Erev Rosh Hashana Sermon 5780
In the not too distant future, the news is announced – the environmental apocalypse is here. In 3 days, every continent on planet earth will be underwater. Religious leaders from around the world address their followers, offering words of guidance and solace to face this cataclysmic moment.
The Pope speaks – “Catholics of the world. We have 3 days to pray and repent, to turn toward salvation, ready for Judgement Day.”
The greatest Imam of the time speaks – “Muslims of the world. We have 3 days to fast, pray and repent, to surrender to Allah, ready for Judgement Day.”
The greatest Rabbi of the time speaks – “Jews of the world. We have 3 days to learn how to breathe under water!”
The joke is funny and not funny. I remember hearing that joke as a kid, I think it was in shul, and the possibility of the earth being submerged under water was utterly remote to us – an absurd set up for a good punchline. Today we know that it is not at all funny as we have been witnessing rising sea levels, flooding and extreme weather that has taken lives and destroyed villages, cities and ecosystems.
The joke is funny and not funny. Aside from the simplistic portrayals of the Catholics and Muslims, that are there as a foil for the Jewish swimmers, the joke points to something importantly true and importantly distorted about a Jewish response to threat and survival. I remember hearing that punch line – “we have 3 days to learn how to breathe under water.” I was not a strong swimmer and actually remember feeling frightened that I wouldn’t survive. My survival was something I thought about a lot as a Jewish child, but I also believed, and part of me still believes, that if we needed to, Jews could figure out how to breathe under water if our survival depended on it.
The Jewish people has a complicated relationship with survival and adaptability. The Jewish people has a complicated relationship with place and our place on this earth. Throughout our history, largely in response to anti-Semitism, the Jewish people has learned to be incredibly adaptive. Scattered throughout the world, in every country and culture, Jews have learned how to breathe under whatever water we are in – adapting, reinterpreting and changing, religiously and culturally, in order to survive and to thrive.
But when it comes to the environmental emergency that we are in, a Jewish response cannot be one of adapting to a world that is drowning, or holding a belief, even if it’s not entirely conscious, that there is always somewhere else we can go.
It is striking that the Jewish community as a whole has been slow to engage with the environmental movement, despite the fact that Jews have been at the forefront of almost every other movement for social change – civil rights, feminism, the labour movement, LGBTQ liberation and combatting white supremacy.
It is certainly challenging for all people to face the realities of the climate disaster that we humans have set in motion. For all of us, it can feel distant and conceptual. It can feel overwhelming and hopeless. For Jews, there are specific obstacles that we need to examine – beliefs and behaviours that we have absorbed through our historical experiences and narratives, habits of heart and mind that we inherited, that are as familiar as the water we swim in, but that limit us from becoming fully engaged participants, leaders, partners and change-agents, in the work of saving our planet and all life on it. I want to look at the ways we have been separated from land and I want to remember the ways we have been, and the ways we are, deeply connected to it.
My experience is as an Ashkenazi Jew, so I’ll speak from that perspective, but I want to name that for Sephardic, Mizrachi, Arab and Ethiopian Jews there are similar and different stories to tell and to weave into our picture.
So, let’s jump all the way back to the biblical period. Picture the Mediterranean sun, lots of sandals and the Israelite people living in the flow of seasons and agricultural cycles. The calendar of festivals took the direct experiences of planting and harvesting, the lifecycles of trees and of flocks and herds, and linked these to the historic-mythic narratives of the Israelites – our slavery, liberation, desert wandering and Torah revelation. So our collective story as a people, with our integrated rituals and ethical practices, lived in alignment with the earth’s unfolding story. All of it was framed as sacred and evoked from the people a sense of humility, gratitude and awe, responsibility and partnership. Practice was centered in the Temple in Jerusalem as the home of Divine presence and of holy service, and the Land of Israel was home and homeland.
Now jump to the the year 70 CE. The world as we knew it was burned to the ground. The Romans destroyed the Temple and took over Jerusalem. They tortured and slaughtered thousands, and exiled the Jewish population from our home. The Israelite beliefs about God, about reward and punishment and the nature of evil and suffering, also lay in ruins. But rather than dying in the rubble of Jerusalem, Judaism underwent a radical transformation.
Rabbinic leadership rose up. The power of interpretation ignited. And from a centralized, place-centered, priest-led practice, Judaism transformed into a religion that could be practiced anywhere and by everyone. The Temple became a metaphor – with visions of an ideal in the future to yearn for, and images of sacred centre that could be established right now – in our homes and hearts, at our synagogues and houses of study, and through our actions. This portable Judaism became a religion and culture that, in many ways, hovered above the earth.
There is a story in the Talmud (Shabbat 33b) that describes Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Rabbi Elazar hiding from the Romans in a cave for 12 years. They spend their days buried up to their necks in sand so their clothes don’t wear out, studying Torah. The rabbinic imagination created a formative narrative that elevated the mind and soul above a body too vulnerable to dwell in, existing from the neck up in the safety and seclusion of a cave, but thriving in study, prayer and mystical insights.
