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High Holiday Sermons

2021/ 5782

ROSH HASHANAH - Day 1

Whether you are someone who comes to synagogue every Shabbat or several times a year, or once year, Rosh Hashanah is critical moment of return to the inner Truth the inner reality of our lives which is obscured in the day to day. That inner reality is the נר ה נשמת אדם candle of G-d and the spirit of humanity. It is the spark holiness which is the eternal spirit of our people. No matter what happens before or after this moment, returning to this spark is the means by which we can restore ourselves to wholeness and renew our lives for the better. Rosh Hashanah is about unpacking the year and reconfiguring ourselves to live in a way which is more optimal for our personal well-being and which is more in-tune with our Divine purpose. 

In order to unpack the year we must be resiliently sober in our acknowledgment of reality and courageous in our resolution to change what must be changed. From last Rosh Hashanah until today we have lived the pandemic lifestyle. From this province of relative privilege we watched as different pockets of the world struggled in their different ways. Humanity is fighting two battles, one against the novel coronavirus which causes COVID-19, and the battle for the human heart and mind.

Most of us are simply stunned by what we’ve seen. We watched in silent helpless horror as the foundational principles of the postwar civilization unraveled and collapsed. Unmoored from critical thought, unhinged from scientific reality, and unbound from the social contract which is the only barrier between a peaceful civilization and a lawless dystopia. We witnessed a mob insurrection in the capitol of the nation which is our closest ally, a pillar of global security and freedom. A friend of Canada and Israel. There is also now visibly rising antisemitism on both the right and left. This new wave of antisemitism disguises itself in the thin veil of anti-Zionism, purporting to be an expression of concern for human rights. When the nazis took power they did so using the language and posturing of social justice. They capitalized on public anger and on the ignorance of the reality that all of humanity is one family. 

The scariest moment for me was January 6 in Washington.  But that moment of chaos was just one violent eruption of a spiritual disease which has become endemic. There is a dark hostility wild degeneracy is constantly bubbling to the surface all the time. Smartphones and Data networks have revealed to us the daily outbursts and of lunacy In the parking lots of Home Depot and in the aisles of Walmart, in fast food restaurants and gas stations. A caricatured female villain known widely as ‘Karen’ and her demonic male counterpart, Ken take many human forms as they meltdown and erupt into blind rage, regressing into animalistic hostility which often climaxes briefly in violence before being neutralized. We’ve all seen videos of these public meltdowns. These people are not to be ridiculed or judged. These people suffering. They are us. When you see those videos, you’re looking in a mirror. Everyone has been damaged and traumatized, everyone’s mental health has suffered. The only difference is that most of us appear to be holding it together.

This generation of adults is buckling and giving out in a way never seen before. In our defense, the burden we carry is considerable. a downsized economy, crippling debt, rising real estate value and high unemployment is a recipe for a generational anxiety and depression. Add in a dangerous and evolving global pandemic and an increase of extreme weather events (i.e. climate change), both of which expose the grave risks and liabilities of the post-industrial lifestyle and jeopardize human life.

No psychiatrist would be surprised at our inability to manage our lives and deal with adversity. The events in Washington, Afghanistan, and Texas. Everyone on Earth is suffering to some extent with PTSD. Nevertheless, we are still making choices whether we are conscious of it or not. 

In traditional Judaism we refer to Moses as Moshe Rabenu, Moses means I pulled him out as Pharaoh's daughter pulled baby Moses from the river  in the same way G-d pulled us out of Egypt through the vehicle of Moshe. Rabenu means teacher because from the moment he arrived at Pharaoh's court, he taught Torah. His most revolutionary teaching is that every human being is responsible for her or his actions. To be free is to be accountable. That is the game-changer of Torah. Taking responsibility is what frees you from Egypt. 

The issues we face as a society, racism, climate denial, COVID denial, MAGAism, woke leftism, misogyny, the hatred of men, anti Zionism, antisemitism, climate-denial are all symptoms of a failure to take personal and collective responsibility for our lives. We are frightened and confused and those emotions are uncomfortable so we mask it with anger. And for anger you need a target. It has to be has to be someone’s fault.  Blame the government, blame the liberals, blame the Jews, blame Bill Gates, blame Muslims, blame the anti-vaxxers, blame Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, blame white men. All of this happens unconsciously, which is why consciousness is so important.

When I look at the world through this lens I am reminded of the verse of Psalms which became part of daily prayers.  

