The voice of the next generation

The following is an excerpt of the sermon from Second Day Rosh Hashanah 5780/2019:

They’re strong words from a diminutive individual: “You all come to us young people for hope? How dare you? The eyes of all future generations are upon you. If you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you…”

They’re the words of the 16-year-old teenage Swedish activist Greta Thurnberg who had sailed into New York on her carbon-free boat to address the U.N Climate Summit. You can embrace her as a heroic Joan of Arc or label her as a deeply disturbed messiah. Her message is simple, blunt and hysterical, if not histrionic. In her self-acknowledged Asbergerish way, she’s sharp as an arrow, cutting as a whip.

Her words are often uncomfortable and ill-chosen and they make me want to react angrily and defensively, to remind her that change is a slow-moving beast, that fear and catastrophizing can be counter-productive, that lecturing adults and scare tactics don’t get people to modify their behaviour. They can actually be counter-productive and cause unnecessary anxiety. Many of the Extinction Warriors are as worrying to me as any of the other extremists and faith fanatics on the loose in the world today.

But we would be short-sighted to simply dismiss her because her voice carries the worries and anxieties of a generation. And even if she infuriates, it’s not only because she is so deliberately provocative but because she also touches a deep fear in many-especially the young- for the future of our troubled planet.

More importantly, we need to pay attention not to her, but to the environment, because we have a moral and spiritual responsibility to the future. There is need for a shift in our consciousness. Regardless of the complex science of climate change, it’s obvious that we’ve got a crisis – the weather is changing; the ice is melting, our bush fires are increasing, our house is burning, the seas are rising and clogged with plastic; our pristine Cape York beaches are choked with rubbish. Even if you are sceptical of climate science and don’t accept the reason to believe in human induced climate change is because the evidence is compelling, is it worth taking the terrible chance? What if the evidence just turns out to be right? Do we have the moral right to endanger the lives of others? Sometimes saying sorry just comes too late…

Doing something to face this crisis isn’t just a left – wing meshugas or the stuff of youthful delusion and idealism. It’s a spiritual imperative, a Torah obligation, it’s as fundamental to our being as Shabbat or kashrut –and that’s my main reason for addressing this issue. I’m not a scientist but I am a believer in God’s gift of this wondrous planet to us. The environment is intrinsic to our lives as Jews where the natural cycle of life and its seasons shapes our spiritual and festive cycle. If Sukkot wasn’t a reminder about our inexorable ties to Nature through its four species and outdoor hut open to the stars then it would be depleted of its significance. It’s surely not too audacious to call it our quintessential Green Chag.

And so we need to pay attention to this, because as the Talmudic character Chonie reminded his questioner when asked why he was planting an oak tree in his old age even though he wouldn’t live to enjoy its shade and beauty: “My ancestors planted for me and now I plant for my children and grandchildren and their future”. I too don’t want my grandson to turn around one day and ask why I didn’t do anything while there was still time to act.

Judaism has always encouraged us to have a long-gaze, to be a רואה את הנולד to anticipate the future, to do something to reduce our footprint and tread more lightly on this good land that God has given us. בל תשחית or Don’t Waste is a Halachic imperative, a Jewish obligation. At home and at shule let’s as least make a start to cut out those single-use plastics, reduce, recycle, use less energy and eat a little less fleish – it’s good for the waste and the waist-line.

We can work for change, amend our profligate behaviour, encourage our government to do more even more than it has already pledged. Let’s make Australia one of the leading countries of environmental progressiveness. And let’s also do our bit to combat the global environmental crisis; that’s part of our prayer agenda today when the world’s fate for the next year rests in our hands, when all creatures and all the created world goes in front of its Creator Vechol Baeiy Haolam. Let’s be bold and creative finding ways to balance our resources and our responsibilities: Remember: You can’t wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time!

The fear and discomfort that the young activists induce about the physical climate and our wanton destruction of it, is reflective of the deeply worrying nature of our times. It’s one terrifyingly troubled epoch – I can’t quite remember a time of such polarisation, division and political fragmentation. From Brexit to Bibi, we’re locked in a struggle for the future, a disillusionment with our liberal democracies, suspicion of our politicians, dismay at our religious leaders. Many of us doubt their credibility. And then there’s fear of war and nuclear proliferation It’s the stuff of despair אשא עיני אל ההרים מאין “I lift up my eyes to the mountains – where will my help come from?’’

Every single day in my morning tefillah (prayer) I declare that God in His goodness continually renews the work of creation and I enthusiastically say the words of the Psalmist: “How many are Your works oh Lord. You made them all in wisdom” (Psalm 104). “The earth is full of Your creations” (Siddur). The rabbis gave us blessings to declare on seeing those first delightful buds of spring, they instilled within our prayers a deep consciousness of the beauty and delicacy of our natural world. They would have approved of Wordsworth’s call to look on nature as ‘a presence that disturbs us with the joy of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime of something… deeply interfused whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air and the blue sky and the mind of man, a motion and a spirit that impels all thinking things and rolls through all things.’

