Adapted from Rosh Hashanah Sermon on Responsibility, Ecology, and Humankind’s Role in the Universe
by Rabbi David J. Cooper, 1 Tishrey 5768, September 12, 2007 Cooper is the rabbi of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Berkeley-Oakland, California.
It was determined that for my Rosh Hashanah sermon in 2007, I should address humankind’s place in creation in regard to our responsibility to repair the ecological damage our society has caused. Given that a few weeks before, I found myself in Boston, I decided to go out to Concord, Massachusetts to write by the lakeside on Walden Pond where Henry David Thoreau wrote his opus on society and nature. I guess I was hoping for a contact creativity.
I decided that I wanted to use a storytelling medium, much like the campfire stories our predecessors told their children about how this world came into being. Our ancestors described how the people, plants and animals took their place in the miracle of existence. As they retold their stories over generations, they embellished them and improved them. After these tales were written down, they evolved into what we call the Torah. But what motivated them to tell these stories did not stop when the Torah was set down. All our generations have strived to understand where we come from and what our role in all of this may be. And despite the sophistication which we have developed through our research and our science, the great mystery always remains just beyond our grasp even as our efforts to penetrate it advance us further and further.
In the Beginning…
Whatever the scientific and factual shortcomings of their speculations, what was totally without error was that they worked to capture the awe they felt as they contemplated the great mystery and to imbue their descendants with that same awe. They succeeded in expressing their wonder that once upon a timeless time and in a spaceless space, something happened and existence itself came into being. Even more miraculous than that, a world of inorganic matter spawned organic life—like honey flowing from a rock. And they knew that it was within this miraculous reality that they themselves were mysteriously created.
They thought the world was very old – several thousand years at least. But their idea of “old” was very limited indeed. As it turns out the universe is several thousands times a thousand thousand years old. But if we should look at the age of the universe from a cosmic or God’s-eye-point-of-view, the world is actually very young. The universe may continue to produce stars like our sun for another 100 trillion years, when the universe is 6000 times older than it is now. As it turns out, our planet popped into existence just about as early as it possibly could have appeared, only 7 billion years after the Big Bang. We could not have appeared much earlier, because we are made of gritty substance—heavier elements—and the very first stars and their surroundings only contained the lightest elements: hydrogen and helium gasses. No hard surfaces anywhere; no planets no moons.
The First Generation of Star-grit
A whole generation of stars had to come into being, to live out the course of their existence, and then explosively die in order to produce the heavier elements from which new stars and their gritty solar systems could be assembled by the force of gravity. For the far future many multitudes of generations of stars will continue to be born and to die out. But our sun is only in the second generation of stars, and only the first generation that contains and is surrounded by heavy elements such as iron, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur embedded in a variety of molecular combinations in the solar system’s planets, asteroids, comets and moons.
We are the children of the very first generation of stars that could give rise to a planet like earth. So we can see that our universe is not 6000 years old, but only 13 billion years young. Our sun and planet have only been here for 5 billion of those years, and organic life formed about as early as it possibly could have—4 billion years ago, only a billion years after the sun came into being. From our human perspective it took a long time for primitive life forms to evolve into multi-celled organisms, but seen from a cosmic scale, it was just the blink of an eye: Let there be life!
The Eyes of the Universe
There is no scientific evidence that our existence was inevitable. That fact and that we live on a small planet orbiting a fairly small star in a typical spiral galaxy, might tend to make us feel insignificant. Yes, we should be humbled by the unimaginable immensity in which this speck of a planet finds itself. But our existence is immeasurably significant because we are an organ of the universe which gives it the opportunity to be aware of itself, to be in awe of itself, and to be baffled by the mystery of its existence. And we are the organ through which the world endeavors to understand itself. And we fulfill this purpose through our science, we do it through our art, we do it through our creativity and the way we treat each other, the way we raise children, the way we play, the way we work, the way we pray. And I am not so sure that our species is alone in serving as such an organ of the universe, but I cannot speak for the dolphins, the bonobos, or the sunflowers for that matter.
