Erev Rosh Hashana Sermon 2018

Rosh Hashana Maa’riv - We Are One with the World
Good Yomtov!
Happy Rosh Hashana, Birthday of the World!

It is right to celebrate the miracles of the natural world on Rosh Hashana, the birthday of the world.

I’d like to tell you a story about my summer, a little miracle in my back yard:

This summer, we didn’t go away. Again, I was happy to stay home and enjoy the beauty and richness of Chicago. I was fortunate to spend time in the garden. I have been encouraging the growth of my milkweed plants. Let me tell you a little about them. Those are those dusty green plants with oblong shaped leaves. Each plant is a 4-5 ft. stalk that grows from a network of underground roots. Each plant in a given area communicates with the other plants through their shared subterranean system of roots. Each pod is home to hundreds of tightly packed seeds each attached to a tuft of fine silky, milk-colored strands. Each garden of milkweed produces tens of thousands of seeds.

The milkweed has received attention because it is the habitat of the glorious Monarch butterfly. The milkweed is the incubator and nursery of the next generation. By the time the Monarch butterflies return to Chicago from their winter in Mexico, the new milkweed has produced its leaves. The butterflies they lay minuscule eggs - mere dots of whiteness -  on the underside of the milkweed leaves. Many of the eggs don’t make it, whether because of the weather or predators. Research shows that eggs have a higher success rate when cultivated in a protected environment. So, we decided to give nature a helping hand by bringing milkweed leaves with monarch eggs on them into a butterfly cage in our home. Out of the eggs emerge tiny Monarch caterpillars. They are quite beautiful things with tiger stripes of gold, green and black. Their food is the milkweed leaf on which they were conveniently laid. 

These are very hungry caterpillars. They are constantly eating, trimming away at the leaves. They grow quickly and massively to be plump, long creatures. If you pass by milkweed leaves with holes in them and pieces missing, that means that there are Monarch caterpillars there.

Once the caterpillars reach full size, they make their way to the underside of a sturdy leaf or climb to the top of the indoor butterfly cage. They produce a web of very strong silk from their tail end which they knit into the underside of the leaf. They then suspend their bodies from the leaf. The hanging caterpillar curls into the shape of a J.  After a few days, the caterpillar pushes out of its own skin an exquisite, acorn-shaped pea green cocoon.  Iridescent gold flakes appear on the cocoon corresponding to key organs in the forming butterfly. 

And then the magic goes insane. The most miraculous of processes begins. Behind the walls of the chrysalis, the caterpillar’s entire body breaks down. All its organs - the mouth that chewed the milkweed leaves, the stomach that digested the nutrients, the muscles that propelled the caterpillar feet, the cells that were created as the caterpillar multiplied in size, - all of it liquefies into a miracle soup. Out of this tohu vavohu, this formless confusion, nature forms this most glorious creature, the Monarch butterfly.

This whole process is only one of the miraculous phenomena in the life of the Monarch butterfly. I won’t go into the mystery of the Monarch’s migratory path navigated with pinpoint precision over 3,000 miles. Or that each spring and summer some four generations of butterflies are born and die on route to the north before a super-version of the butterfly heads south to Mexico in the fall, following the path their great-grandparents took to come here in the spring of which they have no direct knowledge. We could also spend hours talking about the other Milkweed insects whose whole lifecycle take place on the milkweed and who have techniques for managing the plant in a successful symbiosis.

These are only some of the wonders of just one insect and one plant.

It is right to celebrate the miracles of the natural world on Rosh Hashana, the birthday of the world. 

My message today is: We and the planet are one and what that means for our future on Earth.

How is our world doing on this 5779th birthday?
That’s a lot of years to reflect on. Let’s start with the present.

We are the richest civilization in the history of the world. By a long shot. We have the deepest, richest knowledge of the secrets of the natural world. We have successfully exploited the planets’ subterranean deposits and harvested and cultivated the fruit of its abundance above ground.