God gave us a Shabbat on which we are supposed to walk to get anywhere, an opportunity to look around, smell the air, be free from the tyranny of the phone, screaming screens and their pinging for attention. I love walking to shul –I get on a roll. I’m out the reach of Google Maps telling me where I would or should like to go and free of Facebook surveillance and my mind feels free and uncluttered. Sometimes on an acutely crisp and beautiful Melbourne morning I can burst into a Hallelujah. And I have some of my best ideas on that walk. It’s God’s creation of this wonderful world that restores and refreshes me from the week of hustle harder, rise and grind.

Now I hasten slowly and rise and find. It re -centres me in an age of anxiety and perplexity, it helps me find my point of stillness, my anchor of morality in a fragmenting social fabric. In this way it brings me closer to my family and community – the very fibres of our continued wellbeing on this macrocosm we share. In this age of divisiveness, the unity of family and community are our best safeguards. They create resilience and optimism, the capacity to find solutions to the devastation of our physical and moral ecology. And the rich, varied multifaceted character of nature and its creatures is a pointed, constant reminder to those who think in black and white, right and left, liberal and conservative, climate-denier, climate warrior, good and bad. The world is simply a lot more complex, a lot more multi-coloured. Don’t reduce it to your lowest common denominator. That’s a prison not a paradise.

We don’t own nature but are God’s custodians or trustees of it. We were given this earth to “work it” extract its riches but also to “guard it”, to protect its integrity (Genesis 1 & 2).There are the myriad laws of looking after the land ,letting it rest and renew as in Shemitta (the Sabbatical year) or Yovel .There are limits to our working or exploitation of the rich gifts of nature; there are trees that you cannot eat from (as in the Creation Story) and there are trees you can’t just destroy because they get in your way: “When you lay siege to a city do not destroy its (fruit) trees… Is the tree of the field a person that you should besiege them?” (Deuteronomy 20:19-20).

A human being too is a tree of the field. We are like the trees, full of character and colour but also so vulnerable, as fragile as a filament. If we care for the earth’s fragility it will help us care for our frailty. Our alienation from and destruction of Gods universe means we are not only letting Him down but we are depleting ourselves. Our treatment of the earth is symptomatic of our treatment of others. Heal the earth and you heal society.

But is it too late, are we already, as the radical activists claim, facing extinction? I take hope from the Torah’s first Tzaddik, its original hero of vision and resourcefulness, despite his sometimes bad press and fake news portrayal. I’m referring to Noah, the man who built the Ark. He’s not only a competent builder, good with his hands (he wasn’t a Jewish male), he’s also the world’s first conservationist. Single handedly (maybe with a bit of help from Mrs Noah and the mishpocha) he saves all the species – animal and plant of the earth from the spectacular rising waters at the end of the Ice Age. Noah is also the first to make a Covenant with God, signed with a rainbow. Listen to the astonishing words of this promise: I will establish my Covenant with you and your offspring and those who will come after you. And with every living being that is with you, with the animals and with every beast of the land. This isn’t just a covenant with humanity, this is a contract with all species and with the earth and the waters – never again a flood to destroy the earth itself. This is God speaking to the biosphere, the human sphere, the atmosphere.

Noah was a man with a mission to save the world. Just one small man. That’s how you rescue the universe, person by person, place by place, step by step, year by year

In the words of American poet Mary Oliver:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things

Today, Rosh Hashana is the birthday of the world – היום הרת עולם – today we can renew the world, this year we can renew Creation! Let’s affirm to the next generation: We will not fail you and we will not fail you Mother Earth! We will make this a real Shanah Tovah!

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Ralph

About the Author
Rabbi Genende recently retired as the Senior Rabbi of Melbourne’s premier Caulfield Shule and took up the position of Senior Rabbi and Manager to Jewish Care Victoria, Melbourne’s largest Jewish organisation. He was a senior Reserve Chaplain in the South African Defence Force and is now Principal Rabbi to the Australian Defence Force, Member of the Religious Advisory Council to the Minister of Defence (RACS), board member of AIJAC (Australian Israel Jewish Affairs Council) and member of the Premier's Mulitifaith Advisory Group. He was President of JCMA (Jewish Christian Muslim Association) and a long time executive member of the Rabbinical Association of Victoria. He also oversees Yad BeYad a premarital relationship program, is a member of Swinburne University’s Research Ethics Committee and of the DHHS ,Department of Health Ethics Committee and sits on the Glen Eira City Council’s Committee responsible for its Reconciliation Action Plan for recognition and integration of our first peoples. Ralph has a passion for social justice and creating bridges between different cultures and faiths. For him the purpose of religion is to create a better society for all people and to engage with the critical issues facing Australian society. The role of the rabbi is, in his words, to challenge the comfortable and comfort the challenged. In 2018 Rabbi Genende was awarded an OAM for his services to multi-faith relations, and to the Jewish community of Victoria. Rabbi Genende is a trained counsellor with a Masters degree from Auckland University. He is married to Caron, a psychologist, and they have three children and two grandchildren.