Yom Kippur Sermon 5780

A story, one I loved as a child: 

“Once there was a tree and she loved a little boy. And every day the boy would come and he would gather her leaves and make them into crowns and play king of the forest. He would climb up her trunk and swing from her branches and eat apples… And when he was tired he would sleep in her shade. And the boy loved the tree very much. And the tree was happy. But time went by. And the boy grew older… The tree was often alone. Then one day the boy came to the tree, and the tree said ‘Come Boy, come and climb up my trunk and swing from my branches and eat apples and play in my shade and be happy.’ ‘I am too big to climb and play,’ said the boy. ‘I want to buy things and have fun. I want some money. Can you give me money?’ ‘I’m sorry,’ said the tree, ‘but I have no money. I have only leaves and apples. Take my apples, Boy, and sell them in the city. Then you will have money and then you will be happy.’ And the boy climbed up the tree and gathered her apples and carried them away. And the tree was happy.” 

I’m sure you know it – it is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.  The boy stayed away for a long time and the tree was sad. And then the boy/man came back and cut the tree’s branches to make a house… and then her trunk to make a boat… until finally, there was almost nothing left of the tree. The story ends with an image of a very sad old man sitting on a tree stump… with the words: “And the tree was happy.” 

Now, that story makes me terribly sad. I can’t think the tree was happy, and I don’t think the grown-up boy was truly happy either. How is one truly happy to continually take from another, never giving anything back in return, and reducing a proud tree to a stump?  

Today I can’t bring myself to read that story to my children, though I so treasured it as a child.  I realize that today, we are that boy/man, usurping the natural beauty and resources of our planet.  Soon there will be nothing left… for us or for our children. 

On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the “birthday of the world.” Today, on this Yom Kippur, we face ourselves and contend with the grim consequences of our actions on this precious and only world we have. 

The reality is that we are destroying everything that we claim to celebrate. After a September that was the hottest one yet on record, I hope I don’t need to convince any of you that global warming is real, though we may differ its causes. I am not a scientist, so I am not here to prove anything to you.  We have all seen the headlines, and maybe out of fear we’ve seen the headlines but have skipped past reading the articles themselves.  They warn not just of melting glaciers but of plastics filling the oceans and the oceans becoming increasingly more acidic and warming, causing more volatile weather.  Recent hurricanes have done more than damaged homes; they have rendered large areas uninhabitable and under water.   We have read articles about climate refugees, homeless because of hurricanes, fires, and droughts.  We have heard about whole populations of penguins in Antarctica and birds across North America disappearing because their food sources are inaccessible.  We have read about the rate of species going extinct, which is now 100 times faster than normal.  This phenomenon is being called the sixth mass extinction.  Imagine in a few decades children not recognizing the animals depicted in the Noah’s ark story. 

But what is scarier to contemplate, is that if we keep up with this destruction, we will make our world inhospitable to human life.  The late Reverend William Sloane Coffin wrote in his 2004 book “Credo,” that “It is not really the world but the human race that is fragile, and getting ever more so as it is far from certain that we care enough for future generations to pay the price for their survival.”

It strikes me that our planet and all its life forms are both equally fragile.  This idea that we humans can live out our lives merely sitting on top of the earth, divorced from the reality that humans and the natural world are completely interdependent, is an unsustainable fiction.  

This is all terrifying stuff, stuff we would rather not talk about.  But we must.  And the one encouraging thing is that finally we humans seems to be paying attention, learning about sea levels rising and why we should care, and what we each can do to save our planet. Four years ago, none of the presidential candidates were talking about climate change, now they are.  And, in less than a year, the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg has sparked a global movement to force world leaders to commit to major environmental initiatives.  

She spoke at the UN Climate Action summit in New York a few weeks ago, saying, “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to me for hope? How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you! For more than 30 years the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away, and come here saying that you are doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight. You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us I say we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”

I stand before you, on this holiest day of the year, as a fellow polluter, someone who enjoys shopping and my many conveniences provided by my first world life.  Al chet she’chatanu lifanecha – for the sins I have committed before You, O God… My carbon footprint is enormous.  I need to learn alongside all of my fellow Jews and earth dwellers what I can do, and we need to support one another to change. 

