Noah the Quirky Biologist – Noah 5780

I was blessed to be able to go on a short vacation this week to Hawaii.  We stayed on the island of Maui. The most memorable activity was hiking in the crater on top of Mount Haleakala, which stands at just over 10,000 feet above sea level.  Its extreme isolation, combined with its height, results in a unique ecosystem.  The terrain looks like Mars, and is almost as barren, except for one remarkable plant that grows only on Mount Haleakala.  It is called argyroxiphium sandwicense subsp. macrocephalum, otherwise known as the Haleakala Silversword.

Haleakala Silversword

The Haleakala Silversword grows only above 6,900 feet.  The plant is spherical.  It is comprised of spiny greenish, silvery leaves that are specially adapted to collect moisture and reflect sunlight to its base.  It grows in volcanic rock, and tolerates the freezing temperatures and high winds that buffet it.  

Haleakala Silversword after flowering

Here is the remarkable thing.  The Silversword grows very slowly, taking up to 50 years to reach its full size of 1.6 feet in diameter.  Then, in a period of just a few weeks, it sends a stalk of  hundreds of flowers shooting up to as high as 6.6 feet.  The flowers are pollinated by insects between June and September.  Then, having achieved its reproductive purpose, the plant withers and dies.

Isn’t nature amazing?  Good job God.

But then humans came along.  Climbers used to pick the plants so that they could bring down proof of having climbed to the summit.  Goats and cows, introduced to Hawaii by humans, were also eating up the slow-growing plant.  By the 1920’s, the Haleakala Silversword was nearly extinct.  

It was then that the National Park Service took over.  They fenced out the goats and cows and prohibited digging up the plants.  Through careful stewardship, Haleakala Silversword populations rebounded.  The Silversword can now be seen in abundance on the one place on earth that offers the perfect growing conditions.

In this morning’s Torah portion, God assigns a similar task to Noah. God tells Noah, “Noah, I’ve got a job for you.  Humanity has lost its way.  I wish I had never made them.  But what are you gonna do?  I’m sending a flood to destroy all life and give it a second shot.  I need you to build an ark.  Make it 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high.  Give it three decks.  Put in a skylight.  Then, I want you, your wife, and your sons and their wives to gather a male and female of every species of animal that lives on land or in the air and bring them on board.  Don’t forget to pack food.  “

So Noah gets to work.

A cubit is about a foot and a half.  That means there was approximately 101,250 square feet of living space, which is just over 2.3 acres.  Eight people had to live there with all of those animals for a full 12 months. It must have really stunk.

Although the Torah does not describe it, imagine what life on the ark must have been like.  The Rabbis did. Numerous midrashim emphasize how attentive Noah was to the needs of all the animals.  He knew exactly what food each species required, and exactly when and how it needed to be fed.

He is like a quirky biologist who feels more at peace among the four legged, the furry, the scaled and the feathered than he does among his own kind.  Noah “gets” animals.  It is people with whom he cannot relate.  

One Rabbi claims that Noah, in addition to preserving animals, brings seed samples and saplings to ensure the survival of plant species.

Perhaps this is what the Torah means when it describes Noah as being righteous in his generation, and walking with God.  He, alone among humanity, has compassion for other creatures.

This is the kind of person that God needs right now.  God, who cares for all creatures, requires a servant who emulates this quality.  Noah is a kind of naturalist-conservationist.  He is the perfect man for the job.

One Talmudic Sage imagines a conversation between Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, and Shem, Noah’s eldest son.  (BT Sanhedrin 108b)  Eliezer asks Shem, “What was it like for you on the ark?”

“Oy, so much trouble we had.  Some animals like to eat in the daytime, so we had to feed them in the daytime.  Some animals eat at night, so we had to feed them at night.  And there was one animal, the chameleon—dad didn’t even know what it ate.  One day, he is sitting and cutting up a pomegranate.  Suddenly, a worm wriggles out.  The chameleon’s tongue shoots out of its mouth and the worm is gone.  Chameleons eat worms.  Who knew?  After that day, we would mash up bran and leave it out on the counter.  When it became wormy, the chameleons feasted…”

In another midrash (Tanhuma Noah 9), Noah and his family are so busy taking care of all the animals that they do not get a wink of sleep for the entire twelve month cruise.  One time, Noah is late bringing food to the lions.  (A mistake he made exactly once) One of the lions is not too happy about having to wait for lunch, so it bites him in the leg, leaving Noah with a limp.

