THE EARTH IS GOD’S?
ROSH HASHANAH MORNING
SEPTEMBER 14, 2015
Rabbi Jon Adland
I will forever hear the voice of one of the rabbis from my youth on Shabbat morning reciting the words of Psalm 24 as the Torah was taken out of the ark. Let me set the scene for this awesome and holy moment at Washington Hebrew Congregation. The ark doors in this huge sanctuary were the most amazing ark doors I have even seen. They were two huge pieces of white marble, shaped like we think the Ten Commandments were shaped, with chiseled Hebrew letters leafed with gold representing the first words of each of the Ten Commandments. When it was time to take a Torah out of the Ark, the doors opened magically rolling silently away to each side without so much as the touch of a human hand. God was opening the ark. (Much later we discovered the button that opened these electric Ark doors.) The rabbis would ascend the three or four steps to the opening and remove a scroll. The rabbi would turn and face the congregation holding the scroll up high. Then the rabbi would intone the words of Psalm 24 from the old UPB prayer book, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; the world and they that dwell therein. For He hath founded it upon the seas and established it upon the floods.” Then he would descend from the Ark and the doors would close automatically. (There was a floor button he stepped on. Much more fun to think that God knew when to close the doors.)
I thought about this psalm and so many others this past summer after the Pope issued his words on the environment. He used these words in his encyclical on the environment. Let me add these following verses from other psalms to that of Ps. 24:
- Psalms 89:11: “The heavens are Yours, the earth also is Yours; The world and all it contains, You have founded them.”
- Psalms 65:9-13: “You visit the earth and cause it to overflow; You greatly enrich it; The stream of God is full of water; You prepare their grain, for thus You prepare the earth. You water its furrows abundantly, You settle its ridges, You soften it with showers, You bless its growth. You have crowned the year with Your bounty, And Your paths drip with fatness.”
The Psalmist saw in these few verses and many, many more the power, the glory and the majesty of God in the world around us. “He gazed out over the beauty of the earth, sea and sky to understand a uniqueness in this view.” The psalm writers didn’t believe that the sunrise each day yielded the mundane of oceans and mountains, but that a greater force was involved in the shaping of this beauty. They believed God had created this world, but they also believed it was our responsibility to take care of it.
26And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” 27And God created man in God’s image, in the image of God Adonai created him; male and female God created them. 28God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.” 31And God saw all that God had made, and found it very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Our ancestors believed that we were commanded to be the stewards of everything and to preserve the earth and its treasures for the generations to come. I believe that we must continue to be a part of this creation. I believe that we are commanded to take care of the earth. I see around and believe that we are not living up to the expectations and responsibilities of what Torah commanded us and what our sages, prophets, rabbis taught us. We have a responsibility.
And now there is a new ally in the religious world speaking out and reminding us that we are responsible for the problem however you want to call it, but this Pope and so many other religious leaders also believe that we have ability to fix it. This past summer, Pope Francis, who has become a true world wide moral leader, tried to move the environmental conversation, debate, and discussion out of the political world where it is mired down in this country and around the world in partisanship between the left and the right, between coal states and non-coal states, and between oil producers and clean energy, between fossil fuel users and abusers, and between the haves and have nots. Pope Francis wants this conversation based on morality not politics, on what is the right thing for us to do, for the future generations, for this planet, and for God. This isn’t just about global warming (or sometimes in the winter global freezing which is a result of the pollutants in the air as well) or about the oceans rising and fresh water shortages or about fossil fuels and wind power or about species going extinct or about cutting down the rainforests. It is about how you and I must take moral responsibility for our actions today and ask ourselves what will be there tomorrow for our grandchildren and those who come after us.
Here is a summary of Pope Francis’s statement to the Catholic world, but really he was speaking to all of us. The Pope believes that we, as human beings, are directly responsible for the effects of climate change, and so the onus is on us to make good on our mistreatment of the environment. Though the work may not be complete within our lifetimes, neither are we free to sit idly by (something our own RabbiTarfon said
לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמוֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.
It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it.) while clean water sources disappear, deserts expand, and the poorest and most vulnerable among us continue to suffer. This is not only our responsibility, it is a moral imperative. Pope Francis discusses climate change as an “issue we’re facing as a human family” and links our disregard and abuse of the environment as intimately connected to and indicative of our disregard of one another – one that requires our immediate attention, individually and systemically.
Let me add and acknowledge the following: some of you are believers and some of you are skeptics; some of you are zealots to do what you can and some of you are zealots to do what you want. I truly believe, as 99% of the scientists in the world say that the climate is changing and we are contributing to this change in meaningful, but dangerous ways. I commend the president for taking action in whatever way he is allowed under the laws of this country to try and be out front on this issue. We may not ever be free of burning fossil fuels, but we can greatly reduce our consumption through cleaner, renewable energy whether it is solar, wind, hydro or even thermal. This is not about jobs, because just as many jobs are being created in the renewable energy field as are lost in the coal mining sector. This is about a cleaner, healthier tomorrow.
