High Holiday Sermons: The Environment Re-visited

rabbi david locketzThe Talmud, our collection of Jewish legend and law, relates to us that once for two and half years, the House of Shamai and the House of Hillel argued against each other about the following question.  “Would it have been better had man not been created?”  Shammai argued yes, that in fact it would have been better for man to not have been created.  Hillel on the other hand argued that it was better that man has been created.  They disputed this for two and half years, yet the Talmud doesn’t record any of their arguments.  We only have their conclusion.  In the end they took a vote.  Surprisingly, the majority stated that yes, Shammai was right.  It would have been better had man not been created.  But they include a caveat.  Now that we are in fact created, we ought to take a look at our past actions.  Or as another tradition records it, “Let us examine our future actions.”

Their conclusion portrays a layer of optimism over a pessimistic view.   But the question itself is vague.  What would be better if we had not been created?  The vague non answer in the Talmud suggests that everything would have been better.

Recently I have been reading a book, which in 2007 won the nonfiction book of the year award from the New York Times.  It is called, “The World Without us,” by Alan Weisman.  The book reads like a science fiction novel.  The premise is that for some unstated reason in the future, human beings disappear from the earth.  Gone.  Weisman then systematically describes what will happen to the planet following the extinction of humans.  According to him, it won’t take long for our landscaped earth to return to its natural order.  We have diverted waterways, our yards and cities are full of ornamental and non-native plants. Our streets and cities of concrete and asphalt cover so much of the earth’s surface.  Over two centuries, we have tilled and turned and built over Creation.  In the familiar words of Joni Mitchell, we have paved over paradise and put up a parking lot.  This is true in both the literal and metaphorical.  But according to this book, in relatively short order, the earth can reclaim itself.  Short order meaning that it will only take 100 to 500 years for most of what we have created to disappear.  Concreate, stainless steel and aluminum might last for eternity.  But as the book suggests, in a couple hundred thousand years, if intelligent life were to do archeology and uncover a fire hydrant, or the concrete shell of an office building…they might attribute all sorts of religious meaning to these things because they would exist far from context with no way to explain themselves.  Weisman writes that once nature takes back over and everything we have built is buried, “no memorial will mark their burial, though the roots of cottonwoods, willows, and palms may occasionally make note of their presence….Only eons later, will young streams cutting…through sediments reveal what once, briefly, went on here.”


Reading this book has been providing me with a little hope.  If we are indeed responsible for what appears to be earth shattering changes to our climate, it can all be undone.  The earth will undo it.  Nature will once again catch its equilibrium.  Yet, as I read and felt that hopefulness…I kept forgetting that the hope is predicated on human extinction.  As if to prove Shamai right that it would have been better had we not been created.

Yet we were.  We are.  And now that we have been, let us investigate our past deeds and examine our future ones.


I know some of you are wondering, and yes I did in fact drive my scooter to temple tonight.  You may recall that a few years ago, on Yom Kippur in 2008, I gave a sermon urging that we take greater care and responsibility for Creation.  I made a few assertions about our behavior and I used myself as an example.  I still get a lot of comments about that sermon.  In February, almost daily someone will ask me if I rode my scooter that day.  And I get confessions all the time of how many paper towels people use.  Just the other night, a young woman told me that when she takes too many towels by accident in her school’s bathroom, she exclaims out loud, “I am sorry Rabbi Locketz.”

As silly as these things are, I love it because every time it comes up, I get the chance to discuss with someone about how our individual actions matter.  We are raising awareness.  (A sermon that is still having an affect six years later…that is a rabbi’s dream.)

That said, I recently reread that sermon.  Using it as a scorecard of sorts, it is remarkable how far we have come with regard to environmental awareness…our cultural vocabulary as a society has grown so much in just six years, but at the same time it is remarkable how far we still have to go.

Environmental justice is connected to every other conceivable kind of justice.  In the aggregate, declining resources and the effects of climate change affect the poor in greater proportion.  Everything is connected.  Environmental justice isn’t just about the weather…it envelopes the economy, national security, and the health and wellbeing of every human.  It is a moral imperative.


