Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Erev Yom Kippur – 8 October 2019
We have arrived at the final long day of the aseret y’mei t’shuvah, the ‘ten days of returning’. It has become commonplace to use the metaphor of journeying. In the context of this most sacred season of the Jewish year, it is completely appropriate. We began nine days ago, summoned by the blasts of the shofar to wake up to our deeds of the past year, examine our lives and our relationships and resolve to make amends and return to the true path of our lives. And now we are here, in this sanctuary together. But we are not only here together. We are here as individuals. We have taken different journeys to reach this day – and now, we will accompany each other as we take our own journeys through the day.
The metaphor of the journey continues to resonate because we recognise that it has a depth of meaning very different from alternative words in the lexicon, like ‘travel’ or ‘transport’, both of which summon up thoughts of the practical aspects of getting from A to B. Think of people travelling on their daily commute, being transported by car or train; the experience of being on a journey completely undercut by the vagaries of traffic jams and signal failures. Do you remember the huge power cut on August 9th that caused such chaos on the railway network?
By contrast, the journey of Yom Kippur held within the fragile frame of a single day is more profoundly, a journey into eternity beyond time. The day is orchestrated by a series of services, which gives the impression of a clear itinerary. But each service is more like a galaxy in the vast universe. We journey through light years in 25 hours – and yet all the while, the movement we make is entirely internal.
So, where are we going? For each of us, individually, in our own ways, the destination is the New Year and what we will make of it; what we will do with our lives; how we will contribute to the lives of others, to the society in which we live and to the world around us. The Jewish year is marked by sacred moments in time, but each of these moments is rooted in tangible material existence. Tomorrow morning, we will read from chapter 58 of the Book of Isaiah, and be reminded that the rituals of Yom Kippur are not an end in themselves:
Is not this the fast I look for: to release the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, never to hide yourself from your own kin?
We are called to act. And at this very moment in our lives and in the life of the world, we know that the future of Life itself is at stake. And so, to our other responsibilities – towards the persecuted and oppressed, the marginal and the vulnerable, the poor and destitute – we must add, our responsibilities towards all that lives on this planet, and to the very existence of planet Earth.
It may seem that the notion of our human responsibility for the planet reflects a contemporary pre-preoccupation, but in fact, it’s very old – certainly within Jewish teaching. We read in a collection of midrashim – rabbinic commentary – on the Book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, dated between the 6th and 8th centuries:1
After creating the first human, the Holy One Who is Blessed, took them round all the trees of the garden, and said to them: ‘See how lovely and excellent my works are; I have created them all for you. Take care not to spoil and destroy My world, for if you spoil it there will be no one to repair it after you.’In his commentary on Psalm 115, verse 6, the 12th century mediaeval Spanish biblical commentator, Abraham Ibn Ezra, but the challenge more positively:2
‘The heavens belong to the Eternal One, but God has given the earth to humankind.’ This means that we are like God’s stewards on earth, charged to exercise responsibility in God’s name for all that exists.
Ibn Ezra’s comment reflects his understanding of the creation narratives in the Torah. In the first creation story, human beings created on the ‘sixth day’ are presented as the pinnacle of creation, with a licence to exercise ‘dominion’ over all the other creatures of the earth.3 In the second narrative by contrast, absolute mastery is circumscribed and transformed into guardianship.4 We read:5
The Eternal God formed the human [ha-adam] – dust from the ground [‘afar min-ha-adamah] – and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life [nishmat chayyim], so the human became a living being [nefesh chayyah] / ………. The Eternal God took the human [ha-adam], placing (the human) in the garden of Eden to serve it and to keep it [l’ovdah u’l’shomrah].’
