Sign In Forgot Password

Rabbi Biatch's Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

09/08/2021 12:33:15 PM


Rabbi Jonathan Biatch 

The Rabbi’s Fires

Watch the video.

L’shanah Tovah – indeed, may this be a year of health and goodness for us all. I am glad to be with you tonight, both online and in person. 

This has been an amazingly difficult year for all of us in this sacred community. The confinement and struggles from the pandemic, not to mention the illnesses and deaths affecting hundreds of thousands both in the world and here in our community, have caused us to cry out with the book of Psalms, “Out of the deep and miserable of places I have called to you, Eternal One. O God, listen to my plea.”1 

Yet even with the restrictions, quarantines, and disappointments of the past eighteen months, we have continually shown up for one another … we have been present for one another … we have provided tangible resources for those in need … we have been active in the work for social justice … and we have joyfully worshiped together. We have shown resilience in the face of personal and communal difficulties, and – even in our angst – most of us have demonstrated resistance to skepticism. So, we might also say with the Biblical author of Deuteronomy, ‘Life itself has placed before us life and death, curse and blessing, and we have chosen life.’2 

Resilience, patience, courage, and hope: 

These are the qualities we need to possess and employ in the year ahead, just as we have needed them for the last eighteen months. 

Admittedly, some do not feel so optimistic or hopeful. There are those who are frightened, still unable to easily leave their homes and enter the public realm. And there are those who cannot go out because of infirmity, comorbidities, lack of mobility, or lack of transportation.  

So, in our community, it is essential that we help everyone: those who are unable to join us: we can serve remotely or go to them; those who are reluctant to be in person will tell us when they are ready to move forward, and we need to listen, try to comprehend their situation, and to accept them with open arms. 

According to the Talmud, one of the rabbis of our tradition spent time in isolation, and the difficulties he confronted could be instructive to us as we consider where our world has been in the last 18 months, and what we need to bear in mind as we re-emerge into society. 

I am referring to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, one of the most cited rabbinic authorities in the Mishnah. He lived for preserving Torah: inhaling its fragrance and exhaling teachings to new rabbis whom he ordained regularly. Teaching Torah was a consuming passion in his life. 

It was during his lifetime, however – the Second century of the Common Era – that Rome, as an occupying power in the land of Israel, had decreed torture and death for Torah scholars and for those who ordained rabbis. Rabbi Shimon not only taught and promoted Torah study, he also publicly criticized Rome because of its prohibition of religious instruction and tyranny over the Jewish community. In retribution, Rome sentenced Rabbi Shimon and his son, Rabbi Eliezer, to death, for conspiracy and treason, really just for teaching Torah. 

The father and son fled, taking shelter in an isolated cave in northern Israel, where, in defiance of the Roman authorities, they studied and taught Torah, day and night for twelve years, eating only carob fruit and drinking only water.Eventually, the Roman emperor died, Rome reversed their death sentence, and the rabbis could finally leave their protective confinement.  

It’s not difficult to imagine how they felt when they finally emerged from that cave: elated that the danger no longer existed; thrilled to be in the sun once again; happy to return to the God-fearing community of Israel. 

But the world into which they emerged in no way resembled the world they remembered twelve years before. They found a world that was – in their view, at least – unguided by Torah: 

  • People were going about their business with peaceful feelings and intent. 

  • Personal relationships seemed quite friendly and genuine. 

  • There was a spirit of optimism about the new Roman rulers … and … 

  • Farmers were plowing, sowing, harvesting, and rejoicing in their crops. Shepherds were guiding their animals. Shop-owners were doing a brisk business. The society had regained some prosperity, and people were living conventional and even mundane lives, something we’d hope for in our times! 

  • … and all on their own, without the rule of rabbis or the direction of Torah … 

… which infuriated the rabbis. Here, the Talmud inserts a fantastical tale: Wherever the rabbis looked, their eyes literally incinerated every person at whom they cast their glance. Hundreds of people died. 

God was so despondent at this behavior, that the Holy One banished the rabbis, returning them to their cave for an additional year,4 punishing the rabbis for their audacious behavior and giving Divine Approval for the normal, everyday lives of people. 

Those rabbis had their reaction to being confined for so long, and we have had ours. The last 18 months have, indeed, left us scarred and battered – but not beaten, or defeated, or bereft of our core values: 

  • We have answered the call of adaptability 

  • We have accepted the challenge of adjusting to new circumstances. 

  • We have responded with the approach of Deuteronomy: “Life itself has placed before us life and death, curse and blessing, and we need to choose life.’5 

Jewish tradition affords us further guidance. As Rabbi Tarfon reminds us in the Mishnah, ‘The day is short, the work expands, and the workers are lazy. Yet the payoff is enormous, the master of the house presses forward … and we recall that it is not our responsibility to finish the work, but neither are we free to neglect it.’6 Despite the difficulties of the past and challenges we will confront in the future, Rabbi Tarfon reminds us that we must push ahead. 

