Trees, Animals and the Weather – Rosh HaShanah 5780

Trees by Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.

In honor of 5780, I planted 80 saplings in Colorado as a tribute to my teacher, my rabbi and mentor in London, Jonathan Wittenberg.  Alright, I didn’t actually get dirty in the soil and plant them with my own hands. I clicked online on, a non profit focused on global reforestation, to plant them.  It was a lot less messy. I love being among the trees, hiking, biking, skiing or just sitting quietly close to these magnificent, mighty trunks, breathing in the oxygen that they are producing, feeling supported by their strength, inspired by their beauty, especially at this time of year with the stunning, changing colors of the Fall.  Quite often I pray close to trees. There is an amazing comfort in the feeling that they are silent witnesses to my soul and there is nothing that surprises them. The opening chapter of the Book of Psalms, invites us to be c’aytz shatul al palgei mayim, like a tree planted by streams of water bringing forth fruit in its right time.  The Hassidic master Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav taught the spiritual practice of hitbodedut, pouring out your heart to God among the trees. He declared, “May it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grasses among all growing things and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer to talk with the one that I belong to.” Trees are part of us and we are part of them; they offer us a grounded spirituality, helping us connect to both heaven and earth.  The Irish poet and mystic John O’Donahue expresses this so beautifully, recorded in a lovely book of his conversations, called Walking in Wonder:

A tree grows up and grows down at once and produces enough branches to incarnate its wild divinity…landscape is an incredible, mystical teacher…always at prayer, and its prayer is seamless. It is always enfolded in presence.  It is a high work of imagination, because there is no repetition in a landscape. Every stone, every tree, every field is a different place. When your eye begins to become attentive to this panorama of differentiation, then you realize what a privilege it is to actually be here.

It is a privilege to be here in this beautiful and fragile world, isn’t it?  And we are so blessed with our stunning Colorado landscapes and trails. The story of the creation of this earth, whose birthday we honor on Rosh HaShanah, opens with a scene of an idyllic garden filled with trees, plants and animals.  Adam and Eve and their descendants are given the task l’shomro u’l’ovdo, to keep, protect and work this garden, preserving its beauty, diversity and integrity.  That hasn’t worked out so well. Watching the images of mighty trees in the Amazon, in California, Israel or right here in Colorado being consumed in moments by the ferocious flames of forest fires, crumbling to the ground in defeat, is heartbreaking. Especially knowing the environmental impact of this deforestation.  Unlike the bush that caught Moses’ attention, these trees, thousands and thousands of them, are being fully consumed. Trees are 50 percent carbon and like coal, they release their stores of CO2 when burned, so their disappearance not only removes the gift of their beautiful presence and life sustaining absorption of carbon, but adds more of it to the atmosphere in the flames and smoke.

רַבִּי יַעֲקֹ֑ב אוֹמֵר, הַמְהַלֵּךְ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וְשׁוֹנֶה, וּמַפְסִיק מִמִּשְׁנָתוֹ וְאוֹמֵר, מַה נָּאֶה אִילָן זֶה וּמַה נָּאֶה נִיר זֶה, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ מִתְחַיֵּב בְּנַפְשׁ

Rabbi Jacob said: if one is studying while walking on the road and interrupts their Torah study and says, “what a beautiful tree!” [or] “how fine is this newly plowed field!” scripture considers that person liable for death.

This rabbinic teaching has always shocked me in its apparent suggestion that study of Torah is so important that a moment of appreciation and awareness of nature is seen as a distraction so bad as to deserve the death penalty! How can it be? Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, and others teach that the key word in this text is mafsik, breaking off, separating.  If we see the appreciation of a tree as an interruption from our studies, separate from Torah, a break in our religious sensibility, or intellectual curiosity, we might as well be dead.  Spirituality is an integration of body and soul, the earth and the heavens. We learn that balance from trees, such powerful and central symbols in mysticism; the Tree of Life, a consciousness that invites us into a view of the cosmos where everything is connected in that eternal oneness. I was honored to be present a couple of times this year at Lakota ceremonies, where a phrase is repeated many times by the participants in the ritual – Mitákuye Oyás’in – all my relations, all my relatives, expressing the belief that for Lakota and for so many indiginous people, the trees, animals, birds, insect, plants are all our relatives. October 13th is Indigenous Peoples day honoring the first inhabitants of this sacred land. We are interconnected, one organism, like a grove of Aspens. The word chayav in that frightening rabbinic text from the mishnah, means liable or obligated, guilty of a capital crime for neglecting our Torah study. I say it is about the consequences of our actions. We are all chayav b’nafsheynu, liable for our lives if we don’t see how interconnected everything is to everything else, if we don’t change our relationships to this fragile, burning, drowning world.