To serve it and to keep it – l’ovdah u’l’shomrah. Let’s ponder for a moment on that pairing. In a sense, since the development of agriculture 10,000 years ago, humans have worked the earth to death, clearing forests to make way for animal husbandry and the planting of crops. And now, biodiversity that is so essential to the well-being of the planet is threatened further by mass cultivation – in particular, the planting of single crops. But have we ‘served’ the earth? Most of us have only recently become aware of how many different products – including, non-food products – contain palm oil as we’ve learnt of huge areas of forest across the globe being replaced by oil palm trees.6 So, it’s not enough to work the earth, we must also serve the earth and take seriously our responsibility for ‘keeping’ it – for maintaining, guarding and protecting it.
As it happens, the responsibility for planting trees is central to Jewish teaching. We read in a 3rd century collection of rabbinic wisdom called Avot d’Rabbi Natan:7
If you hold a sapling, ready for planting, in your hand, and they tell you, ‘The Messiah has come!’, Go ahead and plant a sapling, and then go to greet the Messiah.
For the early rabbis, the coming of the Messiah would herald in the future time of peace. This teaching from Avot d’Rabbi Natan reminds us rather that we must continue the task of planting every day because we are responsible for creating the future. A story in the collection of midrashim, Va-yikra (Leviticus) Rabbah, edited between the 5th and 7th centuries, underlines the imperative of tree-planting for the sake of tomorrow:8
Once, when the Roman Emperor Hadrian was walking along one of the paths that lead to Tiberius, he saw an old man digging trenches to plant saplings of fig trees. ‘How old are you?’ The Emperor asked him, and he answered; ‘A hundred years.’ ‘You are a hundred years old’, said Hadrian, ‘yet you are digging trenches to plant saplings of fig trees! Do ever hope to eat of them?’ Then the old man replied: ‘If I’m worthy I shall eat; but even if not – as my ancestors worked for my benefit, so I will work for the benefit of my children.
We will recall the despotic tyranny of Emperor Hadrian during the Yom Kippur Musaf, ‘additional’ service, when we will remember the rabbinic leaders murdered by the Romans following the crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome in the year 135 CE. In that context, the plucky determination of this centenarian planter of fig-trees takes on even more significance.
The importance of tree-planting for the early rabbis is also reflected in halakhah, Jewish law. The very first paragraph of the tractate Rosh Ha-Shanah in the Mishnah9, the first rabbinic code of law edited around the year 200 CE, mentions the New Year for Trees – Rosh Ha-Shanah l’Ilanot – alongside other New Years, including the new year for the festivals commencing with the first month of the Jewish year, Nisan, and the New Year for years on the first day of Tishri. The passage references a debate between the Schools of Shammai and Hillel about the actual date of the New Year for Trees. According to the School of Shammai, it should it be the 1st of Sh’vat. The School of Hillel preferred the 15th. As with many debates recorded in the Mishnah, the ruling of Hillel prevailed – hence: Tu Bishvat; the 15th day of the month of Sh’vat.
Tu Bishvat: a date in the Jewish calendar, celebrated each year with the planting of trees – and, since the 16th century, following the practice of the students of the great teacher of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, Isaac Luria, with the additional practice of a Seder to celebrate the fruits of the land.10 So, as we witness the horror of mass deforestation, we have a ready-made festival to spur us on as we consider our responsibility to plant trees on a massive scale. A few weeks ago, one of my God-Sons, Elliot Cohen-Gold, contacted me, asking me to support a new project he had initiated with his older brother, Aaron, to plant one million trees by Tu Bishvat, which will fall this year on 9th February 2020. On their crowdfunding site, they explain the rationale behind the project:11
- Reforestation has been identified as the #1 most effective and affordable solution for climate mitigation in a peer-reviewed study by scientists in over 15 institutions around the world.
- Trees clean the air we breathe and the water we drink. They also contribute to a stable climate and overall health, support wildlife and biodiversity, and provide a positive social impact.
- Deforestation has increased dramatically around the world. In 2017 alone, the Earth lost 40 football fields worth of forests every second – due to logging, mining, cattle grazing, forest fires, and poor forest management practices. We can’t undo all of that, but we can help in the work of restoration.