מחשבת רבות בלב איש ועצת ה היא תקום

Many are thoughts of man, but only the counsel of G-d will prevail. The number of possible deranged unsupported theories one can have is endless, but the psalm affirms that there is only one reality and that is, עצת ה , the counsel of G-d. This refers to the Torah which was given in order to lead us to a true consciousness; inner awareness of ourselves and our choices. The candle of G-d the flame of holiness that is inside of us. 

The human condition today is not unlike King Saul in the final days of his reign. He had strayed from G-d’s commandment a number of times. He was no longer the man he once was. At a certain he becomes afflicted by what the text calls  רוח רעה. He is withdrawn, hostile and vindictive and suspicious. He is riddled with fear and paranoia until his final moment.

The bad news is, I am not going to solve the world’s problems and neither are you. The good news is we don’t actually have to. We can take accountability for ourselves and our own actions and that will actually be enough. You don’t need to worry about anything else. In the face of this deteriorating human condition and the possible decline of civilization,  עצת ה the advice of g-d is counter intuitive. Trust. In relationships, love cannot survive in the absence of trust. In finance, a lack of trust can cause a run on the banks.  In geopolitical fairs a breach of trust can cause a world war. 

Trauma teaches us to be distrustful of others. The world as you see it today was created by traumatized people. Traumatized people stormed the capitol building. To heal ourselves and to recover our inner light, we need to rebuild trust. That’s hard to do when trust is repeatedly breached.. The only entity worthy of absolute trust is G-d טוב לחסות בה מבטח באדם it is better to trust in G-d than to trust in man.  Human beings are fallible, in the best of times, we trust some but not all people, at the worst of times we can’t even trust ourselves. You should be able to trust your closest friends and family, but even they are subject to things outside their control. The best laid plans of mice and men. The US bank note, the dollar bill, which is a phenomenon based on a system of trust, says right on the bill In G-d we trust. The people who wrote that knew that a system based on trust of human beings is vulnerable.  In their wisdom, they admitted, it’s in G-d’s hands.  בטחו בה עדי עד כי בקה ה צור העולמים trust g-d to the end of eternity because g-d is the rock and foundation of every universe. This is not to say you should trust no one BUT G-d. Rather, your trust in G-d forms the bedrock for the trust you have in everything else. So that even if someone let’s you down or something falls through, you are not let down. 

Most Jewish people probably believe in some kind of higher power, but they don’t necessarily feel that G-d is a force in their lives. Rosh Hashanah is about returning to the idea that everything is in the hands of G-d, that is almost everything.Talmud Brachot says הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים everything is G-d’s hands except whether or not people listen to G-d. You can’t control what others do, you can only control your own actions. A recurring theme in the High Holiday prayers is fear. We’re afraid of what’s going to happen to us financially, we’re afraid for our health and for what’s going to happen this year in our world. Fear is natural; already there, the machzor only names it. The goal is to transform those fears, or rather to exchange them. The Torah in Deuteronomy says לא תגורו מפני אדם כי משפט לאלקים הוא do not be afraid of other people, because justice belongs to G-d. The goal of Rosh Hashanah is to make it so that the only fear you feel is whether or not you’re ok in G-d’s books. What goes around comes around. Take care of others, take care of yourself, and G-d will take care of you. This is the place where trust and accountability meet. 

The fact that I received two doses of Pfizer does not diminish my trust in G-d. I am not suggesting blind faith or that you disregard reality. I’m suggesting a psychological shift that will benefit you even if you don’t believe in G-d. I am suggesting an attitude whereby you affirm on a regular basis, that despite the reality, despite challenges we face today, despite the challenges we will face tomorrow, that if you live your life with integrity, things will work out in the end. My friend recently said to me, But things don’t always work out in the end. Sometimes people get eaten by wild animals. OK, but you can’t live in fear of what ifs. AND even if you get eaten by a wild animals, your life up until that point will have been lived to its fullest and highest quality because you will have lived with trust and integrity. The power of the mind is now attested not only by physicians but also by physicists; we affect subatomic particles with our thoughts. The more positive you are in your thoughts, the more likely you are to manifest a positive outcome. 

 Trust in G-d means trusting that what we’ve known to happen in the past will happen in the future. It’s logical. We have survived pandemics in the past. We will survive this one. We have survived brutal, violent antisemitism in the past. Crusades, Inquisitions, Pogroms, we will survive this wave too. Human beings are incredibly resilient. We survived the last time the climate changed, the last ice age, we can survive this one IF we’re sufficiently accountable.

