Rosh Hashanah Day 5776: “Heeding the Call–Both Papal and Jewish–For Environmental Justice”

This summer, I had the opportunity to head off to Camp Kalsman, a Jewish camp in Arlington, to spend a week as a member of the faculty. A rotating group of educators and rabbis and cantors spends a week to 10 days teaching, leading services, tutoring b’nai mitzvah and providing support alongside the full-time staff.

Faculty were also asked to visit some of the activities, chugim, electives. The first day I was there I joined the “environmental heroes” chug.

The session was led by Tal, an Israeli counselor, who led the kids through a series of games. In the first game, each of the campers was secretly assigned to be a plant, an herbivore or a carnivore. They were then told to wander the field, and at the signal, to find a partner. They then—in rock, paper, scissors fashion—were to battle by revealing their assigned roles. Herbivores ate the plants, and carnivores ate the herbivores. This then repeated for several rounds. If you met one like yourself you were safe, but three times and you died of starvation. Those who were “eaten” sat back down until the winners—three carnivores—were revealed.

We then moved into a game of tag in which a lone camper stood on one side of the field opposite everyone else. The solo camper was the hunter, the rest the wolves, and at the signal each ran towards each other. The hunter’s task was to tag as many of the wolves as he could as they ran across to the other side. Each person tagged would then become another hunter. This went on for several rounds until ultimately, all were tagged and became hunters. There were no more wolves left.

We then returned to the first game, and each camper got his or her secret assignment. This time, the herbivores won, and it was revealed after the round that only a few campers were designated carnivores. All the meateaters were “killed” in the earlier game. And then we played again, and this time everyone lost—everyone, as it turned out, was designated a herbivore, and after three rounds of not finding a plant to eat, we died.

We then got back in a large circle and talked about how the second game, the hunting, in which all the carnivores were “killed” didn’t just affect one species, but reverberated throughout the ecosystem. The lesson was reinforced for these kids—and for me—our choices have vast consequences so we must be responsible for our actions in regards to our environment.

Today is Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the new year, a time for atonement and self reflection. But we also call this the new year of the world, the day that Creation is renewed for another cycle. We are renewed and the world is renewed. It becomes imperative to link these two themes of the day and spend some time in self-reflection not only with regards to ourselves and our relationship with others, but in regards to our relationship with the earth.

image from www.catholic.com
image from http://www.catholic.com

But this is timely not only because of our Jewish calendar, but, if we pay attention more broadly across the spectrum of faith communities, because Pope Francis has recently released an encyclical, a major work on the environment. And while of course directed to the world’s Catholics, there is much in this document from which we can learn. It is a call not just to Catholics, but to the world. In the spirit of interfaith learning and cooperation, we as Jews would do well to heed this call as well.

So let’s learn from Francis:

The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.

Climate change is real. To tell us this a man of faith puts his faith in science. And throughout the encyclical he adds a second act of faith by imbuing the reality of our environmental situation with the hope, potential and possibility that it can be overcome.  That in order to combat climate change, we need to change.

And not just change what we do. We need to change who we are. Bill McKibbon points out in his analysis of the encyclical in the New York Review of Books, we generally have a notion that technological advancement and progress are the same thing. And while there is much to laud with the advent of new technologies, the Pope challenges us to realize that these must be coupled with a moral advancement as well. He writes, “A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress.” Technological advancement does not automatically equal progress. It is not progress to simply use the power that we have to do what we want without concern for consequences. It is progress to recognize and act on our responsibility to others and the world. Our contribution to global climate change is a moral problem—it is an unchecked abuse of power in which we see ourselves on top and therefore as having the right to do what we please. If we maintain that attitude then we will not only destroy our environment, we will destroy ourselves.