Over the next 2000 years of diaspora existence, the Jews experienced repeated exiles, being uprooted and evicted from one place in the world to another. Occasionally we were able to move by choice, in search of better conditions. In each new culture, we skillfully adopted and adapted local languages, philosophies, religious practices, recipes, music and so on – generating an elastic and evolving Judaism and Jewish people that let us integrate into new surroundings and in many cases, facilitated economic, social and artistic relationships with our new neighbours.
In places and times where our neighbours were hostile to us and issued laws that prohibited Jewish practice, ownership of land or social integration, we learned to live our Jewish lives more protectively behind ghetto walls or underground, in caves and basements – these places that were separated from a broader connection to place and to the people who lived there.
When the doors of citizenship opened in Western Europe beginning with the Enlightenment, and generations later, when North America allowed larger numbers of Jews onto its shores, for better and for worse, many of us learned ways to assimilate so that we could be accepted, often shedding Judaism of its “parochial” rituals and shedding our bodies of signifiers that made us recognizable as Jews – changing our clothes, changing our names, getting nose jobs and straightening our hair. Many of us assimilated to varying extents and we became good Germans. We became good Americans. We belonged and were at home, until we weren’t, until anti-Semitism targeted us as alien again.
Because of this history of exile and genocide, Jews carry the wound of having been separated from the land and from place. So it is no wonder that fighting for the earth’s wellbeing and sustainability has not been claimed by so many of us as a fight that is ours.
Because we know how to recognize existential threats as immediate danger and violence, as being singled out and blamed, it is not surprising that for so many Jews, the global threat that does not feel like a threat to our existence. It doesn’t sound the usual alarm bells and it hasn’t mobilized the Jewish community in the ways that swastikas in the streets do.
We carry a wound of having been separated from land. We have been a people yearning so deeply for home and adapting to create home wherever we can. This wound, the residue of these experiences, inherited and passed through generations, is expressed in us in obvious and in subtle ways that keep us from deeply knowing this planet as our home. It leads us to often struggle with belonging, often feeling unwelcome or unwanted. It drives our reactivity, being quick to feel panicked and urgent, with habits of accommodating or rigidly controlling, becoming insular or assimilating. And you thought this was just your crazy mishpoche (family)!
In order to not only worry about our own survival, in order to become totally invested in the climate movement in deep partnership and collaboration, advocating for change, we have the core task of recognizing the habits and obstacles in our way and releasing their grip on us.
Essential to this project is reclaiming Jewish narratives of connection to place that have been forgotten or diminished, seeds of our story to gather, and through them, to re-grow a deep relationship with the earth.
I think of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov in Ukraine who urged his Hasidic followers to pray every day among the trees and flowers as the best place to pour out one’s heart to God.
I think of the 800 year period in Russia when we were peasants and farmers and in related trades before the czar’s expulsion. And the Yurkanski clan of Eishyshok in the 1890’s who would gather their children on Shabbat afternoons and walk the fields that once belonged to them – retaining their ancestors’ love of the countryside. One of the children writes about remembering being taken to walk among the fields at harvest time and watching his mother borrow a sickle from one of the Gentile reapers in order to display the skills she had learned as a Jewish farm girl many years before.*
I think of the early halutzim (pioneers) in Israel, for whom the return to the land was not only a return to ancient national roots but was a coming home to our bodies and to being naturalized citizens of the earth, farming and building agrarian and communal lives there.
I think of the achingly beautiful song Esta Montagne, that tells of the yearning for the jasmine tree back in Spain, planted in the soil of that home, carrying it into exile through melody and yearning.
And I think of the rural Yiddishist socialist summer communities and Jewish children’s camps built beside Canadian lakes and forests.
What is your family’s legacy in the natural world? What are your own memories of hiking in wilderness or strolling in urban parks, at cottages or under a favourite tree?
It requires conscious intention to allow ourselves to deeply belong to these landscapes, to claim them as dear and cherished and worth fighting for. The truth is that Jews, like all human beings, have a relationship with land, with the natural world. We are of the earth and we belong to this earth. And we belong to every other people on this planet – many of whom have also experienced uprootedness and dislocation. No historic hurts can rob us of the ability to consciously re-grow these connections.
The shofar sounds and we are called to wake up – to awaken to what is unconscious and wounded and asleep within. To awaken to the alarm of this climate crisis and respond as a Jewish community with teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah – with repentance and healing, with prayer and uplifted voices, with collaborative responsibility and care. Let’s not learn how to breath under water. Let’s celebrate the rebirth of the earth by dwelling on this planet as in a temple and fighting for the survival of the earth under our feet as home.
*Thank you to Prof. Billy Yalowitz for sharing this narrative and for his thoughtful research and work recovering Jewish history and relationship to place.