 Don’t live in the what ifs of the future. Be in the present moment, one day at a time, one breath at a time. Trust in G-d means trusting that if the sun rose this morning, it will rise again tomorrow. Trust in G-d means trusting that you will be able to take the next breath. As a meditation instructor I always come back to the teaching that G-d is a breath. The two הs are the inhale and exhale, while the ו and the י represent your lungs when they’re full and empty.. The word for breath is the same word for spirit, neshama, the human spirit which is the candle of G-d, the inner light. Candles need air. It is the air of your breath, the Ruach which feeds in the inner flame of your soul which touches G-d. To trust G-d is to breathe knowing that it is G-d who gives you each and every breath. When you feel overwhelmed by the world, overwhelmed by life, or overwhelmed by your own emotions, always come back to the breath. Take the next breath, and then the next breath. From that place, breathe yourself toward knowing that G-d will take care of you, and you will be ok. We all will. 

 

ROSH HASHANAH - DAY 2

My teacher and mentor Rabbi Sharon Brous gave powerful sermons that touched on very difficult but important subjects. Some found this distasteful because on Shabbos, they want to feel good. I get that. But Rabbi Brous would often say A Rabbi’s job is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. Most of the time I don’t have much choice in what I say. I look at the parasha and then I look at the world I see around me and then a sermon forms inside me and if I don’t let it out, I become physically ill. Yesterday I spoke about trusting G-d and taking accountability in a dark world. Last year some folks were triggered by my remarks. To avoid or warn of certain triggers is helpful, especially for those who are currently experiencing trauma or mental illness, but to avoid difficult or controversial topics is, for a Rabbi, incorrect. Today I need to speak about one dimension in which it is critical that we all take accountability.

For two years now I’ve taught a course in Jewish Ethics. The curriculum was assembled at JTS, by an all-star line-up of Conservative Rabbis. Adult learning in Conservative synagogues is usually not so popular. A small portion of members participated in this course, but we studied issues which are critical for the future of Judaism and even humanity. I am therefore compelled to share with you one subject we covered, Jewish environmental law and ethics. It exists. That is your trigger-warning.

I must confess that I wrote this sermon early in the summer, long before the PM called an election. All summer I was plagued with doubt as to whether or not I should go ahead with this sermon. Then there were local forest fires. The election was called and again I had doubts, but then I traveled out West where the smoke from forest fires was so thick my grandmother had to move in with my mother, the children couldn’t play outside. I had doubts again and then I saw images of Philadelphia underwater.

Deuteronomy 20:19 forbids the use of fruit bearing trees in the building of siege works in war times. Even on enemy territory in a life and death situation, local food resources must be preserved. The ability of humans to feed themselves is sacred and is prioritized above all other matters. The Talmud expands this law to apply to any wanton or senseless destruction of property, and in other places limits the application to exclude certain cases. The medieval commentary, Sefer ha-Chinukh sums it up nicely.

This is the way of the righteous and those who improve society, who love peace and rejoice in the good in people and bring them close to Torah: that nothing, not even a grain of mustard, should be lost to the world, and if possible they will prevent any destruction that they can. Not so are the wicked, who are like demons, who rejoice in destruction of the world, and they are destroying themselves.

The unit draws from two other sources, one is Leviticus, which forbids perpetual landownership for the land is Mine and you are all wanderers within Me, says G-d. The other source is the Rabbinic law that one may not enjoy anything without reciting the proper bracha because everything belongs to G-d. 

The first chapter of Genesis has been used by religious opponents of the environmental movement. They point selectively to the verses that humans are entitled by G-d to have dominion over all the trees and animals of the sea air and land. In Judaism we view the Torah as a singular consistent legally binding document. We don’t read one law to exclude another. 

Some people conclude erroneously that if Torah doesn’t state something explicitly then it has no opinion on that subject. Until very recently, humans have not had the capability to permanently damage the Earth’s ability to support life, so it may seem as though the Torah is silent on environmental matters. But the Torah carries implicit assumptions which are made explicit in the Talmud. In recent years we have gathered clear evidence that human activity is permanently changing the life-support system of this planet. The Torah is not silent on that, nor shall I be. Genesis 1 does not extend to the point where we can violate Deuteronomy and Leviticus; where we cause so much destruction that humans can no longer survive. When we consider industrial agriculture for example, our right to feed ourselves does not trump our grand-children’s right to feed themselves. We have every right to use pesticides to ensure the growing of crops remains profitable UNLESS those pesticides kill the pollinators that make future agriculture possible. And this is has been proven. 