In Biblical Israel, every seventh year was declared a shmitah year.  Shmitah in Hebrew means release.  Throughout the Torah and the prophetic parts of the Tanakh, we are told that every seven years we need to stand back and let things go.  For farmers in Israel that meant not planting new crops and letting the fields go fallow.  For creditors it meant releasing the debts of those who owed you.  Slaves were released too.  It was the ultimate leveling of the field…literally.  It seems impossible, but what it led to in those biblical depictions is nothing short of a glimpse into a messianic era…the Garden of Eden.  Whatever the fields grew on their own, from seeds that lay in the soil beds, provided for everyone.  And no one knew what would grow.  I read recently that some seeds can still germinate after lying dormant for 1000 years.  Anyone could come and take from it for his or her own needs.  Freedom from debt allowed a fresh start for those crippled by it.  The poor and the privileged were all made equal.

Some have described this practice as an ancient and early form of crop rotation…that our ancestors were so smart they understood the need to let the land rest long before agricultural science would affirm it.  Others see the inherent problems a community would face if such a full release were legislated.  Who in their right mind would lend money if they knew they’d only get six years of payments on it before that debt was cancelled?

Whether or not Shmitah was practiced in biblical times is up for debate.  In the worlds of the Rabbis and the later Medieval Commentators, a lot of legal loopholes were established so that society would not grind to a halt.  Laws like the prozbul transferred debts to the courts for the year and then transferred them back to the owner to allow for continued collections.  Other adjustments allowed for an Israelite farmer to sell his land to a non-Israelite for the period of the shmitah and then buy it back later.   Even so, the Prophet Jeremiah blamed the community’s lax observance of shmitah for the destruction of the Temple.  It clearly was a practice rife with challenge.

But its intentions were idyllic.  A biblical attempt at restoring the earth and our lives to that which our Torah demands…one where everyone has what he or she needs.

Tonight, at sundown, as the New Year begins…so does the next shmitah year.  Perhaps this gives us a new opportunity to return the world to what it is supposed to be.  If in fact the rabbis were right in suggesting that it would have been better were we not created…shmitah gives us the chance to live in Creation as if we had, in fact, not been created at all.  To the let the land be.  To live off of it…and on it.  To learn from it and to use the opportunity to teach our neighbors the ethics of our sacred text.

So given the shmitah year starts tonight, I think we should all let our yards go fallow for a year…or maybe just a little part.  We could implement the shmitah right here in Minnesota.  Some have suggested that doing so might anger our neighbors and neighborhood associations…but that in the ensuing conversations, each of us would have a chance to explain our concerns for the environment.  It is a tangible way to remind ourselves of our responsibilities and raise awareness at the same time.

Starting tomorrow, I am going to left about a third of my front yard go fallow for the next year.  I am excited to see what grows in my yard, but I am even more excited to see what grows in me, and in our neighbors, as we watch it develop.

And we are going to do it here at Bet Shalom too.  On the western edge of our property not far from the Holocaust reflection garden, we are going to let some land go fallow as well.  Perhaps in the year that we’ll leave it un-manicured, an ancient oak tree, or wild flower, whose seeds and acorns have been resting in our soil will shoot up to the light of day.  And let this bit of our beautiful landscape be a constant reminder to us over the next year that we must be diligent…always working toward a repaired world.  As you enter our campus during 5775 let your mind wander as you pass that untended land growing wild and imagine what our world could be like.  A little bit of the Garden of Eden right here at Bet Shalom.

I know that this topic is often politically charged.  But this isn’t about what politics or politicians say about Climate Change.  Our concern is what Judaism has to teach us about how we live our lives.  Few are denying climate change now.  In fact, recent studies suggest this is an area of concern that might soon bring together both sides of the aisle as our country has to prepare for the rising sea level.  It may, in fact, at the same time, create profit beyond imagination and put people back to work in so many new ways.  And just yesterday, the international community came together at the UN to recommit to work harder than ever before to assure a clean planet for our future.

There are those who disagree on whether the changes to our climate are the result of human activity or if it is the result of the earth’s natural course.  Some studies suggest that the effects we are feeling in the world today, while exacerbated over the last 200 years, actually began more than 15,000 years ago when human beings left Africa and came to North America and began hunting the big game that dwelled here.  We will never truly know how things could have been different.  But when we talk about how we live our lives, and our responsibility to tikkun olam – to literally repair the world, it doesn’t really matter what the causes are.  Because we can make a difference.

