A sermon by Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor– Erev Rosh Hashana 5784
One of the most difficult and probing challenges of our High Holy Day liturgy are the words of U’netaneh Tokef. It asserts that it is on these days that the Holy One sets the bounds of each of our lives. “Who shall live and who shall die … who by water and who by fire … who by earthquake and who by plague…” Often, we explain these words allegorically. But the events of the recent past make us question as to how they may well be taken literally.
Flooding worldwide has increased precipitously this year: in India floods have ravaged New Delhi and the north, in Japan torrential rains caused widespread mudslides, China, Turkey,and the US (including Ulster County in NY and in Vermont). While floods have wreaked havoc since time immemorial (Noah?) it will only get worse due to global warming, as the atmosphere can hold more moisture as the temperatures rise.
Wildfires in Greece (an area four times the size of NYC), Italy, Spain, Portugal, Algeria, Tunisia, Canada, and the US. Canada has experienced over 12,000 fires in the first 7 months of this year alone (a 705% increase over the same period in the previous six years). Canada is battling the country’s worst wildfire season on record with over 25 million acres of land burned. The Maui fire destroyed 3500 acres. In the rest of the US there have been almost 40,000 wildfires that have burned 2 million acres. Wildfires have existed since time immemorial(Nero fiddled while Rome burned), but scientists have suggested that rising temperatures have exacerbated the problem.
Earthquakes are naturally occurring disasters that are caused by shifting tectonic plates. But human manipulation of earth has increased the number of quakes. Most recently in Morocco, but in 2023 there were 16 above 7.0 on the Richter Scales: Turkey, New Caledonia, Indonesia, Tonga, Alaska, New Zealand….
And plague? While few believe that Covid was invented in a lab, and climate change has not had a direct impact on the spread of the coronavirus, respected journals, such as the Lancet, and our National Institutes of Health have asserted that climatic factors have exacerbated the problem, putting greater numbers of people at risk.
Humans have impacted our environment – climate change, global warming, pollution – these are all our fault. We have manipulated our world in ways that are not readily reversible. The issues of climate change impact the entire world and are the responsibility of all its inhabitants. We should all join together to address this life-threatening problem but know that Jewish tradition has been teaching about this from the beginning of our experience.
Torah has a lot to say to us. “See my works, how fine and excellent they are. Now all that I created, I created for your benefit. Think upon this and do not corrupt or destroy my world. For if you destroy it, there is no one to restore it after you.” Midrash: Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28
The Jewish concept of bal tashchit, “do not destroy,” forbids needless destruction. And yet, destroy, we have. Aerosols have compromised the ozone layer, toxic fertilizers have polluted ground water, and leached into our oceans, seas, lakes, and ponds. Burning fossil fuels has polluted our air. While efforts have been made of late to address these abuses of the world in which we live, the warnings have been articulated for decades, and so much damage has already been done, playing catch-up seems as likely as the Mets, or the Yankees, making the playoffs this year (you Red Sox fans shouldn’t gloat – your team’s chances are around 5-15% as of the writing of this sermon).
God took the human being and placed the human in the Garden of Eden to work it and conserve it. Who is the wise person? Those who considers the future consequences of their actions.” Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Tamid
The Talmud tells the story of the sage Choni Ha’ma’agayl(Choni the Circle-Maker), who was walking along a road when he saw a man planting a carob tree. Choni asked, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” “Seventy years,” the man replied. Choni then asked, “Are you so healthy that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?” The man answered, “I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted for me. Likewise, I am planting for my children.”
The concept of bal tashchit “do not destroy” is extensively applied in Jewish law. The breaking of things unnecessarily, the tearing of clothes, demolishing a building, stopping up a well, wasting food, all these are violations of this root principle. In Talmud Shabbat (67b) the rabbis state that one who uses an oil lamp covered consumes fuel wastefully and therefore transgresses bal tashchit (and thus, they anticipated our wasteful tendencies in all manners of energy usage).
