HaYom HaRat Olam – Today the World is born.
Some say that Rosh HaShanah is the sixth day of creation: the day the human was created. The Human – אדם, Adam. The Hebrew word from human is the same root as the word for land: Adam and Adamah. A better translation would be earthling and earth. Or human and humus.
The very first thing the Torah tells us about our role as earth-beings is to care for the earth:
וַיִּקַּ֛ח יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ בְגַן־עֵ֔דֶן לְעָבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשָׁמְרָֽהּ׃
The Eternal God took the human and placed them in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it. Or to serve it and guard it.
The midrash tells us: When the Blessed Holy One created the first human, God took them and led them round all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And all that I have created, it was for you that I created it. Pay attention that you do not corrupt and destroy My world: if you corrupt it, there is no one to repair it after you.” Kohelet Rabbah 7:13:1
For over a thousand years, Jewish tradition has called us to care for the earth and warned that it is possible to destroy it.
This is not so different from what we have been hearing from a 16 year old girl from Sweden: Greta Thunberg. As I’m sure most of you know, Greta is a climate activist who began her efforts last year when she decided to not attend school until the Swedish general election after the heat waves and wildfires during Sweden’s hottest summer in 262 years. Her demands were that the Swedish government reduce carbon emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement, and she protested by sitting outside the Swedish legislature every day for three weeks during school hours with a hand-painted sign reading: School strike for the Climate. After the elections, she continued to strike on Fridays. Other young people have noticed and joined her and, 10 days ago, FOUR MILLION PEOPLE took to the streets in the Global Climate Strike.
So many things about the evolution of this movement is astonishing, not least the story of Thunberg herself and the impact an individual can have. In many ways, she herself is extraordinary.
This is a young woman many would call “special needs.” She has struggled with depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, selective mutism, and an eating disorder. She is on the autism spectrum. There were months when she would not get out of bed, eat, or speak. She shared her fears for the earth with her parents who, affected by Greta’s passion, made a number of lifestyle changes. She saw that she had an impact on her family’s habits and this gave her hope that she might make a difference and it gave her the strength to act. And 13 months after beginning her school strike, she is the face of a movement of millions, and is speaking to governments and heads of state and the whole world.
She has said: “I see the world a bit different, from another perspective. I have a special interest. It’s very common that people on the autism spectrum have a special interest.”
The rabbis of the Mishnah taught that anyone who causes a single life to perish is deemed as if they had caused a whole world to perish; and one who saves a single soul is deemed as if they had saved a whole world. Individuals are infinitely valuable and have potential beyond our wildest dreams. A good thing to remember as we celebration the creation of humanity.
Over Labor Day weekend, I went to Philadelphia to visit my daughter, and the daughter of a colleague happened to be celebrating her bat mitzvah. Her name is Dasi Weinmartin and she is the founder of the Northwest Philadelphia chapter of the Sunrise Movement, an international youth-led movement to stop climate change. She taught powerfully about the work of this season of teshuvah:
“T’shuvah is repentance, which is essentially the process of acknowledging mistakes and returning to our best selves. Maimonides breaks teshuva down into three steps: 1) confessing your wrongdoing, 2) regretting your actions, and 3) vowing not to repeat whatever it was you had done wrong.
Let’s take a moment to use the lens of teshuva to look at the issue of the climate crisis with a little guide I like to call: “Dasi’s T’shuvah Assessment.”
First, transgression. We, the human people, have created significant damage in our past, building up an economy based on fossil fuels, which has seriously harmed the climate, and severely impacted many communities across America. It is time now to fix that before these gates close.
Second. Acknowledge and apologize. Each day we are developing a clearer understanding of climate change and acknowledging the impact of the problem. Climate scientists say that we only have up to the year 2030 to transition to a sustainable way of living before the damage that has been done to the earth is irreversible, or until our gates close. But when it comes to apology, how does one apologize to the earth? You can’t simply go up to the nearest tree to apologize and say “Sorry tree, I’ll try harder next time.” You must act.
This leads to the third element of teshuva – action, or taking steps to repair. That means it’s time to do some personal, country-wide, and global t’shuvah.
I hope, in… this time of T’shuvah, you can all begin to do your part in t’shuvah for the earth. Everything counts in working towards a cleaner, greener, just world.”
She concluded saying: “The ancient Rabbis designed teshuva as an architecture for change.” And she pleaded: “Help change our system today. When millions of us strike in every town and city in the country, the power of our movement will be impossible to ignore. Politicians will see that if they want to win in 2020, they have to listen to the youth.”
Yes, she’s a pretty special kid. She also has some yichus, some lineage. It was noted that she might be the first bat mitzvah in the world whose father, uncle, and grandmother are all rabbis!
We must do teshuvah for the earth. We must stop causing damage and we must repair. While much of the change that must happen is on the public scale – everything we do to prevent more greenhouse gases from entering the environment makes a difference. As individuals and as a community, we can act.
Kehillath Shalom has begun the formation of a Green Team and taken a few steps. We have purchased glass plates and cups and no longer need to use disposable plates and plastic for our food service. It’s a small step, but we are using fewer resources and putting less waste into the landfills. We could consider more: what other ways might we reduce our environmental footprint?
On this Yom Truah, day of sounding, let us raise our voices like the shofar, and cry out – to those who we have elected to power to make the life or death decisions.
A famous Talmudic story is from about 400 of the common era:
One day, Honi was walking along the road when he saw a certain man planting a carob tree. Ḥoni said to him: This tree, after how many years will it bear fruit? The man said to him: It will not produce fruit until seventy years have passed. Ḥoni said to him: Is it obvious to you that you will live seventy years, that you expect to benefit from this tree? He said to him: That man himself found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants. Taanit 23a
So many of us are here, in synagogue today, because of our parents and grandparents. We need to be here, to pray and commit and act in the world, for our children and grandchildren and great -grandchildren. Otherwise, the world will not be livable for them.
In the words of Greta Thunberg:
“…the one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere.”
Let us plant hope through our actions.