This morning, we read about the paradigmatic human encounter with God.
The Israelites have come out of Egypt, crossed through the Sea of Reeds, and arrived, finally, at the base of Mount Sinai. This is the moment they have been waiting for. The moment when God will come down on to the mountain and be revealed before the collected nation. The people spend three days getting themselves physically, and spiritually ready. God declares to Moses “All the earth is mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Ex. 19:5-6)
For the Jewish people, this is the moment when God, to whom the entire earth belongs, is encountered in the most complete sense possible. And that encounter leaves us with the challenge and opportunity to be holy.
The encounter with God is, by definition, a mystical experience, and words cannot fully convey mystical experiences. The Torah describes thunder, a dense cloud, and lightning. The mountain is covered in smoke. The earth trembles. The sound of the shofar pierces the air.
The metaphor is of a volcano, a thunderstorm, and an earthquake all rolled up into one. But we are not to understand this as a weather or geological phenomenon. The encounter with God simply overwhelms the senses. All of that holiness is too much to handle. And so the people turn to Moses, their leader, and ask him to go talk to God, and that they will do whatever he says. This is the role of the prophet. To hear and interpret the message within the God encounter.
We read of another Prophet’s mystical experience in the Haftarah. The Prophet Isaiah is in the Temple courts when he receives an ecstatic vision of the heavenly court. He does not indicate that he has seen God directly, but rather the hem of God’s royal robes filling the throne room. Later on, he will describe smoke. It is likely that they are one and the same. The incense from the earthly Temple, God’s robes, smoke, are all ways of describing the glory of God. In Hebrew, kavod.
Indeed, Isaiah describes a vision of angels, who are calling out to one another kadosh kadosh kadosh, adonai tz’va-ot, “Holy, holy, holy. The Lord of Hosts…” And then they say m’lo khol ha-aretz k’vodo. While this phrase has traditionally been translated as “the whole world is filled with with God’s glory,” the real meaning is slightly different. m’lo chol ha-aretz k’vodo: “the fullness of the earth is God’s glory.”
We cannot see God directly, but what we can see is God’s kavod, God’s glory. It is the kavod that the Israelites encounter at Mt. Sinai, described as smoke, fire, lightning, and the sound of the shofar. It is the kavod that the Prophet Isaiah encounters in the Temple, described as the hem of God’s royal robes, and as smoke.
So where do we go to encounter God’s Presence? How do we meet the challenge of being a holy people? Isaiah tells us. God’s kavod, the Divine glory, is to be found in the fullness of the world.
Our ability to encounter that kavod must begin with a sense of wonder. Of recognizing the miracles that abound all around us. The miracle in a sunrise, in rainfall at a time when it is needed, in migrating birds passing through our lives twice a year. To see these miracles, to approach the world with wonder, requires of us a humility that we, as a human species, lack.
God announced, before coming down on to Mount Sinai, ki li kol-ha-aretz, “for all the earth is mine.” That may be true. But our twenty-first century lifestyle, with all of our technology and progress, inhibits us from being able to acknowledge it.
This is not just a spiritual problem. It is also an environmental problem.
We have paved over our world,. We spend most of our days in hermetically-sealed, climate-controlled buildings. Most of our food is produced by people we will never meet in fields we will never walk on.
This Shabbat, I am joining hundreds of other clergy from all faiths in a “Preach-in for global warming.” Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and other faiths, are speaking about the religious imperative to change the way that we interact with the planet.
We have all heard the reports. Our use of fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, has created a layer of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere that traps heat in. At the rate we are going, average global temperatures are expected to rise significantly over the next century. We have seen a lot of weird weather patters over the past decade. That will continue and get worse, with disastrous effects for the earth’s inhabitants. Coastal areas are at great risk from the expected rise of sea levels. There will be effects on health and disease, as well as availability and access to drinking water.
These changes will of course effect all of us, but the ones who will suffer the worst consequences are invariably the poor. Not to mention the plant and animal species that will become extinct due to our mismanagement of the planet.
If we expand the conversation beyond just global warming, we find that there are so many other ways in which human exploitation of the earth’s bounty causes harm. We don’t manage our water resources properly. Our industry produces pollution. Human expansion causes deforestation and the destruction of ecosystems.
So there are some very real, self-serving reasons for humanity to change the way we relate to the earth.
If we know all of this, that mismanagement of our resources harms our world, it should seem like an obvious thing to change our behavior. So why is change so difficult?
This is where the religions of the world have an important role to play. In our Jewish tradition, we read in the Torah that Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden of Eden and instructed, with regard to the plants, and the animals, that our rule is v’kivshu-ha. “You shall dominate it.” Humanity has taken that to heart. We dominate the world and its resources – for ourselves. We have an anthropocentric relationship to the universe. Even though we intellectually know that we are just a speck, our behavior suggests otherwise – that we are the most important beings in the universe. We need to fundamentally change how we understand our role in the world. Not as dominators, but as caretakers.
But haven’t we done a lot, you might ask? There are solar panels on the roof of this building. Some of us have bought fuel efficient cars. We have swapped out our light bulbs. Those are important things to do.
But none of those things, even if we all did them, will make the difference that is needed. What is needed is a transformation of how we live. And the well-intentioned changes that most of us have made have enabled us to go on living the same way we have always been living.
How many of us have switched over to carpooling, or stopped driving altogether to instead use public transportation? At the moment, we have received about 25% of the average rainfall that we should be getting. Has anybody here started taking shorter showers, or ripped out their lawn so as to use less water?
We are generally willing, and even eager, to make small changes in our lives, but the big things that will be needed will come at a cost. If we really took this seriously, we would reduce our meat consumption, put on a sweater instead of turning on the heat, take fewer trips by car, and especially by plane. We would change where we live and shift to higher density living. We would have a whole let less stuff. And we would change the laws regulating how our energy is generated and consumed. Life would look very different.
In this morning’s parshah, we read the Ten Commandments. Number five lists the mitzvah of honoring our parents. Our tradition teaches that, because we are brought into the world by our mother, our father, and God, we therefore owe them honor and reverence.
I once had a teacher, Rabbi Ira Stone, who surprised us when he said that it is the other way around. We never asked to be born. Every one of us was brought into the world through no action or decision on our part whatsoever. What does that mean? It means that it is our parents who owe us. Or, speaking now as a parent, it is I who owes my kids. I am accountable to them because I helped bring them into the world.
God-willing, my kids will one day have kids of their own, and then they will know what it feels like to be responsible for them too.
I fear that, as parents, we are not living up to our obligations to our kids and grandkids when it comes to the world that we are turning over to them. But that can change. We can change that.
Addressing our environmental challenges in a serious way would enable us to earn our kids’ respect, and would lead us to be more spiritually aware. We would approach the world with a sense of wonder. By enabling ourselves to truly experience the fullness of the world, we might even merit God’s Presence. May we have the strength to do so.