Steven Morgen
Steven Morgen

Rosh Hashanah, Creation and Climate Change

Last month [on August 8] a group of 234 climate scientists from 65 countries published the latest international Climate Change Report, the sixth of its kind [IPCC AR6]. They had reviewed 14,000 scientific publications, and over 78,000 review comments.

Here are some of the headline bullet-points from the report: [emphasis added]

  • Recent changes in the climate are widespread, rapid, and intensifying, and unprecedented in thousands of years
  • It is indisputable that human activities are causing climate change, making extreme climate events, including heat waves, heavy rainfall, and droughts, more frequent and severe.
  • Human influence, [is the] main driver of:
    • Hot extremes, which have become more frequent and more intense
    • ocean warming since the 1970s, and ocean acidification.
    • changes we see in the frozen areas of the planet:
      • global retreat of glaciers since the 1990s
      • 40% decrease in Arctic sea ice since 1979
      • decrease in spring snow cover since the 1950s.
  • Climate change is already affecting every region on Earth, in multiple ways. The changes we experience [now] will increase with further warming.
  • The climate we experience in the future depends on our decisions now.

I know that climate change has been the subject of much political debate over the last couple of decades. But the evidence of climate change is now all around us for everyone to see – even those of us who do not understand the science behind it.

The Washington Post this past Saturday [September 4, 2021] headlined that “Nearly 1 in 3 Americans experienced a weather disaster this summer.” In addition, the article stated, “64 percent live in places that experienced a multiday heat wave — phenomena that are not officially deemed disasters but are considered the most dangerous form of extreme weather.” The Post article continues with the following data points:

The expanding reach of climate-fueled disasters, a trend that has been increasing at least since 2018, shows the extent to which a warming planet has already transformed Americans’ lives. …

Record-shattering temperatures in the Pacific Northwest cooked hundreds of people to death in their own homes. Flash floods turned basement apartments into death traps …. Wildfires raged through 5 million acres of tinder-dry forest. Chronic drought pushed federal officials to impose mandatory cuts to Colorado River water for the first time.

… Craig Fugate, former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Florida’s Emergency Management Division, has never known a summer as packed with crises as this one.

The question, he wonders, is whether this calamitous season will mark a turning point in public opinion that finally forces political leaders to act. “If not,” Fugate asked, “what will it take?”

Even seasoned survivors say that recent disasters are the worst they’ve ever experienced. People who never considered themselves at risk from climate change are suddenly waking up to floodwaters outside their windows and smoke in their skies, wondering if anywhere is safe.

I am not a scientist. I don’t even play one on TV. But I can read the numerous comprehensive reports of scientists. And I can vet the sources that try to debunk them. And believe me. I have done just that.

The simple fact is that climate scientists are certain that the strength and force of hurricanes has been increasing because the oceans have heated up. They are similarly certain that the increasing droughts we have experienced are caused by global warming. They are certain that the fires raging all across the Western United States are more ferocious to a very significant degree because of climate change. And they are certain that human beings – and what we do here on the planet – are the major drivers for these rising temperatures.

I trust the doctors and medical scientists that gave us safe and effective vaccines against COVID in unbelievable record time. I don’t understand the science. But I don’t have to. They do. And it works.[i]

Similarly, I trust the climate scientists that they can demonstrate the cause and effect of global warming on the natural disasters we are experiencing today. I don’t understand the science. But I don’t need to. That’s why they spent years in graduate schools learning the biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics to be able to prove these cause and effect relationships. Not just prove them, but predict them.

A National Security Strategy report was issued in 2002nearly 20 years ago – during the George W. Bush Administration and was signed by the President himself. Among the security issues the report addresses is the potential dangers of climate change. Obviously, those who prepared the report believed the evidence, the scientists, and their conclusions about climate change at that time: 20 years ago. The report stated [on p. 20]:

Economic growth should be accompanied by global efforts to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations associated with this growth, containing them at a level that prevents dangerous human interference with the global climate. Our overall objective is to reduce America’s greenhouse gas emissions relative to the size of our economy, cutting such emissions per unit of economic activity by 18 percent over the next 10 years, by the year 2012.

Numerous other reports[ii] over the past two decades that have predicted the situation we are in now and have also made predictions for what the world may look like in 15, 30, 50 and 80 years from now. A lot depends, naturally, on what we choose to do today, this week, this month, this year and in the next very few years ahead. As I am sure you know, the predictions are pretty dire about what the world will be like in 50 years if we do nothing now.

The odds are pretty good that I won’t be here in 50 years. Some of us, though, will still be here. Our children, and certainly our grandchildren, will be here. The problem is that it seems like such a long time from now. And people like me love to procrastinate and wait until the last minute. But that is not a good plan in this case. The time for doing something is right now.

And what better time to talk about this than on Rosh Hashanah – the day that commemorates the anniversary of Creation. God created the world out of primordial chaos, according to our tradition. Creation was a process of putting Order on that chaos. Matter, the stuff of the Universe, was organized to operate according to rules and principles of biology, chemistry and physics. Thank goodness it does, because without these laws we would still have chaos and we would not be able to achieve all the wonderful things humanity has accomplished.