- We love trees! They are the pillars of our outdoor adventures, fill us with inspiration, and create stunning landscapes we want to enjoy for many years to come.
As I mentioned in my Rosh Ha-Shanah morning sermon, young people are leading the way as we confront the threat of irreversible climate change and environmental catastrophe. So, I urge you to join the campaign to plant one million trees by Tu Bishvat. You can also make a contribution to planting trees by switching from Google to Ecosia, an Internet search-engine based in Berlin, Germany that donates 80% or more of its profits to non-profit organisations that focus on reforestation.12 When I looked on the site as I was writing this sermon last week, the number of trees planted was 69,442,008 – and rising every half second.
Planting trees is essential. Hopefully, this day out of the routine of our daily lives will give us the perspective we need to prioritise our responsibility for the planet. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, the music festival held from August 15-18, 1969 at a dairy farm in Bethel, New York state, 43 miles south-west of Woodstock. Taking place at the height of resistance to the Vietnam War, the festival was billed as ‘An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music.’13 To mark the anniversary, BBC 4 screened a documentary, entitled, ‘Woodstock – Three days that Defined a Generation.’14 The documentary revealed how many Jews were involved in setting up the festival – and also that Yasgur’s farm was owned and run by Jewish dairy-farming couple, Max and Miriam Yasgur. Half a million revellers descended on the farm, and when the food ran out, locals raided their fridges and larders to feed the young people. And then, on Sunday morning, the Yasgurs supplied milk, so everyone had porridge. Max Yasgur also addressed the crowd saying how good it was that young people had come together for music and to enjoy themselves.
Those three days on Yasgur’s Farm that brought hundreds of thousands of young people out of cities and towns and into the countryside were much more than an anti-war protest. I remember going to see the film of the festival in the early 1970s with my mum, brother and sister. I’ll never forget the performances of Joe Cocker and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. But there were a few conspicuous absences in the line-up – several acts simply couldn’t get there because of the roads blocked with cars. One of the performers, who didn’t make it was Joni Mitchell. Watching the festival on TV, she was inspired to write a song, which she premiered a few months later at a concert in Worcester Massachusetts on December 12th. Joni Mitchell’s song, ‘Woodstock’, captures an essential element of what drew 500,000 young people ‘to camp out on the land’. As the chorus puts it: ‘We are stardust / We are golden / And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.’15
‘We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.’ But not ‘back’, exactly. We cannot go back – we can only go forwards. And we must act now. We must take responsibility for our unique task as humans to be the guardians of the Earth. I would like to close by inviting you to sing ‘Woodstock’ with me.16 May the lyrics and our voices lifted in song, inspire us to liberate ourselves from ‘the devil’s bargain’ and do everything in our power to repair the world. And let us say: Amen.
He was walking along the road
And I asked him where are you going
And this he told me
I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock ‘n’ roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try an’ get my soul free
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog in something turning
Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
I don’t know who I am
But you know life is for learning
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation
We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
back to the garden
2 Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164, Spain).
3 B’reishit, Genesis 1:26-30.
4 For an examination of the two creation stories, see chapter 1 of my book, Trouble-Making Judaism (David Paul Books, 2012)
5 Gen. 2: 7; 15.
7 Avot d’Rabbi Natan version B, chapter 31 (3rd century CE). This text is similar to Pirkei Avot, the ‘Chapters of the Sages’ appended to the Mishnah (3rd century CE).
8 Va-yikra (Leviticus) Rabbah 25:5.
9 Mishnah Rosh Ha-Shanah 1:1 (3rd century CE).
Isaac ben Solomon Luria Ashkenazi (1534 – 25th July 1572). Known as Ha-Ari, meaning, ‘The Lion’. See: Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and his Kabbalistic Fellowship (Stanford University, CA, 2003.
14 16th August. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0007n24
16 ‘Woodstock’ by Joni Mitchell © 1969; Siquomb Publishing Company.
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