Being confined and quarantined this year has neither deactivated our humanity nor our ability to perform the work of social justice. And it certainly does not absolve us of the responsibilities we have toward one another. 

In the twelve years that Rabbi Shimon and son remained in that cave, they may have been awake to the words of Torah, but they were asleep to the needs of society. Can you imagine how wrong we would have been if we had been unaware of and resistant to the countless needs of society for that long a time? What would history think of us? 

So, as we emerge from our confinements of the recent past, it is time we turn our attention to a matter which we can no longer avoid as a human race, and that is global climate change. As we slowly resume more familiar pathways of life, each of us needs to join those who are active in helping to reverse the effects of this threat to our planet. 

About twenty years ago, former US senator, vice president, and then-private-citizen Al Gore began to share an illustrated lecture – this was before PowerPoint was a thing – on the state of the earth’s climate. Becoming a book and then a documentary film, “An Inconvenient Truth” was one of those ideas so large and confrontational that people turned away from it; they could do nothing but deny its reality. Few crucial decision-makers were willing to entertain the notion – shared so graphically and starkly – that humanity’s activities were destroying our planet. 

Why were we not willing to listen? It may be human nature to avoid the truly challenging truths that confront us. 

In his 2019 book “We Are The Weather”, Jonathan Safran Foer recounts a famous June 1943 meeting between Jan Karski, a Catholic member of the Polish underground, and a Jewish justice of the US Supreme Court, Felix Frankfurter. Karski hoped to impress upon the justice the perils faced by European Jews under the Nazis. 

Karski recounted the facts and the testimonies from European Jewish leaders with whom he had spoken, and Frankfurter paced back and forth in his office. According to Foer’s account, the justice then sat down, and, after a series of clarifying questions, he said to Karski, “Mr. Karski, a man like me talking to a man like you must be totally frank. So I must say I am unable to believe what you told me.” A companion to Mr. Karski in the room pleaded with the justice to accept Karski’s account, but the justice responded, “I didn’t say that this young man is lying. I said I am unable to believe him. My mind, my heart, they are made is such a way that I cannot accept [what he’s telling me].”7 

Foer’s conclusion is that our human species may have curiosity and a natural proclivity for seeking knowledge, but a poorly developed sense of what to do in the face of difficulty and danger. For Frankfurter and the Holocaust, he was unable to apprehend the enormity of the problem or possible remedies.  

Even today many are not willing to think that our planet could be slowly smothered because of human abuse. But if we look to the wisdom of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai for a moment – rather than that midrash about how he set people on fire – we can see that he, too, had a view about the earth and its resources. 

Rabbi Shimon said, “Three things are equally important: earth, humanity, and rain.” 


And Rabbi Israel bar Hiyah, who elaborated on Rabbi Shimon’s words, said this: “We must attend to Rabbi Shimon. These three terms are each composed of three Hebrew letters – eretz, adam, and matar – and are, therefore, equivalent to one another. They teach that without the earth there is no rain, without the rain there is no earth, and without them both there is no humanity.”8 

Rabbi Shimon reminds us that the existence of our planet depends not only upon the balance of the various elements of nature, but also the need to value and protect all the works of creation, and the requirement for humanity to have access to all of earth’s resources. 

We humans have been in a cave for far too long, unwilling to focus on this problem. We need to rid ourselves of our lethargy and renew our work to preserve our climate. This world is the only one we have, despite the science fiction accounts of distant planets of refuge. And so, we must consider: 

  • What each of us must do in our own homes; 

  • What our synagogue must do to further our work in making a positive impact on the climate; 

  • And what our community-at-large must accomplish to reduce our carbon footprints and try to reverse planetary climate change. 

Don’t get me wrong. We’ve recycled … we’ve cut back on our driving, especially this past 18 months … we have purchased hybrid and all-electric vehicles: but it has not been enough. The degradation of our planet’s resources, and the decay of the protective nature of its atmosphere, needs to alarm us at our core! 

I want to talk about eating for a moment, and I hope the following statistics DO move us, and disturb us. Changes in our everyday behavior could have a significant impact on the world’s situation. 

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that methane-producing livestock – that is, cattle, goats, and sheep – are a leading cause of climate change. Their aggregated CO2 output is responsible for an estimated seven-and-a-half-billion tons of CO2 emissions per year, or 14.5% of annual global CO2 emissions.9 And if we included in these calculations: 

  • the CO2 exhaled by all those animals 

  • and the amount of CO2 that is NOT being absorbed by the trees that were destroyed to accommodate more grazing land for those animals … 

… it is estimated that the livestock-linked CO2 in the atmosphere is more like half, at 51 percent.10 

And for those who are concerned about getting adequate protein, the following may be of interest: 

The production of 6.61 pounds of CO2 are associated with a single serving of beef, cheese produces 2.45 pounds of CO2, pork produces 1.72 pounds, and poultry produces 1.26 pounds. And for those who are vegans, a serving of legumes produces one-tenth of a pound of CO2.11 

Speaking of food, I have begun digesting – it’s an 1,800-page plateful – the most recent report of the United Nations’ “Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” published last month. If we are troubled about global climate change and our well-documented human pattern of intervening with and harming the planet around us, we need to read, accept, draw near to, and place into our consciousness this well-researched and frightening paper. Reading it late at night could bring on nightmares, but perhaps that kind of jolt is what we need. 

From the report's executive summary, we learn these facts. (The italicized phrases are taken from the report itself, I presume for emphasis): 

“It is virtually certain that the global upper ocean (0–700 meters, or close to half a mile) has warmed since the 1970’s, and extremely likely that human influence is the main driver. It is virtually certain that human-caused CO2 emissions are the main driver of current global acidification of the surface open ocean. There is high confidence that oxygen levels have dropped in many upper ocean regions since the mid-20th century, and medium confidence that human influence contributed to this drop.”12 

Further, “Since 1970, but especially since 1990, the change in global surface temperature has increased about one degree centigrade, where it is estimated that this same indicator had not appreciably increased in the 140 years prior to 1990.”13 

One terrifying aspect of last week’s devastating Hurricane Ida along the Louisiana coast is the rapid and immense intensification of the storm as it bared down on that region. These factors come from the increase in the warmed upper ocean temperatures over the last four decades, and – according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Miami – is likely to continue.14 

Finally, returning to “We Are the Weather”, the author mentions the Paris climate accords’ goal of maintaining no more than a two degree Celsius increase in global warming. He labels this innocuous-sounding uptick as “the outside edge of cataclysm”. He suggests that this increase in the climate would raise sea levels by 1.6 feet, and cities like Dhaka, Karachi, New York, and dozens of others will produce 143 million new climate migrants.15 

We can look at this information as Justice Frankfurter did and be overwhelmed with helplessness. But frankly, I view it as one of my tasks, as your Rabbi, that certain moments call for extreme efforts to inspire us all to action.  This is one of those moments. 

So, what are we to do? As much as is humanly possible! 

Minimally, please read everything you can find on how we humans affect the climate of our world. 

Next, get involved with the Environment and Climate Change Action Team, the newest of our Temple Beth El social justice task groups, which will help each of us become more familiar with ways to serve and save the planet. The Action Team is preparing for a congregational discussion in November of Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, and they’ll continue from there. 

Next, consider how your personal activities can help to reduce your carbon footprint. Others will follow our leadership when we discover and relate honestly and sincerely the truth of the situation. We need to recall that, in solving our problems, each of us is connected to others, in this county, our nation, and the world. This is a global problem and needs to be solved globally. 

Finally, know that – as with anything – it will take systemic change to make a meaningful dent in the climate change struggle. Suggesting that reducing or eliminating one’s carbon footprint in one place only to make up for increased emissions from over-pollution elsewhere may not make a significant difference in the world’s overall problem. We need a greater number of actions, as well as the mutual cooperation of large companies, governments, and citizens, to reduce their effect on the world’s climate.16 

For those of us of a certain age, we won’t feel the effects of climate change for much longer. But we must not defer action, for this is not the kind of world we want to bequeath to our descendants: a planet … 

… where water shortages, like the current one on the lower Colorado River, are common occurrences! 

… where crop yields will be significantly reduced! 

… where half of all animal species will face extinction! 

… or where weather disasters of all kinds rob humanity of lives and property!17 

Again, I remind us of the words from Deuteronomy, “Life itself has placed before us life and death, curse and blessing, and we need to choose life.’18 Let us rouse ourselves from our sleep, emerge from our caves, and realize there may still be actions we can take to slow the pace of, if not reverse, the global warming we currently experience. 

Unlike the world of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, when people were burning because of his personal anger, the whole world outside our caves is literally on fire, and we must find ways that we, as a planetary community, can douse the flames, save ourselves, and return to normal. 

Coming to my mind is the Star Trek film “First Contact”. One of the film’s plot-points is the future-world’s population’s shared reaction to the arrival on Earth of the first sentient extra-terrestrials. No longer alone in the universe, humanity discovered that it could cooperate on an international level, that disputes of territory and resources were of minimal importance, that money no longer mattered, and that people could progress forward: not in the heat of suspicion, but rather with the glow of humanity in their hearts. 

That is the kind of world we need right now. Let us strive to push us in that direction in the year to come. 

May this be a year of health and optimism, of good humor, of human caring and empathy, and of peace. 

L’shanah tovah. 

[1] Psalm 130
[2] Paraphrase of Deuteronomy 30:19 
[3] BT Shabbat 33b
[4] BT Shabbat 33b
[5] Paraphrase of Deuteronomy 30:19
[6] Mishnah Pirkei Avot 2:15-16
[7] Ibid.
[8] Midrash Genesis Rabbah 13:3
[9] Foer, page 95
[10] Foer, page 96
[11] Foer, page 100
[12], page 6
[13] Ibid, page 7.
[15] Foer, page 58
[17] Foer, page 59
[18] Paraphrase of Deuteronomy 30:19
September 19, 2021 13 Tishrei 5782