And on the sixth day of Creation – the day that Rosh Hashanah specifically represents – God created ushumanity. And the Torah actually says that God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden l’ovdah ul’shomrahto serve it and to protect it. (2:15)

The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explained the verse this way[iii]:

Man is not only the master but also the guardian of Nature. This is perhaps the best short definition of the ecological imperative as Judaism understands it. A guardian is entrusted with property that does not belong to him. His task is to take charge of it and eventually return it to its owner intact. So it is with nature. The world is not ours. ‘The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof’ [Psalm 24:1], a fact of which we remind ourselves every time we make a blessing over the thing we enjoy. It has been handed into our safekeeping only on condition that we maintain it undespoiled.”

A midrash suggests that “When the Blessed Holy One created the first human, He took him and led him round all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And all that I have created, it was for you that I created it. Pay attention that you do not corrupt and destroy My world: if you corrupt it, there is no one to repair it after you.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13) [Emphasis added]

In other words, God is saying: “You break it, you fix it. Don’t expect Me to do that for you.”

So, Rosh Hashanah represents the Creation of Adam and Eve and therefore also the charge to humanity to care for the planet. Every year we imagine Rosh Hashanah as a sort of annual performance review. You know, we come before God one by one, as it says in Unetaneh Tokef, to get our year-end evaluation.

So, how do you think we did this past year? (Actually, we probably did better this past year because so many of us were staying home most of the time. But what will we say next year at our performance review?)

In the Book of Deuteronomy (20:19) we are told: “When you lay siege to a city for an extended time while fighting against it to capture it, you must not destroy its trees by putting an axe to them, because you can eat their fruit. You must not cut them down.” [emphasis added] This verse gave rise to a general concept in Jewish law called Bal Tashhit – do not destroy things unnecessarily.

In Maimonides code of Jewish law, he makes it clear that the concept applies to anything wasted. “And not only regarding trees, [Maimonides writes] but even one who destructively breaks vessels [which in our world would include large screen TV’s, computers and cellphones among other things] or rips up clothing or tears down a building or seals up a spring or wastes food violates the Negative Commandment of “Do not destroy”.” [Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 6:10. Emphasis added.]

So, it is pretty clear that Jewish tradition expects human beings in general – and Jewish people in particular – to care for the environment. We need to be able to leave it in as good a condition as we received it. Hopefully even better. Several midrashim suggest that humans are God’s partners in improving Creation: taking the raw materials God has given us – wheat, or flax, for instance – and turning them into bread and clothing. We are supposed to improve the world, not degrade or destroy it.

And what better time to discuss this obligation than on the anniversary of the day this obligation was first created with Adam and Eve.

So now, let’s consider some things we can do to address what virtually all climate scientists say is a big problem.

The first thing is we need to do is to face the reality. We are not children who need to be protected from a fearful truth. We cannot bury our heads in the sand like ostriches and pretend it’s not true.

Then, we need to demand that our elected officials take seriously these well-researched, and well-reasoned reports – including all the reports issued by our own military, national security administration, and 11 other national agencies that investigate the causes and effects of climate change. There are specific recommendations in these reports. We just need to get our elected officials to act on them.

Most of the truly important things that need to be done can only be accomplished by government guidance and support – and not just in the United States, but a world-wide effort. Fortunately, many of these things can actually be a great boon to our economy as well.

We can invest in the technologies that will reduce carbon emission of fossil fuel plants. We can invest in the technologies of cleaner, renewable fuels like wind and solar power and nuclear fusion. We can invest in the technologies to actually pull carbon out of the atmosphere – there are such technologies now available. We only need to ramp them up to industrial scale.

We can invest in processes to reduce … how can I say this politely … “cow exhaust fumes”. Really. Apparently, cows are a major source of methane gas emission and methane is one of the most serious green-house gasses. The livestock industry “is estimated to account for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions globally.”[iv] But scientists are actually looking into ways to reduce cow “exhaust”.

All of these technologies will be in tremendous demand all over the world. We can be at the forefront of producing these technological advances, and thereby create jobs and a strong economy in each of these growing industries. And we can help poorer countries develop these same technologies in their nations. In fact, we must help other countries to develop these technologies in order to rapidly implement them.

We also need governments to plant more trees – for city parks and recreation areas as well as state and national parks.[v] Trees are a major source of carbon reduction in the atmosphere. Some people poetically refer to our forests as the “lungs” of the planet.

So, the first thing we need to do is face the reality ourselves with unflinching clarity. The second thing to do is toencourage our governments to do more in fostering and supporting industries that are developing these new technologies.

The third thing we can do is to change our own consumer behavior. We can choose to eat less beef, reducing the number of cows that must be raised in the first place. This doesn’t mean you can never eat another hamburger. But perhaps we can all cut back some on the amount of meat we eat. As I have explained in other sermons, the Bible seems to indicate that humans were supposed to be vegetarian in the first place, and only through a concession to human desire did God allow us to eat meat from animals. Cutting back on our diet of meat – even a little bit – will help reduce the amount of cattle raised and therefore the amount of methane gas emitted into the atmosphere.

