Rabbi Lawrence Troster - Jewish Sermon Material for the People's Climate March, Part I
Rabbi Lawrence Troster, June 2014
I. September 13: Parshat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)
Outline of the Parasha:
- Deuteronomy 26:1-15: Three Liturgical commands
- Deut. 26:16-19: Summary
- Deut. 27:1-28:69: Covenantal Ceremony
- 27:1-14: Instructions
- 27:15-26: First set of curses
- 28:1-14: Blessings
- 28:15-68: Second set of curses
- 28:69: Conclusion
- Deut. 29:1-8: End of exhortation
There are two elements in this parasha that could be utilized for a sermon or d’var Torah for the People’s Climate March: the law of the first fruits, and the blessings and curses which make up the ceremony to ratify the covenant.
1.The First Fruits (Deuteronomy 26:1-11):
According to Jeffery Tigay in his commentary to Deuteronomy in the JPS series, this law (together with the other laws in vs 12-15) is a supplement to earlier laws about first fruits and poor tithes in Exodus 23:19, 34:26; Numbers 18:12-12; & Deuteronomy 12:6, 14:28-29; 18:4. The law is a way of acknowledging God as source of fertility and true owner of land and its produce.
The declaration of the farmer is used as the basic text of the Passover Haggadah in the Magid section where each phrase is expanded to refer to some aspect of the Exodus story. As the end of the Magid there is the famous passage of Rabban Gamaliel that requires us to explain the most important symbols of the and then says, “In each and every generation people must regard themselves as though they personally left Egypt…” According to Lawrence Hoffman (My People’s Haggadah Volume 2, p. 83) this phrase does not just invoke memory the way we generally understand it, but rather an ancient idea called anamnesis which is the “collapse of time so that past and present merge into one. Thus what happened then is being repeated now in our consciousness.
Thus the original declaration of the farmer bringing the first fruits serves the same function. As such, it is meant to eliminate the possibility that the farmer will forget the beneficence of God, thinking that he is self-sufficient and produced all that he has by his own hands. Deuteronomy 8:11-18 warns against such arrogance.
The relevance for today’s crisis of climate change is that we frequently act as if we are in control of Creation; that we can reap endless benefits from the earth without regard for the consequences of our actions for future generations. In this sense we must reverse the anamnesis: we must regard ourselves as the future generations who will be suffering the consequences of climate change if we do not change our ways in the now. We must tell the story of the possible future as a way of changing the outcome. We must create “future memories” while acknowledging who is the real source and owner of Creation’s bounty.
Source Material: The Pilgrimage of the First Fruits: Mishnah Bikkurim 3:2, 3, 4:
How do they take up the First-fruits to Jerusalem? [The men of] all the smaller towns that belonged to the Maamad gathered together in the town of the Maamad and spent the night in the open space of the town and came not into the houses and early in the morning the officer [of the Maamad] said, “Arise you and let us go up to Zion unto the Lord our God.” (Jer. 31:6)
They that were near [to Jerusalem] brought fresh figs and grapes, and they that were far off brought dried figs and raisins. Before them went the ox, having its horns overlaid with gold and a wreath of olive-leaves on its head. The flute was played before them until they drew nigh to Jerusalem. When they had drawn nigh to Jerusalem they sent messengers before them and bedecked their First-fruits. The rulers and the prefects and the treasurers of the Temple went forth to meet them. According to the honor due to them that in used they to go forth. And all the craftsmen in Jerusalem use to rise up before them and greet them, saying “Brethren, men of such and such a place, you are welcome!”
2. The Blessings and Curses (Deuteronomy 27:1-28:69):
When the execrations (called in Hebrew the tokhehot, “reproaches” or “warnings”) of this text are read in the synagogue they are chanted in a quiet voice because even to hear such terrible curses is to worry that they may come to pass in our lifetime. The curses are the consequences of breaking the covenant between God and the people. They are mainly disasters which come from natural catastrophes, disease, warfare and exile. The ancient covenant was not just between God and Israel but also included the land. God, people and land are bound up in a moral matrix in which the health of the nation and the health of the land only come from obedience to the divine covenant. While, today we usually do not understand natural catastrophes, disease, war and forced migration as direct punishments from God, nonetheless our disregard for the health of the earth is causing these to come about. In our own way, we have broken the most basic covenant with God: respect and care for Creation. And now we are suffering the consequences which may turn out to be as dire as the ones in Deuteronomy.