In June 1943, Jan Karski, a Polish soldier in the resistance, who had documented the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto and Nazi concentration camps, survived a perilous journey to Washington, DC. There he met with the Jewish Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, one of the great legal minds in American history. The story is retold in a brand new book by Jonathan Safran Foer called “We are the Weather.” Safran Foer recounts;

“After hearing Karski’s accounts of the clearing of the Warsaw Ghetto and of exterminations in the concentration camps, after asking him a series of increasingly specific questions…Frankfurter paced the room in silence, then took his seat and said, “Mr. Karski, a man like me talking to a man like you must be totally frank. So I must say I am unable to believe what you told me.”  When Karski’s colleague pleaded with Frankfurter to accept Karski’s account, Frankfurter responded, “I didn’t say that this young man is lying. I said I am unable to believe him. My mind, my heart, they are made in such a way that I cannot accept it.” Frankfurter didn’t question the truthfulness of Karski’s story. He didn’t dispute that the Germans were systematically murdering the Jews of Europe – his own relatives.  And he didn’t respond that while he was persuaded and horrified, there was nothing he could do. Rather, he admitted not only his inability to believe the truth but his awareness of that inability. Frankfurter’s conscience was not shaken….P.18-19”

Jonathan Safran Foer’s grandmother was a holocaust survivor, but his brilliant and compelling book is not about Nazi Germany, it’s about the weather, about climate change. He says, and I understand that some might find the comparison uncomfortable, that the lessons of history can be applied to our climate crisis.

It is really hard to talk about planetary crisis in a way that it is believed. Many of us have been very inspired by the 16 year old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who sailed from Sweden to New York on a zero emissions boat to address the UN climate summit last week. Greta started getting attention when she spoke at such a summit in Poland in December 2018 saying:

“For 25 years, countless people have come to the U.N. climate conferences begging our world leaders to stop emissions, and clearly that has not worked as emissions are continuing to rise. So I will not beg the world leaders to care for our future, I will instead let them know change is coming whether they like it or not.” (UN Speech, December 2018)

I am a rabbi, not a scientist and definitely not a politician.  It is Rosh HaShanah and every year, rabbis all over the world struggle with what messages to share at this time of year as we all face so many issues locally and globally, recognizing that we all have different perspectives, different priorities and that we need to be uplifted and inspired by hope rather than demoralized by despair.  Greta and the movement she has created give me hope, many people in this community and beyond give me hope. We can all do something, contributing in our own way to saving this planet; planting trees, eating less meat and dairy, drying our clothes in the sun, using less plastic. Greta said in that same speech,

“Many people say that Sweden is just a small country, and it doesn’t matter what we do, but I have learned you are never too small to make a difference.” 

On Rosh HaShanah, we plant seeds of consciousness and hope for the sweet fruit that we will produce this year in the faith that soil is fertile and that our nurture brings blessings of abundance. We are never too small to make a difference and what we do spiritually and physically, matters.

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה

Rabbi Tarfon says, famously, it is not your duty to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it. (Avot 2:21)

Last time I gave a sermon about the climate was in 2006 and immediately after that Debbie Garelick volunteered to start and lead a Green Team, which has recently been rebooted and now Kara Mertz is leading us.  We were the first synagogue nationally to go zero waste, we grow food, support local farmers and have a solar powered ner tamid, the eternal light. Thanks to a very generous grant from the Oreg Foundation Green Endowment Program, we are also about to invest in 17 250W panels in a solar field in South Boulder, which will offset about 6,300 kWh of Bonai’s annual electricity usage. The beautiful, tall trees on our property make having our own panels very difficult. We are also subscribers of Windsource, Xcel’s Wind Energy Program. Bonai Shalom has twice received Hazon’s Seal of Sustainability;  and is also one of five synagogues nationally in the 2019-2020 cohort of Shamayim – Jewish Animal Advocacy – that received a grant for the Synagogue Vegan Challenge, which commits us to provide one plant-based communal meal a month.  We gathered a group together, some of us vegans and some not and went round the table speaking about the importance of this project. For some it was about the increasing evidence that a plant based diet is healthier, for others it was about animal welfare and reducing the suffering of animals, for some it was about living the Torah’s vision of the Garden of Eden with trees and plants as the source of human food.  For some it was about the impact of animal agriculture on the planet, which is the main thesis of Jonathan Safran Foer’s book. Facts and statistics can be overwhelming , but here are a few from Foer’s research:

About 80 percent of deforestation occurs to clear land for crops for livestock and grazing.

Humans use 59 percent of all the land capable of growing crops to grow food for   livestock.

According the UN…if cows were a country, they would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions, after China and the United States. 

Some of the science places as much as 51 percent of all carbon emissions coming from industrialized meat and dairy production. Jeff Anhang, a UN scientist and author of a 2009 report called “Livestock and Climate Change,” argues that one of the most pragmatic ways to reverse climate change is a massive reduction of animal products as it “offers a unique dual opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly while freeing up land to enable more trees to capture excess atmospheric carbon in the near term.”

