Don’t Take Time and Space for Granted – Ki Tavo 5778

The universe is inconceivably big.  It has a diameter of 91 billion light years.  In miles, that is approximately 54, followed by 22 zeros.  The universe is comprised of between 100 and 200 billion galaxies.  Our Milky Way Galaxy has about 100 billion stars.  The closest star to the earth is a little bit more than four light years away.

Planet Earth has a number of rare features that have made the development of life possible.  Moving tectonic plates enable the formation and maintenance of an atmosphere.  The climate is not too hot and not too cold.  The moon is unusually large, blocking just enough solar radiation to allow genetic mutation to occur at a reasonable pace.  Earth’s orbit around the sun is pretty close to circular.  The sun itself is larger than most stars, and smaller than others.  In so many ways, the earth is “just right.”

The earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago.  Life came into existence around 4 billion years ago.  More than 99% of all species that ever lived on Earth are now extinct.  Homo Sapiens emerged about 300,000 years ago.  Our ancestors began to develop modern ways of thinking, reflected by the use of complex tools, cave painting, big game hunting, and ritual burial.

3,800 years ago, Abraham heard the voice of God blessing him with the promise of land and offspring.  3,300 years ago, Moses led our people out of slavery in Egypt to the land of Israel.  Solomon built the Temple.  It was destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again over the next thousand years, sending our ancestors into exile.  That exile ended in 1948, and here we are…

…residing in the most prosperous country in the history of the planet, and for all we know, the universe.  Here in Silicon Valley, we have a perfect climate.  We have air conditioning.  In about 45 minutes, we will sit down to have lunch together, and there will probably be enough food for us to go back for seconds and thirds.

How incredibly unlikely it is that each one of us is here right now.

Is there an appropriate response to the unfathomably minute possibility of my existence?

If such a response exists, I am not sure what it is.

We humans have a built-in tendency to take our lives for granted.  This is one of Moses’ concerns as he prepares to make his final goodbyes to the Israelites, whom he has led for the previous forty years.  Over the course of Deuteronomy, he has been delivering his final series of instructions to those who will be entering the Promised Land without him.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, Moses lays out a few ritual ceremonies that the Israelites will have to observe.

The first of those ceremonies will not be performed by the generation that stands before him.  True, they will enter the land, but it will take several more generations until their descendants complete its conquest, and even longer before they build the Temple.

That is the time to which Moses refers.  Israelite farmers will plant their seeds and harvest their crops.  When the first fruits of those crops come in, the farmer will place it in a basket and bring it to the Temple in Jerusalem, identified by Moses as “the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name.”  The farmer will present the fruit to the priest on duty and make a declaration:

I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us.”  (Deut. 26:3)

The priest will take the basket from him, and the farmer will continue:

My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us . . . and the LORD heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The LORD freed us from Egypt . . . He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.  (Deut. 26: 5–10)

This speech integrates themes of agriculture with history.  This is one of the great theological innovations of the Torah: God is both the Creator of the natural world, as well as the God of history.

We see this throughout the Torah, as the various agricultural holidays are infused with historical significance.  Passover, the Spring festival to celebrate the beginning of the agricultural season, is also the holiday celebrating freedom from slavery.  Succot, the Fall harvest festival, also commemorates the booths that our ancestors dwelt in while they were in the wilderness.

This is what Moses wants to ensure that future Israelites will remember.  He wants future Israelites to know:  My ancestors were once slaves in Egypt.  God brought them out, enabling me to be born in freedom.  I am here now because of God’s promise to my ancestors.  Without them, I would not be in this land, this land that is so prosperous that it flows with milk and honey. 

Notice that the farmer never makes any reference to all of his hard work: the early mornings planting and weeding; the backbreaking labor; the difficult journey from his home to the Temple.  That is not the point.  The point is for him to acknowledge everything that has happened to bring him to this blessed moment.  

Moses knows that future Israelites will have a tendency to take two things for granted.  One, that he lives in a fortuitous time period.  Two, that he lives in a fertile place.

In other words, Moses worries that the farmer will take time and space for granted.

It is not just ancient Israelite farmers who tended to take their existence in time and space for granted.  We all do.  When we are successful, we tend to overweight the impact of our own hard work and underweight the countless factors outside of our control that made our success possible.

