Sermon – First Day of Rosh Hashanah-We are the World’s stewards.
Happy New Year, Chag Samach everyone. We come together on this first day of the new Jewish year of 5768 to celebrate as a people, an opportunity for a fresh start. One of the classic expressions associated with the New Year is Yom Horat Olam, the day of the creation of the world. Our sages said that this day marks the anniversary of the creation of the universe. Now we don’t believe this to be literally true, but it is fascinating that on the day on which most Jews come for a religious experience to the synagogue other than Yom Kippur, the main focus of our sages for this day had to do with not only the beginning of the ten days of repentance when we reflect on our own selves, but also to contemplate G-d’s creation of the universe and our role in it. I want to take the opportunity on this day and this year, to talk about our responsibility to our planet, whether we ae inflicting damaging and irreparable harm to it and what we can do.
The first question I want to address is, is it a Jewish problem? Whenever I approach a question as to whether it has Jewish aspects to it, I ask myself, “are there mitzvot involved”? The way in which Jews are to look at the world is from a viewpoint of Mitzvah. What has G-d commanded us regarding this particular issue? In reflecting on the question of the earth and our responsibility in terms of mitzvot/Jewish Observation, I come up with the following:
1. It says specifically in the Torah that we are to not only have dominion over the earth but also to guard the garden. Now that is not a Halachic legal category but it is deeply imbued in Jewish values. It is understandable that Jews have taken the lead on issues of the environment because of this intrinsic commitment and value we have, going back all the way to the beginning of the Torah. God gave us this beautiful earth and it is ours not only to take from it what we need to survive, but also to guard it and take care of it. This idea is again addressed in a beautiful, rabbinic legend, a Midrash. The text presents a powerful image: God takes Adam for a tour of the garden, and points out all the flora and fauna and says to him, “Behold My works, how splendid they are. All that I have created, I created for your sake.” It continues: “Now listen up – do not ruin or destroy my world. Sh’im kilkalta, ayn mee sh’taken achrecha –if you mess it up, there is no one to clean up after you.” (Kohellet Rabba 7:13) The point could not be made more clearly.
2. We have the concept in Judaism of Tikkun Olam, of restoring the broken world. This not only on the level of contentious issues between human beings, but if the world is broken in some way and I will suggest that it is in a moment, we have a responsibility based on the principle of Tikkun Olam, to do everything we can within reason, to repair it.
3. We have the Jewish value concept of Pikuah Nefesh, to save our lives. We are not permitted to do anything to harm ourselves. In fact, we are obligated to do things to protect our lives and others.
4. The value of don’t stand idly by while the blood of your neighbor is spilled. From Leviticus Chapter 19, the Holiness Code. If we are endangering ourselves or we see others in danger, we are obligated by Jewish Law to do something about it and not stand idly by.
5. We have a Jewish value of Ohave Habriot, to love our fellow creation. This year bald eageles were removed from the listof endangered specifies., the one great symbol of America. When the Mayflower landed, there were probably 500,000 bald eagles and now there are 10,000. But there were only about 500 a while ago when they went on the endangered species list, and it looks like that species, at least temporarily, has been saved. We have to love our fellow creatures and when our actions endanger them, we must be concerned.
6. The sixth principle in Judaism is called Baal Tashchit. We are not permitted to waste things. There is a law in Deuteronomy that says that when the Israelites were besieging a city, they could not destroy the fruit trees because they knew that after the siege was over people would still need the fruit trees. From that law, it was derived that we were not allowed to waste. And so, not wasting world resources becomes a Jewish value.
7. Tsar Baalia Hayyim. We are not to bring or inflect unnecessary pain upon any living creature. If the things that we do bring pain and discomfort to other creatures besides human beings, that is forbidden by Jewish law.
