Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Re-Branding Shemittah - Bereshit 5775

Ladies and gentlemen, we have just begun 5775, which just happens to be a year of shemittah, the sabbatical year in which the Torah commands us not to sow or tend crops in the land of Israel (Lev. 25:1-7), but rather to let the land lie fallow. The Torah does not say this explicitly, but this seventh year of rest, this Shabbat for the land was likely instituted to avoid depleting the soil of its nutrients.

Long before the Jews were metropolitan residents, we were an agricultural people, and we were much more in touch with the land. We grew our own food, and when there was not enough rain or the soil was exhausted, we would starve. And hence the need for the shemittah. (BTW, it’s worth pointing out that the seventh of every unit in Jewish time has significance: the seventh day is Shabbat, the seventh month, Tishrei, contains the cycle of holidays we have just completed, and the seventh year is the shemittah.)

The shemittah made a whole lot of sense to our ancestors. Today, we mostly ignore it; it presents a few halakhic challenges to those who pay close attention to where our food comes from. But for the most part, shemittah flies under the radar of the vast majority of the Jewish world.

One of our tasks as contemporary Jews is to consider how seemingly inapplicable ancient customs and rituals can be re-appropriated for today’s world. Jews have always done this.  That’s how each of the three pilgrimage festivals (Pesah, Shavuot, Sukkot) became associated with key aspects of the Exodus story, and how Rosh Hashanah came to be about the new year, and Shemini Atzeret came to be redefined by Simhat Torah (which is not mentioned in the Torah at all), and so forth.

But shemittah - what on Earth do we do with that? (Heh heh.)

I’ll come back to that in a moment. Meanwhile, a brief note from the Torah:

When God creates the world in the first chapters of Bereshit / Genesis, God offers (in the second Creation story, Gen. 2:4b ff.) the following instruction to the man who has just been fashioned from the dust of the Earth (Gen. 2:15):
וַיִּקַּח ה' אֱ-לֹהִים, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן-עֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ.
The Lord God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it.
Our responsibility, suggests the Torah, is to take care of God’s Creation, even while we use it for our own benefit. A midrash from Kohelet Rabbah (7:13) expands on this to say: “Beware lest you spoil and destroy My world, for if you will spoil it, there is no one to repair it after you." (Shimon Peres quoted this in Israel’s statement at the 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development, and it was repeated at the summit last month by Israel’s current minister of environmental protection, Amir Peretz.)

How should we understand this (“to till it and tend it”) today? That God has given us permission to plant crops, but not to deplete the soil so that it is unusable. That we may raise animals for food (actually only explicitly permitted after the Flood) but not to create huge lagoons of manure that cause tremendous floods of poop, polluting rivers and streams and fields. That God has allowed us to process crude oil from the ground to heat our homes and get us from place to place, but not to the extent that we affect our atmosphere so much that the climate is irreparably changed. (Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas; see the manure lagoons above.)

Is this how we tend Creation?

We also read today about the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the fruit of which was forbidden to Adam and Eve, but that they ultimately tasted. The 15th-century Portuguese Torah commentator Don Yitzhaq Abravanel saw this episode as an allegory for indulgence. Everything that the first couple needed was provided in the Garden, and so they were free to contemplate God and holy activities. But by indulging in the forbidden fruit, they chose instead material pursuits, the desire to manipulate the world not only to provide for their own needs, but also to produce many non-essential items, indulging their desires. From this, says Abravanel, only “spiritual death” will ensue.

Abravanel was surely not thinking about the climate in the 15th century. But it is not such a leap to see how what he sees as the human choice to pursue our own physical necessities (i.e. the good) and non-necessities (the evil over-indulgences) has led to an unholy imbalance in Creation. You might say that in the Garden, Adam and Eve lived sustainably, taking from all the available fruit trees only as needed. But once they tasted the forbidden fruit, they became subject to the whims of want, and we have been struggling with how to balance our lifestyles with the unintended consequences of desire and human ingenuity ever since.