These legends show Noah and his family neglecting their own needs, foregoing their own comfort, even risking their lives, to take care of the animals with which they have been entrusted.  It is the task for which they are chosen, for without them, the creatures on the ark will not survive.

The parallels to our current situation should be obvious.  Habitat destruction, climate change, trash in the oceans, pollution in the air.  

From Noah, we learn that compassion for other living creatures will require us to sacrifice comfort, forego luxuries, and take risks.  If our efforts to consume less don’t result in a material change to our standard of living, it probably means that our efforts are superficial and we are not doing enough.

As I say this, I am cognizant of my own complicity.  I opened this d’rash describing my trip to Hawaii, which included a round trip flight for which the carbon footprint equalled more than half a metric ton.

Noah stood out from his generation in some way.  Maybe it was this: he was the one willing to put his money where his mouth is.

Judaism, Meat, and the Environment – Acharei Mot 5776

This morning’s Torah portion contains some of the central principles of kashrut, our Jewish dietary practices.  While other sections of the Torah describe the kinds of animals that may or may not be eaten, Parashat Acharei Mot tells us how they are to be eaten.

It seems to be describing an early stage of ancient Israelite society, when there were lots of local shrines with altars throughout the land of Israel.

God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites that when they get a hunkering for meat, they may not just slaughter animals from their herds wherever they want.  It must be done in the sanctuary.  The blood must be poured out, and certain internal fats must be burned on the altar as a pleasing offering to God.  This requirement essentially transforms all meat consumption into a sacrifice, and elevates our eating into a sacred act.

The purpose of this requirement, God tells Moses, is to stop the people from making their offerings to the se’irim.  The se’irim seem to have been some sort of goat-demon that resided in the wilderness, and ancient Canaanites would apparently make offerings to them out in the wild.

The Torah goes on to state that whenever an animal is slaughtered outside of this sacred context, that person is considered to be cut off from the rest of the people.

The next restriction has to do with hunted game.  There were certain undomesticated animals that were kosher, and could be hunted.  Elsewhere the bible mentions deer, gazelles, roebuck, and several other unidentified species.  Most likely, these were only available to the elite.  But the Torah has to account for these as well.  So it specifies that when someone hunts an animal, it’s blood must be poured out on the ground and covered in order to be eaten.

You might be thinking right about now, “but Jews don’t hunt.”  And you would be correct.  These rules about eating meat have not reflected Jewish practice for thousands of years.  They describe an earlier time, before worship was centralized in the Temple in Jerusalem.  It was possible to bring an animal to the local shrine so that it could be slaughtered in a sacred context.

Later, as described in the book of Deuteronomy, the local shrines are abolished and worship is consolidated to the Temple in Jerusalem.  Along with this change, Israelites are given permission to slaughter animals on their own, outside of a sacrificial context.

Our great commentator Rashi notices something about the Torah’s regulations regarding meat – and specifically the hunting clause.  The word “hunt” appears twice.  asher yatzud tzeid-chayyah.  …anyone who “hunts down any hunted wild animal…”  Seemingly superfluous words are typically interpreted to have additional meanings.  Rashi cites the Talmudic teaching that a person should never eat meat as a casual thing.  (BT Chullin 84a)  Any time we eat meat, we should consider it as if we had gone through the extensive trouble of actually hunting it down.  In its context, the Talmud seems to be concerned with what in those days was the exorbitant cost of meat.  It advises that a person should not impoverish himself or neglect his family’s needs to satisfy his cravings.  It reports that a given quantity of meat costs 50 times the same quantity of vegetables.  And so, the Talmud recommends that, except for the very wealthy, a person should only have a little bit of meat once a week, on Shabbat.

Rashi cites the Talmud’s initial conclusion that eating meat should not be casual to us, but he does not cite the economic reasons.  Rather, meat consumption itself should be uncommon and special.