8. Bichirah Hofsheet-fre will. We have a choice in how we live and how much we add to or help this problem
9.The Jewish people celebrate Earth Day each and every week, as we are doing today, beginning at sundown each Friday. We call it Shabbat. Our beautiful tradition, long before recreational shopping existed, instituted one day a week on which we stop, look and appreciate. Rather than “Stop and Shop” we stop and give thanks.
As I see it, Shabbat is the ultimate environmental mitzvah. Living outside of Israel, none of the agricultural laws of the Torah apply to us. But Shabbat applies equally in Israel and in the Diaspora. The lessons it teaches of appreciating God’s creation are vitally significant. Friday night, we begin Shabbat as the sun sets, reminding ourselves that the ultimate master of the universe is the creator, not some corporation which decrees the work day to end according to its schedule. Some Jews have the misconception that Shabbat is a day on which everything is forbidden. The philosopher and Holocaust survivor Eric Fromm has a wonderful explanation for the forbidden labors of Shabbat. All of them, he says, remind us that it is God who is the Creator, not us. Six days a week, we create. On Shabbat, we set our physical creativity aside and admire the work of the Almighty. Rather than seeing these prohibitions as restrictions, Fromm understand them to be sigificant theological lessons, leading us to appreciate the gift of nature with which God has entrusted us.
Shabbat observance has so much potential as an environmental mitzvah.
If consuming fuel by driving our cars is a problem, doesn’t it stand to reason that not driving one day in seven, except perhaps to the synagogue, will make a positive contribution?
If buying too much is contributing to exhausting the resources of the earth, doesn’t it make sense that putting away the wallet and credit cards one day If six days a week our consumerism is stoked by advertisements on the TV, marketing calls on the phone, and pop-up ads on our computers, wouldn’t being free of all that one day a week be a blessing?
What is particularly nice about this suggestion is that even if I am wrong, and Shabbat observance does nothing at all for the environment, it will be a great blessing to you and your family.
Those 9 concepts are just a few of the ideas of Jewish traditions, commandments and values which help guide us to an understanding that environment is a topic of Jewish concern.
Secondly, I ask myself, is this topic High Holiday worthy? Well I can’t think of anything that is more holiday worthy than the issue of “are we destroying the place where we live.” Are we defiling and making contaminated, tama is the Hebrew word – the place that we inhabit? We don’t have the technology yet to move our entire civilization to another planet. And so to destroy what we have, is suicidal.
Thirdly and finally, it comes down to the science of the matter, is this really a problem? Is there anything for a reasonable price that we can do without creating greater harm to fix it?
Is this a problem? I was hard to convince. I was slow to come around to this. Some believe that global warming it is simply a issue of cycles of the earth and that if we drill down far enough into the earth, we find out that every while there is a healing and cleaning of the earth and we have had drastic flooding before. In fact, the story of Noah in the Torah shows that we have had drastic flooding. In the area around the Masada, which hopefully some of you will visit with Gail and me in May, we are going to see. Maybe global warming and cooling are inevitable cycles. Maybe this is just part of the annual cycle of the seas rising and the lakes disappearing. They wouild say if Bangladesh is going to soon be overrun by water and hundreds of millions of people will have to find another place to live. That’s just the way it is. And if the polar icecaps in Antarctica are melting. Maybe it’s just part of nature. There are some scientists who say that there is no compelling evidence that the warming trend we see will amount to anything close to catastrophe, that the earth is always warming and cooling.
But, I don’t think science supports that view. Al Gore says the oil industry is spending $10 million a year to create the impression that there is disagreement in the scientific community about global warming...He says global warming exacerbated by human activity is the subject of one of the strongest scientific consensus views in the history of science.