There are two essential problems that the Earth is facing. The first is that there are already 7.3 billion people on this planet, and that number grows a wee bit each day. The second is that much of the world wants to live the way that we do in the West - to eat rich foods every day, to drive personal cars, to select from a nearly-limitless pile of wonderful, “essential” merchandise with which to fill our homes and our lives, to travel regularly to distant places for vacations and for work.

And all of these activities have a cost - a cost in energy, in resources. That cost is effectively invisible. And, speaking on a per-individual basis, it is insignificant.

But multiply that cost by seven billion - that is, a seven with nine zeroes after it - and it becomes much more significant. Now not all 7 billion live this way today.  But it is obvious that it would be impossible for everybody on the planet to live according to the American standard. Does it make sense that only those of us who got here first should be allowed to do so?

The results are that, among other things, the average temperature of the planet has risen by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit over the last 100 years, and is expected to rise another 2 degrees by the end of this century. Now that may not sound like much, but the effects on worldwide climate - including floods and droughts and other unusual weather events - will be profound.

On a related note, a recent study by the World Wildlife Fund indicated that populations of “mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish around the globe dropped 52 percent” today as compared with 1970, the year I was born. This is a much steeper decline than had been previously supposed.

We have come a long way since Gan Eden / the Garden of Eden. But all the more so, since this shemittah year calls to mind our duty to use our resources wisely and respectfully, to honor God and Creation by giving the land a Shabbat, should we not use this year to commit ourselves more forcefully to changing our current trajectory?

And although there are many ways to consider sustainable use of God’s gift to us, the biggest challenge that we are now facing is global warming. Ladies and gentlemen, the time to act on this was ten years ago.


A few weeks back, my daughter and I attended the Climate March in New York, along with along with Temple Israel Board member Veronica Bisek Lurvey and her son, our Executive Director, Leon Silverberg and his adult daughter, and some 300,000 other concerned Americans. The attendance far exceeded expectations.

It was a tremendous show of support in advance of the UN Climate Summit, at which pledges were made, commitments were given, speeches were delivered. We shall see if the nations that made pledges, particularly the US and the other big polluters, will follow through.

Meanwhile, perhaps we can take this shemittah year to consider wiser use of our resources on a macro level, and on a personal level. I suggest that we consider making a personal shemittah pledge: Use less. Drive less. Buy less. Throw away less.

We have to start small, but we have to be thinking big as well. Very small actions, performed by many, many people, can yield a significant result.  How many grains of sand does it take to make a beach?

But greater than that, perhaps now is the time to exhort our leaders directly for greater action. The United States made a modest pledge at the climate summit, to “bolster resilience efforts” (and frankly, I have no idea what that means).

Not much has changed in the seven years that I have been discussing these issues in this space. Where are the extensive solar arrays (solar panels have come down 50% in price since 2010)? Where are the wind farms? Where is the cap and trade system? We in Great Neck are seeing a few all-electric Teslas on our streets, but where is the all-electric Chevy?

Germany is now producing 30% of its energy from wind, biogas, and the sun. They have spent tens of billions of dollars on this infrastructure, and in 2010 there were 370,000 Germans employed in this sector. Germany pledged last month that by 2020 they would reduce their carbon emissions by 40% over 1990 levels. Why are we not doing this here?

God gave us this earth to till it and to tend it, with all the implications of that statement. And although we opted to leave Gan Eden and pursue the less-spiritual path, we are still bound to the obligation to protect and honor Creation through wise use. Let’s take this shemittah year to rededicate ourselves to personal and global consideration of the Earth, because it’s the only one we have.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 10/18/2014.)

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Raising the Joy Quotient, or, The Jewish Thanksgiving! (Turkey optional.)

I remember the Sukkot celebrations of my youth with a great deal of fondness. We did not build a sukkah at our house, but where I grew up we actually used to go with volunteers from our synagogue, Congregation Knesset Israel in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to a nearby evergreen forest where we had been permission to cut down branches to use for the sekhakh. Somebody had a pickup truck, and we loaded up the back. I remember stringing up fruits - gourds and apples and pears and so forth - that looked quite nice and festive a few days prior to the holiday, but by the time Yom Tov rolled around, they were already looking pretty sad and attracted a whole lot of yellowjackets. The bees were a nuisance during qiddush, of course, but I seem to recall that nobody was ever actually stung.