This would seem to reflect the early practice of our ancient Israelite ancestors, for whom meat could only be eaten in a sacred context.  By taking life to nourish ourselves, we commit an inherently violent act.  That is why it can only be done in a sacred context, recognizing that it is only God who has the right to determine matters of life and death.

How far we have descended from that lofty ideal.  Now, most of us never meet the animals we eat.  We buy them off the refrigerated shelf in the grocery store, wrapped in styrofoam and plastic.  Kosher meat is no different.  Are those of us who do eat meat living up to Rashi’s ideal of meat consumption not being casual?

The most famous Jew to argue for vegetarianism from a religious standpoint was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel.  Rav Kook was a Chassidic Rebbe, a mystic, an early Zionist, and a prolific thinker and writer.  He believed that religious and non-religious Jews needed to work together, and that Judaism needed to be an active and involved force for change in the world.

Rav Kook notes that God’s original plan for creation is for humans to be vegetarians.  When Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden of Eden, they are given the plants and the fruit bearing trees for consumption, but not the animals.  Only after humanity has corrupted its ways on Earth, prompting God to wipe out all creation with the flood and start over, does God introduce the idea of eating meat.

It is a concession, argues Rav Kook, to humanity’s inability to reign in its appetites.  While God’s compassion is equal for all creatures, God recognizes that humans need to be given an elevated view of themselves vis a vis other animals in order to get them to concentrate on improving their relations with each other.

And so, God authorizes Noah and his descendants to have dominion over the animals, including eating them – but with certain restrictions.

To the Jewish people, God gives even more restrictions.  The menu of available animals is severely limited to us.  We are forbidden from consuming the blood.  We cannot mix meat and milk.  And there are additional restrictions as well.  Each of these restrictions, according to Rav Kook, is intended to elevate our moral consciousness and instill in us a profound reverence for life, even while we are eating animals.  We should never take eating meat for granted.  As Rashi says, it should not be a casual thing for us.

For example, Rav Kook explains that pouring out and covering the blood of the hunted animal is an act of “shame” on our part for committing such a “morally base” act of killing a living creature which had once known freedom.  There are similar moral and spiritual dimensions to each of the other mitzvot that regulate our eating of animals.

If we are paying close attention, we will as individuals come closer and closer to the ideal.  We will live in greater balance with the world around us.  We will treat God’s other creations better, reduce suffering, and be altogether more peaceful in our lives.  As a people, and collectively, as humanity, our heightened consciousness will produce greater unity and harmony in the world.

Rav Kook’s vegetarianism was an integral part of his Messianism.  The permission to eat meat is only temporary, he says.  It is a “transitional tax” until we arrive at a “brighter era” when we will all return to vegetarianism.  When that day arrives, human beings themselves will detest the idea of eating meat with “moral loathing.”  We will all become vegetarians, and balance between the species will be restored.  The sacrifices which will be offered in the rebuilt Temple will be exclusively plant-based.

In his personal life, Rav Kook would eat a small amount of chicken each Shabbat in acknowledgment that the day had not yet arrived.  Rav Kook was incredibly optimistic.  He lived at a time when Jews were building a life in the land of Israel.  He saw humanity as moving forward, closer and closer to perfection.  Rav Kook died in 1935, and so he did not witness the cataclysm of the Holocaust which surely would have affected his positive view of human moral progress.  But he has much to teach us.

In recent weeks, we have received reports of collapsing populations of coral in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and across the globe off the coast of Florida – the results of rising ocean temperatures and acid levels.  I am scared about what that portends for ocean ecosystems upon which we are more dependent than we know.

As a global species, we have done a terrible job of managing our consumption of this planet’s resources.  The Jewish laws of kashrut, in placing limitations on our consumption of meat, offer us a model for how we might relate to our consumption of the other resources of our world.

While Rav Kook’s vegetarianism does not reflect mainstream Jewish attitudes, he gives us something important to consider.  He suggests that there are spiritual and ethical dimensions of consumption, along with the environmental.  God created our world with the intention that its creatures live on it in balance.  As humans, our purpose across generations is to gradually approach that ideal of perfection.