This is not a partisan, political issue; it is a religious issue, a moral issue, a Jewish issue.  If we Jews claim to practice teshuvah, repentance, the process of admitting our wrongs and changing our ways, then let’s get to work and begin again together.  Let’s commit to doing teshuvah for the earth.

This requires many steps, but first as Jews, we need to shift our mindset. There is a midrash (rabbinic commentary) on the book of Ecclesiastes that is often cited in defense of the environment: “When God created the first human beings, God led them around the garden of Eden and said: ‘Look at my works! See how beautiful they are — how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it'” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 1 on Ecclesiastes 7:13) This is a lovely midrash.  However, in light of climate change, the idea that the world was created for humanity is something I believe we need to question. The world is not ours to do with it what we desire, it belongs to God. 

Another text I am now view differently because of climate change is that part of the Shema that we recite in every service that ] instructs us to do God’s bidding.  Then God will give rain in its appointed time, and grass on the field to feed our animals, and we will eat and be content.  But if not, the earth will cease to function as it should and we would be forced to leave.  For generations this text was viewed as God acting in a supernatural kind of way, punishing the wicked and rewarding the pious.  But the climate crisis has me seeing this text from Deuteronomy as a warning we should live in deep connection with the earth and the diversity of life that it holds, humbly and gratefully appreciating their gifts to us humans and in turn making sure we are responsible stewards.

But, unlike the relationships we have with other humans, we don’t have a mutual relationship with the earth such that if you hurt it, it will let you know.  And we can’t apologize to the planet and have it forgive us.  This is no ordinary teshuvah process. But it is possible.  A midrash from the Talmud, Pesachim 54a, even says that “Repentance was created before the world was created.”

We humans operate in the here and now – it hard to accept responsibility for and figure out how to change decades and centuries misuse and abuse.  It also requires deep change, change on a global level. For this reason it is so difficult to face the reality of climate change. 

Let’s also admit that this is a deeply scary, anxiety producing topic. It is easy to fall into denial. And so, denial is a form of self-defense (much like anger, which I spoke about on Rosh Hashanah.) It is soothing and makes normal lives possible, otherwise we might never be able to sleep with all the fear and anxiety.  Being in denial helps us to enjoy the present time, which for us is the realest thing.   

The writer Jonathan Franzen, wrote a frank and hard hitting essay in the New Yorker last month on climate change entitled, “What If We Stopped Pretending?”  He writes about the apparent inevitability of climate change, our ongoing denial of it, saying that, “psychologically, denial makes sense. Despite the outrageous fact that I’ll soon be dead forever, I live in the present, not the future. Given a choice between an alarming abstraction (death) and the reassuring evidence of my senses (breakfast!), my mind prefers to focus on the latter. The planet, too, is still marvelously intact, still basically normal—seasons changing, another election year coming, new comedies on Netflix—and its impending collapse is even harder to wrap my mind around than death…. Things will get very bad, but maybe not too soon, and maybe not for everyone. Maybe not for me.” (“What If We Stopped Pretending?” The New Yorker, September 8, 2019)

But this problem isn’t going to go away.  Sometimes we will be awake and present to the fear and uncertainty of the future.  Sometimes we will dip the sleep of denial.  Let us be aware of our human nature and keep a balanced perspective as best we can.  

The reality is that the problem of global warming did not start with us and will not end with us. , Ethics of our Ancestors, Pirkei Avot 2:21 says, “It is not upon us to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.” 

Our feelings of guilt will not serve us, nor the planet.  And neither can we say that this is an inevitable, insurmountable problem, so why bother?  

But Judaism commands us to always choose life. Here again I will quote from the Shema, “I have placed before you blessing and curse. Choose life, that you may live, you and your seed!”

