Rosh Hashana Sermon 5780
This sermon was greatly inspired by and draws from We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast by Jonathan Safran Foer.
Don’t worry. I’m not confused. I know it’s not Pesach. But these words that we sing out with glee at the Pesach seder – “Dai’eynu – it would have been enough for us” – are very much on my mind today. Today, we celebrate the birthday of the world – the sacred and awesome creative unfolding of the vast cosmos; the wondrous, sublime rebirth of the earth and the renewal of all Life with humanity as an essential and integrated part of its wholeness.
With the sweetness of a new year for ourselves and for the planet, today we are celebrating enormous, sighing redwoods, the eyelashes of elephants, the marvel of the Northern Lights, the flight patterns of monarch butterflies, and the very molecules that we breathe – the same molecules breathed by your great grandparents and by the ancient Israelites and by the first homosapiens.
Today I am also thinking about last week’s UN Climate Summit and the IPCC Report that paints a picture of our earth hurtling toward irreversible damage to the ecosystems that support life. I am trying to get my head around the extent to which human consumption and our society’s addiction to convenience and idolatry of greed, have made us enemies of everything we are celebrating today.
In his book, We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer so sharply asks, how do I “square my own gratitude for life with behaviour that suggests an indifference to it” (p.24). I want us to square our celebration of life and a world reborn with the behaviour that will sustain it. I want us to be inspired and propelled by our Jewish practices and teachings to make us aware, sensitive and responsive, and thereby worthy of the planet we are celebrating. So I want to bring dai’eynu to Rosh Hashana as a probing question and a climate call-to-action. I want to ask – what actually is dai’eynu – what is enough for us?
1) What enables us to say – Enough! – protesting against environmentally destructive practices, and demanding limits, accountability and change?
2) What does it mean to have enough – enough food and clothing, what is owning enough, using enough, enough profit margin, enough shareholder growth? What should be our scale of enough?
And 3) What does it mean to be enough – to replace to pull of wanting and grasping with being rooted in wholeness, interconnection and our most enlivened capacities.
In order to reverse the climate catastrophe that we have set in motion, what should be dai’eynu?
First, saying “Enough” – The global climate strikes of this past week brought several million young people and adults worldwide out onto the streets, sounding the alarm of climate crisis and voicing firmly and clearly that we do not consent to companies and governments clearcutting and extracting and burning and polluting with impunity, destroying our planet. Many of you were among the thousands gathered here in Toronto calling for climate justice and bold action.
It has taken time for the cry of “Enough” to become a large-scale movement. It is clear that facts aren’t enough to move us into action. We have known the facts for a long time. Before Greta Thunberg, there was “An Inconvenient Truth”; there were other scientific reports; there have been countless other activists and other protests. Safran Foer writes about the difference between knowing and believing, between having information, on the one hand, and on the other hand, stretching our minds to grasp what has previously been unthinkable and awakening our hearts to face the suffering that has previously been unimaginable. It takes effort to let the information sink in, to absorb it and to be affected by it. Being shocked, he says, rarely changes our behaviour.
Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the great Hasidic master, taught that the first step towards freedom for the enslaved Israelites was the willingness to rebel against slavery. Before they could leave Egypt, they had to take hold of the gift of freedom from their savlanut –from their tolerance to their slavery. He says, this liberation from tolerance, is the ultimate foundation for ge’ula/redemption. Dai’eynu is the declaration of intolerance toward the status quo that we have participated in and have largely tolerated up until now.
These climate strikes are powerful and moving because there is joy and vitality in saying No to all that is harmful and stands in opposition to Life, while being enveloped in a sea of human aliveness. When we are together as a Dai’eynu movement, we have the resilience to face the most frightening realities and not be paralyzed by them because, in saying “Enough,” in asserting limits and refusing to tolerate business as usual, we are already embodying and living into new economic, social, moral and spiritual possibilities. Knowing becomes believing which becomes action.
It is important for us to figure out how saying “Enough” becomes a lasting commitment that translates into lasting action. We have to ensure that going to a protest isn’t just something that makes us feel good, the ways that recycling or driving a hybrid car can make us feel good. These are important and good things to do, but feeling good must not replace doing good, as Safran Foer puts it. Our Dai’eynu has to be a call to end excess, to interrupt the chain of destruction and to live in alignment with our values.
