Sermon: Eco Shabbat 5782, The Power of the Environment

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 30 December 2021

‘The shape of power is always the same; it is the shape of a tree. Root to tip, central trunk branching and re-branching, spreading wider in ever thinner, searching fingers…this same shape grows within us, our inward trees of nerves and blood vessels. The central trunk, the pathways dividing and re-dividing.’


This image of power as a tree, from Naomi Alderman’s book of the same name, feels especially important this week, following COP26, as we have been made so aware of the power of trees to save us. Their canopy reaches outwards, providing us not only with a natural air filter, but also offering important shelter and maintaining wildlife habitats. Though we may be far away from a tree, we will feel its effects.


But trees are also an image of fragility, we have the power to destroy them, to manipulate them for our own selfish needs.


Many of us have been following the updates of COP 26 this week, the United Nations 26th Conference of Parties on Climate Change. 200 countries are represented in the summit, taking place in Glasgow, during which they pledge to cut emissions by 2030. This follows the warmest decade on record, with the effects of climate change already being seen worldwide. We know that urgent change is needed if we want to make this world a better place for future generations. COP26 holds countries accountable for their actions.


The power to effect climate change is there. So far they have pledged:

Trillions of dollars of private capital to be moved towards supporting clean technology

To cut Methane emissions by 30% in next ten years

To reverse deforestation in more than 100 countries

And to shift away from coal use in 40 countries.


The UK has acknowledged its part in many ways, including pledging that large firms will be asked to show how they intend to hit climate change targets, submitting their plans to an expert panel.


Perhaps within this, we feel as if our actions are inconsequential, that our efforts will not make a difference in the scheme of global action. But, like a tree, the power of COP26 spreads through the branches, reaching further out towards us.

As we heard earlier in the words of Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh, ‘unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, we alone have the ability to save it or to do it irreparable damage.’


The Conference of Parties has always been a consensus project – not only for countries and institutions, it holds us all accountable, we must all consent to play our parts. It acknowledges that for the subject of climate change, we all hold the power, and the fragility of our planet in our hands.


Which is why yesterday, day six of the summit, turned its focus towards youth and public engagement, knowing that it is crucial that we become part of the efforts to slow down climate change.


So, although we feel small, although our carbon footprint does not include us chartering a private jet between places for dinner plans, our actions still make an impact, it is still up to us to play our part in the repairing of our world.

This week we heard two blessings given to Jacob and to Esau by Isaac from his deathbed. Both seem fiercely relevant to us this week, with their environmental themes:

You shall enjoy the fat of the earth and the dew of heaven above.

Both Jacob and Esau will benefit from the abundance and fertility of the earth, they and their descendants will be provided for. And it is a blessing they need, following the famine that they have just survived, and the one that will shortly be upon them.


Although Jacob and Esau’s blessing contained similar themes, there is a difference which makes the first blessing, ultimately given to Jacob, the sought after blessing. The difference, is seen in the invocation of the divine name as in Jacob’s blessing we read, ‘May God give you’. In Jacob’s blessing we are reminded that God gave us the world as it is.


His blessing reminds us of the Midrash we read last night during Kabbalat Shabbat, following the creation of the first human. The midrash states:

‘God took them and led them around the trees of the Garden of Eden. God said, ‘Look at my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And all that I have created, it was for you. Pay attention that you do not destroy it. For if you do, there is no one after you to repair it.


Our world is a gift, one that we received and one that we can give to the generations that come long after us. Yes, our world is in a cycle of natural climate change, ice caps have thawed before. Yes, one day again things will change and we will heading back towards a time of freezing. But it is true that we too are accelerating matters to a point beyond repair, and that we have a responsibility to act now, so that we can enjoy the blessings of our world, the fat of the earth and the dew of heaven above.


We may not hold the power concentrated in the trunk of the tree, but we are at the tip of the branches. We are partners in the repairing of our world and there are tangible things we can do to help, such as cutting down on our consumption of red meat and thinking before we buy.


And there are ways we can make a difference in the life of this community here at Alyth.

This Shabbat is EcoShabbat, a Shabbat dedicated to engaging in this crucial topic. Marked across four denominations of Judaism, it presents us with an opportunity to show our support for the COP26 conference and to recommit ourselves to making small shifts within our communities that will help to make a difference in the world.


Despite the urgency of the crisis, and our wish to do all we can to help, we must also recognize that there are challenges, especially in this time of pandemic. We need to make compromises, prioritizing our health with the use of masks, with individually wrapped kiddush, with the use of cars when public transport feels threatening to pikuach nefesh and the need for ventilation, for opening our windows and heating our rooms.


As a community, we pledge to working together with a team of people to embed more environmentally friendly practices in our synagogue lives, whilst still looking out for the safety and experience of each individual. If you wish to be part of this group, please feel free to contact myself or Rabbi Elliott.


We each hold the power to make a difference. Like the branches of a tree, our efforts will spread from us into the world. May we commit to making small shifts individually, being a dugma, an example to those around us. May we commit to more environmentally friendly practices as a community, so that our young people can grow up knowing that we tried. And may we commit to acting now, so that we can make the world a better place for future generations.