Rabbi Steve Cohen: Rosh HaShanah Sermon 5781/2020 – Environment

And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “my father.” Abraham replied “here I am my son.” And Isaac said “here is the fire, and here is the wood, but where is the lamb for the offering?” Here in California, and throughout the entire western United States, Isaac’s long ago words now have a new resonance. “Hineh ha-esh. Here is the fire.”

Here in Santa Barbara, in the last day or two, our air quality has begun to return to normal and we are breathing a deep sigh of relief. We are also struggling to wrap our minds around year after year of devastating wildfire. California, Oregon and Washington have been on fire for a month now, and it is still just September, beginning of the wildfire season. Last year it was Australia. Two years previously, the fire was in our mountains, and we were forced to stay indoors for weeks by toxic smoke, and then as a direct result of the fire came the Montecito debris flow.

We recognize that wildfires have always been part of nature. But just as this Covid-19 pandemic is a bitter but undeniable reality, so too is the fact that our western states are experiencing longer fire seasons, and bigger, more intense, more destructive, and more lethal wildfires. Our reality has changed, and we know the reason. Id like to speak this morning about the warming of our planet. We should touch briefly upon the science. But today is Rosh Hashanah, and so our attention is primarily upon ourselves and our inner life. Our fears and our hopes, and how we make choices, both as individuals and as a society. This is the season of teshuvah, of turning, and at this time of year more than any other, we are called to ask ourselves: am I living according to my deepest values? As a society, are we living out our deepest values? And if not, are we capable of change?

Here is what we know, and this is direct from NASA’s Global Climate Change website: The planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit, or .9 degrees Celsius, since the late 19th century. This change has been driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere.

This rise in temperature is affecting people living in different parts of the world in different ways. In the Southwest United States, which is our region, effects include: increased wildfires, declining water supplies, reduced agricultural yields, health impacts in cities due to heat, and flooding and erosion in coastal areas. Again, this is straight from the NASA website.

There is virtually no dissent among currently publishing climate scientists about:

the fact of global warming,

that it is due to human-made emissions,

and that it is the primary cause of our increasing wildfires.

If you look, you will find that knowledgeable people also agree that we need better forest management, including thinning and controlled burns, which were practiced effectively by the Chumash and other indigenous people for thousands of years. But the increased wildfires are due primarily to heat, to drought and to trees weakened by insect outbreaks, all of which stem from the rising surface temperature of the planet. There is no disagreement about this in the respected scientific community.

Reasonable people can disagree about how we should respond. A reasonable person could certainly say: there is nothing that I can possibly do that would make a difference, so why would I, why should I, make any change in my own life in an attempt to solve a problem that I did not create and which I cannot solve? I understand the logic and the despair behind that point of view. But I cannot embrace it.

At its core, Judaism teaches…and this is the central message of this High Holy Day season… Judaism teaches that we choose. We choose the way we will live. We choose the world that we will leave to our children and our children’s children. Will they have fresh air to breathe? and clean water to drink? and good soil for their crops? I am intensely aware that I have lived a privileged life, thanks in great part to the sacrifices of people who came before me. If I know…and we do know… that the way that we are living now is leaving a legacy of suffering for future generations, how can I in good conscience throw up my hands and say “there’s nothing I can do.”

We are here today, carrying forward the traditions of our ancestors, because our Jewish forbears took responsibility for the choices they made, and for the impact of their choices on the future generations.

The shofar, whose voice we will hear shortly, has been heard in many ways. It is first of all a wake-up call. It is a spiritual call to arms. A call to conscience.

The shofar also returns us to one huge moment in our history, maamad har sinai, the standing at Mount Sinai. There we stood together as a people at the foot of the mountain, with the mountain smoking and trembling, and the cry of a shofar growing louder and louder. In our imaginations, when we hear the shofar today, we return to that early morning in the desert 3,000 years ago, at the foot of the mountain of God.

