If Not Now, When? A Plea for Our Environment

This is the sermon that I delivered on Yom Kippur morning 5782/2021.

The ancient Greeks tell the story of a boy who wanted to touch the sun.

The boy’s name was Icarus. And his father was the master craftsman Daedalus. The two of them had been imprisoned by King Minos in the famous Labyrinth of the island of Knossos.

(Those of you who know your Greek mythology are nodding in recognition right now.)

The story goes that the brilliant Daedalus came up with a plan to would allow him and his son to escape. He fashioned two sets of wings out of feathers and wax. He showed his son how they could use them to fly up out of the labyrinth, across the sea and home to Athens.

On the morning of their escape, the father and son put on their wings and prepared for flight. Just before takeoff Daedalus turned to his son Icarus with a warning: “Fly steady and fly straight,” he admonished him. “This is a dangerous feat we’re undertaking, and if you fly too high you could get hurt – or worse.” His son nodded and shrugged off the warning, and the two of them took off together.

They soared high into the air. Over the vast labyrinth and out over the water. They had made it – they were headed home!

But that was when tragedy struck. You see, for a while Icarus managed to fly steady and straight, like his father had told him to do. But soon the joy and excitement of the moment overtook him. He flew higher and higher, reveling in the power of flight, thinking he could almost reach the heavens. His father looked up and saw him. “Icarus!” he cried out, “That’s too high!” But Icarus couldn’t hear him any longer. He had flown so high, so far away from the earth, so close to touching the sun. In fact, he flew so close that the sun melted the wax in his wings, and he plunged into the sea to his death.

This, of course, is the classic Greek story about hubris – about the ways that our human pride and arrogance and ambition can be our downfall. How thinking we can touch the sky can bring us tumbling back down to earth.

We Jews have our own version of this story. It’s called the Tower of Babel. Genesis chapter 11 tells how, a few generations after Noah and the flood, all the humans on earth banded together to build an עִ֗יר וּמִגְדָּל֙ וְרֹאשׁ֣וֹ בַשָּׁמַ֔יִם – a “city with a tower that reaches to the heavens.” And it tells about how God became angry with the people for trying to storm the heavens, how God responded by confounding their speech and scattering them across the face of the earth.

Both of these are stories about people trying to reach the heavens, and they teach us  what may be a surprising message – about the dangers of human ingenuity. In both cases, the humans use their creative capacity to generate a technology that can carry them higher and higher – wings in the one case and a tower in the other. But in both cases the humans try to climb too high. They forget their place; they lose their humility. They forget that they are not gods. And that’s their downfall.

These might feel like quaint, ancient stories written by people who couldn’t possibly fathom the world we live in. I mean, wax and feathers? A tower made of mud bricks? We have airplanes and rocket ships, and skyscrapers. And we’re doing just fine – the gods haven’t reached yet down from the heavens and punished us.

Except that we’re not doing fine. If you look around you, you can see that as a society and as a world, we are not doing fine at all. We have crowded 8 billion people into this fragile planet. We’ve cut down its rainforests, filled its oceans with our plastic, and choked its atmosphere with our emissions. Like the builders of the ancient Tower of Babel, we have used the resources of the land for our own purposes: to fuel our civilization, to “עֲשֶׂה־לָּ֖נוּ שֵׁ֑ם” – to aggrandize our own name. And like Icarus, we are beginning to discover that there is only so high we can fly.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to have a visit from my parents. It was the first time we had seen each other in almost 20 months, since the border has been closed. We had a really nice time – we toured Montreal, ate bagels, welcomed the kids home from camp.

But in the last couple of days, our visit took a bit of a challenging turn, as we discovered that a massive hurricane was on a collision course for my parents’ house in New Orleans. So our last day together was spent watching the news as Hurricane Ida shook the Gulf Coast.

Ida hit New Orleans on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which made it the second so-called “Storm of the Century” to hit the city in less than 20 years. It also tied with hurricane Laura, which flattened the city of Lake Charles Louisiana last year, as the strongest storm ever to make landfall in that state. And while this storm didn’t cause the same level of damage and loss of life as Katrina, that was because of the strengthening of the levee system, not because the storm was less powerful. In fact, to the contrary, as Ida moved inland it caused damage and loss of life everywhere from Mississippi to New York. We all saw on the news that New York had flash flooding and unprecedented loss of life. All told, this this was one of the costliest and most destructive weather systems in history.

And that’s part of a trend. Scientists tell us that in recent years the storms have gotten bigger and slower. They drop more rain and cause more damage. This is the result of warmer temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico that make the storms proportionally more powerful. And that, of course, is a result of Climate Change.[1] At the same time, the droughts have gotten harsher, the wildfires have gotten more severe and more frequent, the summer temperatures have gotten hotter, the polar ice is disappearing. Last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report, and confirmed that significant changes to climate are happening in every region of the world. Climate change is affecting the water cycle, leading to more severe storms, causing increased rainfall in places that don’t need it and decreased rainfall in areas that really do. It’s causing rising sea levels that affect flooding and erosion, which means that “extreme sea level events that previously occurred once in 100 years could happen every year by the end of this century.” Climate change is making our cities hotter. It’s causing heat waves and reduced oxygen levels in the oceans, which in turn affects the marine food chains, which in turn affects us. It has an effect on every species of plant and animal in every corner of the planet.

In other words, before our very eyes, the world is becoming less and less hospitable. And all of the science is telling us that this is our doing. We have caused this and we continue to cause it with our activities – with our manufacturing and production, with our farming and our driving and our consuming, with our burning of fossil fuels and our emission of greenhouse gasses.

It turns out that the ancient Greeks and the writers of the Torah couldn’t have gotten it more right. It is our human ambition. It is our reliance on technology without regard for the consequences. It is our constant desire to fly higher and have more that is endangering our well-being and the well-being of our entire world.

Judaism teaches that when we do wrong, we are supposed to take responsibility for it. We are supposed to go through a process of teshuvah – of repentance, and reflection, and return – and do what we can do to make things better. In fact, that’s what today is all about. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement.

But how can atonement help with climate change? What can repentance possibly do in the face of these massive weather events and this quickly deteriorating planet?

There’s an answer to that question in our prayerbook.

Let me explain: A few days after Hurricane Ida, I was texting with a group of friends who are also rabbis. (That’s what we do when we’re procrastinating writing sermons.) And I discovered that a colleague of mine out west in California had been evacuated from his home because of wildfires. I hadn’t known that, and so it was good to check in about how he and his family and his congregants were holding up. He also asked about my parents and their hurricane ordeal, and I told him how they were doing. He wrote back, kind of sardonically, “Who by fire and who by water.”

Mi ba’esh umi bamayim?

The Un’taneh Tokef prayer that we read on Yom Kippur morning is the Jewish response to what we might call “acts of God.” It provides us with a kind of template for how we might feel in the wake of these events, and for how we are supposed to act.

It says “Un’taneh Tokef k’dushat hayom – Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day.” And it goes on to describe the terrifying scene of God deciding and sealing the fate of each person:

Mi yamut umi yichyeh – Who shall live and who shall die.
Who by fire and who by water.
Who by famine and who by drought.
Who by earthquake and who by plague.

The power of this prayer is, in part, that it reflects the very human sense of helplessness that we sometimes feel in the world. It reminds us that life is fragile: We don’t get to decide when our time comes or how we go. We don’t get to have control over the fires, the waters, the famines, and the droughts.

That is the uncertainty – that’s the powerlessness – that the Untaneh Tokef seems to capture – at least on the surface. But if you look deeper, you find that it actually says exactly the opposite.

I’ll read a little farther:

בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן, וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
Who shall live and who shall die.
Who by fire and who by water.
Who by war and who by beast
Who by famine and who by drought
But repentance, prayer, and righteous giving help us to overcome the harshness of the decree.

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה

That last line is the key to the entire prayer. Up until then it sounded like we had no control over any of this stuff – God is just sitting on high decreeing your fate. But it turns out that according to the prayerbook we do have some control. We have the power to mitigate the harshness, the severity of these acts of God – through teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah. Through the ways that we act, the ways that reflect, the ways that we support each other.

So in the end, Judaism’s message is quite an empowering one. It says to remember that you do have power to make change – possibly even in these big, life and death scenarios that we’re talking about. Possibly even with regard to the climate. And it reminds us if we think we can change things for the better, we have a responsibility to try – for our own sake; for each other’s sake; and for the sake of future generations.

Some of you know that one of my favourite Talmudic stories tells about the sage Honi HaMa’agal who was walking down the street, and saw an old man planting a carob tree. He knew that the tree would take many years to bear fruit, and so he was confused about why such an old man would bother planting it. He asked the man “Do you think you will ever reap fruit from this tree?”

To which the old man answered, “כִּי הֵיכִי דִּשְׁתַלוּ לִי אֲבָהָתִי שְׁתַלִי נָמֵי לִבְרָאִי – Just as my ancestors planted for me, so I am planting for my descendants.”

As Jews, so much of what we do is with an eye to the future. We build synagogues and Hebrew schools, hoping that they will outlive us. We pass down traditions that we’ve received from ancestors who are long dead, and we hope that our children’s children’s will still follow them. When it comes to the climate we have to be able to think in similar terms. We have to remember that our actions matter here and now, even if we can’t see the effects – that what we sow today our grandchildren will reap. And we have to remember that time is running out to turn things around.