I don’t believe its just a simple matter of historical cycles of nature. At the very least we are not helping matters, and in fact we are exacerbating the problem.. A new global warming report issued recently paints a near apocalyptic vision of the earth’s future. More a billion people in need of water, extreme food shortages in Africa, a planetary landscape ravaged by floods and species becoming extinct. Despite the harsh version, scientist criticize it by saying the findings were watered down at the last minute by government bureaucrats seeking the fast call for action. So it is actually a lot worse than that. Even in a softened form, the report outlined arrays of devastating affects that will strike all regions of the world at all levels of society. Those without resources to adapt to the changes will suffer the greatest impact according to the study
In India officials warn that climate change could destroy vast swaths of farmland, affeting food production and adding to the woes of laready desperate peasants who live off the land. Researchers studying western Europe tempurature records have found the length of heat waves has doubled since 1880. And, of course, that directly violates the Jewish idea of God’s wrath being especially waged to those who hurt the vulnerable, who are often the widows and the strangers. The report paints a bleak picture of the future. Rising temperatures will re-configure coastlines around the world as oceans rise and sea water surges over the land. Melting glaciers and mountain ranges will release floods and rock avalanches. Streams will dwindle cutting off the main water supplies for more than 1/6th of the world’s population. Africa will suffer the most extreme effects with a quarter of a billion people there losing most of their water supplies. Food production will fall, etc.
But most scientists who study natural climate fluctuations, say the current warming trend is the result of human activity and is behaving differently from past temperature fluctuations. The rate of change is so accelerated that what is happening now seems to be unprecedented. They say that without realizing the consequences of our actions, we have begun to put so much carbon dioxide in the air surrounding our world that we have literally changed the heat balance between the earth and the sun. The average temperature will increase to levels humans have never known and put an end to the climate balance on which our civilization depends. The concentration of CL2 having never risen above 300 points per million for at least a million years, is now 383 per million and we are moving closer to several tipping points that could within ten years make it impossible for us to avoid irretrievable damage to the planets, habitability for human civilization.
Its not just about damage to the earth. There are political consequences as well. Take for example our oil dependency. Thirty years after proposels to reduce dependency on foreign oil, oil prices are higher than ever and there is greater dependence on imported oil. Every dollar we spend on oil feeds the Arabs’ Oil nations, including Iran which feeds world-wide terrorism, which threatens America, the State of Israel and Jews.
There is a very serious problem. We can’t just turn a blind eye to.
Questions: So what then do we do about it?. Well, one question is – is it cost effective to do anything? How much are we willing to sacrifice? Unless there are very severe laws, business and governments will also weigh the issue how much it costs. Do we even have the technology to fix this.
Tom Friedman, New York Times columnist, author and Pulitzer Prize winner said in a New York Times column recently “the truth is the core of our energy crisis is in Washington. We have all of the technology that we need right now to make huge inroads in becoming more energy efficient and energy independent with drastically lower emissions. We have all of the Capital we need as well. But we need public policy to connect the energy and capital the right way. That is what is missing”
The same UN panel that concluded that we are in big trouble, said the fix was within reach. They had some good news. Climate change can be limited at what scientists said would be a reasonable price. And here’s really the clincher for us today.
What about the cost effectiveness?
Top climate economists say, cutting US emissions efficiently to hold greenhouse gas concentrations could cost the US twice as much pure year as it is now spending on the war in Iraq and racing too quickly toward efforts to cut could have consequences as well. Nuclear power – we know what the consequences there could be. Planning lots of new crops for bio-fuels could accelerate the deforestation. There are costs to alternative fuels
The average citizen can make valuable contributions by making small life-style change without waiting for governments to act. The report said that by rapidly wrapping up the use of renewable energy sources like solar, wind and hydro-electric power, we can make cars, homes and factories for energy efficient. They said that the cost of tackling climate change was comparatively reasonable. By spending a little over a tenth of 1% of the world’s income each year for 23 years, they said greenhouse gasses could be held nearly in check, avoiding the worse predicted environmental disasters. Most people conclude that it could be reasonable and that we could do much more. South Korea, for example, is breaking ground on the world’s biggest Solar Power Plant and will try to diversify its power sources and use cleaner energy. There is much that we can do. One thing is use our purchasing power to impact.
