Isaiah, Amos, Micah, Jeremiah and Habakuk.
One of the Jewish people’s greatest gifts to the world is our prophetic tradition as well as the words of the biblical prophets. These prophets, powerfully and poetically, warned the Israelites of impending doom and begged them to change their ways in order to avert disaster. We are told, they spoke the God’s honest truth.
These prophets, whose words are quoted across millennium, spoke out on the most important issue of their day. The survival of the People and their Homeland.
Yet, many of us do not know, that in their day, they were ignored, maligned and downright despised.
Why? Perhaps, the Israelites reasoned that the prophet’s predictions were exaggerated. Perhaps, Old Habits are hard to change. Perhaps, The Israelites were busy with their day to day lives. Perhaps, entrenched political leaders and economic forces benefited from the status quo. It is all in the Prophetic Books of our tradition.
The result of not heeding the poetic, prophetic warnings of Amos, Hosea and Jeremiah— Exactly as they preached: the Temple was destroyed and the people were exiled.
Our planet is our Temple. Our Planet is our home. It is threatened. Today’s prophets, often scientists, have “seen” the future, they have warned us and beseeched us to change our ways.
While there is still time, will we listen?
In navigating this challenge, what might we learn from our sacred, wise tradition?
This is the question and the challenge placed before us as individuals, as a synagogue, and as a country as we begin 5779.
I share this topic with you today because today, Rosh Hahannah is Ha’Yom Ha’rat Olam. The Birthday of the World. The day we celebrate this marvelous planet on which we live with its rivers, mountains, lakes, prairies and deserts. Rosh HaShannah also the day we pause and seriously ponder our behavior. We are given time and opportunity to make reflect on our behavior and begin the process of making amends. Friends as a community, we have missed the mark in our God given responsibility to be our planet’s stewards.
One contemporary prophet is Dr. James Hansen. You may have read about him as far back as 1988, National Geographic cover story. Or, you may or more recently in last month’s brilliant New York Times Magazine Cover story. Dr. Hansen has been prophesizing and sounding the alarm for almost 50 years. In the 1980s, he observed and shared the our planet was warming and the cause was our actions. He warned that unless changes were made to the amount of CO2 we emitted, our planet would continue to warm and we would face environmental catastrophe –record temperatures, more forest fires, rising sea levels which threaten our coastline, more floods, more severe droughts, melting glaciers, and even animal extinctions. In the 80s, Dr. Hansen provided testimony to Congress. He thought sharing the “truth” would lead to our government and other governments taking action. Like in the prophet Jeremiah’s time, that was not to be the case.
Jeremiah preached, “Now therefore amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the Lord your God, and the Lord will change his mind about the disaster that he has pronounced against you.”
In his day, some 2600 years ago, Jeremiah approached local and national leaders. He warned them of what was to come. Did they listen? Did they take the lead in changing the community’s actions? Sadly, no.
In his home town of Anathoth, Jeremiah’s priestly kin conspired to KILL him. Why? The local priests were concerned that the Anathoth sanctuary would be shut down. Jeremiah then went to Jerusalem, the capital to share his prophesy. Rather than heed his message, a temple official, had Jeremiah beaten and put in stocks. Jeremiah became a laughing stock and the target of mockery Still, he continued to preach. When J. finally reached the Palace, the King’s officials planned to put him to death and the corrupt King of the day, King Zedekiah, did not put a stop to it. Thankfully, Jeremiah was saved but he remained imprisoned.
Threatened, mocked and ignored, Jeremiah wondered, “
To whom can I speak and give warning? Who will listen to me? Their ears are closed so they cannot hear. The word of the Eternal is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it. (6:10).
Just like Jeremiah, Dr. Hansen has been mocked and his message obfuscated. He has faced smear campaigns by powerful interests. Cynically, energy companies have funded and organized campaigns to create doubt about human induced global warming, in spite of overwhelming evidence. Sadly, in the late 1990s, climate skeptics began a campaign against Dr. Hansen, himself.
Like Jeremiah who would not be silenced, Dr. Hansen, would not be silenced. While serving as the lead climate scientist at NASA, he was warned by the administration to stop speaking out about human made climate change. So, he left NASA and has became a professor at Colombia University. With ever growing urgency, he has become a citizen activist trying to reach the so called “common man” and has been arrested numerous times. He has shared, “Communicating with the public seems to be essential, because public concern is probably the only thing capable of overcoming the special interests that have obfuscated the topic.”
Friends, we know that we cannot wait or rely on the King Zedekiah’s or local or national priests of our own day to take bold actions and make the hard, necessary changes. We, Ha’Am, the people, need to take action.