The purpose of much of Jewish ritual is to alert us to the many blessings that we enjoy.  In our daily prayers, we acknowledge God as the Creator of the universe, the heavenly bodies, and the daily rising and setting of the sun and moon.  

We acknowledge the incredible way in which the human body is put together.  We give thanks for knowledge and understanding.  We praise God for moments of our ancestors’ redemption, without which we would not be alive.

Before eating a piece of bread, we recite a blessing indicating that it is God who “brings forth bread from the earth.”  Even though this is not literally where bread comes from, we remind ourselves of the many natural miracles that must occur so that human beings can produce food that is delicious and nutritious.  

People who express gratitude are happier, and experience life as more meaningful.  I suspect, as well, that those who are conscious of how undeservedly blessed they are tend to behave towards others with more generosity and compassion.

So, is there an appropriate response to the unfathomably minute possibility of our existence?  Let’s start with simply trying to acknowledge it:

The universe has conspired to bring me to this moment in time and space.  And for that I am grateful.

We Are Not the Center of Creation – Rosh Hashanah 5771

Rabbi Aryeh Levin, known as the “Tzaddik of Jerusalem”, lived from 1885 to 1969.  He told the story of how he once was walking in the fields with his teacher, Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook.  In the course of their Torah discussion, Rabbi Levin casually picked a flower. At this, Rav Kook remarked, “All my days I have been careful never to pluck a blade of grass or a flower needlessly, when it had the ability to grow or blossom.  You know the teaching of our sages that not a single blade of grass grows here on Earth that does not have an angel above it, commanding it to grow.  Every sprout and leaf says something meaningful, every stone whispers some hidden message in the silence.  Every creation sings its song.”

“These words of our great master,” Rabbi Levin concluded, “spoken from a pure and holy heart, engraved themselves deeply in my heart. From that day on, I began to feel a strong sense of compassion for all things.” 

Every creation.  Everything that we encounter in this world, has a song that it sings.  And that makes today, Rosh Hashanah, a day that is not only for us, the Jewish people, or even for humanity, but for all of Creation.

During the musaf service, after hearing the sound of the shofar, we will recite Hayom harat olam – “Today is the world’s birthday.”

Birthdays are usually times for celebration.  For marking the achievements of the previous year and expressing our hopes for the year to come.  We can imagine the blades of grass with their angels, and the stones whispering hidden messages in the silence, celebrating.

But do we have the right to celebrate the world’s birthday?  Does humanity deserve an invitation to the party?

We seem to be living out of balance with nature.  Rav Kook’s poetic description of treasuring the potential for life wherever he found it is very far from what we experience today.  The imbalance in humanity’s relationship to the earth violates the sanctity of life and threatens our very existence.  For the sake of the world, and for our own sakes, humanity must develop a new understanding of its relationship to Creation.

For recorded history, humans have seen themselves as the ultimate purpose and goal of existence.  While Rosh Hashanah is the most universalistic of Jewish holidays, it still shifts back and forth between the question of whether we are celebrating the creation of the world or the creation of human beings.

A midrash teaches that the seven days of Creation began on the twenty fifth of Elul.  That makes the first of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah, day six of creation, the day on which God made humanity.  We celebrate the world’s birthday on humanity’s birthday.

The universe used to be a much smaller place.  At first, the world was thought to be flat.  Later, the Greeks introduced the concept of a spherical earth at the center, encircled by the sun, moon, planets, and stars.

In the 16th century, Copernicus introduced the concept of heliocentrism, that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe.  It would take several centuries more to learn that this was not true either, and that our sun was just one of countless stars on the outer arm of one of countless galaxies.

Despite our growing awareness that humanity is infinitesimally small, and far from the center of anything, we continue to interact with our surroundings as if we are the be all and end all.  Science has not changed that at all.

Intellectually, we know that the earth, not to mention the solar system, galaxy, and universe, exists completely independent of us.  And yet, we live our lives as if they are meaningful.  As if there is a purpose to our being.  And as if there is a goal to which we are striving.  All of us do this.  We live as if our lives matter.  To love and to strive in an otherwise uncaring and unsympathetic universe is a fundamentally religious act.  An act of faith.

Do we have faith that humanity will survive?  Perhaps it’s a question for science fiction writers, or disaster movies, or apocalyptic doomsayers.  But maybe it is a question we should be asking.