Our Jewish tradition offers us thoughtful limits on our behavior when it comes to diet, and most other aspects of our lives.  If we are paying attention, living by the Torah will refine our character and help us to become our ideal selves.

In the contemporary world, with our scientific abilities to study the global environment and understand our lifestyles’ impacts on the global ecosystem, we would do well to consider what limits we ought to impose on ourselves, not only on our consumption of meat, but of are use of all the resources of this wonderful world that God has created for us.

Rav Kook, by personally eating a little bit of chicken each week, models for us that it does not have to be all or nothing.  Let’s pay a bit closer attention to what we consume.  Let’s try to distinguish between what we need to survive, and what we want.  What is necessary for us to live, and what, if we are really honest with ourselves, can we live without?

 

Bibliography: Rav Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace, Edited by Rabbi David Cohen

 

Bechukotai 5774 – Climate Change, DNA, and God’s Challenge to Us

On Monday of this week, two scientific papers were released by two separate teams that studied melting patters on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.  The groups conducted their studies independently, and used different methods to conduct their studies.  They did, however, come to the same conclusion.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet sits on a bowl shaped depression of earth, with the base of the ice below sea level.  Ice on the edge of that bowl has been melting as it comes into contact with warming ocean water.  As that ice melts, it destabilizes the rest of the ice sheet, starting a chain reaction that will cause it to slide off the continent into the ocean.  The studies found that the melting has passed the point of no return.  Even if the water temperature goes back down, the progress of the glaciers cannot be stopped.  In fact, they will continue to accelerate into the ocean.

The cause is not clear.  Scientists think it has something to do with stronger winds stirring up the ocean and raising water temperatures.  Some think the stronger winds are caused by increased temperatures in other parts of the world due to global warming.  Others think that the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica has added energy to the winds.  Natural variability may also be a factor.

The result, according to the studies, will be an additional rise of global sea levels of up to twelve feet over the next few centuries.  That is on top of other predictions, which do not take the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet into account.  The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has already warned that sea levels could rise up to three feet by the end of the century without significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.  With the new discovery, that estimate will have to be raised.

We are not going to go into whether global warming is caused by humans or not.  People’s emotions tend to overwhelm their brains in such discussions.

Let me state one undeniable fact: climate change, whatever the cause, exists.

What will the impact of rising sea levels be?  In America, a rise of up to four feet would inundate the homes of 3.7 million Americans.  Cities like Miami, New Orleans, Boston, and New York would all be vulnerable.

It is already happening.  The question is: what are we doing to prepare for it?  The collective decisions that we make over the coming decades will determine what kind of toll climate change will take on human lives.

The first half of this morning’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, records a series of blessings and curses which will befall the Israelites depending on their adherence to the covenant with God.  Im bechukotai telechu… it begins.  “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit…”

The blessings are everything that ancient people could want: abundant rain, successful crops, peace in the land, strength to defeat their enemies, and a constant awareness of God’s Presence and love in their midst.

The curses are the opposite.  The sky will turn to iron, the land will not produce food, disease will spread, famine will ensue, enemies will terrorize the land, and eventually the nation will be exiled.

Whether the blessings or the curses befall the Israelites is entirely up to them.  The national fate will be determined by whether the people follow the mitzvot, that is, the commandments outlined in the Torah that are the Jewish people’s covenental obligations to God.

As moderns, the idea of the weather or the conduct of enemy nations being determined by our actions is a troubling theology.

What these blessings and curses are describing is not so much theology, however, but human nature.  The extent to which a community embraces shared values determines to a large extent whether a crisis will result in blessing or curse.

When the oceans rise, the impact on human lives will be determined by how we have prepared for that event, and how our society cares for the people that are affected.  Developed countries will fare better than poor countries.  We know this, because that is what always happens in natural disasters.  But human societies, whether in local communities, in nations, or globally, have it in their hands to do something about it.  The question is: will we?

Unfortunately, the answer is probably: not very likely.