And yet the world, our planet, is in distress. It’s headline news every day. California is burning. Globally, one of the hottest seasons on record. The world heat map is orange turning red. The climate is changing.

Frankly, the news is enough to make me want to turn off. It can be so overwhelming.
What can we do on a daily basis as citizens?

We learn a little, try to take on a commitment or two and keep going.

For me, a turning point was High Holydays 2005. That’s when I first heard the term “climate change”. In the news back then you might remember that “global warming” was the common term if the issue was discussed at all. Global warming. It gets warmer, it gets cooler. So when the rabbi I worked with used “Climate change” in his Rosh Hashana sermon on the environment, it was brand new to me and quite shocking. 

We and the planet are one. We humans shaped the climate and will continue to do so

shortly after those holydays, my old car was totaled. I needed to go out and get myself a replacement. With my colleague’s sermon on “climate change” still in my head I bought a hybrid vehicle. People told me: at the very least, if gas prices go up, you’ll save some money on gas mileage. I did save a few dollars that way. And I’m burning a little less fossil fuel than I would otherwise. It’s still the car I drive today. 

President George W. Bush told us to switch out our incandescent light bulbs for low energy CFL spiral ones.                             


Environmentalists say: fly less.                                                                                 

Recycle more:                                     


Use less:                                       

…working on it.

Cities are coming together to tackle the problem, even individual states like the populous and influential state of California. And still, my heart cringes from the news even, and because, I know this is my future and that of my children.

{sing} Lo aleicha hamlach ligmor…

Not your job to do it all alone. That’s not the way to go
But still do not give up hope and turn away from it.

So, what’s to be done.

The problem is that I don’t even know how to think about the enormity of the problem.

Time to take a break, take a breath and take a step back.

My starting point is that as humans and as Jews we have faced seemingly overwhelming challenges before. And we have come through. The Torah is a record of such successes. Here’s one:

Way back in pre-Biblical times, over in what is now the Middle East, early humanity faced up to the mind-numbing, overwhelming, capriciousness of their lives and decided the only possible explanation was that gods were mad at them. They came up with a horrible way to appease the deity commensurate in its intensity to their suffering at the hands of the deity. A parent would ritually murder their child as an offering to the god. A human sacrifice by each family. If that seems far removed from our world or Judaism, it indeed is, but remember that that is precisely what Abraham intended to do to Isaac before the angel stayed his hand.

The Bible has a record of this horrific ritual. The deity and the ritual have the same chilling name in Hebrew: the Molech. The Torah fiercely denounces this extreme cruelty.

Curiously for myself as a Hebrew language instructor, the development of the Hebrew language tracks the eradication of this practice. In the course of the Bible, the word “molech” makes away for a new form of the same word. By shifting just one vowel, we go from Molech to Melech, King. In the world of the ancient Near Eastern city-states were ruled by kings. God was the supreme King, or Melech. The sacrificial murder to the deity was supplanted by animal offerings to the ultimate sovereign of the Universe.

As we know Abraham ended up not killing his son Isaac. That’s the point of the story of the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac that is traditionally read on Rosh Hashanah. “Do not hurt the child. Offer up the ram instead.” We blow the ram’s horn, the shofar as an annual reminder of that change.

Change is possible.

Change can happen.

If the problem appears to too big to think about, step back and perhaps it will look a little smaller and more manageable.

Here’s the rub. Not only are the past two centuries of industrialization coming to a head. It is the ideas that propelled us to our current wealth as a species that simultaneously left is ill equipped to deal with the challenges of the future. And that’s because our attitudes to the planet and to life were formed in an era that could not even conceive of the challenges we now face.