Judaism provides a solution to our misdeeds: repentance (teshuvah), the central theme of the High Holiday season. The concept of repentance has a long history in Judaism with many sources devoted to it. The Rabbinic concept required a verbal confession: the public recognition of one’s wrongdoing. Moses Maimonides in his classic description of the laws of repentance in the Mishneh Torah says that true repentance only comes with not repeating the original error:
“Repentance is completed when an opportunity to commit one’s original transgression again arises but one doesn’t and repents instead…” (Mishneh Torah, Book of Knowledge, Laws of Repentance 2:1)
There is a saying usually (falsely) attributed to Albert Einstein: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Teshuvah comes from the root “to return” which gives us a rich concept to think about doing things differently. Turning away from the insanity of our actions, which are unsustainable, to a repair or tikkun of what we have broken. Then will we be able to create a sustainable future for our descendants.
Jewish Sermon Material for PCM Part II
Rabbi Lawrence Troster, June 2014
September 20: Parshat Nitsavim-Vayelekh(Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30)
Outline of the Parasha:
- Deut. 29:8-30: Moses’ Third Discourse: Exhortations to Observe the Covenant Made in Moab Part II:
- Deut. 29:9-20: The Covenant Ceremony
- Deut. 29:21-27: The Aftermath of Punishment
- Deut. 29:28: Conclusion to Moses’ Warning
- Deut. 30:1-10: The Possibility of Restoration
- Deut. 30:11-20: Conclusion of the Summons to the Covenant
- Deut. 31:1-34:12: Epilogue: Moses’ Last Days Part I:
- Deut. 31: Moses’ Preparation of Israel for the Future Part I:
i. Deut. 31:1-30: Preparatory Acts
- vv. 1-6: Moses Announces His Departure and His Replacement by Joshua
- vv. 7-8: Moses Appoints Joshua
- vv. 9-13: The Writing and Reading of the Teaching
- vv. 14-15: Preparations for God’s Appointment of Joshua
- vv. 16-22: God Has Moses Copy Down a Poem Describing Israel’s Future Apostasy and its Consequences
- vv. 16-18: Israel’s Future Apostasy and its Consequences
- vv. 19-22: Writing the Poem
- v. 23: God Appoints Joshua
- vv. 24-30: Moses Gives the Teaching to the Priests and Assembles the People to Hear the Poem
There are several elements in the parasha that can be utilized in a sermon, d’var Torah or Torah study on climate change: communal moral responsibility including across generations; repentance and free will and the inherent understanding of right and wrong; hope and strength in the face of a difficult struggle; the Sabbatical Year as a time of study and rededication.
1. Communal responsibility for covenant
In Deuteronomy 29:18 it says that if someone breaks the covenant, God will sweep away the moist with the parched.While this difficult clause has been interpreted in many ways, Jeffrey Tigay in the JPS commentary to Deuteronomy (p. 280) suggests that the moist with the parched is a merism denoting “everything” and understand it as a comment on the consequences of the breaking of the covenant: the punishment from God will affect everything and everyone in the nation. This can mean the devastation of the land, the plant and animal life through a natural catastrophe or it can indicate the destruction of the nation: the innocent together with the guilty people alluding to Genesis 18:23 (Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty). In either interpretation, sin brings about a collective punishment.
Collective punishment of this sort is a form of what is called “cross generational retribution”, the sins of the parents being visited on their children and subsequent generations by God. Jeffrey Tigay sees this belief arising from the social construct of family solidarity in the ancient world. Since the basic unit of society was the family and not the individual, the individual is “inextricably bound up with their kin, including past and future generations.”(The JPS Torah Commentary to Deuteronomy, pp. 436-7) While in other ancient Near Eastern societies, cross generation retribution was a common mode of punishment for a host of crimes, in Biblical law, it was restricted to divine punishments and expressly forbidden to human courts (Exodus 34:6-7, Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 24:16) Since human experience sometimes does see later generations suffering for the sins of their ancestors, in Biblical law, cross generational retribution was recognized as an expression of God’s control of human affairs.
This concept, however, raised the moral problem of innocent people being punished by God for other’s behavior. Jeremiah, Ezekiel and other biblical sources either restricted such punishment or denied that God ever acted in this way. In the later rabbinic tradition, the moral problem was raised anew but beliefs in cross generational or collective punishment nonetheless continued (cf. Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 10a: “If it goes ill with the righteous man, his father was wicked.”). In modern Jewish thought this concept was essentially nullified in discussions of the conflict between God’s providence and human free will which has been usually resolved in favor of human freewill. The concept of the God who directly controls both natural and human events has lost much of its force for two main reasons. First of all, modern thought tends to remove God from active participation in everyday events that can now be understood through science’s understanding of the laws of the natural world. Secondly, the trauma of the Holocaust has almost completely removed the idea that God would be the author of such an event because of human sinfulness. The acts of humans are the source of evil and God must suffer to stand aside in order to preserve free will.