But what does that mean, choose life, for us, in this time of climate crisis? Choosing life is about having hope.  And I don’t mean a hope that is simplistic, thinking somehow that “everything just works out for the best.”  To hope is to dare to act in a positive way in spite of a challenging situation.  Jim Antal, author of the 2018 book Climate Church, Climate World, writes that, “Hope is the most important contribution people of faith can and must make as humanity confronts the climate crisis. To become a people of hope we must be willing to stare reality in the face.” (Climate Church, Climate World, p.157)

Choosing life means that every good deed, every mitzvah, no matter how small and seemingly trivial, has immense and immeasurable significance. We act in the righteous, ethical way not because we expect a particular outcome, but because it is the right thing to do regardless of what happens or whether anyone recognizes what we do.  

We can never know the full impact of our deeds, either in the present or for future generations.  No act is trivial. The great medieval sage Maimonides writes in his laws of repentance that every person should consider themselves as perfectly balanced between good and bad and the world as perfectly balanced between good and evil. The next action you do–however trivial–can tilt you and the whole world toward the side of good and life or to the side of evil and death. 

This is what it means to choose life. You have no way of knowing the full impact of your actions on this and future generations. So: let’s commit to buy less new things, to reuse and recycle more, to cut down on using plastic, to conserve water and fossil fuels in every we can, to plant trees and create homes for living creatures, to buying food locally and eating what we buy instead of letting it go to waste.  Instead of being overwhelmed at the amount of actions we must take, let us be grateful for all the myriad ways, large and small, every one of us can make a difference.  

The Tikkun Olam committee has chosen climate justice to be Kol Emet’s tikkun olam theme for the year.  Its kickoff event is appropriately on the eve of Sukkot – we will have a potluck dinner in the sukkah, watch a movie and have a discussion, which will be moderated by Tom Wells, a local climate activist. As a community, we will learn more about this issue over the course of the year, and I am excited to see the change we can make as a collective force. We will learn together, question together, grow together, and support one another toward change.

This is the moment we must rise to: We must align our personal teshuvah with a teshuvah for the earth.   On Rosh HaShanah I shared the wisdom of taking a breath to restore the souls, and we need to do this on a global level as well.  We breathe out what the trees breathe in. The teshuvah that we are called to do in our time is to restore the breath of the world.  

I want to close with a bit of Jewish eco-theology by the late Rabbi Lawrence Troster, who was the rabbi of Kesher Israel in Chester County and who passed away a few months ago.  He was mensch and a brilliant eco-theologian.  He wrote a piece called “10 Teachings on Judaism and the Environment,” a kind of Ten Commandments for the earth.  So if the regular ten commandments are ten basic ways we should behave with one another (honor your parents, do not lie, etc) these eco-ten commandments are ten basic ways we should live in concert with the earth.  They are ten measures for our teshuvah of the earth, and they are:

1. God created the universe.

2. God’s Creation is good.

3. Human beings are created in the image of God.

4. Humanity should view their place in Creation with love and awe.

5. The Sabbath and prayer help us to achieve this state of mind.

6. The Torah prohibits the wasteful consumption of anything.

7. The Torah gives an obligation to save human life.

8. The Torah prohibits the extinction of species and causing undo pain to non-human creatures.

9. Environmental Justice is a Jewish value.

And 10. Tikkun Olam: The perfection/fixing of the world is in our hands.  

Rabbi Troster quotes the Aleinu prayer in which we ask that the world soon be perfected under the sovereignty of God (l’takein olam b’malkhut Shaddai). Tikkun olam, the perfecting or the repairing of the world, is usually described as an activity that must be done by humans in partnership with God. 

In our ignorance and our greed, we have damaged the world and silenced many of the voices of the choir of Creation. Now we must fix it. There is no one else to repair it but us. May our prayers today be heard and answered, and tomorrow let us go out partner with God and one another in the task choosing life for ourselves and for our planet. Aleinu – it is up to us and it is in our hands.

Tzom Kal – Wishing you an easy yet transformative fast.