Younger people already know this. Recent surveys have shown that members of Generation Z – those who are under about 25 – tend to have very strong feelings about the need to make significant changes to help the climate.

According to a report from the Pew Research Center, 76% of Gen Zs said that climate change is one of their biggest societal concerns.

That makes sense, since they’re the ones whose future is in jeopardy.

And they are coming out to try to do something about it. About a third of people in that age group have participated in some kind of public environmental action this year, something like volunteering or donating or contacting an elected official. And in larger numbers than ever before, young people are choosing climate-related careers: they’re studying ecology or biodiversity, they’re working for non-profits or becoming Restoration Ecologists. It is even affecting their family choices – how many children they plan to have, or whether they plan to have children at all.[2]      

I read in the Guardian a quote from a young woman in Boston who is an environmental consultant, who said that she decided to do what she does because “I think I’m in the first generation who knows the extent to which climate change poses an existential threat to life on Earth, and also the last generation who may be able to do anything about it.”[3]

For young people, this is personal. This is about their future. For the rest of us, who might not be around in 50 to 70 years, it means having a longer view. It means remembering that our actions have longer-term consequences. Like it says right there in the Ten Commandments, the “sins of the parents are visited upon the children, even to the third and fourth generation.”

In the end, the message of the Untaneh Tokef, the message of our tradition, is that it’s not optional to do this kind of teshuvah. It’s not optional to do everything we can do to reverse the effects of climate change. It’s not optional to try to make things better for our children’s children’s children. It is a religious and ethical imperative. It is something that we must do.

The good news – if we can call it that – is that scientists are telling us that there are still things we can do. Even though Climate Change cannot be avoided – it is already underway – there are ways that we can mitigate its effects, ways that we can reduce its consequences. In other words, we can still maavirin et ro’a hagzeirah. We can still “temper the harshness of the decree.”

According to the IPCC report, “strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases would limit climate change.” If we were to make significant changes and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, not only would we see air quality benefits pretty quickly, but we could see global temperatures start stabilize in two or three decades. (That’s stabilize, not go back down.)

According to the co-chair of the IPCC Working Group, “Stabilizing the climate will require strong, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and reaching net zero CO2 emissions.”[4]

I’m not a scientist, and I’m not a public policy maker. So the purpose of this sermon is not to go into specifics about how to change your life in order to reduce climate change. There are other people who know a lot more about that than I do.

But from a Jewish perspective, real teshuvah – real repentance – is always about asking ourselves hard questions, being honest with the answers, and being willing to make real changes. So, for example, if we know that carbon emissions are the primary driving force behind climate change, then as Jews we are obligated to be aware of our own carbon footprint and to think long and hard about meaningful ways to reduce it. If we know that our gas powered cars and our meat filled diets are major contributors to the greenhouse gas problem, then it’s our responsibility to consider our relationship to those industries. If we know that human production and farming and travel are making the problem worse, then it is a mitzvah – it is a religious obligation – to be thoughtful about how we shop, eat, drive, and fly.

These are the Towers of Babel, these are the wings of wax, that are carrying us higher and higher into the air – farther from the earth that supports us and closer to disaster. Maybe we can be the ones to turn it around. Maybe we can be the first generation of humans to know when enough is enough. To decide that the future matters as much as the present, and that safeguarding our planet is more important than having it all.

Eighteen centuries ago, the sages gathered to commit to paper their most important teachings – the phrases, the pieces of wisdom that they lived by. That was when Hillel the Elder, who is considered one of the great framers of Rabbinic Judaism, shared a teaching that has reverberated down the centuries:

He said:

אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי – If I am not for myself (if I don’t take care of me), who will be for me?

וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי – But if I only care about myself, what am I?

וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי – And if not now, when?

On this Yom Kippur, may these words inspire us to action. May they remind us of our responsibility to each other, to future generations, and to our world. May they remind us that time is running short, and that we are the best hope for the future health of this planet and everything that lives on it. May they remind us that we are not helpless – that we still have the power to make things better. And may they remind us that the time to act is now.

[1] https://www.ctvnews.ca/climate-and-environment/climate-change-is-making-hurricanes-stronger-slower-and-wetter-ida-checked-all-the-boxes-1.5567642.

[2] https://www.marketwatch.com/story/young-adults-worry-its-morally-wrong-to-have-children-earth-day-study-finds-11619110785.

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/sep/06/gen-z-climate-change-careers-jobs.

[4] https://www.ipcc.ch/2021/08/09/ar6-wg1-20210809-pr/.

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