We need a fundamental change. And the change is not just a new embrace of environmentalism, but an embrace of environmental justice. It is recognizing that we are responsible not just for ourselves, but for others, and that we have a fundamental obligation to care for our environment for the sake of others. That individual abuses lead to societal catastrophes. A midrash, an ancient Jewish commentary, tells of the story of two people in the boat, and one takes out a drill and begins to bore a hole under his seat. The other jumps up, “what are you doing? You are letting water get in the boat, we will sink.” Don’t worry, says the other, I am only boring a hole under my side of the boat.”

And an embrace of environmental justice is to recognize especially that while climate change affects us all, it disproportionately hurts minority populations and those who are economically disadvantaged.

So change we must, and change we can. Isn’t that what we are celebrating today? Our ability and opportunity to change? Our desire to do things differently? Our humility to recognize that there are things we need to change?

Faced with the enormity of the issues, it is hard to think about our ability to make an impact on climate change. But we must do something, even if we can’t do everything. And while there is much to say about what we could do, what we should do, themes I hope we will examine more closely in the coming months, I want to suggest that we as a synagogue community make a renewed effort around the environment.

There is a lot we already do—our use of reusable goods in the kitchen, for example, as opposed to disposables. Aided by the city of Olympia, we participate in composting. Our landscaping is made up of mostly native plants. And this year, during Mitzvah Morning, when we go out into our community to do service work, there will be one opportunity specifically around the environment.

But there is more we can do. Perhaps it is time to take an environmental audit of the congregation, either our own or using the tools provided by faith based environmental groups like Washington Interfaith Power and Light and Earth Ministry to examine our practices and where we can do more. (And we will join together locally with other faith communities through Interfaith Works to read and discuss the encyclical.)

And as one step towards a deeper congregational environmental awareness, I want to propose an idea: that we try as much as we can to move to zero waste in our congregation. Beginning with the Erev Shabbat onegs: ZerOneg. Zero waste is the idea that we can consciously minimize the amount of garbage we create by a more mindful use of resources. That we try to make it so that all food is consumed, and whatever isn’t will either be composted or reused. And that food packaging either be reused or recycled.

As I mentioned, we already do much of this. And I don’t mean to suggest that there are any problems or concerns that we need to fix. The oneg is a special time when we are able to be in community, to share with one another, to offer hospitality after prayer. Thinking zero waste simply adds another intention, an environmental intention, to this already special time, the time when we come together most frequently.

An environmental mindset forces us to be conscious of what we use before we use it—to bring as much as we like but not too much, to eat what we have brought, to pack out what we don’t to either eat at another time or donate. And this will hopefully impact our purchasing decisions in advance, and increase our attentiveness to food and how much we consume. It is mindful eating, it is just eating. And it could be a fundamental change in how we engage with our resources and waste.

This is but one of potentially many examples of what is required of us. One example in which we change not just our practice but our mindset.

Rosh Hashanah is a day of gratitude and humility. We are grateful for all that we have and the past we have followed to this point. And we are humble to know that we didn’t do it all our selves. So too we have a responsibly to be grateful for the world we inherited, and to have the humility to know it is not ours to do with as we please. We have the responsibility, as told to us in our Torah, that the earth is ours “to till and to tend”—in other words, to care it the best we can.

Our job is not to “save the earth.” The earth doesn’t need us to survive. The earth will survive. Even life on earth will survive. But it may look different, and it may not look like us, if we fail in our responsibility to look after what we have been given.

And while the earth doesn’t need us to survive, our fellow human beings do. The earth doesn’t need us, but our future generations do.

On this day we celebrated our renewed lives and the renewal of life of our planet. We also celebrate the renewal of life itself and we welcome and celebrate the generations who will follow us. We will read the haftarah from the book of Samuel, which speaks of the prophet’s birth. It will be read to us by those who have welcomed new life into their families this past year. Then we will bless all our children. So I close with the words of Pope Francis, “Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who follow us.”

We owe environmental stewardship to ourselves. We owe it to our neighbors. We owe it to our ancestors. And we owe it to our children.

It’s not just a game played at camp.

This is slightly different than delivered on Rosh Hashanah, I added a few sentences to clarify my intentions regarding the oneg and zero waste.

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