Growing up, my family had an odd obsession: we would collect Noah’s arks. Anything that was Noah’s Ark related found in catalogues or at antique sales would end up in our home. To this day, the countertops of my parents’ kitchen covered with rainbow arches above miniature models of wooden boats, surrounded by parading animals, lined up two-by-two. I loved the story so much, I named my son after the biblical character. For my family, the story of Noah and his ark, was one about building a future, and a promise from God, a rainbow in the sky that we still see after every thunderstorm turns to sunshine, and a dove, complete with olive branch in beak, representing the possibility of peace.
This biblical narrative though is a troublesome one. Noah is called an Ish Tzadik Tamim haya b’dorotav, a righteous and simple person for his generation, the only person who God deems worth saving among a wicked generation. And so, he builds a lifesaving ark for himself and his family, and all animals that God created to ensure repopulation of the earth. But when God announces the imminent destruction of all humanity, Noah doesn’t flinch. He has a lifeboat – literally. He is safe. Throughout Torah, Abraham goes toe-to-toe with God in an attempt to save the innocent of Sodom and Gamora, cities where he did not reside. Moses stands up to God to defend the same Israelites that he spends most of his tenure as leader being critical of. But for Noah, he is only concerned with his own family and never thinks about the impact of his ambivalence or the world that he is left to live in after it was destroyed.
Approximately two million students from over 250 countries participated in a global climate school strike on Friday, September 20, ahead of the UN Climate Action Summit that took place days later. Coordinated by sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden, the strike was meant to gain attention to the issue, but also to make sure that young people on this planet, the ones whom we are leaving the earth to in this state, have a seat at the table and are part of the conversation. And the reality that we are leaving them is a scary one: hotter, drier weather in the Middle East has dried up the Tigris-Euphrates river basin; about 40% of the 10 million people who live in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta live below sea level, forcing the country’s President to announce that they will actually be moving the capital to higher ground; Miami and other coastal towns may not exist decades from now; droughts in California have caused water shortages and wildfires.
On this day where we admit our transgressions, my teacher and dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical School, Rabbi Daniel Nevins writes: We were created amidst a clean and pure world, but now it is headed for destruction in our hands. Not on our own merits do we beseech You, Lord our God, for we have sinned, we have wasted, we have destroyed: For the sin of filling the sea and land with filth and garbage; For the sin of destroying forever species which in Your great mercy were saved from the flood; And for the sin of laying bare the forests and habitats from which all creatures receive life.” Forgive us, Pardon us, Grant us Atonement.
I have a confession to make: I am not a very green person. Far from it actually. I use paper plates a lot because I hate doing the dishes. I often forget to separate out the recycling. When it was time to lease a new car, I went with the gas guzzling SUV instead of hybrid or electric models, because I was more interested in a third row with lots of leg room, not my carbon footprint. It’s not that I don’t care about protecting the planet. It’s more that I am unsure me doing anything can truly make a difference. Everything I’ve read suggests that we have passed the point of no return. After the forty-day-and-forty-night flood, there will be no rainbow in the sky.
Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University explains that a switch from plastic straws to paper straws alone won’t save the planet. He writes that, “focusing on individual choices around air travel and beef consumption heightens the risk of losing sight of the gorilla in the room: civilization’s reliance on fossil fuels for energy and transport overall.”
On Yom Kippur, we pour our hearts out to God, not just admitting our mistakes, but we are meant to experience a spiritual death of sorts. And we make confessions as a community. Ashamnu. Bagadnu. Al Chet Shechatanu Lefanecha. Each statement is in the plural. We have sinned. We have transgressed. We have let this happen. We, together, have caused our communal death; we have brought this upon ourselves.
After all, when God gives responsibility of the utopian Eden to Adam and Eve, first God blesses them, and then says to them: be fruitful and multiply and fill the land. Then, v’chiv’shu’ha, and subdue it, Urdu bigdat Hayam, uv’of hashamayim, u’v’chol chaya haromeset al ha’aretz, and have dominion over the fish, and birds, and all mammals that roam the earth. Sforno, the Italian Rabbi and Biblical commentary of the 16th century explains that v’chiv’shu’ha is not a directive to conquer earth with muscular power, but to subdue it by means of humanity’s superior intellect. He understands Torah to mean that we must use our intelligence to protect earth. Our own intelligence, and courage, is what will save us.
Greta Thunberg first gained notoriety in August 2018 when she would stand outside the Swedish Parliament, then alone, holding up a sign that said “School Strike for Climate,” but through social media, her movement grew, launching a Fridays for the Future campaign, as well as this global school strike that some of our own children participated in just a couple of weeks ago. At her speech to the United Nations, she chastised world leaders:
“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to me for hope? How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
But what gave Greta Thunberg hope that we can change was convincing her family to become vegan, convincing them to no longer travel by airplane. She realized that she could make a difference. She could change. She could save the world. We all can.