On Rosh HaShannah and YK, we repeat over and over again -U tefillah, teshuvah or tzedakah me’averin ha’gezerah. Tefillah (prayer), Teshuvah (changing our behaviors), and Tzedakah (financial acts of justice) can lessen, ameliorate or possibly overturn the gezerah, the decree.
Tefillah- The words of our liturgy can remind us of what really matters. Our prayers can soften our hardened hearts and distracted souls. Many years ago, the Reform movement removed the second paragraph from the Shema. It is not found in the High Holiday Prayer book. It was thought to be too punitive.
If you pay close attention to my commandments
That I am teaching you today-
To love Adonai your God,
And to serve God with all your heart,
And with all your being-
Then I will provide rain for your land on time,
The early rain and the late rain,
So that you may gather your grain,
Your wine, and your oil.
I will provide grass in your field for your cattle,
And you will eat and be satisfied.
Do not let your heart be seduced;
Do not stray from the path,
Worship other gods, and serve them.
If you do, The Eternal, will be angry with you,
And will keep the waters up in the heavens,
So that the rain will not fall
And the earth will not yield its produce.
Then you will quickly perish from the good land
Which The Eternal is giving you.
Therefore, keep these words of Mine
In our mind and in your soul.
Tie them on your hand as a reminder,
And also between your eyes.
Teach them to your children, speaking of them
When you are at home and when you are away,
When you lie down, and when you rise up.
Write them on the doorposts of your house
And on your gates….
So that you and your children will flourish
On the land that Adonai promised your ancestors,
For as many days
As the heavens remain above the earth.
Our ancestors used to recite this prayer, three times a day. Daily, they were reminded that the earth is fragile, that they were its stewards, and that their actions had consequences. This High Holiday, we will recite the 2ndparagraph of the Shema and pray that our hearts will soften and we will heed God’s message.
Teshuvah– Changing our Behavior
Changing our behavior is not easy. And, in a case of human induced climate change, we are easily overwhelmed by the scope and scale of the problem. We wonder, what can I, one person, do to “fix” this global problem. The good news is our tradition does not demand that we fix the entire problem, rather we are instructed to do our part (small or large) to fix the problem. We are taught in the Ethics of the Fathers/Pirke Avot- “You are Not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” “You are Not obligated to complete the task (Hallelujah/I was overwhelmed) but neither are you free to desist from it (Oy-so, I am not completely off the hook).
In an effort to reduce their carbon footprints, young people in ever growing numbers are taking the lead –by commuting by bicycle, becoming vegetarians and vegans, and reusing, repurposing and recycling. Perhaps we can be inspired by our children and grandchildren and begin to make changes to our behaviors.
The Great prophets of Israel, never gave a list of action items to the people Israel. Rather, they cried out asking people to change. Perhaps they knew instinctively that each of person is unique and best able to decide for him or herself what he or she can do. These High Holidays, I encourage you to reflect on the x sheet, which include possible actions and changes. Please choose at least one to which you can commit, It can and does make a difference.
Also, some of the actions you may take will cost money or some will cost more money than you usually spend. Let me ask you a question. When your doctor prescribes medication, you take the medication. Sometimes we ask for the generic, but we still get it. Why? Because as one congregant once told me, ‘Rabbi Thank God there is a Medication, I can take for my ailment!” This is our planet’s medication!
Often Tzedakah is translated as charity. As I have shared in the past, the root of tzedakah is z-d-k/ Justice. It is what we do to make right that which has been wronged.
As we are a wealthy congregation, I would encourage us this High Holiday season to give tzedakah to non-profit groups that educate the public about human induced climate change or that support groups that advocate for change at local, state, national level and international level. Once again, I encourage to reflect on the X sheet in the back that includes some vetted groups. The list includes JNF, which as a congregation we supported over Passover.
My husband, Tom, (By now you know I can’t make a sermon without referencing him) often encourages me to take fewer airplane flights. Apparently, on an individual level, one of the largest contributors to overheating our planet is air travel. Yet, I yearn to visit family and friends on the coasts and take international vacations. To do justly, to mitigate the harm I am doing, I recently started to purchase carbon offsets whenever I fly. I encourage our entire SOS community to do so. It is easy, it is doing our part. Information on the sheet.
I pray that the words of Jeremiah, not be true in our day. May it not be said, “While you were doing all these things, declares the LORD, I spoke to you again and again, but you did not listen; I called you, but you did not answer. (7:3)
I pray that thru our Tefillah, Teshuvah or Tzedkah M’Averin Ha’Gezerah. Thru our prayer, changed behaviors and financial gifts we can do our part to avert the severity of the evil decree.
I pray we will do this , Not only for our sakes but for the sake of our children, our grandchildren, and our great grandchildern.