It is interesting now, that big companies are starting to get on board here. The New York Times reported in July that new companies are starting positions called Chief Sustainability Officers. They are not simply environmental watchdogs, they are to keep operations safe and regulated at bay for helping companies profit from the push to go green. I’ll just tell you about two names that you all know. Home Depot will introduce a label for nearly 3,000 products like fluorescent light bulbs that conserve electricity and match insect killers that promote energy conservation, sustainable and forestry and clean water. They will have 6,000 products by 2009 to become the largest green labeling program in America retailing and persuade competitors to speed up their own plans. And, it’s joining the largest retailer, Walmart in pursuing issues of public concern like climate change that stores have left generally before to government and environmental groups. And quite often now when you open up the paper, you see an ad for a company touting how responsible it is to the environment. For example, I just saw a Bos dishwasher ad that said that if every home that was going to buy a dishwasher this year bought their product, it would be like taking 500,000 pounds off the road. I don’t know if that’s true but certainly something to think about.
I want to make some concrete suggestions that things that we can personally do before we wait for government and business to help. I've got just 16 here. Thank me for keeping it short because I read a book called 1001 ways to save the earth, so I'm leaving out 985 of those suggestions.
1. Every time a light bulb burns out, replace it with a compact fluorescent light bulb. It is one of the easiest ways you can save the planet. Replacing one regular bulb in our home with a compact fluorescent would have enough energy to light more than 2.5 million homes for a year. They cost a little bit more but they last up to six times longer.
2. Hand cranked flashlights. Crank it for 30 seconds and it lasts up to 60 minutes of power. And they have AM and FM radios.
3. Go vegetarian or cut back on your meat consumption. Besides all the other health reasons, saving money and easier to keep kosher, it takes eight times more energy to produce a pound of meat as it does a pound of tofu. Now this is from a long time carnivore who ate meat every day. Now living with Gail has changed that and I eat meat very rarely until I sneak off to Ken’s kosher diner for a strip steak. But think of all the advantages in terms of Kashrut, saving money, health, and now the environment.
4. If you’re buying a new home, or you’re moving, go smaller. Houses between 1500 and 2000 square feet consume 40% less energy than McMansions. In over 4000 square feet, I get a kick out of people who are building 30,000 square feet homes, but making them green. Use a smaller house. Or next time you are in the market for a car, downsize it. Every hundred pounds a car weighs requires 2% more fuel to move it. Not every idea is a good idea- some believe that the US forcing lower gas mileage won't yoeld less miles driven-car owners, knowing that, in studies claim they will then feel fre to drive more. Some believe the key here is to raise the tax of gas to discourage driving.
5. Fly direct if you can. The take offs and the landings burn most of the fuel.
6. Or when you are not using an appliance, pull the plug. They estimate that 95% of the energy consumed by cell phone charges are when they are left plugged in. Between 2-6% of our electrical home energy consumed comes from wasted energy like that.
7. Don’t keep buying bottled water. Buy one bottle and keep refilling it. The amount of plastic used to produce those bottles and the amount of non biodegradable plastic we put in the ground hurts the economy. The US Conference of Mayors in June had a resolution calling for a study to examine the environmental impact that millions of empty water bottles have on municipal garbage operations.
8. When you are buying a TV think about it. Televisions account for about 4% of the energy consumption in the United States and the old TVs use a lot less energy than the new ones.
9. For people who say “I’m buying 5 pairs of organic blue jeans”, it actually uses a lot less energy if you buy one pair of non-organic blue jeans. Buying less: I I read an article recently about people who decided they are not going to buy anything for a year. Instead of just recycling, except for food, health and safety items, the group would go through an entire year by reusing, repairing and regifting or doing without. Long after the rest of us, the editorial said, have given up our vowels to spend more time on the treadmill, and less time in Dunkin Doughnuts, these people are debating whether to buy a new toilet brush was necessary or in the spirit. Haircuts, movies and meals out were ok. Buying a new Ipod instead of fixing an old was not. All of this seems a little overwrought, the editorial said, but there seems to be something to be said about living below you means. Maybe you don’t lie awake at nights worrying about how much you are contributing to landfill overflows. Maybe we are too busy worrying about the credit debt run up over the holidays. Either way, if we have a nagging sense that we are acquiring too much, we probably are. We could use the extra money, the extra closet space, and the earth could use a break.
