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Receiving a Better World (Rosh Hashanah Day One – 09/19/20)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Receiving a Better World
Last year before Shofar Blowing, we prefaced it with a song called
Return by Joe Buchanan:
“It’s going to be a brave new year
Starting right now, right here
And I will be strong and stand up tall
Reach out for others when they fall”
Little did we know how prophetic these words would be:
how strong we’d need to be,
how much we’d need to stand up for others.
The immediate months after the High Holidays started well, but once we turned the corner of 2020, it went downhill fast.
Our military assassinated an Iranian general, and TikTok predicted the start of WWIII. Luckily, they were wrong on that one.
The continent of Australia caught on fire, an estimated one billion animals perished, and 20% of their forests burned, a proportion scientists believe is unprecedented globally.
Then came the appearance of a mysterious and deadly Corona shaped virus in Wuhan, China that insidiously spread to Italy, Iran, South Korea, and then across the globe.
Schools shut down, then sports and entertainment venues.
Hand sanitizer, paper towels, and toilet paper disappeared from supermarket shelves.
Bitcoin started to be valued in rolls of Charmin!
Unemployment reached rates higher than in the Great Depression. Millions, young and old, became sick, with over 190,000 Americans dying prematurely.
We started working from home, Zooming for business, pleasure, and religion. Binge-watching became the national pastime.
In August, I ran into a member of our synagogue at Shoprite. She said it was just the third time she had left her house since mid-March. I’m sure there are many others like her.
And then to compound our problems, the innocent Breonna Taylor was shot in her bed, and a cop killed George Floyd as three other policemen looked on. Black Lives Matter took on new proportions, and the rallies have yet to subside.
In August, California forests caught on fire, with now over five million acres burned (when I wrote my first draft, it was just 2 million acres). Fires now ravage Oregon and Washington as well, which in many places, have the worst air quality on the planet.
Tropical Storm Isaias knocked out our power, and Hurricane Laura landed on Louisiana with 150 miles per hour winds.
It’s astonishing how all our lives have changed in the second half of 5780. And we won’t be able to return to our usual social routines until a vaccine is widely distributed, which will still take a number of months, and possibly a year or two, depending on whom you believe.
Now we gather once again, some of us in person and most of us in front of screens, to realign ourselves spiritually, strengthen our faith, and pray for a better year ahead. May 5781 be a year of healing, recovery, and togetherness.
But are things going to get better just because we pray?
Why should God rid us of our problems when most of them are of our own doing?
Let’s take the massive bushfires in Australia and the West Coast as a discussion point.
I’ve been listening to a Great Course series on geology called “How the Earth Works” by Professor Michael E. Wysession from Washington University in St. Louis.
In the lecture on “Humans—Dominating Geologic Change,” I learned several new things that I would like to share with you.
Wysession says, “While there is nothing new about life-altering the planet, what is remarkable is the speed with which we humans are doing this.
For the past 10,000 years, humans have been removing forests, and
this has had a tremendous effect on the biosphere and atmosphere.
Wetland regions have been drained or filled in, removing water
from the land and local atmosphere, making regions arider.
The amount of the United States that is now paved is greater than
the area of the state of Ohio. This affects land temperatures, which
in turn affects storm patterns.
The paving also affects water flow patterns because it increases the
amount of water removed from the land and put into streams. It prevents water from going into the ground—it all gets washed out
to the sea. This is a huge problem in urban areas.
I’m not saying we should go back to dirt roads, but we need to make sure our engineers and urban planners are even more mindful of weather patterns and water runoff.
Rivers around the world have been significantly altered.
Part of the year, not a single drop of the Colorado River reaches the ocean because it all gets removed to grow food in places like California’s Imperial Valley, or diverted and rerouted to provide drinking water for its large cities.
Is it surprising then that fires ravage the West Coast year after year and Death Valley registered a whopping 130 degrees this August?
We need to be more conscious of our impact on the world.
The Coronavirus was also initiated by human activity in the consumption of some bat or civet, just as AIDS, SARS, and the Avian flu were spread by humans who were not careful in their consumption of animals.
No, I don’t believe prayer alone will solve our problems.