Al Gore, who has arguably become more influential and famous as an environmental hero than he ever was as Vice President, writes that he still has hope for the future. He says his hope “stems largely from the recent, unprecedented groundswell of youth activism that has raised public consciousness to new levels and is pushing political leaders to develop bold and ambitious ideas to confront this challenge. Harking back to the great social movements in history — youth activists are taking the lead.”
Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, of blessed memory, tells a story of a young child who cries out to God and declares that the world is such a mess. The child challenges God: Why don’t you send someone to change the world? God responds, I did send someone. I sent you. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubuvitcher Rebbe, taught: “If you see what needs to be repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that God has left for you to complete. But if you only see what is wrong and what is ugly in the world, then it is you yourself that needs to repair.” It is our job now to repair the world. God sent us.
The theology of Yom and the concept of ‘who shall live and who shall die,’ is hardly believable for us. That is partially because we live in a world where we expect something and get it right away. That is because we fully expect to go to sleep tonight and wake up again in the morning. We care about the here and now, and we fully expect to be in the here and now. We don’t know about the future, but we don’t seem to be worried because that won’t affect us.
We learn in Taanit 23a of the Babylonian Talmud about a man walking along the road who comes across Honi the Circle Maker planting a Carob Tree. He looks at Honi and asks him: “how long will it take for the tree to bear fruit?” “Seventy years,” Honi replies. “Seventy years?!?” The man cannot believe it. “You will not be alive in seventy years. Why would you plant a tree whose fruit you never get to eat,” the man scoffs. Honi quietly and confidently responded, “when I came into this world, there were carob trees ripe for the picking. Just as my parents planted for me, I will plant for my children.”
It is easy for us to not care about the future of the planet because we know it won’t affect us. We don’t have to worry about buying real estate on some space colony on Mars. We don’t have to worry about continents being submerged by water or animals becoming extinct. Not in our lifetime. But if that is how we view the future, then we are understanding the true message of Yom Kippur incorrectly. It’s not about the next day or the next year. It’s not about making it to the end of Neilah. It’s not about 5780. It is about what we want our legacies to be. What impact do we want to have in this world? Are we only concerned with us being written and sealed in the Book of Life for the year to come? Or do we want to make sure there is a Book of Life to be written into?
In our liturgy this evening, in our machzorim, we do not only that we have transgressed. We also ask God v’tein b’libeinu la’azov derech resha, to inspire our hearts to abandon this terrible path. Saying sorry isn’t enough. We need to be inspired to change. We need to be willing to change. We need to understand that what we as individuals strive to change may not be enough. But we ask God to inspire in our hearts to make a collective and communal change. We admit our mistakes collectively. If we are going to save our planet, we must do so collectively as well.
Greta Thunberg concluded her UN speech with this promise: “We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.” Change is coming. And change must be coming here.
We have sinned. We have transgressed. I acknowledge that we have talked the talk on the bimah but not always walked the walk. We waste. We use paper and plastic. We leave lights on and don’t use energy efficient bulbs. We aren’t relying on renewable energy. That is about to change. In the year 5780, our newly constituted Beth El Green Team, will be working to make our sacred space and holy community one that understands and appreciates the importance the holy ground and sacred space of this planet, that when we make a promise of Tikkun Olam, to repair the world, we literally understand our need to save HaOlam, planet Earth.
The power of the rainbow at the conclusion of Noah’s Flood was not just the promise and covenant that it represented. The rainbow represents the opportunity and ability to rebuild. It was a reminder that no matter what pain and destruction, metaphorical or literal, that we have caused and that we experienced. We can rebuild this world anew. No matter what the last year was, this year will be better, as long as we put in the work to make it so. Our past doesn’t need to dictate our future. The rainbow is our future. We do not see where it ends. If we put in the work, our potential to save this world is limitless. And our children will lead us. The prophet Isaiah promised (54:13) that children shall be disciples of God and how great will the peace of your children be, v’rav shalom baniyich. Midrash suggests that rather than reading this verse as baniyich, your children, we should read it as boniyech, your builders. Our children will follow God’s path, even if we don’t, and will build a world of Shalom. But Shalom here is not peace. Shalom comes from shalem, meaning whole. The Prophet Isaiah is revealing to us is that it is our children who will fix our past mistakes and transgressions. They will lead us. They are our rainbow. They are our dove with an olive branch. May we plant for them so that there is still a world left for them to repair. May we save the world for them. May they save the world for us. And may our entire planet be inscribed in the Book of Life. Amen.
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky