadia insists that the world and all that it contains is created entirely for our sake.

Three centuries later, the pre-eminent Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides offered a very different understanding of the human place.  In his Guide for the Perplexed, the Rambam presents his own perspective on the Creation narrative.  He notes that day by day, God proclaims every newly-formed thing good.  Not good for humanity but good in its own right.  Then he urges his readers: Consider the vast dimensions of the cosmos and the enormous number of living things. How can any of us imagine that they exist as mere materials for our benefit?  Maimonides never mentions Saadia by name, but the target of his critique is obvious when he concludes: Everything is created for its own sake, and not for ours. (Guide for the Perplexed, Part III:13-14)

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While this dispute dates back over eight hundred years, the question at its core is more urgent than ever, in light of our environmental crisis: 

What is the human place in this world, and how does it compel us live?

If, as Saadia insists, the universe was created to serve our needs, it is morally permissible for us to use it as we see fit.  If, by contrast, everything was made for its own sake, then we are ethically bound to honor all of God’s creation.  In Saadia’s story, we are the earth’s overlords; for Maimonides, we are one of countless residents sharing a common home. 

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Neither Saadia nor Maimonides was the first to offer his particular perspective on the human place.  Saadia’s notion of nature serving humanity has long driven Western culture.  It undergirds the scientific revolution that has transformed our lives through modern medicine, technology, and transportation, and enabled us to feed an exploding population of over seven billion people.  Approaching God’s creation as our human toolbox, we have engineered the extraordinary comforts that define the developed world.  Like it or not, there is no debating the fact that human beings wield incomparably greater influence over our environment than any other creature.  The question is not whether we actually possess or even deserve this unprecedented power but how we choose to exercise it.  By this measure, Saadia’s story has served well for centuries.

But its time has passed.  With the rapid proliferation of fossil fuel-dependent technologies, any constraints that once tempered the human-centered worldview have fallen away.  We’re left with the toxic wreckage of an unsustainable culture driven by greed and corruption.   The old anthropocentric story is consuming life on earth, as evidenced by catastrophic climate change.

My friends, as we gather to celebrate the world’s birth at this precarious hour, it is our Jewish calling to redefine the human place and reconsider the way we live.  Inspired by Maimonides, we need a new creation narrative, grounded in honesty, humility, interdependence and justice. 

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We need a new story because the old one is arrogant and archaic. 
While Jewish tradition marks 5780 years since the world’s birth, contemporary science informs us that the earth’s true age is closer to 4.5 billion years.  By contrast, our human ancestry dates back a paltry two hundred and fifty thousand. By way of analogy: If we were to compress the planet’s entire history into a single day, human civilization would begin a fifth of a second before midnight.  The notion that the universe was created for our sake is hubris to the point of absurdity. Honesty and humility demand better.  We are a blink of God’s eye.

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We need a new story because the old one is spiritually impoverished. 
In a world created for human consumption, God’s handiwork loses its power to inspire and console us.  When life is reduced to competition for natural resources, short-term profits supplant wonder and gratitude.  When we approach the magnificent natural world as a mere tool for our benefit, we sunder ourselves us from the rest of God’s creation. This utilitarian perspective induces profound loneliness. It is also a corrosive lie.  New discoveries constantly confirm that everything is connected.  The flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil triggers a tornado in Texas.  Forests are conscious living entities. Trees to talk one another—and if we are willing to listen, they speak to us as well. As the poet Mary Oliver rhetorically asks:

Do you think there is anything not attached by its unbreakable chord to everything else?

In the absence of awe, spirituality cannot endure.  If we fail to rewrite our story from false autonomy to true interdependence, our tradition’s teachings will die with the desiccated world.

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We need a new story because the old one perpetuates devastating injustice.
Among the many tragedies of human-fueled climate change, one of the most appalling is that its burdens—drought and flooding, hunger and thirst, dislocation and war—are all borne disproportionately by those least responsible for them.  The world’s poorest communities endure the brunt of the pain inflicted by the industrialized world, where the overwhelming bulk of greenhouse gases are produced. 

Global warming diminishes life for everyone, but the wealthy nations that have built booming economies on fossil fuels have amassed significant resources to mitigate the damages that are already ravaging the Third World.  Affluent coastal cities construct elaborate levees to hold back the deluge; impoverished ones are inundated.  A recent World Bank study estimates that by 2050, catastrophic climate change could displace as many as 143 million people from Africa, South Asia, and Latin America.  Where will they go? Will privileged nations, awash in nativist bigotry, suddenly open their gates?  In our current story, the underprivileged suffer, yet again, for the sins of the reckless rich. 

The injustice is also generational. If we do not act immediately, our children and grandchildren will pay an enormous price for our transgressions; indeed, our youth are already struggling with anxiety and despair over the ecological disaster that we have so unfairly foisted upon them.

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Last but not least, we need a new story because we are desperate for a narrative that inspires repair over ruination.
The old, human-centered narrative is now an abject failure.  The results speak for themselves.  Unprecedented floods and heatwaves, killer storms and wildfires cut ever larger swaths of destruction.  Pollution now kills 9 million people annually—far more than AIDS, malaria, TB and warfare combined.  And the excess heat generated by the carbon dioxide and methane that we spew out is equivalent to the energy of 400,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs exploded every day.  I could go on, but you get the idea.  For the sake of our descendants, and all of God’s creation, we need to make radical changes, starting yesterday.

