Sermon: Second Day Rosh Hashanah (Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 4 October 2017

בראש השנה יכתבון וביום צום כפור יחתמון:

On Rosh Hashanah they are written and on the fast of Yom Kippur they are sealed; how many will pass away and how many will be born; who will live and who will die; who in their normal life span and who not; who by fire and who by water…?

It was the late August bank holiday weekend and we were down in Bournemouth for our annual sojourn to the British seaside. The bank holiday Monday was particularly warm – so warm, in fact, that it broke records. It was, officially, the hottest August bank holiday Monday since records began, the temperatures hitting 28C in some parts of the UK. As we headed to the beach, it was a mere 25C; virtually perfect weather for swimming in the English Channel and a spot of sunbathing.

Earlier in the summer, we had made our rather less regular pilgrimage to visit my American family. About once every 2-3 years we manage to get Stateside for a week on the south Texas coast with my parents, my 3 brothers, my sister, their wives and husband, and the dozen kids between us alongside various other more extended family. Afterwards, we tend to schlep around Texas and Oklahoma visiting people. This year we started our trip in the narrow spit of land known as Galveston Island, immediately to the south of Houston, and ended our trip in Houston itself, staying with close friends. Two weeks after our return, on our extra sunny bank holiday Monday, I was glued to my phone while I sat at English seaside, anxious for news of family and friends and well loved places in the path of Hurricane Harvey.

The home of my childhood friend, where we stayed in Houston, had a foot of standing water in it by bank holiday Monday. She and her husband, two of her children, and their three cats were camping out on the 2nd floor of their home. They were fortunate; not only did their area retain power, but the flooding never made it as high as the ground floor electricity sockets. As she and her husband said in a Facebook post, at least they still had air con. My eldest brother and his family were notified of mandatory evacuation orders on bank holiday Monday. Their house is across the street from the Brazos River, which was predicted to overflow its banks considerably after the emergency release of water from the Addicks dam water reservoir. My brother, his wife, their three youngest children, and dog fled to the relative safety of friends further away from the river, traversing flooded streets and blocked routes along their way. I have never been so grateful before that my family all drive SUVs.

Half a world away again, in a story that at that stage was less reported on, at least 1200 people had already died in the annual monsoon floods in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. True, that part of the world floods annually, but this year has seen some of the worst flooding for many years, with a death toll that far outstripped the deaths in Texas by many, many times over.  As I was reading the news about Texas and Southeast Asia, I had the rather disjunctive experience of marvelling at the joy of watching my children jump off bridges into the River Stour and swim through mudflats in the Solent and bury each other in the sand at Bournemouth beach – all in the last week of August – and I could not have been more conscious that any potential upsides of global climate change are far outstripped by the cataclysmic damage being inflicted on our planet.


מי באש ומי במים

Who by fire and who by water indeed. A matter of only a few weeks after Harvey and the news this time was of Hurricane Irma in the Eastern Caribbean and Florida. Whole islands left virtually uninhabitable. At least a million people left without power. Scores dead; looting rife; economies and ecosystems left ruptured almost beyond recovery. How can the God who promised Noah, and through Noah to all of us,

וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת-בְּרִיתִי אִתְּכֶם וְלֹא-יִכָּרֵת כָּל-בָּשָֹר עוֹד מִמֵּי הַמַּבּוּל וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה עוֹד מַבּוּל לְשַׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ:

‘I will establish my covenant with you and never again will all flesh be cut off by the flood waters and there will not be another flood to destroy the earth,’ [Gn 9:11] how can that God be the same God who creates hurricanes and typhoons and storm surges and tsunamis and monsoons?

In the Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11a the rabbis imagine a conversation the Egyptians might have had about afflicting the Israelites with fire and, after discounting it, with water. But, they remind themselves, God has already promised not to flood the earth again. To which the rabbis comment, ‘They were unaware, however, that God would not bring a flood upon the whole world but upon one people God would bring it.’ Can this be what the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean and the floods plains of Southeast Asia are experiencing now? Are they individual peoples on to whom God would happily afflict a flood?! For what possible reason? (Could there ever be reason enough to drown children?)