When we perform our function to be awestruck and appreciative, we are connecting to that which is eternal within the immediate moment – and this is true whatever medium we use, whatever theology we hold, and whether or not we know that we are actually doing it. In some way, we are striving to experience the transcendent within the imminent. We do not have to wait to get to synagogue to do this. We can do it as we smell a flower, change a diaper, listen to music, hike in the hills, wash the dishes, write an email, as we make love.
Now at times I have been really uncomfortable with all the incessant praises of God that I read in the prayerbook and in the book of Psalms. If God requires so much stroking, He or She must be bit self-centered and insecure if you ask me. As a result of these feelings, I tended to rebel against the early rabbis’ assertion that the ultimate purpose of the human being was to praise God. How many times can you say “Halleluyah” after all?
But in recent years I have reconsidered my aversion. I heard that physicists are positing that the “loop of reality” is not completed until the moment that reality is actually perceived; that reality is in some sense not yet “real” until it is witnessed. Perhaps then the rabbis may have been right after all. That the praise of which they spoke was essentially indistinguishable from the moment that—through our witness—the universe can finally be perceived and appreciated.
The Deep Spirituality of Evolution
One phenomenon that we have been endeavoring to perceive during these last one or two centuries, is the emergence of the various species. We have come to understand our origins better than our predecessors could ever have expected. But in some faith communities these advances in our understanding are being treated as contradictory to the religious experience. That belief comes from an insistence that our biblical texts are to be treated as factually infallible: that the Torah provides a dogma about the natural world instead of a model for how we humans are to continuously seek to understand our world and ourselves, and to experience dveykut: a sense of attachment to God or to eternity.
In the book of Genesis, our predecessors describe that each species is fashioned by itself and then placed on this earthly stage. But according our modern creation story, all life—plants, animals, fungi—shares a common single-celled ancestor and thus all life emerges together and evolves in an on-going mutually redefining environment giving rise to an amazing web of complexity and diversity. There is nothing prosaic or unspiritual about realizing how closely we are related to every mammal, every mollusk, every flower, and every cactus upon the planet. What gift it is that we are all born in one of the very first generations that can actually perceive this aspect of reality. Now that does deserve a Halleluyah!
I absolutely affirm that the Bible has no place in the science curriculum, but as irony would have it, I do believe that it is spiritually indefensible to keep evolution out of our religious experience and to deprive ourselves of the realization that all life is one.
The Stored Energy of Our Ancestors
And not only are we one with the great diversity of living forms, but in many ways we are remarkably like all the plants and animals. We are composed of carbon molecules formed into complex sinews and tissues that hold us together and envelop and channel the waters which make up most of our mass. Like most forms of life, we pull in oxygen to help us release the energy we store so that we carry on our activities. But no matter how much energy we burn in the effort, our bodies continue to contain a fund of energy, and there it remains even after we have died. Generation after generation of the ancestors of all plants and animals died and much of their substance and energy was recycled back into other organisms, but many of their corpses became buried and compressed and became a rich fund of carbon-based energy trapped beneath the surface of the earth and beneath the seas.
In just the last sliver of time, the last few thousand years, we humans have become more and more expert at harnessing the resources around us. In the last 200 years we have figured out how to unearth the energy-rich corpses of the ancestors and to utilize their energies in a great burned offering to make our lives easier, to make the world smaller, to make our lives longer. In the process we have created disparities of wealth and have caused suffering. And while we have been advancing our abilities to exploit the environment and each other, we have been polluting the air with all that we have burned up in the pursuit of mastery.
And in just a few short generations we have managed to release back into the air and seas so much of the ancestors’ stored up energy and carbon that we acn no longer deny the reality that we are warming the planet.
And what is it that has enabled us to do this? We have suffered under the illusion that the earth is so vast, with oceans so deep that the planet could easily absorb whatever we puny humans could throw into the sea or into the air without significant damage. But the earth turned out to be far smaller than we realized, and we turned out to be far far more powerful than we gave ourselves credit to be.