Thomas Berry was an eminent scholar and eco-theologian. He is one of the environmentalist thinkers that the Renewal movement embraced. One of the questions on my membership questionnaire for joining the Renewal rabbinical association referenced him. Prof. Berry explains that:

    “Here in America, we were heirs to the English tradition of                 jurisprudence, which is deeply concerned with life, liberty and the             pursuit of happiness for humans at the expense of the natural world.             Humans were protected in their liberty to own and exploit property             for whatever purposes they wished. Yet mountains had no rights to             their grandeur, rivers had no rights to remain free of pollution, the             salmon had no rights to their spawning places, birds had no rights to     their     habitat nor to protected access along their migratory                 paths.” (p. 568)

It’s not just here in America or my native England. Where America goes so goes the whole industrialized world.

Humanity’s looking away from the needs of the planet is what the founder of Renewal, Reb Zalman calls “alienation” from the planet. Berry calls it “autism.” It goes way back beyond Anglo-American philosophy. Back to the scientific revolution and way further back to the anthropomorphism of the Roman and Hellenistic world. 

Berry was also a Catholic priest. And he takes these attitudes 

    “back […] to the biblical world and the scriptural foundations of our             Western life formation; back to the two great     commandments, love             of God and love of neighbor; the fulfillment of the Law and the                 Prophets with no reference of any     relation with the world about us.”

Since antiquity, the one line summary of Judaism has been: “Love your neighbor as yourself, that is the whole Torah”. Love your neighbor, not “love the planet.”

If we delve deeper into our Jewish sources, we find prophetic voices that were raised far in the past. Humanity’s alienation from our natural habitat is indeed not new. Eight hundred years ago in Provence, modern day Southern France, the philosopher and Rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi observed:

    Our Torah desired to equip us with a grasp of reality according to our     abilities…to peel away from humanity attitudes of pride and self-            importance…that we should know that we and vegetables like the             lowly cabbage and horseradish are siblings with one father. We             humans are like the donkey and the mule, the cabbage and the             pomegranate even like the silent stone. As the Torah in the Book of             Deuteronomy says: “humanity is like a tree in the field” and Isaiah             teaches: “All flesh is like the grass of the field”

The autism of humanity towards the environment inevitably necessitated the exploitation of the environment. As Berry explains:

    “Exploitation was the pre-ordained way for humans to bear                 themselves toward the surrounding world: the continent must in             some sense be re-engineered and its power appropriated; otherwise             it was simply wasted. Not to pave the roads was neglect. Not to take     the petroleum from the earth was to reject a God-given opportunity             for bettering human life, despite the fact that nature had stored the             carbon in the petroleum and in the forests so that the chemical                 constitution of the air and the water and the soil could be worked out     in some effective manner. That humans had rights to do what they             pleased was self-evident, not to be contested” (p. 568)

In the words of the founders of Judaism, the rabbis of antiquity and their Christian counterparts: “Man is the crowning glory of creation.”

See the power of an idea to do so much! It shaped the physical world we live in. Consider what a different way of thinking might accomplish! 

But what would that framing be?
We need to take a bigger step back to take it all in.

At the Field Museum and wherever you see fossils you will see those charts dividing the age of earth into periods with sub-divisions. Most of the biological life around us is thought to have originated in the most recent major period. This is known as the Cenozoic period. “Cenozoic” - I am told -  means New Life. The Cenozoic was a period of incomprehensible length extending 65 millions years into the past.

Now we are really taking a step back.

Thomas Berry suggests that we are coming to the end of this era. In order to grapple with the challenges ahead we need to think of ourselves as entering a new era. The name he suggests is “ecological” or “Ecozoic” “because it indicates that we are concerned with life forms themselves, not simply with our understanding of the life forms.”

That is because that future is already here. We and the planet have already become one.

This new age  - ecozoic, if you will - that we are entering is one in which there is no distance between humanity and nature. Adam & Eve on the one hand and the Garden on the other have become one.

Increasingly, we are able to shape nature and even human beings through
technology. Cochlear implants have all but eradicated deafness. As I have shared with you before, there is a man-made device in each of my eyes which allows me to see. Without it I would be blind. Everywhere we look our bodies are becoming hybrid man-machines. And it’s making our lives so much better.

