A Green Rosh HaShanah: 5775

grannysmithCould it be that Rosh HaShanah is not a Jewish holiday? No—it couldn’t be! Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. On Rosh HaShanah Jews gather in Jewish houses of worship and say Jewish prayers. We hold our Jewish books, and we blow our Jewish horns. We even take one day and turn it into two—a uniquely Jewish magic trick. And then there’s all the food—the round challot, apples and honey—all of the Jewish soul foods. How could I suggest that Rosh HaShanah is not a Jewish holiday?

Yet that’s my question, could it be that Rosh HaShanah is not a Jewish holiday? I have three arguments to make the case: 1) the readings on Rosh HaShanah, unlike on Yom Kippur, address universal themes of family life; 2) the title Yom Ha’Din, Day of Judgment, indicates a universal experience of all people who live at the same time, and are affected by each other’s behavior; and 3) this day recalls creation and anticipates redemption. The bookends of history indicate our collective understanding of the value and the challenges of life. Together, these three arguments indicate that Rosh HaShanah is not just for Jews, and we err if we focus only on our insular concerns today. Let’s unpack each claim: 

  • First, the Rosh HaShanah readings, unlike those of Yom Kippur, address universal themes of family life. They explore fears of infertility, infant mortality, later loss, tragedy and exile. We read on these days about marginal figures such as Hagar and Ishmael, feeling their terror, even though they are outsiders to the people of Israel. Abraham and Sarah are our first patriarchs, true, but doesn’t the Torah call Abraham Av Hamon Goyim, the father of many nations (Gen. 17:5)? Don’t the rabbis explain Sarah’s name change to mean that she is now the queen of all peoples?[1] Mothers dominate the stories of Rosh HaShanah, and their concerns are universal. We read of Hannah’s despair over her barrenness, and of mother Rachel weeping bitterly for her descendants as they go into exile.
    These stories have Jewish significance, of course, but they are important for everyone. The common feature of all life—animal and plant—is the ability to reproduce. And the most common anxiety among all people is for the well-being of their family. Our stories on Rosh HaShanah, especially the Akedah, connect us to two of the largest religions of the world, to Christianity and to Islam, for whom they have special significance. But in the end these are stories that every parent can experience—love for their children, and worries for their survival in a harsh world. These readings are different from those of Yom Kippur, with its focus on Israel’s cultic purity. On Rosh HaShanah our concerns are universal.
  • A second argument for why Rosh HaShanah is not just a Jewish holiday: we call this day Yom Ha-Din, the Day of Judgment, perhaps the Day of Justice. Justice is a universal concern, and when justice is applied unevenly, why, then, it is not justice at all. The seven Noachide laws assert that all humans, not just Jews, are responsible to maintain a just society. Justice, truthfulness and peace, are the foundations of the world, as Rabbi Shimon b. Gamliel teaches in Pirke Avot. In one of the most famous piyutim or prayers of these holidays, Unetaneh Tokef, we say that kol ba’ei olam ya’avrun lifanekha kivnei maron, that all who walk the earth pass before God like sheep. [A little scholarly aside since this is JTS—no one really knows how to translate kivnei maron. This phrase originates in the Tosefta to RH 1:11, בראש השנה כל באי עולם עוברין לפניו נומרון which Dr. Saul Lieberman z”l suggested might have been a Latin loan word, yielding a meaning that God reviews all creatures k’vnumeron, like a regiment of soldiers.[2] ] Whatever the metaphor, the point is that all beings are judged together by our Creator.
  • It makes sense that all creatures are judged together, because all of us share the same resources of air, water and earth. Jewish sources teach us to view the entire world as balanced between merit and sin, and the deeds of each individual as contributing to our collective destiny. We’re in this together on Yom Ha’Din, the day of judgment. To worry only about ourselves, our families, or even our entire people is to miss this universal point. On Yom Kippur the high priest prayers for his family and his people, but this day is the day of judgment for all. So again, we see that Rosh HaShanah isn’t just a Jewish holiday.
  • Third, what year is this? 5775: Tav shin ayin hay. Where did we get that number? What does it signify? We say, since creation, livriyat ha’olam. But surely we don’t think that the world was created just 5775 years ago. Well no, we don’t. Here at JTS we specialize in reality-based religion. We know that the universe burst into being nearly 14 billion years ago, and the accretion of minerals that became earth took shape some 4.5 billion years ago. Plants, animals and our ancestors took hundreds of millions of years to evolve; our species, homo sapiens, is said to have entered the scene around 200,000 years ago. So 5775 is a laughably recent point of origin–if we are talking about the beginning of earth. Yet I think the number 5775 is redeemable if we reframe it as the years since human civilizations developed to the point that people could ponder the creation of the world, since we began to meditate on our origins, our purpose, and our future. There isn’t evidence for civilization much earlier than the Neolithic era, which is roughly 6,000 years ago, give or take a few millennia. So to call this New Year #5775 is a way of saying that Rosh HaShanah is a new year for all humans to consider our origins and our common purpose. This is a day to thank the Creator, and to consider our role as partners in the creation.
  • 5775 is not just any old year—it is the seventh year of a cycle that the Torah calls shevi’it, the sabbatical, and also shemitta, the year of release. During the shemitta year farmers are supposed to surrender their crops to all who are hungry, and bankers are supposed to forgive all loans. (Wouldn’t that be nice? No more mortgage?) Whether or not the sabbatical is realistic, its significance is spot-on. The great Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook wrote in Shabbat Ha’Aretz, “the soul of the people and the land intertwine.”[3] He was writing about the return of Israel to its homeland, but as Hazon’s Nigel Savage writes in his introduction to a new edition, the point of shmitta is both local and universal. Love of the land begins with the patch that we know the best, but it can become a point of contact with other peoples. And all people can benefit from the message of shmitta: the earth does not ultimately belong to us, but to the Creator, who demands that we share.

So, these are my three arguments—Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish new year, but it isn’t just for Jews. Its concerns for family continuity and for justice are truly universal. And as a point of origin for civilization, Rosh HaShanah is a day to ponder where we stand in relation to each other, to our home on earth, and to God, our Creator. Anticipating the future redemption, we realize with a jolt just how far we are from a secure and peaceful state of being on earth.

Sadly, tragically, alarmingly, our relationships with other peoples, and with the earth itself, are in terrible shape right now. Today, I would like to focus on our relationship to the earth. Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish earth day, so it is a good time to ask how we are doing. This week people around the world gathered to express concern, and even outrage, about the increasingly dire effects of climate change. The UN conference this week in NY was preceded by the enormous rally, the People’s Climate March, with over 300,000 people present. [How many of you participated?] I don’t care for rallies, with their simplistic slogans and oppressive crowds, but I too was there, because I am very worried about our situation.

This week I also participated in a remarkable conference called Religions for the Earth, which was hosted by our friends and neighbors at Union Theological Seminary, and co-sponsored by JTS. I met with Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists, and with indigenous people from America and elsewhere, as we collectively committed ourselves to place the environment at the top of our agendas. My new friend Rajwant Singh, the president of EcoSikh, who attended our Selihot services here at JTS, called on every religion to declare a “green” festival. Green Christmas, Green Ramadan, Green Diwali and so on. I took this to heart and decided to focus today on a Green Rosh HaShanah, a day to cultivate consciousness and organize efforts to make this a good and healthy year for all.

Like many of you, I have been reading up on climatology. The National Climactic Data Center’s report for August shows that it was a record high for the month, with surface temperatures 1.35 degrees warmer than the 20th century average. Overall temperatures for the land and oceans are now on average 1.78 degrees warmer than the preindustrial average, and warming seems to be accelerating, with feedback loops as reflective ice is replaced by dark water, that in turn absorbs more solar energy and leads to more polar melting. The NCDC reports, “Nine of the 10 warmest Augusts on record have occurred during the 21st century. Additionally, August 2014 marked the 38th consecutive August with a temperature above the 20th century average. The last below-average global temperature for August occurred in 1976.” Scientists feel that a rise of ten degrees would be incompatible with human life on earth. But even a rise of 3-4 degrees will imperil the lives of billions of humans, cause mass species extinctions, wipe out food stocks and undermine the stability of societies everywhere.

My teacher, the late great Professor Stephen Jay Gould, used to say that people err when they say that the earth is in trouble. The earth is just fine—it was around for billions of years before us, and will remain long after we are gone. Moreover, life on earth will remain robust. Beetles and ants should survive and even thrive in a warmer planet. It’s people who are endangered, it’s people who are to blame, and it’s people who need to act before we are done in. This year I read Elizabeth Kolbert’s book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. There have been five prior mass extinction events on earth, but the current one has been called by Eugene Stoermer the Anthropocene, since humans are causing the rapid changes that are killing off vast numbers of species before they have time to adapt.

Climate science is complicated—that is the first thing that I have discovered. There are too many variables for any specific predictions of surface temperatures, sea levels, and species survival to be precise. Global anomalies mean that some areas of earth may be colder or wetter than average, as we experienced last winter with the polar vortex. This August the Eastern US and Western Europe were both pleasantly cool, but if you look at the global map, you see the larger reality. The drought on the West Coast is severe, with fires constantly threatening homes and habitats. Storms are increasingly severe, with coastal cities such as New York vulnerable to the rising waters. Infectious diseases may spread with the warmer climate, and outbreaks such as the Ebola epidemic in western Africa may become more prevalent.

What is to be done? That is the great question before world leaders this week at the UN, and next year in the Paris talks. But the question is not only for them. World leaders cannot do anything without the demonstration of popular concern. I think that the first answer must be education. We all need to learn a lot more about the best strategies for slowing climate change. Already our efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle are helping, as is the gradual shift to renewable energy. But the reality is that most of the world’s energy is still produced by burning coal and petroleum products, and this could be our undoing. The actions of consumers are important, but we need to act also as citizens if our governments and corporations are going to make significant changes in the energy production.

I am impressed by the arguments of Dale Jorgenson, a Harvard economist whose book, Double Dividend: Environmental Taxes and Fiscal Reform in the United States argues that the best strategy would be for world leaders to agree on a universal permit fee or tax for carbon emissions, perhaps $30 per metric ton, with nations then able to invest the revenue in the most beneficial way possible for their own economies. Of particular concern are China and India, which are generating vast amounts of carbon, and endangering all people.[4]

I am not a climate scientist or an economist or a politician. But I cannot afford to be ignorant about climate science, or about the economics of our available solutions, or about the political realities that are preventing collective action. Nor can you.

On Rosh HaShanah, I typically implore the congregation to make this a year of mitzvot—of ethical and ritual actions that we consider to be markers of virtue. I also ask people to commit to Torah study—to deepening their understanding of our sacred traditions. Please don’t stop with either of those, but this year, let’s add a twist. Let’s make our Torah study include deeper understanding of the physical world, and of our place in keeping it healthy. And let’s make our practice of mitzvot actions that serve not only God, but also the needs of God’s wonderful creation.

Today we begin the year Tav shin ayin hay, the letters for 5775, also spell out a number—Tishah. Who knows nine? Tishah mi yode’ah? Go ahead, call out the answer? Nine are the months of labor, tishah yarhei leidah. This moment of Rosh HaShanah is the beginning of something big. Just like every birth is a new beginning, so too is every New Year an opportunity to create something fresh. What will it be? Will we educate, and advocate, and agitate until our government, and the nations of the world finally agree to take effective action? We must! We must act together, and not lose focus.

In just a few moments we will hear for the first time this festival the cry of the shofar. The shrill, piercing voice of the shofar. It is a shattering cry of despair over all that has been lost. And it is a cleansing note of purification, reminding God to have mercy on us, and awakening each of us to necessary action. Hear the voice of the shofar. Heed the voice of the shofar. And with its every blast, release a harmful habit, and embrace a healthy action. Together we can act to make this year a turning point not only for ourselves, our families, and our people, but for all people on earth.

Could it be that Rosh HaShanah is not a Jewish holiday? Perhaps not; it is after all the Jewish New Year. But it is not just for Jews. Let’s make this a green Rosh HaShanah, good for everyone, like this green Granny Smith apple (show). And let us offer a double blessing, with a double dividend for us and for all who inhabit the earth. Barukh atah…borei peri ha’etz—we praise You Lord Our God, Sovereign of all the universe, Who makes the fruit of trees, as well as all food grown on the good earth. And we ask your assistance and pledge to become your partners—saying, yehi ratzon milfanekha…May it please You, Lord our God, to renew this year as a good and sweet new year.

[1] תוספתא מסכת ברכות (ליברמן) פרק א . כיוצא בו שרי אשתך לא תקרא את שמה שרי כי שרה שמה בתחלה הרי היא שרי על עמה עכשיו הרי היא שרה על כל באי עולם שנ’ כי שרה שמה.

[2] תוספתא מסכת ראש השנה (ליברמן) פרק א, הלכה יא [ע’ 307, הערה 37.

[3] Shabbat Ha’Aretz: Rav Kook’s Introduction, trans. Julian Sinclair (NY: Hazon, 2014) p. 99.

[4] See “Time to Tax Carbon,” in Harvard Magazine (September 2014).