And yet, the actual fact of later generations suffering for the moral choices of their ancestors or the existence of the impact of trauma or dysfunction in families that bridges generations is an actual fact. And while we would not attribute this effect to God, we must also realize how our actions today will affect future generations. This moral issue is mostly easily seen in climate change. The carbon we emit into the atmosphere every day will have an impact on the climate for hundreds of years into the future. This imposes on us a moral responsibility not to jeopardize future life by our selfishness or our inaction. And climate change knows no moral boundaries: the innocent will be swept away with the guilty.
2. Free will, repentance, and the inherent understanding of right and wrong
In Deuteronomy 30:15, 19 God gives the free will choice of blessing and life or curse and death. God urges us to choose life that we and our descendants might live. This passage is often quoted as the proof that free will and moral choice lie at the heart of Jewish ethics. Whatever our genes, our upbringing, our language, the time of our birth, our nation or any of the other aspects of our existence that direct the course of life, we still have the ability not automatically to follow our proclivities but to stand up for what is right and good, for blessing and life (cf. Pirkei Avot 4:29). If we do wrong, we have the ability to recognize our mistakes and try to correct them through teshuvah, repentance (Deuteronomy 30:8). In modern Jewish ethics the concept of Tikkun ‘Olam, the repairing of the world, has become a fundamental value. Unlike its earlier iterations in rabbinic sources, liturgy or Kabbalah, today Tikkun ‘Olam emphasizes that the condition of the world’s environment depends on human actions. Since we have broken so much in the world, we must repair it as an act of teshuvah. In doing so, we choose life over death.
One of the greatest ways we have broken the world through what is now deliberate choices, is environmental degradation, especially climate change which is causing misery and suffering today and in the future. And we know what we must do; we know what is right and what is wrong. As the parashah says: the Teaching (Torah) of God is in our mouths and hearts (Deuteronomy 30:11-14). We fail, however, to act and so we must return to the values of life and begin to repair what we have broken. For God will not save us but God will hold us to account for our actions.
3. Hope and strength in the face of a difficult struggle
In this parashah, Moses instructs his successor Joshua who will be the one who leads the people when they enter the Land of Israel. He says: “Be strong and resolute…[Hebrew Hazak ve-Ematz]” (Deuteronomy 31:7, 23) God gives Joshua the same instruction when they enter the land. (Joshua 1:6, 9) This admonition is an expression of hope and maintaining resolve in the face of what seems to be a difficult and fearful future. The words said to Joshua are the basis of the custom that when each book of the Torah is concluded during the weekly Shabbat services, the congregation chants out loud, “Hazak, hazak ve-nithazek!” which the reader then repeats. At each time of the year when this falls, we look forward in hope and strength to the future.
It has been said that people often go directly from denying climate change to despairing that nothing can be done to stop it. Climate change represents a deeply frightening vision of what may befall us, our children and our children’s children. And many environmental activists and scientists fall into despair when they see how many people and political leaders ignore the urgency of the problem. Judaism, however, is, at heart, an optimistic tradition. We believe that we can make the world a better place by our actions. If each one of us is a source of the problem, each one of us can be a source of the solutions. So we must be strong and resolute; we must find that determination to continue this fight no matter what the difficulties. And we must continue to have hope in the future, that we can save this beautiful planetary home of ours for the generations of life to come. We need not expect a final grand resolution to succeed quickly, but we must do our part in response to this crisis. Rabbi Tarfon taught: You are not obligated to finish the task but neither are you free to neglect it. (Pirkei Avot 2:21). If we can leave this world so that our descendants have a clean earth in which to live, that will be enough.
4. The Sabbatical Year as a time of study and rededication
In Deuteronomy 31:10-13, Moses tells the people that every seven years, during the Sabbatical Year when the land is given rest and lies fallow (Leviticus 25) and all debts are cancelled (Deuteronomy 15), during the festival of Sukkot, the whole nation should gather, read and study the Teaching of God and thus rededicate themselves to its commands and values. This command is meant to insure that future generations recommit themselves to the covenant since they will not have experienced the revelation at Mount Sinai. It also attempts to bring greater economic and social equity to society.
This coming year in the Jewish calendar, 5775, is a Sabbatical Year and many Jews are using this year as a time of environmental action. The Shmita Project is bringing together Jews from all over the world. The central goal of the project is to bring the values of the Sabbatical Year into the modern world and to support the development of “healthier, more sustainable Jewish communities.” The values of the Sabbatical Year can also be brought to the larger goal of action on climate change. A sustainable society is the ultimate goal of solving the problem of climate change. Even as we advocate for political action to directly target carbon emissions, we must change our own practices in our homes and communities to become more carbon neutral, more just and sustainable. Let this Sabbatical year be dedicated to the renewal of the earth as we renew ourselves. Let us rededicate our lives to creating a sustainable future. By doing so, we are truly standing together again at Mount Sinai hearing the voice of God.