Rosh Hashanah Reflection, 5776

Rosh Hashanah Reflection
2016, 5776
Rabbi Rain Zohav
for IFFP

Hello. Shanah Tovah – A good new year to you. We are celebrating one of the four Jewish New Years. There are actually four Jewish New year’s, perhaps because from way back the well-known saying, three Jews four opinions held sway.

These new years are the first of Nissan as the New Year for the months. This is also spring. The first day of Elul was celebrated during the time of the first and second temples as the New Year for the tithing of animals. The fifteenth of the month of Shevat is the New Year for tithing of the trees and the first day of Tishrei, which is in the fall is the New Year for years. Christian theologian Harvey Cox writes that “…the fact that there are different kinds of new years for the flora and fauna…makes sense. It reminds us that poodles and ostriches, scrub oaks and long needle pines, may live in cycles that are different from those of human beings” (Common Prayers, p. 25).

Remembering these various new years may help us to remember this teaching from Rabbi Everett Gendler that “…one of the crucial religious tasks of our age is to work towards human integration with nature…” (Judaism for Universalists, p.51). But in fact this New Year – Rosh Hashanah itself has much to teach us about rethinking our relationship to nature. Rosh Hashanah is also considered by the rabbis of the Talmud to be the birthday of the world, the day on which the creation of the world began. And this is what I want to talk about today.

I believe deeply that we need to reclaim our sense of awe and wonder of nature as a manifestation of the Divine., as told in our Judeo-Christian creation myth. Pope Francis says it this way, “The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, [his] G-d’s boundless affection for us” (Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home, p.59). He quotes from the Japanese bishops, “To sense each creature singing the hymn of its existence is to live joyfully in God’s love and hope” (Ibid). For me, nature is one of the places I most readily connect with the divine. It is a place of comfort, a place or peace, a place of regaining my energy and center. I love that our creation myth always asserts that each day of creation was good. This world is good. This world is precious.

But what of science and evolution? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel answers like this, “Science extends rather than limits the scope of the ineffable and our radical amazement is enhanced rather than reduced by the advancement of knowledge” (Man in Not Alone). Brother David Steindl- Rast writes that even “If we knew how the whole universe worked, we would still be surprised that there was a universe at all…[and] Surprise is no more than a beginning of that fullness we call gratefulness. But a beginning it is (Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, ps. 9- 10).

This sense of wonder and gratefulness is necessary for us to address the environmental crisis we face. Rabbi Art Green advocates that we reframe the creation story found in Genesis as “…the greatest sacred drama of all time.” (Radial Judaism, p.16). He goes on to say that, “…evolution can be seen as an ongoing process of revelation or self-manifestation [of the Divine]” (Ibid, p. 20). As we begin to reframe these Biblical stories and reclaim our sense of wonder, Heschel tells us that we “unlock an innate sense of indebtedness” (Man is not Alone).

These lines from D.H. Lawrence, that R. Everett Gendler quotes in his essay “On the Judaism of Nature” resonate strongly for me, “ We are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars” (Judaism for Universalists, p.15). Rabbi Gendler goes on to write, “Also, what does it mean to grow up, as increasing numbers of children do today, with so little contact with other growing things? What does it mean to have numerous examples of making and processing all around one, but few examples of that slow, deliberate, self-determined unfolding of inner potential that is so amazing to watch in the transformation of seed into plant? The separation from the vegetation cycle may have consequences for the spirit that we have hardly begun to comprehend. And what may be the effects of this estrangement from nature on the environmental crisis we face?” (Ibid, p.16).

So today, in a little while we will be reading from the first chapter of the book of Genesis that begins the tale of the creation of the world in our shared tradition. Let us listen from this reframing aspect rather than taking it literally. Let the poetry uplift you. Let it inspire you to re-commit to doing more for the environment in this coming year.

We as a community are investigating becoming a GreenFaith community. This depends on each of us taking more steps than we already have to preserve the earth. I do not like to ask you to do things I am not doing myself, so I will share with you some steps I have taken. While part of another GreenFaith community, I pledged to hang out my laundry “when feasible”. I increased the feasibility of that this past year by buying a very efficient indoor drying rack that can hold a full load of laundry. Last year, I also finally fulfilled a vow I had made numerous times to change my electricity to wind. It turned out to be really easy, and I think I owe a member of this congregation thanks for letting me know to go online to “ethical energy” and sign up. That is really all it took. My bill still comes through Pepco, but my electricity is produced by wind. Since previously it had come from coal, this is a simple way to help the climate crisis.

And, we have an election coming up. I will be taking the environment into account when I decide who to vote for and I hope you do also. No matter who wins the election, there will be much work to do in the area of advocacy. Small steps do add up, although they are not enough. I had already written those words when I read Brother Steindl- Rast writing almost the same thing, but with a lovely addition. He writes, “Maybe we must first become more motherly. That means facing the whole enormous task, finding the one small thing we can do, and doing it with a mother’s dedication.” (Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, p.148). It may well be that applying a mother’s dedication to the task will be enough. Some of us are already doing much. For some of us, this is our work in the world. And many of us can do more.

In case you are feeling overwhelmed, discouraged, weary or powerless, Pope Francis gives us words of hope, quoting the prophet Isaiah saying: “The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. [He] G-d does not grow faint or grow weary...[ He] G-d gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (p.53).

In conclusion, I would like to share with you this poem by Lawrence Collins:

If You Can Feel the Earth

If you can feel the earth
under your feet
Know that never
in your life
have you not been touching something
wearing it down a little
being worn down a little
If you can stop, and let yourself look,
Let your eyes do
what they do best,
Stop and let yourself see and see
that everything is doing things
to you
as you do things to everything
Then you know
that although it is only a little planet
it is hugely beautiful
and surely the finest place in the world
to be
So watch it, look at it
see what it's like
to walk around on it
It's small but it's beautiful
It's small but it's fine
like a rainbow
like a bubble

This is exactly the hope of Rosh Hashanah. Let us recommit to protecting this fragile world we live in. Its small, but it is beautiful. And it is our only home.

By taking these steps we can truly make this a Shanah Tovah, a good year.

Amen, may it be so.