Rosh Hashanah 2021/5782 – Earth’s Birthday Present

Can you cast your mind back to the earliest birthday party for yourself that you can remember?   I strongly remember what must have been my 5th birthday party.

The reason that I can remember it is all to do with my birthday cake.

When I was growing up my dad was never a cook.   He had only three dishes that he could make – delicious though they were – matzo brei (for those who don’t know it a concoction of scrambled egg and matzo), porridge (with a skin so thick you could stand a spoon up in it) and bread and butter pudding.   But what he could do and delighted in doing was to decorate for us kids our birthday cakes.

My fifth birthday cake was to be a tour de force.   Like most small boys in the 1960’s I was really into trains.   So what he was going to do for my birthday cake was to decorate it with a plastic steam train.   This he placed on the top of the iced cake.   He then took a good quantity of cotton wool, attached a thin piece of wire to the smokestack of the toy steam train and then threaded the cotton wool onto the wire so the train looked like it was steaming away.

It looked fantastic when it was brought out to the birthday tea table.  Surrounded by five birthday candles.     The candles were duly lit and what happened next I will never forget.

The cotton wool caught fire – it burned very quickly and then the plastic train caught fire and began to melt over the cake as jugs of water were brought to put out the conflagration.  My fifth birthday will always be among my most memorable.   The birthday when everything burned.  No one was harmed, except my dad’s pride.

I remember my fifth birthday because of that burning cake.  What will we remember about this year 5782?  Rosh Hashanah has many names, as the opening to our new edition of our Machzor will say – Yom HaZikaron, the day for remembering the year that has passed, Yom HaDin, the day for judgement on all we have done, and Yom T’ruah, the day for sounding the shofar, to awaken us to new life in the year before us.

There is a fourth name which we use towards the very end of this morning service.   Hayom harat olam – the birthday of the world.   We will use this name when we sound the shofar for the final time this morning for the glorious tekiah g’dolah, the special long blast of the Shofar.      The words come from the tenth century prayer book Seder Rav Amram based on an idea from two thousand years ago in the Talmud tractate Rosh Hashanah (10b).

If today is to be treated as if it is the birthday of the world then what kind of birthday are we going to give it?    Will it be a five thousand seven hundred and eighty second birthday where like my fifth birthday everything ends up burning?

Will the rise in temperature of the world continue to accelerate so that the fires this year in Greece, Israel and USA just spread more next year?  Or will we, this year begin to turn to acceleration around?

This year it is sixty years since President John F Kennedy promised the world that by the end of the decade men will have walked on the surface of the moon.   This happened, and now it should be no less credible to say that by 2050 or in Hebrew terms 5811 humanity will have achieved net zero carbon emissions and so put a cap onto man made climate change.

This though is not so long from now – just thirty years.   A generation.   The words of Hayom Harat Olam tell us what is needed.   Hayom harat olam, hayom yaamid bamishpat col y’tzorei olamim.    Today is the birthday of the world, today every one of earth’s creatures are examined in justice.  Rachamnu c’rachem av al banim.  We ask God to show compassion to us as parents show compassion to children.  It’s a perfect metaphor for our Synagogue which calls ourselves Kehillah Kedoshah l’dor va dor, the holy congregation from generation to generation.

Our birthday gift to the world has to be making changes this year and every year for the sake of our future generations – because we care that they live in a safe world in which they can thrive – we must emulate the compassion we ascribe to God in our compassion for each other.

Some of you may hear a strong link in what I am saying today with the sermon I gave two Rosh Hashanahs ago when I also addressed our responsibility to the planet.   That was before the pandemic struck and so the action many of us were able to take reduced substantially.   But this year it is time.   Time to act for the future of the earth.

My sermon two years ago was aimed at awareness of the issue, of the severity of hurricanes today, of the wildfires that were burning then and now in parched areas of the world, of sea level rise and the devastation they have and will cause to low lying nations.    But awareness is not the big issue now in 2021.  We are aware of how our choices, patterns of consumption, means of transport, industrial processes and national policies can make a big difference to how we can cut our carbon emissions and help to reduce the potential for climate change.