An ancient midrash describes God as the Creator and Destroyer of worlds.  There were in fact many worlds that existed before our earth.  But God was unsatisfied with them, and so God destroyed them.  Like an artist throwing away a rough draft.  When it came to our world, God saw it, and declared this one, finally, to be good.

And then, at the end of the week, on the seventh day, God had one thing left to do.  The Torah states:  “God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, for on that day He desisted from all His work that God created to make.”  (Gen. 2:3)

That final phrase, “that God created to make ” – asher bara elohim la-asot, has puzzled commentators.  It should have said that God desisted from all His work that he had made.  So why does it say “that God created to make.”?  The Chasidic Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, a senior pupil of The Magid of Mezeritch, writes: “That God created to make” means that the work of creation, of mending, of completion of the world continues, and is left in the hands of Israel (Maor Einayim, Ha’azinu).”

Putting it together, ours is not the first world to exist.  There have been others.  God approved this time around, calling it tov, good, but the work of creating is not yet done.  The jury is still out on this one.  There is a distinct possibility that we humans could wipe ourselves out of existence.  And God, and the universe, will go right on without us.

The well known prayer, Adon Olam, presents this possibility quite clearly:  v’acharei kichlot hakol, levado yimlokh nora – And after everything ceases to exist, God will continue to rule in awesomeness.

As partners in creation, or rather, as the ones to whom the continuing work of creation has been handed over, it is up to humanity to create, mend, and complete the world.  How are we doing with that?

From an ecological perspective, not so great.  Species are disappearing at between 100 to 1000 times the average extinction rates in the evolutionary time scale of planet Earth due to habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species, and climate change.

When humans come along and clearcut a forest for the lumber, or blow up a mountain top to get at the coal underneath, or overfish a fish population into near or actual extinction, do we, in our suburban homes, bear some responsibility?  When a large multinational company introduces genetically modified organisms that breed with and then take over native species, have we committed some wrong?

We are very insulated from these kinds of questions out here in Northern California with our progressive environmental laws and liberal attitudes.  It is very easy to blame others.  We fault nations that don’t have the same laws we have.  We criticize companies that do everything they can to maximize shareholder profits, and avoid having to pay the actual environmental and other costs.  

But the truth is, we ourselves benefit from their avoiding responsibility.  We enjoy a pretty nice lifestyle.  Our gas is inexpensive.  Coal fueled electricity is cheap.  We can buy organic grapes from Chile for $1.49 a pound on sale.  We can fill our homes with consumer junk that we don’t need from the other side of the world.  And when the garbage accumulates, we get rid of it and it gets dumped in the landfill, or shipped off to some impoverished nation.  But as long as we don’t have to look at it, we treat it as “out of sight, out of mind.”

There is a cost to this lifestyle.  It is a cost that humanity may end up having to pay on a global scale.  From a purely self-serving perspective, humanity needs to change the ways that we interact with our planet.  

In his chilling book, Collapse, Jared Diamond explores a number of unconnected civilizations separated by time and place that experienced sudden and total collapses.  He notes that in all of them, the civilization reached its peak population and resource use shortly before its precipitous demise.  His final chapter points out that humanity is now a single civilization – the result of the globalization of transportation, communication, and economies.  If our global civilization follows the pattern of earlier societies, then we will have nowhere else to go when the collapse occurs.

But it is not only out of self-interest that humanity needs to change its relationship to the natural world.  One of the messages of Rosh Hashanah is that we are but a part of Creation.  Adonai is the God of all that is.  If we are celebrating the birthday of the entire world, what would be an appropriate birthday gift?

The new year is the season for teshuvah.  It will culminate next week with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  Atonement is the final step, when God wipes away the stains that have adhered to our souls.  Our tradition teaches that for sins between us and our fellow human beings, full atonement does not come unless we first appease the one whom we have wronged.  Although it is not easy, we know how to do this with each other.

But how do we appease the earth?  What is the language of teshuvah that the earth and its creatures understand?  How do we ask them for forgiveness?

Take the BP oil spill.  It is not a question of how much money the shrimpers are going to get, the destruction of the economy, tourism, and so on.  BP should repay all of those things, and probably will.  But that will not bring kapparah, atonement, for the ocean and seashores, and the creatures that make them their home.