10. Walk or bike more and drive less.
12. Continue recycling. We now proudly recycle our office paper
13. Plant a tree-one tree takes away the pollution of 13 cars
14. When we buy, buy green friendly products. The businesses will get the message.
15. Priuses are becoming status symbols. When buying a car, ask what kind of car Hillel would have bought.
16. When you grocery shop, bring along your own bags so stores don't add more unnessessary plastic and paper bags to the world. (Hope I haven't offended any bag salespeople).
Just as our body continues to repair itself and replace itself, so that we have a completely new body, every cell is changed every seven years. So the earth has the remarkable capacity to renew itself. They say creation happens every day. Lakes and rivers that were so befouled by pollution, that seemed to be dead, remember when Lake Erie caught on fire, now have revived, the same way that bald eagles that were once near extinction have been taken off the endangered list. There is a capacity for renewal. But it becomes a tipping point when things are so bad, they cannot be renewed or are lost. So we have to avoid that tipping point and let the earth restore itself to be healthy. There is a very famous expression in the Talmud that says to save one life is to save a universe. That always helps us understand the preciousness of each human soul. I never thought about this until now that the other side of that is how valuable the universe is. And not only if we don’t do anything while hundreds of millions of people maybe die, but surely the universe itself has undeniable value and must be preserved.
We well could throw up our hands saying al this is futuile since as the developing nations econimies grow, so does their use and forcasts for huge increases in neds of energy and cnsequently further adding to this problem.
The Torah contains two versions of the story of
creation. In the first, found in Genesis chapter 1,
mankind is the last thing created, except for Shabbat.
Humanity is the pinnacle of creation. The sages
compare this version of creation to when someone moves
into a new house. The furniture is moved in first.
Only when everything a person might nee dis in the
house does the family themselves move in. Thus the
last is the most important. God commands us to
multiply and fill the earth and subdue it – conquer it
– use it for our own purposes. The world is here for
our benefit. For this reason the sages taught that
when we die one of the first questions we will be
asked is Why did you not partake of every legitimate
pleasure and benefit in the world?
But chapter two of Genesis tells a different story of
creation, one in which mankind is created first, so
that God makes sure there is a caretaker before he
creates the garden. Following the same analogy then
here it is the garden, that is, the earth that is more
important. And indeed in this version the Torah is
very explicit. God places man in the garden in order
l’ovdah ul’shomrah, to guard it and to serve it. It is
the world that is of ultimate significance. Our
purpose in life is to take care of the world and to
sustain it. Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, a 12th century
Bible commentator wrote, “The ignorant have compared
humanity’s rule over the earth with God’s rule over
the heavens. This is not right, for God rules over
everything. The meaning of but the earth He gave over
to humanity is that humanity is God’s steward over the
earth and must do everything according to God’s word.”
Rabbi Haim Berlin of Volozhin went so far as to state
"Then man became a worker of the earth (i.e., a
farmer), and thereby the purpose of creation was
Through these two stories the Torah teaches us that
God obligates us to maintain a balanced relationship
with the world. We can and should derive benefit from
the world and its resources but only to the extent
that we are also able to preserve and maintain that
The rabbis bring this teaching home with a beautiful
midrash, found in Kohelet Rabbah, in which God takes
Adam by the hand and leads him around the garden. God
says to Adam: See My works, how fine and excellent
they are! All that I created, I created for you.
Reflect on this, and do not corrupt or desolate My
world. . Sh’im kilkalta, ayn mi sh’taken achrecha.