In the Mishnah we encounter Rabbinic zoning laws. They limit what you can do on your own property when there is potential harm caused by your activity. The big take-away comes out of the Ramban’s commentary on Talmud Bava Batra. Paraphrasing the Ramban: I’m able to use my property whatever way I see fit even if it damages other people’s property, however if my activity causes harm to actual people, I can’t do it. If Ramban lived in the US in 2021, I wonder how he would have ruled on the practice of hydraulic fracking, which pollutes our drinking water. If direct causality can be established between that and the health conditions of local residents, then it neither halakhically nor ethically indefensible. From that we can draw inferences into a wide array of industrial activities. The most salient issue today is the catastrophic effects greenhouse gases have on our planet’s climate.  There are additional layers to this equation when we consider that the people most commonly affected by climate change are low-income, indigenous, and people of colour. 

The social dimension of environmental justice is significant. Exploitation of land and people go hand in hand. When you abuse one, you will abuse the other. That’s what Leviticus is saying and that’s also what Ramban is trying to teach against. The Torah abiding Jew will seek to reduce the harm she or he causes to everything and everyone.  Jews were victims of the same European powers who colonized the world. In fact, Queen Victoria and Tzar Alexander were first cousins. We are not culpable for what our oppressors did to the First Nations. Responsibility and culpability are different. I didn’t steal anyone’s land but I have benefited from something that was unethical. So when you hear that most indigenous people in your own country lack access to clean drinking water,  the question should not by Why is that my fault? It should be What can I do to help? It’s not our fault. It’s our responsibility. Responsibility and culpability are different.

Nothing in Talmud is simple because the world is not simple. There are demonstrable economic benefits from industrial activities and fossil fuels but they are also causing permanent damage and pose a serious threat to human life. Many medical associations have designated climate change as a public health crisis. It’s just like smoking. Everyone, even smokers, agree that smoking is bad. Bad as it is, if everyone quit smoking tomorrow our national deficit would be more than doubled, hundreds of small businesses would go under and thousands would be out of work. The fossil fuel industry is the same only ten times worse. We can’t stop cold turkey, but one by one individuals and communities can make responsible decisions about their consumption and their investments. Policy is provides critical incentive to people and businesses, but this is ultimately something individuals must take RESPONSIBILITY for. Only when individuals take responsibility will elected officials be forced to articulate and implement a plan to move toward a green economy. 

Change is hard so it’s tempting to stay the course even as global temperatures soar higher and higher each year. Soon large portions of this planet will be unsuitable for human civilization. We may have privilege of complacency and apathy because we personally are unaffected but Torah does not afford us this privilege. You may think have the luxury to not care, but your children and their children won’t have that luxury.  They will be paying the price for our apathy. The thought of what our kids will face when they’re our age keeps Chloe and I up at night. We are already facing climate catastrophe. If you can’t see that it’s already happening you’re not paying attention. 

The coming decades will obligate us in two respects. Firstly,  we will have to live with greater empathy for one another. In the future, it will be harder for individuals to survive, so an inclusive community which truly cares for the sick, the poor, and the weak and the elderly is not only mandated by Jewish law, it’s critical for our survival. Climate change is already here and it’s going to get much worse even if we put the brakes on fossil fuels tomorrow. So we have to be prepared to live in a world with less luxury and more compassion. 

Second, we have an obligation to mitigate the severity of climate change that by minimizing our carbon footprint wherever possible. Try to move to a plant based diet by reducing your meat consumption. (This is already strongly indicated in Jewish law.) Use your own bags in the grocery store. Waste less food by buying less food. Consider reducing the number of vehicles in your household. Vote with your dollars by divesting in companies that don’t pull their weight environmentally. Invest in companies which are investing in renewable energy. Buy locally grown food. Start a Tikkun Olam committee in your synagogue, do I have a volunteer to chair that? 

The Torah is a living document. It guides us today no less than it did 3000 years ago. When I say Torah and mitzvot, I’m not just talking about tallis and tefillin. They are important, but more important is the impact we’re having on the world around us. Nothing could be more real, nothing could be more down to Earth. 

In this moment I am hopeful that something can still be done. Yesterday I spoke about trust and accountability and that applies here. If we are sufficiently accountable toward G-d, toward ourselves, toward our world, we can heal this planet. 

Some young people tell me they’re not bringing children into this world. I understand how they feel but I think that’s a mistake. If you are a person of conscience and and compassion you’re exactly the kind of person who SHOULD have children. For every one of you there are 10 unconscious beings people bringing children into a life of misery. In the future, your child could be the one to save the world. 

Rebbe Nahman of Breslov said if you believe that you can break it, believe that you can fix it. I believe that we are breaking it. Let’s try to fix it before it’s too late. 

Shana Tovah


 

Wed, 1 December 2021 27 Kislev 5782