But there is a process we can follow from the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16a) that may gain us Divine (or Universal) assistance. And that process is giving of ourselves.
Rabbi Akiva said: For what reason did the Torah say: Bring the Omer offering of barley on the second day of Passover? It is because Passover is the time of grain, the beginning of the grain harvest season, and therefore the Holy One said: Bring the Omer offering before Me on Passover so that the grain in the fields will be blessed for you.
And for what reason did the Torah say: Bring an offering of two loaves from the new wheat on Shavuot? It is because Shavuot is the time that fruits begin to ripen on trees; therefore, the Holy One said: Bring the offering of the two loaves before Me on Shavuot so that the fruits that grow on a tree will be blessed for you.
And for what reason did the Torah say: Pour water onto the altar in the Temple on the festival of Sukkot? The Holy One said: Pour water before Me on the festival of Sukkot so that the rains of the year, which begin to fall after Sukkot, will be blessed for you.
We see that in times of judgment, we need to recognize where our blessing originates and offer some gift, some thanksgiving in return.
Rabbi Akiva continues:
And recite before Me on Rosh Hashanah (when Humanity is judged) verses that mention Kingship, Remembrances, and Shofar: Kingship so that you will crown Me as King over you; Remembrances so that your remembrance will rise before Me for good; and how will the remembrance rise? It will rise with the shofar.
Today, on Rosh Hashanah, humanity is judged. The offering is ourselves. We offer ourselves to God.
But given what we need in this upcoming year: a better ecosystem, a safe and effective vaccine, equal rights, and a better law enforcement system, are our words of Kingship, remembrances, and shofar enough? I believe we need more substantial offerings!
I perceive the droughts, the fires, the hurricanes, and the pandemic as a sign, a message from our planet. The pointless murder of Black Americans and the rioting are also a sign, but I will address this issue in a later sermon.
I believe the tragedies happening to us globally are analogous to a story from the 19th century.
Two men who disagreed about who owned a tract of land came to R’ Lippele, the author of a famous book on ritual law. Each said the land belonged to him. Both were adamant, and R’ Lippele was unable to have them reach a compromise. R’ Lippele then went to see the piece of land involved.
When they arrived there, they again quarreled. Each repeated his version and his claim, and they almost came to blows. Finally, R’ Lippele lay down and put his ear to the ground.
They thought he had gone insane. “What are you doing, Rebbe?” they both asked in amazement. “One of you says, ‘The land is mine,’ while the other says, ‘The land is mine,’” said R’ Lippele. “I decided to hear what the earth itself has to say. It says, ‘Both of you belong to me.’”
For the past 10,000 years, we’ve been saying to the earth, “you’re mine”; now the planet is fighting back, saying, “you belong to me.”
What needs to accompany our prayers? What’s going to be our sacrifices, our sweat offerings and financial offerings in the upcoming year?
We need to make donations and join in with conservation societies.  We need to petition our government for a safer environment.
We all should consider one meatless day a week to cut down on the methane emissions from cattle and poultry farms. Meatless Mondays is a movement across the country, join in. I plan on doing it.
We can shop with reusable bags.
Drink out of reusable containers.
Buy organic foods. Do you know that it takes a farm three years to convert from inorganic to organic, for it takes minimally that amount of time for the pesticides and other toxins in the soil to withdraw? The higher price of organic produce is also to cover the farmer’s income loss during that time. Buying organic is not just about our personal health; it’s also about healing the earth.
Just this year, the sisterhood agreed not to purchase any more Styrofoam cups for the synagogue. But perhaps we should also be thinking about compostables which are plastic-like but degrable utensils and the purchase of organic foods when possible.
Today, we are drawn together to pray for our lives, our children’s lives, national peace, and global security.
In ancient times it was natural for our ancestors to offer something from their bounty when they asked from God. Are we so much more sophisticated than those generations that we deserve to receive without giving?
The efforts that we will make, the organizations that we will support, the actions that we will desist from, are our offerings. Our alters will be our kitchen tables and our checkbooks. Our petitions, and rally cries will adorn our prayers.
The earth has been protesting loudly in 2020, what’s our response?
May our offerings be accepted and have an impact, then we will surely be worthy of a blessed new year.
Shana Tova

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