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Sermon: Yom Kippur Morning, 10/9/19

10/10/2019 01:27:02 PM


Rabbi Charlie

Gut Yuntiv! Throughout these Days of Awe, I’ve talked about caring for ourselves: as individuals, as a people, and as a congregation. This morning, I felt it was important to focus on caring for ourselves as a part of the global community. Our Haftarah this morning begins with the strong words of Isaiah 58, “Cry with full throat, without restraint; raise your voice like a ram’s horn!” Why are we crying out? So that we can learn about our transgressions. I know our transgressions have come up a lot during the past ten days, but please keep in mind it is Yom Kippur.

There has been one “transgression” that has seen a lot of outcry recently. A couple weeks ago there were worldwide protests led by young people relating to climate change.  In our own community, while I don’t know the percentage, I do know that when it comes to sermon writing, our Bar and Bat Mitzvah students end up teaching about climate change, pollution, deforestation, and how humans are destroying our planet far more than any other topic and it’s not even close. It even comes up at assembly in Religious School when I’m talking about something else. For young people throughout the world and for young people here at CBI, it’s clear to me that environmental concerns are one of, if not the top priority for the next generation.

Climate change has also increasingly become bipartisan. Republican strategists are talking about it. Republican legislators are talking about it. It’s not just a Democratic issue (, Both the US Government’s National Climate Assessment and UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report alarming consequences if we don’t change course quickly. We’ve got young people crying out and raising the alarm. But all anyone really wants to know is: What does Judaism say about it? Of course that’s what people want to know.

Not surprisingly, Judaism argues both sides. In Genesis (1:28) God tells the first people to: "...subdue [the earth and]; have dominion over...every living thing...." Some people take that to mean that when it comes to the world, people have absolute control. But then again, in Genesis (2:15) it says that God takes the first person, "... and placed him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate it and to guard it." So are we users or caretakers? The answer is both.

One of the big mitzvot that environmentalists turn to in particular is what Maimonides identifies as Negative Commandment, number fifty seven in his Book of Mitzvot: Don’t destroy. “All destruction is subsumed in this negative commandment, such as burning a garment without cause or breaking a vessel without cause.” Lo Tashchit – we aren’t supposed to waste or destroy.

At the same time, in several places in the Talmud (Baba Kamma, 91b-92a, Shabbat 128b-129a, Shabbat 140b, Shabbat 105b) our rabbis explain that for really good reasons – economic reasons or psychological reasons, or any reason that will help take care of various human needs, it’s ok to waste because you’re really not wasting – since it helps people

While it seems like we have this contradictory tension between these two ideas, both can be true. We have to take care of our earth – for ourselves and all of God’s creation. We all need clean water, clean air. At the same time, we can’t ignore the economic impact and other impacts of the effort to be stewards of the world. Both are valid. While our tradition is quite balanced, our rabbis tell gave us a warning in the form of a story that we incorporate into our prayers on occasion:

When God created Adam, God showed him all the trees in the Garden of Eden and said: “See how beautiful and perfect are My works!  All that I have created, I have created for you. Therefore, be ever-mindful. Do not abuse or ruin My world. For if you do, there is no one after you to repair it.”

(Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28)

The scientific data around climate change indicate that we need to take this message to heart. And I guess that’s why I really hate this issue. Scientists and young people and many others are saying that we have to respond with a sense of urgency. And yet we’re talking about the whole world. Could there really be that much pollution? Could there really be that many trees burning? Could there really be that much garbage? Could the situation really be so dire? It’s so big, so hard to grasp, so hard to wrap our minds around…

And yet the answer is yes, it’s that bad. It’s that urgent. Like Jonah, the scientists of the world have come to Nineveh and said that the world will be overthrown. But we don’t just have one king who can make the decision to repent and do t’shuva. That’s another reason why I hate this issue – I often feel so helpless… What can I do? While there are personal actions – many websites give lots of ways to reduce a carbon footprint or reduce consumption, but there are two things that I really think will make the biggest difference.

The first is to invest in or encourage investment in new technologies. There’s a Canadian company that takes carbon dioxide right from the air and turns it into fuel. They are already doing it! That’s just one example. The innovation is amazing! Conservatives for Clean Energy Georgia – yes, that’s a real thing – are highlighting major investments in solar in the state which created 4000 new jobs in 2017 New technology is creating jobs and helping to repair our world. We just need to invest more.

And the second piece is to advocate. Advocate for ourselves and advocate for our children. Amplify the voices of our youth, which is what I’m trying to do today. Talk with them, support them, encourage them to speak out if this is an issue that they care about. Encourage conservatives to engage with liberal ideas and liberals to engage in conservative ideas – no one person or group has all the answers and there are solutions on both sides. We’ll need the politicians, we’ll need the business leaders, and we’ll need us - the voice of the people crying out in a loud voice, that the status quo will not work. We need to ask for intelligent and practical actions. God willing, we’ll be able to change and start to take care of our world.

G’mar Chatima Tova – May we be sealed for a good year.

Thu, July 9 2020 17 Tammuz 5780