We can make a real difference.  All our individual actions count.  Those of you who are 30 years old or older probably remember that in the 1980s there was a huge campaign to try to get people to stop using aerosol cans that contains CFCs.  Now illegal altogether, their use was dramatically reduced because of an international treaty signed in 1989 when a hole in the ozone layer was discovered above Antarctica.

Just a few weeks ago, a report was released that for the first time since 1980, the ozone layer shows slight signs of recovery.  It is hard to imagine how our individual actions can truly make a difference, but here is a real case of positive change because the entire international community came together to work on a problem that affects every single person who calls our Earth home.


I imagine that most people believe that Bet Shalom should be an exemplar of our Jewish ethics.  It makes sense that the synagogue, our clergy, staff and lay leaders, should take extreme care to operate in the most ethical manner.  People would be rightly upset if our accounting practices were sketchy or if our human relations policies were subpar.  Our environmental impact should be of the highest concern too.  Our congregation is made up of more than 800 membership units.  So as a group of more than 3000 people, we collectively make a pretty big impact on the world.  In 2008, we started to address some things the synagogue could do to lessen our carbon footprint.  But we lost our push and sense of urgency soon after we began because of the Great Recession.  We needed to turn inward and ensure self-preservation.  But healing the world is about self-preservation.  And we need to get back to this important work.

The High Holy Days are about reminding ourselves that we are only here for a short period of time.  We are called upon to revisit our past actions and consider our future ones.  Just like the rabbis said so long ago…perhaps it would have been better had we not been created…but we are here…so let’s do what we can.  And let’s do it together.

We have already accomplished a great deal as a congregation.  Over the past few years, we have made some changes to our HVAC system so that is runs more efficiently.  We have taught all our Religious School families to use our revolving doors to preserve our heating and cooling.  We have replaced every fixture in the building so that we are now entirely using LEDs.  (They aren’t perfect.  Sometimes they catch the frequency of our microphones and it is like we have a disco ball in here.  But it is worth it.  We are saving a great amount of electricity.  Good for the world…good for the budget).

But we have so much more to do.  We are currently in the process of having our building audited to see what else we can achieve.  As with the LEDs, we are certain there are actions that will help the environment and save us money at the same time.  Our next step is to determine whether we have the right conditions to install a solar garden which will provide electricity for our building…but also create electricity that we can then sell to the city of Minnetonka.  Again…a win in so many ways.

And perhaps, most importantly, we are embarking on a process of educating our community.  We want to raise consciousness about all the simple actions we can each take.  Over time, raised awareness and sensitivity leads to changes in behavior.  This year we are adding some of what Judaism has to say about our relationship to the world, and our responsibility to take care of it, to our religious school curriculum.  And next week on Yom Kippur, our Food for Thought Forum is going to be on this very topic.  It will be a challenging and interesting learning opportunity on our holiest day of the year.  Rabbi Cohen and I will both be leading this program along with some committed members of our congregation who are spearheading this initiative.  We hope you’ll be there with us to continue this conversation.


Our sages teach us in Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, “See to it that you do not spoil and destroy my world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.” On Shabbat, when we pray the Amidah – the central portion of our prayer service – there is a sentence in there that we alter depending on the season.  It is actually a plea that from Sukkot to Passover, that rain falls in Israel.  From Passover to Sukkot, we pray for dew instead.  You see, we don’t pray for things we know can’t happen.  The ancient blessing is that rain falls in its season.  If rain doesn’t fall in Israel during the rainy months…then there won’t be a harvest when there is supposed to be…and there will be no sustenance.  Rain in its season is the source of life.  And when there isn’t supposed to be rain…we pray for dew.

We here in Minnesota have seen recent shifts in our climate that in the very least we can call unusual.  Extreme draught followed by record breaking rainfall.  Snowless winters followed by the deepest snow in recent memory.  These aren’t just mere inconveniences.  Here in this region, we are perhaps more affected by Climate Change than many other parts of the world as our natural habitat shifts further north each year…as butterflies and bees disappear…as our climate is altered.

Rain in its season is the ultimate blessing…because we know that the opposite is the ultimate curse.  It is in our nature to attribute these things to God’s will.  Acts of Nature.  But we have to be God’s partner in Creation.  We can make a difference.  We can assure a future for our children…and the children of our children…and the children of our grandchildren…a future that approximates, in some way, the world that we each have been blessed to appreciate.

Ken Yihi Ratzon…v’gam lanu.

May this be God’s Will…and ours too.

Shanah Tovah.