The standing at Sinai and what it represents is absolutely relevant to our thinking about climate change and our personal decision making. At Sinai an entire people agreed to live together, abiding by certain basic principles. Sinai is our moment of entering the Social Contract. Together, we take upon ourselves fundamental laws of behavior:

We will honor our parents.

We will not steal from each other.

We will not give false testimony in court.

We will not have sex with someone else’s husband or wife.

We will set aside one day per week, one seventh of our lives, for family, for community and for God. Our standing at Sinai and willingly accepting the commandments, represents our human ability to agree upon how we will live together.

The fate of the entire planet, according to one famous ancient midrash, depends upon human beings finding a way to say “yes, we will live by our values.”

Over the past thirty years the nations of the world have come together, repeatedly, to address the problem of climate change. The 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was followed and extended by the Kyoto Protocol, with 192 signatory members. The 2015 Paris Agreement within the same Framework Convention, represented a different approach, one which relies on each country to simply do its best.

Can we even conceive of the endless hours of negotiations, the arm-twisting, the cajoling, and the superhuman patience and determination that must have gone into wrangling all the members of those agreements? That is what it means, when you’re talking about living breathing human beings, to get everyone together at the foot of the mountain and all to say “yes, we agree.”

Our country, as you are probably aware, has at times supported and even led these international efforts, and at other times opposed them. Under the terms of the Paris Agreement, the earliest date that the United States can withdraw from the Agreement is November 4, 2020, the day after election day. I hope and pray that our governmental leaders grasp the importance of the Paris Agreement, and begin to act again together with the rest of the human race, with whom we are inextricably connected on this delicate planet.

That is at the level of international climate diplomacy. What about each one of us, in our own personal lives? Is there anything we can do that could make a difference?

We can each begin with our own inner life, today on Rosh Hashanah, renewing our own sense of hope. My own hope was rekindled last February, when Jeff Young brought us to see and meet Professor Katharine Hayhoe speaking at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Dr. Hayhoe is an Evangelical Christian, Director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University and one year ago she was named one of the United Nations Champions of the Earth. She is a brilliant scientist who has made it her life’s work to teach the realities of climate change in a way that the rest of us can understand, and to overcome the polarization and politicization that have taken over our national conversation about the Climate. She is not only brilliant, but warm and funny and passionately committed to communication. She wants us to begin talking at every opportunity about the warming of our planet. Without hatred, without bitterness, and to regain our hope.

Each one of us needs to find a Katharine Hayhoe. A person who restores our faith in humanity and in the possibility of living and working together on this planet. Check her out.

I will mention, as well, my wife Marian. Marian wanted…as I do….to feel as though we are doing something meaningful to be part of the solution to Climate Change. So she put in the hours, and did the research, and got solar panels installed on our roof, and a solar battery in our garage. She shopped around and we are now leasing two electric cars. So we are driving on sunlight, and have not been to a gas station in over three years. OK, once a year, we rent a car to take us into the Sierras where there are no electric charging stations yet. With our solar panels on our roof, and our electric cars and our solar battery in the garage, we are actively participating in the great project of eventually weaning our species off of the burning of fossil fuels for our energy needs. I hope you will consider joining us; Marian and I would be more than happy to share our experience with any of you who are interested.

Within our community here at CBB, I mentioned that our CBB member Jeff Young brought me back in February to meet Katharine Hayhoe. Jeff is working tirelessly in our community to mobilize learning and action, within our congregation and reaching out to other faith communities in Santa Barbara. If you would like to be part of Jeff’s climate change action team, send me an email and I will put you in touch with him.

The shofar we are about to hear is calling out to us, summoning us to align our lives with our core values. Each one of us will hear that voice in our own unique way. We are a diverse community and the human race with whom we share this world, is infinitely diverse. But we share certain core principles. We know that the earth needs our care and protection. We worry about the most vulnerable human beings around the world, whose lives are already and in the future will be most impacted as the planet continues to warm. And we want our children and our children’s children to live, to work and to play, and to find themselves reborn every Rosh Hashanah on the only home we have, this beautiful planet.