Parashat Kedoshim 5778

Rabbi Janet Burden – 27 April 2018

Last Sunday, on April 22nd, various groups across the globe commemorated Earth Day, if you happened to miss it, don’t feel too bad. The ‘take up’ on this annual call for environmental awareness has always been patchy. I know, because I remember the very first Earth Day. It was 1970, and I was a freshman in high school. A group of us created a display with a drinks can set up on a pillar, with a poster at the base that read, “THIS CAN WILL OUTLIVE YOU”. We handed out leaflets to our fellow students explaining the importance of recycling and encouraging people to consider the long view.

It took recycling a long time to achieve the limited success that it can now claim. Not in our wildest dreams in the 70s did we think kerb-side recycling would become standard across many major cities. Now in the wake of Attenborough’s clarion call in the latest Blue Planet series, more and more people are not just recycling but are also e-evaluating their patterns of consumption. They are starting to press for ‘plastic free aisles’ in supermarkets and are campaigning to remove micro-bead plastics from a wide range of commonly available items, such as toothpaste and skincare products.

Commemorating Earth Day has never become similarly mainstream. I suspect that for many people, the whole idea was just a bit too ‘woolly and worthy’. “What does it mean to celebrate the whole earth? That’s meaningless.” “Marking Earth Day is just verbiage and platitudes, isn’t it?” and most damning, “It’s hypocritical feel-good stuff to make people think they are doing something.”

It interests me that the same sorts of accusations are often levelled at religious engagement. It’s easy to understand why, too often, people who espouse religious values do not follow through with their actions. This isn’t a new problem. Many centuries ago, the Hebrew prophets criticised the people for being fastidious about their ritual observances and lax with their ethical behaviour. They hated hypocrisy every bit as much as the most indignant of our teenagers – and in case you haven’t noticed, some of them are pretty harsh critics!

I am left with two questions: Should fear of hypocrisy necessarily force us to abandon the vision and the hope of ideas like Earth Day? And if it did, would we also have to reconsider the opening verses of this week’s parashah, which tells us that we should be holy?

If the verse “You should be holy, as I, the Eternal One your God, am holy” appeared in isolation, it might feel more than a bit like, “Let’s celebrate the earth.” Fortunately, it doesn’t. The Holiness Code in Leviticus 19 details many, many practical ways in which we can manifest holiness: rising up before an elderly person, having just weights and measures, leaving the corners of our fields for the poor, and so on. All of these instructions are intended to be understood as part of striving for holiness. Practical, concrete actions are required from us to develop into the force for good in the world that our tradition demands that we be.

Will Earth Day survive? The jury is out on that one, but the Climate Action Agreement signed in Paris might give it a boost. More to the point, however – if we start living our lives by our values and our teachings, perhaps we won’t need it.

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