Sukkot is the happiest holiday of the year - zeman simhateinu, the season of our happiness, as we refer to it when we recite “Ya’aleh veYavo” during services this week. This is a festival of pure joy; in the Torah reading for Thursday morning, for Shemini Atzeret, we will read from Deuteronomy (16:15, p. 1084 in Etz Hayim) that in this season,
שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, תָּחֹג לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בַּמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר-יִבְחַר יְהוָה:  כִּי יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכֹל תְּבוּאָתְךָ וּבְכֹל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדֶיךָ, וְהָיִיתָ אַךְ שָׂמֵחַ.
You shall hold a festival for the Lord your God seven days, in the place that the Lord will choose; for the Lord your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy.
And as if that were not enough, there are not one, but two additional observances associated with this time that actually have the word “happiness” (Hebrew: simhah) in them: Simhat Torah, and we all know what that’s about, and Simhat Beit HaShoevah, which was an ancient celebration during Sukkot that the Mishnah (Sukkah 5:1) describes as being the most joyous party of the year. It was a ritual designed to muster the water up from the deep to meet the rains that would soon fall from above (Ta’anit 25b), and ceased to be observed after the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.

But let’s face it. When it comes to rituals, Sukkot is also the most curious holiday for a few reasons. Its symbols and ritual items are, frankly, strange. There is a strongly agricultural theme, and how do we relate to that, as contemporary suburbanites? And also, there is just a whiff of paganism - living in a temporary hut decorated with produce, waving various types of flora around in unusual clusters and beating them on the ground on Hoshanah Rabbah.

Furthermore, this supremely happy holiday is just four days after the most solemn day of the year. The juxtaposition is somewhat jarring. We go from fasting to feasting.

But it is this juxtaposition which tells us everything about what it means to be a modern Jew. The whole range of contemporary existence is dense and frenetic. Our lives have become concentrated, chock-full of one thing after another, enhanced by the Information Age and the intrusion of our workloads into our personal time and the overwhelming number of extra-curricular activities our children are expected to check off. We are becoming an episodic people, where the Jews pop in for one thing or another from time to time, sandwiched in-between all our other obligations. The modern family hardly has  enough time to process where it has been before heading off to the next item. Current events come and go quickly; last week’s Facebook sensation is old news.

In that climate, it almost makes sense to put Yom Kippur and Sukkot right next to each other. They are almost polar opposites. But it also reminds me that my task as a rabbi is to even out the distribution. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if the joys of Jewish life were highlighted as much as the repentance-driven, awe and vulnerability themes of the High Holidays?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everybody who showed up for Yom Kippur also built a sukkah? Consider the following:

Yom Kippur is a journey of the mind. Sukkot is of the body.

Yom Kippur is about seeking forgiveness for what we did wrong; Sukkot is celebrating doing right.

They are the yin and yang of the Jewish calendar. They butt right up against each other, but they are opposing forces. Theologically speaking, Sukkot represents what I think we need more of in the Jewish world. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur place God on the mountaintop or on a throne, and we are lowly, frail creatures who can be terminated by God in an instant. It speaks of fear and awe. Untaneh toqef qedushat hayom, ki hu nora ve-ayom. Let us speak of the power of the holiness of this day, for it is awesome and frightening. Who will live, and who will die, etc. We add an extra word to Qaddish on those days: Le’eyla le’eyla (instead of only one le’eyla) - God is twice as far away from us, twice as high up in the heavens during the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah / Ten Days of Repentance.

Yom Kippur is about the distance between us and God. But Sukkot is about narrowing that gap, getting closer to God by getting closer to nature. The definitive sukkah experience is actually seeing the heavens through the sekhakh, about getting closer to God.