We can choose means of transportation that are more fuel efficient. Hybrid or full electric cars for instance. We can carpool more often or use public transportation, or even bicycles. We can fly less frequently. Many of us have been flying less frequently for almost two years now. Perhaps now that we are used to conducting many meetings on Zoom or other platforms, business travel will be reduced in the future even after COVID is no longer a threat.

We can install solar panels on our roofs. You actually get to sell electricity to the power grid if you generate more electricity than you use.

We can build more insulated homes. We can turn our thermostats up a degree or two in summer, using less air conditioning; and down a degree or two in winter, using less gas to heat our homes. We can use LED lightbulbs that require much less energy.

We can bring our own coffee mugs and our own metal straws when we go out so that we use less paper and plastic.

And generally, we can consume less, thereby requiring less energy to produce the “stuff” that we buy, and less energy in transporting that stuff, since we are buying less of it in the first place. A side advantage of consuming less is that we can save more for retirement.

Will all of these efforts of governments, investors and consumers be sufficient to save the future of our children and grandchildren?

I am a religious person. I believe that God has endowed humanity with sufficient intelligence and insight to solve many of the world’s problems – if we choose to do so. We certainly have in the past.

At the turn of the 20th century many scientists had come to the conclusion that the world would soon run out of food. The planet would not be capable of growing sufficient crops to feed humanity within a very short time. The reason? Because the earth was being depleted of nitrogen. And nitrogen was essential in order to grow any vegetation. But before disaster struck, a German Jewish scientist named Fritz Haber discovered a way to extract nitrogen from the atmosphere and force it into the ground again. And he found a way to do that on an industrial level. And because of that new technology we are all alive today.

We can do it again. We can invent the necessary technologies to reduce carbon emissions and we can invent the technologies to extract carbon from the atmosphere reducing the greenhouse gas effects.

BUT, this will take time. And time is of the essence. That is why it is up to each one of us now to do our part in slowing down – as much as we can – the rising levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. It will buy us the necessary time to implement the new technologies that are already being developed. And we can – and must – encourage our governments to support the necessary research and development of these new technologies. The free market – with its emphasis on immediate profits – is simply inadequate to do it alone.

When America finally entered World War II, we had to swiftly ramp up our industries to produce huge numbers of tanks, war planes, aircraft carriers and other military equipment. But we did it in a miraculously short period of time. And individual citizens were encouraged to do their part as well. We planted Victory Gardens. We recycled scrap metal and rubber. We engaged in a whole array of fuel conservation initiatives, including wearing warmer clothes in winter to lower heating fuel consumption, there was a share the meat initiative, and other commodity rationing programs, and initiatives to support the war effort.

We can do it again. If we have the will and determination to do so. Perhaps we should think of this as a World War against climate change.

On this Rosh Hashanah, we are reminded that God charged humanity – from the time of Adam and Eve – with being the caretakers of the planet, to “tend the garden” and keep it healthy and full of life.

Will we now let God – our Creator – down? What will we say at next year’s performance review?

The Talmud tells a story [Ta’anit 23a] about Honi the Circle Maker, that he saw an old man planting a carob tree. He asked the man how long it would take the tree to grow old enough to bear fruit. The man replied, “It will take 70 years for the tree to bring forth fruit.” So Honi asked the man, “Do you expect to live 70 more years to see the fruit?” The man replied, “I live in a world with mature carob trees that others planted long ago so that I might enjoy the fruit. So, I am now planting trees for my grandchildren to enjoy.”

Will we let our grandchildren down? What kind of world will we leave for them?

This is a call to arms. But, we can do this. We must do this.

As a Houstonian, I am proud to quote the motto of NASA: Failure is not an option.

L’shanah Tovah!

[i] The doctors have now also weighed in on the subject of climate change, by the way. An editorial was just published this week by doctors in over 200 medical journals worldwide declaring that climate change is the greatest threat to global public health. Winston Choi-Schagrin, “Medical Journals Call Climate Change the ‘Greatest Threat to Global Public Health,’” New York Times, September 7, 2021.

[ii] IPCC Assessment Report 5 Climate Change 2014, IPCC Special Report Global Warming of 1.5℃ (2018), IPCC Special Report on Ocean and Cryosphere (2019), IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land (2020), Fourth National Climate Assessment (a U.S. Government report) in 2017, Third National Climate Assessment (2014), US Department of Defense Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap (2014) – and these are just the more recent, major report from the international community (IPCC) and national organizations.

[iii] Jonathan Sacks, Faith in the Future, (Mercer University Press, 1997) p. 207-8, emphasis added

[iv] Eliza Mackintosh, What the New Report on Climate Change Expects from YouCNN, October 8, 2018

[v] Katie Reilly, “Here’s What Humanity Must Do Immediately to Prevent Catastrophic Climate Change, According to the New U.N. Report,” Time, October 10, 2018

About the Author
Rabbi Morgen is an Associate Rabbi of Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, TX. He has served on the Boards of the Houston Jewish Federation, and the local boards of the AJC, and the ADL. He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He graduated from UCLA School of Law and practiced law in Los Angeles. He was ordained by JTS in 1998.
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