The same question is asked for all of the results of the last two hundred years of progress and development.  How do we ask the earth for forgiveness?

Our global civilization has begun the conversation, but it is far from over.  As populations continue to grow, putting even greater strains on the world, this will be the dominant conversation of the twenty first century.

Religion, which continues to play a central role in how people around the world perceive themselves in their environment, will have a critical voice in this conversation.  Our Jewish tradition has much to contribute.

The first lesson that Judaism offers is that which was expressed in the story of Rav Kook.  We have to be open to experiencing the nes b’tokh hateva, the miracle that is inherent in Nature.  Heschel writes of radical amazement.  If we truly understood that God could be found not only within the creatures and objects of Creation, but also within the very processes of nature, would we continue to overstep our bounds?  Would we not come to discover that we are not separate from Creation, but are rather intimately connected with it?  We are just not yet awake to this fact.

The second lesson is about the importance of rest.  The Torah’s description of the origins of the world, which is the dominant Creation story for a good portion of humanity, culiminates in day seven.  The Sabbath Day.

The chiddush, the great innovation in the Torah, is that humans can rest.  Other religions believed that the gods made humans to serve them, but the Torah says that we rest with God as partners in Creation.  But Sabbath rest is not just for humans, but for animals also, and even for the land itself.  Every seven years, the land of Israel is supposed to observe a sabbath from cultivation.  At the end of the book of Numbers, the Torah describes what will happen if Israel fails to observe the sabbatical years.  It will result in environmental devastation and exile.  The land will then take back its lost sabbaths – on its own terms.

Shabbat is about more than just not going to work on Saturday.  It is a reorientation of our expectations for how we live on earth.  The idea of Shabbat is that we humans are not at the center of existence.  

In our world today, there is no rest.  We don’t give ourselves a break, and we don’t give the earth and its creatures a break.

Rosh Hashanah, like Shabbat, teaches that there are other, more important, more sustainable measures of a nation’s success than Gross Domestic Product.

We are taking some steps in the right direction.  Governments, and some companies, are involved in discussions of how to create more sustainable economies.  As humanity shifts its orientation, it is important for us to take steps in our own lives.  There are many things we have already done.  But there is always more.  

Driving a fuel efficient vehicle, a hybrid, or soon, an electric car.

Switching our homes, businesses, and hopefully one day soon, our synagogue, over to solar energy.

And simple things, like bringing our own bags with us to the grocery store when we go shopping.  Making an effort to buy locally produced food, which in California is not such a difficult or unpleasant thing to do.  

Making our personal decisions from the perspective of sustainability, and respect for Creation.

These are all valid, important steps.  But they are largely symbolic.  The real problem will only be solved when humanity makes a collective decision to do so.

Hayom, today, this Rosh Hashanah, as we celebrate the birthday of the entire world and its creatures, let us pay particularly close attention to the sound of the shofar.  Let its cry remind us of Creation, and call us to teshuvah, not just towards one another, but towards all creatures and the earth itself.

During musaf, we sound the shofar, and then three times, we say Hayom harat olam.  Often translated “today is the birthday of the world,” it in fact means something quite different.  Harat does not mean birth, but pregnant.  Olam, in the Bible does not mean earth, but eternity.  Hayom harat olam “Today is eternally pregnant.”  Today holds endless possibilities, but also great uncertainty. 

And then, we say hayom ya’amid bamishpat kol y’tzurei-olamim.  “Today all Creation is called to stand in judgment.”

 May this day of judgment teach us that without our responsible stewardship, the creatures of all the worlds, y’tzurei olamim, even the earth itself, cannot stand and endure. 

And then we recite at the end of our service:  Chayim kulchem hayom, “Today we are alive on this planet.”  Today our choices will gestate the future, for ourselves, for our children, and for the children of every species upon the earth.

Hayom t’amtzeinu.  “Today may we find courage.”  Hayom t’varcheinu.  “Today may we be blessed.”  Hayom ticht’veinu l’chayim tovim.  “Today may we be inscribed to live.”

May we find hope, may we find courage, may we find blessing, in this moment filled with birth and death, pregnant with eternity.

Hayom im b’kolo tishma-u.” Today, if we will listen to the Voice.

L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’Teichateimu.  May we, the earth, and all who live on it be written and sealed for a good year.