The very first High Holy Day sermon I gave in my first pulpit, in Warren Ohio, right outside of the now popular Youngstown, Ohio some 35 year ago began with the following question…
I said to the congregation: I’m going to set up a dilemma…it’s not real, it could be real, and it is worthy of your consideration:
I just got news that a new steel mill found its way into the valley. It will create a lot of jobs here – thousands, in fact. The problem is that in order to build it, the county will have to clear acres of woodland and the local river will be greatly impacted.
Air pollution which hadn’t been experienced here since 1970 will return. And with that we know what will happen immediately to children’s health…and in the long term to everyone’s health.
But, the economy will again start turning. We may even bring jobs back from China.
And so I asked: What should we do? Is there a correct answer? Is there a Jewish answer?
I remember I suggested something I learned from my professor of ethics t JTS, D. Seymour Siegel. He said, ethical questions are not decided first and foremost by economics. No, he said human life is foremost. Consideration for people on the margins is a measure of an ethical society. Concern for health and well-being is a consideration. And, he suggested the impact of today’s decision upon tomorrow is critical.
Since the sermon was written in the days before a p.c., not political correctness, rather personal computers, I was not able to dig it up…and that’s unfortunate. It would have saved me from writing for today!
Well, truth be told, the Mahoning Valley, did not have the opportunity to reopen steel mills. Joblessness was a problem and remains one. The population has declined…the skies which used to have a yellow hue are blue again and some tech firms have moved in. Health care and private jails are big employers in the area, as well as car manufacturers.
I don’t remember exactly what sources I brought to the conversation. I do know that I was highly influenced by Jewish sources in any values conversation. I recalled the Talmudic story about the sage who was planting when the Roman soldiers mocked him. They said he was too old. They said that he’s never seen the fruits of his labor…and he said: As my fathers planted for me, I plant for future generations. This is a critical value statement for us…our activities impact not only today, but tomorrow, not only our lives but future generations.
I have a grandson in Miami and God willing a new granddaughter soon who will be born in New York. I think a lot about the world we will be leaving them. I think about how we balance the various issues that confront public policy. There is no question, there is no question, there is NO question, but the vast amount of good scientific research shows that humanity with our use of fossil fuels and our carbon imprint is speeding up global warming and we can do something about. Because the weather is becoming fierce and the seas are rising at rates much greater than previously predicted. We learn it is a function of carbon emissions. And, we know we are the world’s second largest violators.
I read and I’m sure you did that the heads of major industries including giant energy companies all had hoped we would stay in the G7 climate accord. And yet speeches on Thursday were concluded by the head of the EPA who denies the human impact on climate change.
I know this is a talk you have heard before, and undoubtedly you’ll hear it again, but when you view the world only in terms of transactions then it is business that presides. When you understand the world in terms of relationships, then there are other considerations. So of 193 nations, we are now together with Nicaragua and Syria not supporting this deal. What does that say when your leaders side with Nicaragua and Syria…
Often we ask the question, and I know I have asked it a few times myself. We ask it on Shavuot and when we read Bamidbar. If we don’t speak about the most important issues facing humanity here…then we too are irresponsible. A voice inside of me cries, cries out – for the sake of our children and our grandchildren we must act. Why was the Torah given in the wilderness? And, I’m now thinking that in addition to our standard answers, there is so much for us to learn in the wilderness. There, in places far away we can see the impact of what we do everywhere.
It’s also a statement about God, Nelkech Haolam, The King of the Universe.
I was a respondent at a conference at FAU not long ago. Leading international Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars spoke, followed by local respondents. And I remember clearly the conversation amongst the religious leaders about the greatest challenges and threats we face. And of course, intolerance, and extremism were covered. Terror was condemned.
But when all was said and it was, my turn to speak, I moved away from any prepared comments. Because at that moment I was thinking about what ties us together and how, in fact, we are so interdependent in this world. Last week over 50,000 Bangladesh citizens had to run from their homes because of flooding. I told you about Amantya Sen, the Harvard economist who noted the disparity between the impact of weather related events upon the rich and the poor. And I think about the storms that we are now seeing and will undoubtedly increase in the years ahead.
And I know that we are into real hard times. Who is going to speak for, not just people, but mother earth? You know locally the zika mosquito, as well as the increase in dangerous ticks up north, are the function of climate change.
Last week our President laughed about the 53-degree day in New York as if that was proof that there is no climate change…and we say: sir you must educate yourself about the difference between weather and climate.
Today at the end of the Parashah we read the famous, and oldest continual prayer or blessing known to man….Yivarechecha adonoi v’iyishmarech
May God bless you and guard you.
God has blessed us, the creator has given us this beautiful world…but we have to be partners in sustaining it, guarding it. The Rabbis said…May God bless you…and may you have the wisdom to guard it.
The Midrash teaches after the seventh day God says to Adam and Eve…See this world I have given you. It’s a beautiful world you have to protect it, because there will be no one to set it right.
The great modern inventor, yes thinker, ingenious innovator, Elon Musk wrote on Thursday that he will no longer advice this President. And a reactionary reporter said that is because the Tesla will now be competing with good old cars produced in the way they have always been produced….and he got away with that comment. Since when does technology stop? Since when does human advancement ground to a halt? When was America greater than today?
I am deeply disturbed by what I see. I know you are too.
In 1982 I suggested that there needs to be new jobs created and new job training for the new technologies. No, the plants were gone. a different population would produce steel. We will lead the world in innovation and technological advancement, and in new forms of industry.
And, if you know about Elon Musk you know, that he is not in it only to make a buck…. he wants to improve this world…He’s deeply concerned about the environment unlike the former head of Exxon/Mobil who wrote letter to his employees under a phony pseudonym debunking environment studies.
And I am considering something else.
Poetically or religiously I can say when I stare out into the heavens or look out into the vast ocean, I ask what are we that God is mindful of us? We are small, tiny…And we need to care for ourselves…and hear this…WE need to care for each other. For we are not only Jews, Floridians, Southerners, Americans…we are part of the vastness of humanity. And the language of it being us against them is simply artificial and misguided and misguiding…Together we must forge the pathways to help secure the future for all of our children.
Where is that conversation?
And to that I say to you…the larger politics of this feels overwhelming. But each one of us has a role to play. First, there is something that begins with us. It has to do with what we eat, the decisions we make around our house, the use of recyclables, being informed, writing letters and calling and getting involved.
But, I think it may be calling us as a religious community. We spend so much time in religious expression inside…we don’t have windows here. And sanctuaries with windows typically have stained glass. We need to be more aware of our natural environment and raise our children with great knowledge of what they see, what smell what they hear in nature. They need to connect their awareness to gratitude. The natural connection to the Divine needs to be re-emphasized.
We love Sukkot because it takes us outside, but we need more than that.
In this vein I will tell you that plans are under way to have a regular Tot Shabbat outside; at parks, at the beach, and here. It will be meant to develop a sense of the spiritual nature of the natural world…We respond to these issue differently when we connect to the sanctity of the land. And every aspect of our religious expression needs to be refreshed with our connection to the natural dimension of life. And we must do so, to help us see where we stand and appreciate the glorious gifts we have been given. I pray for the wellbeing of the citizens of Youngstown Ohio (BTW – They are a healthy bund) and of Boca Raton and of Pittsburgh PA and of Paris France. I pray for all of God’s children and this earth we call home.