When we look at the problem of global warming, we see that we humans are major contributors. Examining average individual consumption, this is growing faster than the world’s population. In the course of thirty years, the world’s population doubled, while energy consumption per capita increased eightfold in the same period. Add to this that in North America and Western Europe, 10 percent of the world’s population consumes 50 percent of the world’s energy. This excessive consumption is the chief cause of the greenhouse effect – raising global average temperatures. (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, “Jewish Environmental Perspectives” April 2002 by Yehudah Leo Levi)
Torah does offer a solution – in Deuteronomy, we are commanded “to do what is good and fair in the eyes of the Eternal.” Nachmanides sees this command as a demand that we follow God’s commandments not for our own benefit, but in order to bring fairness to those around us. In like manner, consider the laws of kashrut: regardless of where you are on the spectrum of adherence and observance of the explicit laws, it all boils down to one essential principle: think about what you eat. Kashrut asks us to insert one critical step in between the step of realizing your hunger, and the step of satisfying that hunger – thought. Image if we inserted this crucial step between the many acts we perform by rote each day – turning on the tap to brush our teeth (do we leave the water running the entire dental hygiene routine?), leaving a room with the lights still on, idling the car engine while parked. Exercising self-discipline is the first step in addressing the enormous challenge that lies before us.
And what about our concern for this remarkable place that draws us together? Nantucket faces crises to come that will require a massive collective effort.
In a recent article about the appointment of Leah Hill as Nantucket’s “Coastal Resilience Coordinator” we learn this following:
Nantucket is ground zero for sea-level rise. One only needs to drive up Easy Street during a storm when cars are often replaced by canoes in the flood waters to be made viscerally aware of what the future might eventually look like every day on Nantucket. This is no longer a matter of opinion, but a matter of fact. Since 1965, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been tracking tides and collecting sea-level rise data from a gauge located adjacent to the Steamship Authority dock—and the numbers are staggering. According to extrapolated data, the waters around Nantucket have risen by 1.3 feet in the last century, but eight of those inches have come since NOAA began tracking in 1965.
“We are experiencing sea-level rise at a higher rate than other areas,” Hill explains. “By 2100, it is projected that Nantucket will have 6.6 feet of sea-level rise. By 2030, or in seven years, we could lose service to the Steamship wharf at mean monthly high water. By 2070, thirty miles of our roads will be covered in six inches of flood water during regular high tides. The flooding we see today on the island will be the high tides of tomorrow.”
Along with flooding, Hill says that erosion, particularly on the South Shore, will increase, as will groundwater, which could turn dry areas into wetlands. Erosion along many of our coastlines has already proven cataclysmic. For instance, the town’s sewer plant located between Miacomet and Surfside beaches has seen 47 feet of beachfront devoured by the ocean in just two years. Arguably the most vulnerable waterfront area stretches from Washington Street to Jetties Beach. When the road to the Steamship Authority dock gets cut off during high tides—an eventuality predicted for 2050—the island’s crucial lifeline will also be severed. (N Magazine July 31, 2023 “Fighting Against the Tide” by Robert Cocuzzo)
This congregation is part of a wider community of which all areaffected. But we can take on a role as the Jewish community of Nantucket. A committee of our community could look into ways that we can encourage a turn to solar panels; help organize a way to compost food and garden waste; based upon the principle of Shabbat, encourage a once-a-week reduction of the use of appliances that waste energy…. The ways we can get involved are myriad in number – but the enormity of the problem should not prevent us from doing something, anything. And Torah demands that we act.
Every day, we are witness to the impact humans have had on our world. And what we choose to do to reverse some of the damage we have wrought might not become evident for quite some time. But Choni’s query to the anonymous person planting the fruit tree should elicit the same answer from us, as it did from the person planting the tree: “We do this for our children and our grandchildren.”
We stand at the start of a new year – and with it there are promises to fulfill and possibilities that can lead to change. Let us together forge a path to make a positive difference on this island that we love, and the wider world around us. Our Creator expects no less from us.
Kay yehee ratzon – May this be God’s will!
Shana Tova u’metukah!