Our Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism carried the following words on its website written by the legislative aid Jennifer Queen, “We as Reform Jews can certainly agree with Pope Francis’s environmental agenda. Our relationship with the environment and the natural world is not as God intended, nor is our relationship with our fellow humans. Rather, as partners in the sacred, ongoing work of creation, we must consciously plug back into the notion of ‘intergenerational solidarity.’ At the same time we need to acknowledge that our planet is on loan to us for our children and all the generations, which will come after us. This parallels the Jewish teachings in Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah (7:13), which tells us that when God created the first humans, God said: ‘Look at My works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.’ I believe that “The earth is the Lord’s,” but it is our moral responsibility to be a part of this world and to protect.”
Last February, Sandy and I had a chance to spend a few days in the rainforest of Ecuador. For the most part, this is untouched land that is quite inhospitable to those who don’t understand its uniqueness. We learned how those who have lived on the land by the numerous rivers in the dense growth of the trees have adapted to the heat and humidity and mud and insects and wildlife. Nearly every living thing is useful for one purpose or another. Whether it is the smell of crushed termites acting as a salve against mosquitoes or the sap or bark of trees used to cure diseases, everything has a purpose under heaven. Yet, one of the ironies of the South American rainforest is that the top soil, even after millions of years of growth and decay is quite shallow and once nature is disturbed such as the trees cut down or even land tilled releasing the nutrients underneath that it will become dead in only a few years. It would take millennia to regrow the forests. But underneath this beautiful canopied forest is oil. Lots of oil. To get to the oil means clear cutting great swaths of land, which will forever be scars on the land. How do we balance this need for energy today with world of tomorrow? Where do our interests end and the future begins? We read in Exodus 19:5-6, “'Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.'” These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel." To be a priest and holy nation means taking morality and the future into account for every action today as a consequence tomorrow.
Our moral obligations don’t end with the environment. As Jews we moral responsibilities to others. We know the verses from the prophets that command us to remember the poor, the widow, and the orphan. As a congregation, a community and a people, we are committed to finding solutions to food insecurity, hunger, and access to healthy nutritious meals. We created a garden and with the help of many volunteers both from our congregation and from New Vision Church. We have grown, harvested and cooked healthy meals that are given away downtown. At this time of year we ask you to support our Jewish Food Bank. You may not realize this, but there are people in the Jewish community who need and depend on this Food Bank and the numbers aren’t decreasing. This community’s incredible generosity helps sustain and care for our own. When you pick up your bag, take two and fill them both up with the items on the list.
We prepare and serve meals a few times of year at the downtown Urban Ark. Temple Israel doesn’t run from the face of food insecurity and while there is always more we can do, we have certainly helped.
This year, for the first time in a number of years, we will participate in a Habitat build with two other churches and the Islamic community of Canton and Akron. We will turn a dream into a reality when we build a home for a family. I hope you will find a way to assist in this project even if you can’t use a hammer or saw.
So let me ask this question. Why are we so eager to try and reduce hunger and create a home for a family, but not working to make the world cleaner and healthier for all people? Is the problem of climate change just too overwhelming? Are the solutions out of our own personal reach? Are we skeptics? Do we believe that this is for the next person to work on? I don’t believe that you believe so. I know that many of you recycle or buy more efficient cars or turn down your thermostats in the winter or recognize the global footprint of the food or products we buy. We are smart and we understand what is happening, but we may be a few degrees away from a crisis or a prolonged summer that causes more of the polar ice cap to melt or a drought of unimaginable proportions that impact on the world’s food supply. We understand our obligation to the poor, widow and orphan and our responsibility to make sure that all have what they need, but do we understand how the environment affects all of this. Our actions here today impact the world tomorrow and maybe forever.
Think about these different issues as presented in an amazing study guide on the Pope’s words and the teachings of our sages:
- Climate Justice— The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet: “Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest.” A rabbinic letter on this added, “the poor in America and around the globe are the first and the worst to suffer from the typhoons, floods, droughts, and diseases brought on by climate chaos. So we call for a new sense of eco-social justice – a tikkun olam that includes tikkun tevel, the healing of our planet. We urge those who have been focusing on social justice to address the climate crisis, and those who have been focusing on the climate crisis to address social justice.
- Global Inequity—The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. If we do not, we burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence of others.
- God’s Love in Creation—Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch quoting from the Third Letter of Ben Uziel, “One glorious chain of love, of giving and receiving, unites all creatures; none is by or for itself, but all things exist in continual reciprocal activity.”
I believe that framing the question of climate change as moral question, the Pope has challenged the world to respond. The Pope is not our ultimate authority and he doesn’t command a voice in the Jewish world, but this Pope has a voice that speaks to all humankind, the kind of voice this world so desperately needs. We are lacking a Ghandi, a King, a Heschel whose voice transcended his country, his people or his religion. This man, this Pope, who is a scientist and understands the science is speaking to the world about the future. “The heavens are the heavens of Adonai, But the earth God has given to the sons of men.” (Psalms 115:16) We are the caretakers, the stewards, those responsible for the limited resources found on and under the ground on which we walk. Do we care about tomorrow? Can we raise our voices so that those who lead may hear and those far away will listen? Can we take personal responsibility for a healthier planet? This is about morality and justice. This is about today and this is certainly about whether there will be a tomorrow where we can see the hummingbird hover over a flower, the monarch butterfly migrate, enough bees to pollinate, enough places for fish to spawn, and yes whether the polar bear will only exist as symbol to us for not listening.
The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. And God saw all that God had made and it was very good. May it always be so.
Kein yehi ratzon—may this be God’s will.