This year will be the year of COP 26 where the powers of the world will come to Glasgow in person or virtually in November to devise and make the commitments that, if we the people are behind them and hold them to account constantly could save the world for future generations.

I expect to be there helping to run the stall and participating at events at the conference on behalf of EcoSynagogue, the UK Jewish organisation, in partnership with the Board of Deputies, which promotes environmental sustainability and engagement across the Jewish Community irrespective of denomination.

Acting on behalf of the environment is not new to Judaism:  Torah tells us not to destroy trees even in a time of war in Deuteronomy (20:19), in Leviticus (19) to care for the needs of the poorest, in Genesis (1+2) to act as stewards of the world, in the second paragraph of the Shema (Deuteronomy 11), to expect that our actions will bring about or halt the rains which we need for our agriculture and industries.  This year will be the Shmittah year when traditionally fields lay fallow for the seventh year of a cycle in order to regenerate their productivity.

There are always people who say what is the point of changing behaviour to protect the environment, consume less and waste less? After all, three quarters of the world’s emissions come from just 12 of the world’s 193 countries (Economist 21/9/19 p14).  Unless those 12 change, why change my way of living?   The UK is only responsible for 1% of the world’s carbon emissions and China for 29%. (Ross Clark, Specator 14/07/21)

But to say that is to ignore the way in which Judaism works.  We are called by our Covenant to push the conscience of humanity.   We are to work as God’s partners for the repair of the world.  We help to establish trends of chesed, of lovingkindness.

Judaism is not about rights, it’s not about what the world owes us.  It’s never about looking at other peoples and saying – if they are not doing what is right then we won’t bother.   Rather, as Aaron Levine writes, our Jewish tradition of Halachah, Jewish law always emphasises duty over rights. For example we all have a duty to give tzedakah and, contributions to others to help balance out poverty and to do so beyond the letter of the law – we don’t have a right to receive it and of course we can’t unless we all fulfill our duty to give. (Case Studies in Jewish Business Ehtics p.xvi).       Analogously the Jewish duty to preserve the environment is a requirement for us to act and to do more than an individual needs to make their contribution.

Of course this Jewish value also applies to the Jewish state. Ever since Levi Yisar invented the roof top solar heater in 1953, Israel’s use of solar power for water heating and now electrical generation has been world leading.  In 2020 6% of all Israel’s power came from the sun and the nation is aiming for this figure to reach 30% by 2030.  Israeli water conserving irrigation and solar technology is exported around the world.

Yom Kippur always tells us to start any change with ourselves – not to wait for others.   On Yom Kippur early afternoon at the Musaf service we tell the story of what the High Priest used to do on Yom Kippur we remember that he began by confessing for himself, then on behalf of his household, then on behalf of his fellow priests, then on behalf of the Jewish people and finally he prayed especially for the people of the region of Sharon who were in special danger.  It’s the same for us, when we consider changing our boiler for a heat pump or our car to electric, when we cut our consumption of meat and dairy, when we reduce the packaging and disposables that we will accept, insist on renewable energy supply – we start at home with ourselves – but don’t stop there. It’s worth it.

For EHRS, our council has resolved to become part of the EcoSynagogue movement and we will be conducting an environmental audit of the shul, which will stand alongside our financial audit as a measure of our effectiveness as a charity.   Perry Newton, our community Director and I are looking for volunteers to help us on the journey and create an EHRS green team.   Let’s get our shul to net zero as soon as possible.

That translation in our machzor, birthday of the world is not quite accurate.    Harat Olam actually means conception of the world, as Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld points out, the root of this word, Hara, also makes an appearance this morning in both the Torah and haftarah readings.  Vatahar vateled Sarah.  Sarah conceived and gave birth to Isaac  Vatahar Hannah vateled ben.  Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son Samuel.   Think of the potential of the world as a place where climate change does not send us down a route of catastrophe for our children and grandchildren.   Give the earth a birthday present as if it is conceived anew – not fire and conflagration but care and preservation.  It’s in our hands.