by Reb Jamie Hyams, Rabbinic Intern, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, May 4, 2018
Shabbat shalom 😊.
As I wrote this sermon, I struggled with how to organize it. I knew what I wanted to say in the middle, and at the beginning, but where I wanted it end, that seemed to be the problem. Now, standing in front of you, I want to start at the end, at the punchline. The punchline is that we are engaged in this Jewish endeavor to make sense of our world and to make it a better place. As I emerge from my studies, I want to use my energy and what I have learned in rabbinical school to change the way that we humans relate to our planet, to Mother Earth.
The beginning of this sermon is that this semester I am taking a class in Jewish environmental ethics. The class explores how Judaism looks at the natural world and humanity’s role in it. We began by looking at the two creation stories, specifically Genesis 1:26 where God said, “Let us make man in our image… and they shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping thing that creep on the earth.” This is known as the dominion paradigm. From this view comes the idea that it is acceptable for man to use all of God’s creation for our benefit.
Contrast this with the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:15, where “The Lord God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and to tend it.” This is known as the stewardship paradigm. There is a clear tension between the two ideas and the dominion model has emerged as the dominant idea.
The influence of the dominion model can be seen everywhere: in how we use our natural resources, in how plan our cities, in how we raise animals for mass production so that our meat and chicken can end up need little packages wrapped in cellophane at Safeway. It is embedded in the America identity “God gave this land, God gave this land to me…”
How we treat the natural world today has consequences for tomorrow. This isn’t exactly a new idea. Our Torah portion this week is Emor from the Book of Leviticus. Leviticus is the “how to manual” for the priests regarding personal conduct and service to God. In Emor and elsewhere, God is very clear about that in order to stay a holy people, we must be aware, there are things we can and cannot do, and we must act intentionally.
The concept that our actions have consequences is imbedded in one of our most central prayers, the Shema. The Shema is made up on an opening sentence followed by 3 paragraphs. As with many liberal communities, we at P’nai Tikvah skip the 2nd paragraph. I used to think it was for the sake of brevity, or perhaps it is for theological reasons as it refers to a god who will punish those who do not follow the letter of the law but the first half of second paragraph of the Shema sets out a clear message that our actions toward each other, and how we treat our environment has consequences.
“If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him will all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in the season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil. I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and thus you shall eat your fill. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and how bow to them. For the Lords’ anger will flare up against you, and he will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you…”
We can take this passage as a quaint reference to what might happen if the Israelites strayed from God’s way but if read this passage through a modern lens, it is much more than a paragraph to be skipped over.
A colleague of mine, Cat Zevis, of Beit Tikkun has written a modern take on the Shema.
“And it will come to pass . . . If you love the Transformative Power of the Universe with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your passions and using that energy, build a world based on these mitzvoth: A world of love of the stranger, the other, kindness, generosity and care, peace, compassion and nonviolence, social, economic and environmental justice, and ecological sensitivity, then the world will work. The sun will shine, the rain will fall appropriate to its season, the earth will give forth her produce and you and your animals will eat and be satisfied.
But be careful . . . watch out . . . because if you don’t build a world based on these mitzvoth and instead build a world based on selfishness and greed, consuming and producing without care for the well-being of the planet or its inhabitants, constantly chasing and hording after more money, power, fame, or land, building walls that separate, roads for some and not others, economic systems that benefit the few on the backs of the many then the world will not work. Just as the social, economic, and political systems become unbalanced, so will the earth and the universe. The sun will not shine, the rain will not fall appropriate to its season, the earth will not give forth her produce, there will be a series of environmental catastrophes – cities and nations alike will be consumed from bursting waters, fires will spread throughout the lands, glaciers will melt – and eventually you and your animals too will be wiped off the face of the earth in one of these catastrophes.
So . . . teach this to your children; talk about it in public, even when your voice cracks and your knees shake, at services and events, even when people get upset hearing it; talk about it in your home with friends and family even if they are sick and tired of hearing about it; talk about it when you walk by the way so that strangers hear this message because this, this is the greatest spiritual need and calling of our time. Talk about it when you go to sleep at night and when you get up in the morning because you’ll forget. Bind it for a sign upon your arm so it seeps into your heart and guides your actions and a sign upon your third eye, so it seeps deep into your unconscious permeating every cell and pore of your being. Write it for a sign upon your doorposts and upon your gates so that you remember and all those who come into your home know the values by which you live. If you do these things, and build a loving and just world, then you and your children, and all children will have a long life on this earth that God promised you.”
As so as I reach the end of this drash, as I finish the third year of my studies, I can see in the distance that I will graduate at some not so distant point down the road. This awareness has led me to really consider what is the point of this learning? Was it just a cerebral exercise and if not, how am I going to take this knowledge and make the world different? What is my environmental ethic and how will I act upon it? As a start, I have taken it upon myself one thing that I can do to make change. It may not be big, but I will speak of it when I rise and when I lay down, and when I walk on the way. I am holding up a recyclable vegetable bag. Now, when I go to the market, instead of ending up with 50 plastic vegetable bags that go straight to recycling or landfill, I have these recyclable bags which I can use over and over. They can be cleaned in the washing machine, they are cheap, and they are readily available on Amazon or at Whole Foods.
Let us each begin with the small steps that will affect big change. Let us each be intentional in the choices we make, that affect our those around us and affect our planet, so that the rain may fall, we can gather our crops, and can be content.