2) Having enough – Safran Foer writes, “We live in a culture of historically unprecedented acquisition, which so often asks us and enables us to attain. We are prompted to define ourselves by what we have: possessions, dollars, views and likes. But we are revealed by what we release” (p.71).
We know that those of us who are not struggling with poverty and basic needs have to profoundly alter our scale of what it means to have enough – not measuring what we have or use compared to the norms of our social circles and neighbourhoods but within the context of our global community and the resources of this planet. Our scale of what is sufficient will need to take into account a real understanding of what we have and use and its impact – to understand the relationship between the burger on my plate; the factory farm it came from; the CO2-absorbing forest that was clear-cut to build the factory farm; the methane, nitrous oxide and CO2 emissions that the cows release into the atmosphere and heat; the melting of the white, sun-reflecting ice and its replacement with dark, heat-absorbing water raising the globe’s temperature; and creating rising water levels, flooding and extreme weather that most destructively hits parts of the world least responsible for these emissions.
I know I would rather not think about these truths. I know I have the impulse not to learn about them, so that I don’t have to give up the things I enjoy, or feel guilty when I don’t. I’m going to guess that most of us struggle with this.
An important antidote to this resistance is a different framing of what it means to have at all. The Talmud (Berachot 35a), as it often does, points to a contradiction between two different verses in Psalms. One verse states “The land and its fullness belong to Adonai; the world and those who dwell in it (Psalm 24:1). While another verse states, “The heavens are the heavens of Adonai, but the earth, God gave to human beings (Psalm 115:17).” So which is it- asks that Talmud? Does this earth belong to God or to us? The Sages respond, as they often do, that the two verses don’t contradict each other. The first verse, in which the earth belongs to God, describes the world before we say a blessing. The second verse, in which the earth is given over to human beings, describes the world after we say a blessing.
The starting point is that the world belongs to the Divine. To say that it belongs to God is to say that the world participates in unlimited sacred worth, that its value, first and foremost, is not in its utility or as a commodity. It reveals wonders and mysteries, with each finite and separate part pointing beyond itself to an infinite unity.
A blessing is not meant to be a formula we simply utter. A simple blessing meant to unite and elevate the hungers and desires of the body with a spiritual event that feeds awareness, that practices self-restraint in the conscious pause before biting in, and recognizes the generosity of earth’s gifts, to enable our eating. It awakens relationship with where the food came from, with different blessings for the harvest of a tree or the ground, for grains or vines, and in that awareness we can trace gratitude and awe for the fruit and flower and the seed, for the marvelous conspiracy of rain, soil, sun and seasons, for the inconceivable mystery of Life moving through trees and leaves, pollinating bees, through cycles of dying and renewal, through tree roots planted in the ground, the same ground that holds every tree on the planet, and the Divine, that is not separate from any of it, and is all of it.
In this framing, it is only in offering a blessing of gratitude, touching awe, that we earn the right to consume. In fact, this section of Talmud also states that one who enjoys anything of this world without first saying a blessing, steals from the Holy One!
And it is in the practice of gratitude and humility that our consumption changes. How might engaging in this practice shift our experience of wanting, of grasping, of taking – when instead of starting from a position of what we have the right to have, blessing becomes an exchange that understands that we come into this world fundamentally in debt and we are perpetually receiving gifts? Dai’eynu – The world is not ours for the taking. We can not keep functioning as if we deserve everything that we want.
3) To be enough – Many of us feel like we’re not enough. So often, we don’t act because we feel we couldn’t possibly do enough. But right now, feeling like we are not enough is a luxury we don’t have. And it is also not true.
Each of us is enough – a child of Divine Oneness, tasked with doing more than we think we can and outfitted with the capacity to rise and meet the challenge. I love that one of the names for God in Torah is El Shaddai – the God of enough. El She-dai – Divine enough-ness.
Radical individualism, extreme materialism and the sleep of indifference are drives that are cut off from the Life Force. We are called upon to live in intimate connection with Divine enoughness – in the fullness of Being, in the More of life – not more in the number of our days but in the precious, zestful, awake connection with all Life and the courage to fight on its behalf. This is what Rosh Hashana is about. Inscribing us all for Life. Choosing Life. Let us work to become strong enough, connected enough, clear enough and in love with life enough to do what is needed.
*If you are interested in joining the DJC’s Climate Action Initiative, please contact the Social Justice Committee at djcSocialJustice@gmail.com