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This is where the new story—grounded in Maimonides’s vision—comes in. 
That story isn’t liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican, socialist or capitalist.  It is a transformative tale for all of us: people of every faith, and of none; young and old, rural and urban.  It’s a sacred, celebratory story that belongs to anyone whose heart has not been irredeemably hardened by avarice and power.  It is a story for all the earth, for me, and for you.

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If, as I believe, this story has the power to save us, how do we embrace and share it with others?  We tell it, wherever and whenever we can—and, even more importantly, we strive to embody and live by it. We act as if all creation mattered dearly.  As Father Richard Rohr notes: We do not think ourselves into new ways of living; we live ourselves into new ways of thinking. In that spirit, let us aspire to relate to the earth—and to one another—as holy vessels and messengers of the Most High.

A commitment to this new story raises myriad possibilities for everyday action. 
You can find more than a lifetime’s worth in the ever-expanding catalog of books and websites dedicated to sustainable living.  Some are relatively simple; others complex and challenging.  Choose solutions that are doable, for you and your family.  I know that many of you have been engaged in this sacred work for decades.  Thank you for leading by example. Please keep it up.  And when you despair of your ability to make a difference, as we all sometimes do, muster hope and remember Rabbi Tarfon’s wisdom: It’s not incumbent upon you to finish the task.  The main thing is to start and stick with it.

Know, too, that the CABI community is with you.  Our board and staff have made action on climate change a top priority for this new year 5780.  If you want to be part of a task force working on the issue, email me or our executive director, Tamara Ansotegui.  We need your help!

For now, let me offer just a few suggestions, grounded in traditional Jewish practice.

Let’s start, in good Jewish fashion, with food.  We have a time-honored practice of mindful eating, as traditionally understood through the laws of Kashrut.  We Jews have always recognized that our diet is a tangible expression of our ethics.  In that spirit, each of us can help reduce greenhouse gases by eating lower on the food chain.  In his acclaimed book Drawdown, Paul Hawken lays out the one hundred most substantive solutions to global warming and concludes: “Making the transition to a more plant-based diet may well be the single most effective way an individual can stop climate change.”  Hawken reminds us that we need not give up meat entirely, but should reframe it as a delicacy rather than a staple.  Happily, this solution is true to Torah’s original vision for humanity: we are created as vegetarians, only receiving reluctant permission to eat meat after the Flood.  It is time to get back to the Garden.

For another sustainable practice that draws on classic Jewish values, consider our uses—and abuses—of energy.  Every week, from sunset Friday until Saturday night, traditional Jews refrain from driving, thereby reducing their car’s fossil fuel consumption by 1/7th. While this may not be practical for many of us, we can celebrate Shabbat as a time to slow down, set aside our errands, carpool with friends, or enjoy a nice walk or bike ride.  Our day of rest offers a sacred opportunity to turn off our screens, create community, and enjoy God’s creation instead of harnessing it for our own needs.

Thankfully, what’s good for the earth is also good for us:

Eating less meat reduces our carbon footprint—and lowers our rates of chronic disease. 

Walking instead of driving helps our environment—and strengthens our bodies.

And setting aside our electronic devices to make time for real community enriches the earth—and nurtures our souls.

To heal our planet is to heal ourselves.

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But while individual action is essential, it is also insufficient.  We cannot avert climate catastrophe without changing the ways that we collectively build, fuel, feed, transport and educate ourselves.  If we want to save our planet, we need farsighted local, state, and federal governments willing to push back against the fossil fuel conglomerates, the Wall Street firms that empower them, and the lawmakers they have bought off with their billions. If we truly seek a sustainable world for future generations, we must raise our voices, in mass public demonstrations and at the ballot box.  Here at home, our city just launched Boise Climate Now, a bold initiative to reduce waste, maximize water renewal, preserve open space and achieve 100% clean energy by 2035.  But this effort will only succeed if we, the common citizens, pressure local businesses, utilities and schools to get on board. Our youth are leading the way, reminding us that there is hope if we act now.  Let’s stand with them, and commit to supporting only those politicians and financial institutions that make innovative conservation their highest priority. 

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There is no single solution to the problem of climate change.  Preserving our precious planet will require a host of creative responses—technological, political, scientific, economic and more.  But at its heart, this crisis is spiritual.  That’s why it is so vital for communities like ours to advance the new story that honors all of God’s handiwork rather than lording ourselves over it.  Global warming is ultimately an ethical problem that demands a moral response.  As naturalist Kathleen Dean Moore reminds us:  To let the world slip away is failure of reverence and a sin against creation.

My friends, the bedrock of this fall holy day season is teshuvah.  The word is usually translated as repentance, but what it really means is turning—or returning—to a path of healing when we have gone astray.  This is why the Days of Awe are ultimately joyous. To embrace the possibility of teshuvah is to proclaim the triumph of faith over fear and hope over habit.  To be a Jew is to affirm that despite everything, real change is possible.  We can always turn over a new page—or write a new story.  The future is in our hands.

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Tomorrow morning we will proclaim: Hayom harat olam—Today is the birthday of the world! 

You might think we would accompany this proclamation with the regal sounding of trumpets, or the psalmist’s much-beloved lyre and lute.

But we don’t.  We mark the day with the strange, wild howling of the shofar.

On this Rosh Hashanah, let us listen and heed that call, for it is both the last cry of an old world dying, and the hope-filled wail of a new world being born.

On this sacred day, it calls to us, implores us to be good midwives, to love and nurture and honor this beautiful world of wholeness, of the infinite holy unbreakable chords that bind us to one another, to the Creation and to God.

Will we heed the call?

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