Every living creature has a biological imperative to perpetutate its own existence.  Human beings are no different.  It is built into our DNA.  But that imperative operates at the individual level rather than the collective.  Individuals tend to do things which enhance their own abilities to survive, thrive, and repopulate.  It seems that there is no collective biological imperative for the perpetuation of humanity’s existence.

We form groups for the benefits they bring to our own ability to survive.  We make choices about what we think will further our own well-being, but are far less inclined to make decisions that will benefit humanity, especially when it will involve some sort of self-sacrifice.

This is not a moral point.  It is a matter of biology and genetics.

So many human civilizations over the millenia have ignored the warning signs and gone down paths that led to their collapse.  The biological imperative is for individual survival, not for collective survival.  That perhaps explains why so many societies today engage in wasteful and self-destructive behaviors.  We are not naturally inclined to do what is best for humanity as a whole.

So we pollute our environment, we use up too much of our fresh water, and we drive other species into extinction.  Why?  Because there is nothing in our DNA to stop us.

The Torah challenges us to overcome our biology.  The mitzvot, the commandments, are a comprehensive system of laws that govern all aspects of our lives: how we treat ourselves, how we function within our families and our communities, and how we are to treat the strangers among us.

Our tradition also tells us how to function within the context of a larger society that is not Jewish.

And of course, Jewish life is full of rituals that bind us through the observance of sacred practices and the marking of sacred time to Jewish people of the past, present and future.  Ritual also enables us to express our yearnings to God.

In asking us to live by the mitzvot, God challenges us to rise above our genetics.

To follow halakhah, the Jewish system of commandments, is to impose an unnatural code of ethics on our human interactions, and to instill a deep sense of humility into our relationship with Creation.

Ki li kol ha-aretz  “For the entire Earth is Mine,” God declares at Mount Sinai before giving us the Ten Commandments.  As Jews in a covenantal relationship with God, we are asked to remember this at all times, and not treat the earth as something that exists only for our exploitation.  As God’s possession, the earth must be treated with reverence.

In the kedushah we recite the words kadosh kadosh kadosh, Adonai tzeva-ot, m’lo kol ha-aretz kevodo.  “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord of hosts, the fullness of the the entire earth is God’s glory.”  How might human treatment of our planet differ if we saw every element in the natural world as a manifestation of God’s glory?  Think about the impact on things like pollution, deforestation, and carbon emissions.  Consider how our own behavior might change with regard to the kinds of plants we put in our gardens, the length of our showers, and the things we choose to purchase, if we were conscious of utilizing resources that belonged to God.

The Torah is speaking to a particular community: the Jewish people.  The Torah’s way is the Jewish recipe for overcoming our basic human instincts.  But the underlying principle is universal.  It applies to all peoples separately, and to humanity as a whole.  God asks all of us to be more than our DNA.  To work for the flourishing of all people, and to treat the earth with humility.

As evidenced by our behavior, it seems that humanity does not have an especially humble posture with regard to the earth.

A detail in the presentation of curses reveals an insightful point about human behavior.  The curses do not all happen at once.  They come in waves.  After each wave, we are offered a chance to return to God.  If we do not take advantage of that opportunity, then the next wave will strike.  One gets a sense that God really wants Israel to redeem itself, to prevent further curses.  But the Torah describes it as almost inevitable that the community will not be able to reverse course.  Curses will follow more curses, with people never recognizing that their fate is the result of having gone off course from the path of blessing.

The cycle ends with the land desolate and the people in exile.  Only then will a small remnant realize their mistakes and the mistakes of their ancestors and return to the covenant.  When that happens, God will be waiting, eager to take them back.

Weird weather, rising ocean temperatures and acidity, melting glaciers, more powerful hurricanes, shrinking fresh water reserves – as we see sign after sign pointing to increasingly severe consequences of climate change, what are we going to do?

When will we start to take real action?  The kind of action that calls on us to make lifestyle changes, to transform how and where we live, and what we eat.  Action that will shift how our economy is structured and how success is measured?

Humanity’s track record is not great.  We tend to not be good about making investments in preventative strategies for catastrophes that are not yet upon us.

Whether the challenge is man-made or not, our responses are always in our own hands.  The way that we come together as a community will determine whether this challenge will become a curse or not.

 

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.