In a very striking metaphor based on the story of Noah that we will read in a few weeks, Foer says, “We are the flood, and we are the ark.” He says, “No one who isn’t us is going to destroy Earth, and no one who isn’t us is going to save it.  The most hopeless conditions can inspire the most hopeful actions.” This isn’t about politics, it’s about survival and about the power of what we can do together.  

אם היתה נטיעה בתוך ידך ויאמרו לך הרי לך המשיח. בוא ונטע את הנטיעה ואח”כ צא והקביל

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai taught: “If you have a sapling in your hand, and someone says to you that the Messiah has come, stay and finish the planting, and then go to greet the Messiah.” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 31b)

Planting a tree is an act of redemption that is quite literally in our hands.  It is a spiritual act as well physical, because it expresses faith and hope that that tree will grow, that it will produce fruit, that it will absorb harmful gases and help us breathe soulful breaths, neshama-neshima with fresh oxygen. We cannot wait to be saved by a force outside ourselves, we are the salvation and it is our actions that will determine what kind of world we leave for the next generations. Something like 200 species of plants, insects, birds and mammals go extinct every day, the sea levels and temperatures are rising and we can expect more and more extreme weather events. In an interview on New York’s Daily Show, Trevor Noah asked Greta Thunberg what the main differences are between here and where she comes from.  She said that here it seems like the discussion is whether or not you believe it is happening, but where I come from it is a fact. 97 percent of scientists affirm that

A few weeks ago, I was on a very inspiring international call with rabbis, activists and educators, initiated by Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, my rabbi in London, who is at the forefront of the Green Shul movement. We talked about a global Jewish project to plant as many trees as we can in our communities, building on generations of JNF trees in Israel.The project is going to be called J Tree. Bal tashchit is the Jewish prohibition against needless destruction and waste and its origin is the Torah’s warning not to cut down fruit trees in a time of war, but from the rabbis of the Talmud on, it has become the primary Jewish source for conservation and environmental protection. I would like this community collectively to plant 5780 trees in honor of this year.  It is a very achievable goal. Bal tashchit. Plant trees, either with your own hands or by supporting organizations that actively work for reforestation locally or in tropical rain forests; eat less meat and dairy; support local farmers; reduce plastic, especially single use plastic water bottles, bring your water bottle to Bonai and use our new filling station; switch to low or no emission vehicles; join our green team; invest in renewable energy; vote for candidates and measures that will make a difference. Believe that we can do this. Personally I get on too many aeroplanes and try to offset my carbon output in other ways. Apart from the goat milk that I milk from the goats on this campus every Sunday morning, I have recently become a vegan. Our Green Team is setting goals for Bonai Shalom. What changes are you willing to make? Our actions, however large or small, can have an impact and we know that nature does have extraordinary capacity for regeneration and growth.  When we see beauty in nature, Jewish tradition invites us to say the bracha, the blessing…oseh ma’aseh bereshit, Blessed is the Source who performs the works of creation, as if we participate in recreating the wonders and beauty of the natural world each time we stop to appreciate them, integrating ourselves into the intricate balance of all life, choosing life. Choose life. Our prayers can be action and our actions can be prayers. Let’s allow ourselves, however old and wise we may be, to be led by young activists like Greta and others, who in her impassioned speech to the UN last week said “the world is waking up and change is coming whether we like it or not.” The voices of the young are waking us up. I was moved when I joined the Boulder climate march a couple of weeks ago with my shofar, to see the energy and passion of all the middle and high school students concerned for their future. Many of them were carrying signs saying “THERE IS NO PLANET B.” We are going to be hearing that powerful, primal sound of the shofar soon to wake ourselves up from our collective slumber. Hayom harat olam – today the world is born, today is pregnant with possibility. Jonathan Safran Foer says “to save the planet, we need the opposite of a selfie.” 

Let’s take that picture of our future together! Shanah Tovah!

About Rabbi Marc Soloway

Marc is a native of London, England where he was an actor and practitioner of complimentary medicine before training as a rabbi in London, Jerusalem and Los Angeles. He was ordained at the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies at the American Jewish University in 2004 and has been the the spiritual leader at Bonai Shalom in Boulder ever since. Marc was a close student of Rabbi Zalman Schechter Shalomi and received an additional smicha (rabbinic ordination) from him in 2014, just two months before he died. He has been the host and narrator of two documentary films shown on PBS; A Fire in the Forest: In Search of the Baal Shem Tov and Treasure under the Bridge: Pilgrimage to the Hasidic Masters of Ukraine. Marc is a graduate of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality, a fellow of Rabbis Without Borders, has traveled to Ghana in a rabbinic delegation with American Jewish World Service and co-chair of the Rabbinical Council and national board member of Hazon, which strives to create more sustainable Jewish communities. In 2015, Marc was among a group of 12 faith leaders honored at The White House as “Champions of Change” for work on the climate. Marc is a proud member of Beit Izim, Boulder’s Jewish goat milking co-op.

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