For if you do, there will be no one to repair it after
you.” What a profound teaching, coming to us across
the ages from some 1700 years ago.
The Torah is replete with laws about our environment.
We must allow our fields to lie fallow every seventh
year, the Sabbatical, so that they can rest and
rejuvenate. Fruit trees cannot be harvested until the
fourth year, as acknowledgement that their bounty is
from God, but also so that the tree is able to
properly mature. Even in warfare the Torah prohibits
cutting down fruit trees. From this the rabbis derived
a broader prohibition – baal tashchit – against
wasteful destruction of resources. They taught, for
example, that one must not adjust a lamp to burn too
quickly, for this would be wasteful of fuel. That
prohibition was laid down two thousand years ago, yet
can be applied today to how we set our thermostats and
what kind of automobiles we purchase.
In his treatise on Asthma, Maimonides as a physician
saw the ill effects environmental degradation could
have on the health, and he proposed regulations to
counter them. Joseph Caro, author of the Shulchan
Aruch, the most accepted code of Jewish Law, wrote
about the responsibility of communities to plant
trees. Various responsa of Rabbi Yitzhak ben Sheshet
(Ribash), of the early 14th century, deal with urban
pollution issues and their effects on urban dwellers.
Jewish philosophers such as, Rav Nachman of Breslov
and Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, Rabbis Shimshon Rafael
Hirsch and Abraham Joshua Heschel, all taught us about
the importance of our relationship to this earth and
the fact that God expects us to be stewards for this
creation He has loaned us for our benefit.
This is the season for taking stock, for asking
ourselves how we measure up to the expectations God
may have of us. On this day of all days, the day on
which we celebrate God’s creation, we should be asking
ourselves: How are we doing in relation to our
responsibility as shomrim, guardians, for this good
earth? Are we doing our job? Do we recognize that if
we allow this earth to fall into ruin, there is no one
to set it right after us? On the subject of global
warming, the answer is an abysmal “no.” If we are
serious about teshuvah, then one place to begin is
right here, by acknowledging the sins we have
committed by damaging Gods world, and by committing
ourselves to seeking to repair the damage that we have
One of the reasons for sounding the shofar, according
to Sa’adia Gaon, is to remind us of Creation, and of
our obligations to preserve that creation. This Rosh
Hashanah I invite you to join me in doing teshuvah for
all the ways in which we have hastened global warming.
I say join me because I acknowledge that I too have
done my share of ecological damage. When
it comes to global warming we are all guilty, but we
have to begin somewhere.
And like all teshuvah, this teshuvah requires more
than beating our breasts. It requ
So, my friends, on this day of Rosh Hashanah, when we celebrate creation of the earth, we have a solemn obligation to manage, by God, both in law and in values. to think carefully about what we personally can do. The great wisdom of our sages from the Mishnah say it is not up to us to finish the task, but neither are we to desist from it. Hillel reminded us that we can care for ourselves, if no one will be for us, who will be, but also if we are only for ourselves, what are we?
It is the story of the two fellows in the row boat. One fellow looks over and sees another one drilling a hole under his seat. He says “what are you doing?” The other fellow says “what do you care? it’s my side of the boat.” We are all in the same boat together. God gave us this beautiful universe. God does not want us to destroy it. We clearly have the capacity to destroy it. Somewhere between the two values of the torah and genesis, between having dominion over the earth, which we have, and having to tend and guard the garden, we will perhaps erred on the side of dominion, and lost sight of our responsibility to guard the garden. For the sake of all those animals who don’t have a voice, and for the sake of this planet that speaks to us and cries as it shows us what is happening. Let us personally do what we can with these suggestions to make a difference.. And let us use our power of voting and complaining and kevetching to help our government to move in the direction it should move in to balance and rebalance to save the earth. _(Hebrew)__________________ God’s spirit and grandor fills the whole universe. ----------
God says help me, be my partner, do not let me down. Save the earth.