Plants and animals are being designed and programmed to serve our needs. Sometimes it’s a good thing, sometimes not. But the ability to do this is growing constantly and therefore will continue to challenge us.

We and the biosphere are one. In the future, that unity will only grow closer.

Through the wonders of technology and medicine we are able to prolong life to an extent that would have seemed magical to our forbears. In fact, bio-ethicists are seriously considering the next horizon: immortality. It is no longer in the realm of science fiction or Greek mythology to imagine a time when humans would not need to die. Think of the ramifications of that.

We humans are fusing with the natural world. We and the planet are one.

Looking ahead to this new age we must know:
    “that our planet will never again in the future function in the manner             that it has functioned in the past. Until the present the magnificence             splashed throughout the vast realms of space, the songs that                 resonate throughout the earth, the luxuriance of tropical rain forests,             the movement of the great blue whale through the sea, the sea, the             autumn colors of the eastern woodlands, all this and so much else             came into being entirely apart from any human design or deed. We             did not even exist when all this came to be. But now, in the                 forseeable future almost nothing will happen that we will not be             involved in. We cannot make a blade of grass but there is liable not             to be a blade of grass unless we accept it, protect it and foster it.             Even the wilderness must now be protected by us. On                     occasion the wild animals need our care, so too there is an infinite             amount of     healing that must take place throughout the planet.                 Healing that may require assistance from us although for the most             part the natural world will bring about its own healing if we only             permit it to function within the dynamism of its own     genius.” (p. 571)

We are in a moment of transition that transcends history. The ultimate transitions in our personal lives, our birth and our death are sacred moments honored by ritual, prayers and community.

So, too, we as a human community together with our precious world are in such a sacred moment of transition. Our task is to carry forward the dreams and stories of the past while giving them new form and vision for the generation that will come into their own when we are gone. Just like the generation of Israelites who were liberated from Egypt laid the foundations for the next generation to enter the Promised Land, so, too, we carry the stories of the past era and begin to shape the story of the coming era.

In the Torah, when the mother and father of humanity are placed in the Garden of Eden, God directs them to “work [the Garden] and [to] protect it.” We’ve been really successful in working the planet. So much so that we have reached this critical moment to protect it. We are entering a phase where, in order to protect it we must also be involved and work it. 

Think of the original basic human transition. Birth. The birth of a new baby to a new parent. In one instant, this most fragile and infinitely precious being comes into the world. In that moment or birth, the parents are entrusted with the awesome burden and awe-inspiring task of protecting, nurturing, caring for this miracle. This baby is a whole world. And the parents are the baby’s whole world. And all that work and concern of parents and other carers is solely to allow this baby, their world, to unfurl on its own natural course. Miraculous processes switch on like magic and carry this precious, unique wonder to the next stage. The world is our baby and it is our parent.

Neither the Monarch nor the Milkweed nor the other Milkweed insects serve any vital human need. We do not feed on them, they are outside our food chain. They do not shelter us. They produce no medicinal substance. 

Their stand alone glory and brilliance stand as a reminder to humanity that contrary to the messages we have received 
from capitalism and socialism, 
from the fields of science and the humanities, 
From Judaism and Christianity, 

God’s Creation is not all about us.

As Berry writes:
    “Nothing substantial can be done until we withdraw from our attitude     that every     other mode of being attains its identity and value simply             by being used by the human. Every being has its identity, its honor,             and its value through its role in the universe….As regards the future,             it can be said quite simply that the human community and the                 natural world will go into the future as a single sacred community or             we will both experience disaster on the way.

I spoke to you about how we and the planet are one. We cannot turn away from this reality. What this means for the future is that we take care of ourselves when we take care of the only home we will ever know - the Planet Earth. This one speck of life in the unimaginable expanse of the universe is in peril.

May our lives on Earth be a tribute to us and a blessing to our children after us.

Shana Tova!

“Lo aleicha hamlach ligmor…”

Not your job to do it all alone. That’s not the way to go
But still do not give up hope and turn away from it.