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Yom Kippur Sermon 5782

If you have ever attended services at a Reform synagogue, you may have noticed that they omit the second paragraph of the Shema.

The second paragraph begins with the words “v’haya im shamoa” -- “if you diligently hearken” to God’s commandments, then God will send rain in due course. We will gather our grain and wine and oil, and we and our cattle will be satisfied. But if we do not “diligently hearken”, there will not be rain and the land will not yield its blessings.

When I was in rabbinical school, our liturgy professor, the late Rabbi Dr. Jakob Petuchowski, had literally written the book on why and how Reform liturgy diverged from the traditional Siddur. He explained to us that one of the principles the Reform movement had adopted in developing its prayer books was that modern Jews should not utter prayers that are contrary to known scientific facts. So they took out the second paragraph of the Shema because everyone knows that the weather does not depend on our observance of the mitzvot. When was the last time you asked Alexa to play your flash briefing and she said “today, the weather will be seasonably pleasant as long as the Jews keep kosher”? Everyone knows that this is absurd and that is why Reform Judaism removed this paragraph from the siddur and the machzor.

Professor Petuchowski was an interesting character. He was born in Germany, the grandson of an Orthodox rabbi, and at age 14 was sent to Scotland as part of the Kindertransport. He studied at the Glasgow Yeshiva and University College London, and eventually came to the United States to study at the Hebrew Union College to be a Reform rabbi. But he was always on the traditional end of the Reform spectrum and rumors are that every few years he would ask for and receive an offer to teach at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. Then he would take the job offer letter and show it to the President of HUC who would match the salary that JTS offered. But what was really unusual about Professor Petuchowski is that he was the only member of the HUC faculty who was a registered Republican.

So it was quite a shock that day in liturgy class when Prof. Petuchowski was explaining why the Reform movement had taken this paragraph out of the liturgy because they “knew” that it was not true. Because after that statement he said: “and then, we learned about acid rain.”

This was sometime in the early to mid-1980s and since then our concerns about the environment have only gotten more severe. What I think Prof. Petuchowski meant in his comment about acid rain, was that we need to learn to read the Torah and the liturgy in a much less fundamentalist way. It is not that God is somehow sitting up in heaven, watching us down here, and saying “Goldfarb ate pork today and Lowenstein didn’t put on tefillin, so no rain today in New York City.” The Torah is telling us that our behavior has consequences and that if we do not act with wisdom and responsibility, our planet will become unlivable.

Every person has causes that they are more concerned about and less concerned about, and climate change or as we used to call it “ecology” has not been a high priority for me. Like most kosher households we will use paper plates and plastic utensils to avoid the hassle of cleaning up after a meat meal with a dishwasher full of dairy items. We like our air conditioned comfort and our mini-SUV. But for the first time in my life, I am scared that we are going to make our planet uninhabitable if we as a species do not change our behavior drastically and soon. So we have been making incremental changes like raising the thermostat a few degrees in the summer and using fans, and cutting back on our use of disposables. And I have started channeling my Dad by walking around the house turning off lights.

I visited my Dad in New York for the first time since before the pandemic began at the end of May. As I was driving back home through Delaware and then northern Maryland I noticed the external temperature display on the car going higher and higher. By the time I had gotten to Baltimore it was reading 101 degrees. It should not be 101 degrees in Baltimore on May 24.

Yes, it is true that extreme weather events have always been with us. I was in DC during the summer of 1980 and DC101 had a promotion that any time the temperature in the District hit 101 or higher, they went commercial-free, and there were two days that summer that they needed to do that. But this July was the hottest single month on record for the entire globe since record keeping began, and this summer was the hottest summer ever as well. The last six summers have been the six hottest summers on record. Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana and traveled overland up the middle of the country to the mid-Atlantic and New England and still had enough force to cause 43 deaths in NY, NJ, Pa. and CT.

There was a time not so long ago that environmentalism was perceived by many as something that mostly wealthy people were concerned about. There was a sense that we had to choose between a prosperous economy or a clean environment. Yes, fossil fuels contribute to global warming but how would we replace the jobs that were lost if we had, say, a carbon tax?

But today there are almost as many people in the United States employed in renewable energy -- wind and solar -- as there are in fossil fuels. As of a year ago, according to the most recent available statistics, the fastest growing job in the country was wind turbine service technician and the third fastest was solar installer. It seems to me that at least part of the key to breaking our dependence on fossil fuels is retraining people employed in coal and oil to work in renewables instead. There is no reason why wind turbines and solar panels can’t be manufactured in rural Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

On Rosh Hashanah we began a year in the Jewish calendar known as shmita which is usually translated as the Sabbatical year. The Torah commanded us to let the land rest and renew itself; to leave whatever grows on its own for the poor and the resident foreigners; and to remit all debts. These laws themselves are no longer practiced in their original form, but the concept behind them is still relevant. The Torah commands us to take good care of the land and also strive to create an economy where there is more equality rather than more stratification.

If we had not already learned this from Hurricane Katrina which devastated the poorest parts of New Orleans, Hurricane Ida showed us that the poor suffer the worst effects of climate change as well. Thirteen people were killed in New York City during Hurricane Ida. Eleven of the 13 drowned in illegal basement apartments -- illegal because they had no windows and thus no way to get out of the apartment if the door was blocked. Why would someone live in such a place? Because they had no choice -- it was an illegal basement or life on the streets.

The Torah is not political in the sense of telling us what policies to follow. It can’t tell us what is the best way to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, whether to impose a carbon tax or cap and trade. It can’t tell us the best way to minimize the economic disruption in shifting from fossil fuels to renewables, and it can’t tell us whether Bus Rapid Transit would be better than light rail or building a monorail from Shady Grove to Frederick.

But the Torah does tell us that our choices have consequences, that we are responsible for the planet God has entrusted into our hands, and that concern for creation and concern for each other go hand-in-hand. I know that healing the planet is God’s will. I hope and pray that it becomes ours as well.

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