Which Torah Mandate: Dominate or Protect?
And how has our Jewish tradition dealt with all this? Well, it’s a mixed bag. For example, in the first chapter of the Torah, our predecessors portrayed God as commanding us to dominate the earth and its animal inhabitants. But in chapter two, the first humans are placed in the Garden of Eden not to dominate it but to serve the garden and to protect it.
The Torah goes on to tell us to channel our consumption and to regard the process of consuming as a holy process. We are not free to just kill anything and eat it. We are instructed to limit ourselves in what we can consume and we are commanded to find ways of slaughtering and harvesting that appreciate the pains and damage caused by our actions. We are forbidden to hunt animals because that causes pain and thus we are enjoined to develop methods of slaughtering that respect the sensations of the animals we eat. As for the earth itself, we are to have a shmittah every seven years, i.e. a Sabbath year to enable the land to lie fallow.
But with all the foods and processes that the Torah sanctions, perhaps today we need to determine new ways to channel our production and our consumption given that we have discovered that what we do here in Oakland at latitude 37 degrees north, can melt the ice beneath the legs of the polar bear at 66 degrees north and beneath the feet of the penguin at 66 degrees south.
The Case of the Deleted Verses
What I find remarkable is that we are just really beginning to understand all this now, in this decade, in this year. What drives this home to me is what I call the case of the deleted verses. Let me explain.
In a traditional prayerbook, the second paragraph of the Sh’ma comes from Deuteronomy 11:13-21. Essentially those verses say that if we do not carefully heed God’s instructions, then the weather will stop operating in its regular pattern, that rains will stop falling according to their schedule, and the land will not yield its bounty.
In the 1940’s when the Reconstructionist Jewish Foundation created that movement’s prayerbooks they removed those verses. Here is how they explained the deletion as it appeared in the 1965 edition of the siddur:
The traditional worship-text asserts that obedience to God’s will is rewarded and disobedience punished even to the granting or withholding of the rainfall.
This prayer book continues the faith that righteousness is recompensed and sin punished. It does not, however, go so far as to declare that the processes of meteorology are dependent upon man’s moral behavior.
[Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan and fellow editors in Sabbath Prayer Book, Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation, NY 1965, p. xix.]
Then, in the 1990’s, the Reconstructionists printed new prayerbooks and the traditional paragraph was reinserted as one option. Here is how they explained its being put back in:
The traditional second paragraph of the Shema was replaced by another biblical selection in earlier Reconstructionist liturgy because the traditional paragraph was understood as literal reward and punishment. However, today in light of our awareness of human abuse of the environment, we recognize that often this reward and punishment rest in our own hands.
[Rabbi David A Teutsch in Kol Haneshamah Shabbat Vehagim, Reconstructionist Press 2006, p. 283]
Teshuva – Changing Course
So it is only in the last decade that we are really coming to grips with the reality of what it is that we are causing, even though there are many who still remain in denial.
So we are at an important moment on the planet and in the life of the cosmos as well. This is the moment when the question arises whether we are destined to unbalance and to damage the web of life, and whether consciousness necessarily gives rise to its own self-destruction. The question is whether we in this generation can truly atone and change course?
In their book, The View from the Center of the Universe, physicist Joel Primack and his partner, the writer Nancy Abrams write:
We live at a turning point for our species. From the point of view of the generations alive at this moment, it is late enough that we are sobering up to the scale of our problems, but not so late that we have lost all chance to solve them. This is a very special time that will not come again.
[Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams, The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos, Riverhead Books (Penguin Group), 2006, New York, p. 272]
I mentioned before that one thing that contributed to our problems was that we underestimated our power to damage the environment. We should not make the same mistake and underestimate our power to repair it. The Torah mandates that we are to choose life. If we take that mandate seriously then it is incumbent upon us to act as effectively as we can and to do so immediately.
We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to the generations who are yet unborn, and we owe it to the generations that came who taught us to be in awe, to praise, and then to take responsibility for the earth, for each other, and for all life on the planet.
May we do so.