As we rise and face the ark when we recite the  ונתנה תקףprayer and as we consider our fates when we do so, we are reminded that

תשובה תפלה וצדקה מעבירין את רע הגזרה

Repentance, prayer, and good deeds can transform the harsh decree.

Really, I wonder? Is that true? How many people stood last year on Rosh Hashanah at Temple Beth Israel in Houston or the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands and prayed for a good new year? How many of those same people spent the month of Elul and the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur asking friends and family for forgiveness? How many of those people, people just  like us here, consider themselves good people, decent human beings, who give generously to charity, look after the needs of others, and seek actively to make the world a better place? How many expected their worlds to be devastated before the fall of the next High Holidays?

In Mishna Yoma 8:9 a distinction is made between sins we commit against each other, עברות בין אדם לחברו, and those we commit against God , .עברות בין אדם למקוםFor those offenses that are between human beings, we know that God cannot forgive us. Only our fellow human beings can do that. The time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur becomes especially poignant – we ought to spend these days not catching up on the work we missed by being out of the office on Rosh Hashanah, but rather by seeking out those we have wronged, apologising in earnest, and hopefully receiving their forgiveness. For those crimes and misdemeanours we commit against God, however, we are instructed to pray, which on Yom Kippur involves more than a full day of fasting, immersion in solemn reflection, and repeated liturgical calls to God to ask for forgiveness. And both these activities are doubtless virtuous activities.

But, I would argue, our two categories of repentance are no longer enough. I believe that now we, all of us, and most certainly those of us living in the Western, developed world, must also consider how we repent for עברות בין אדם לארץ, sins committed between human beings and the natural world. And to atone for these sins, I would argue that no amount of prayer or good deeds will be enough. To understand what repentance in the face of catastrophic, human-induced climate change might be, we will have to change not merely our personal behaviour, but perhaps more importantly our communal and institutional behaviours in radical and uncomfortable ways.

From the biblical text onwards, the ways in which the Jewish relationship to the natural world has been formulated has not always been helpful in directing our behaviour. In the first chapter of Genesis we are instructed by to ‘be fruitful and multiple and fill the earth and subdue it…’ [Gn 1:28]. As recently as 1966 the eminent Jewish academic , Professor Nahum Sarna, commented on this verse ‘This exclusive distinction endows man with power over the animal and vegetable worlds and confers on him the right, nay the duty, to exploit nature for his own benefits.’[1] Perhaps some irony exists in the fact that Prof Sarna ended his illustrious academic career at Florida Atlantic University, whose campus grounds and buildings suffered damage during Hurricane Irma; for I hope that we might all believe now that the exploitation of nature by human beings leads only to disaster.

Climate change is the failing of our generation. In the Western world it stems, in no small part, from the history of biblical interpretation, in which Nahum Sarna stands only at the most recent end. But soon when we speak of the generation of the Flood, we will not be speaking of the generation of the biblical Flood, we will not mean the women and men and children who lived in the time of Noah. We will mean ourselves. Like that generation we bear a collective responsibility for what is happening to our world.

Returning to Mishna Yoma 8:9, it actually begins with this statement: “One who says, ‘I will sin, and then repent, and then sin again and repent, will not receive an opportunity to repent.’” And in Adin Steinsalz’s translation of the Talmud [B. Yoma 85b] the eminent scholar adds the comment ‘and that person will remain a sinner all their days.’ My greatest anxiety for my children and, please God, their children after them, is that we are already the generation of the next Flood, who will remain sinners all our days.

But this festival season, with its emphasis on genuine repentance, is our opportunity to change our lives and change our world in the process. The climate scientists tell us time is alarming short to avert the harsh decree, but there is yet time. We are standing on the precipice of Neilah in our world. The gates of repentance will close sooner than we think. The decent people, and even the less decent people, of the Texas Gulf Coast and the Leeward islands of the Caribbean and the flood plains of southeast Asia, they are far from alone in bearing responsibility for the flooding that devastated their lives this year.

על חטא שחטתנו לפניך ולפני ארצינו

For the sin we have committed before You, God, and against our world, we acknowledge openly and in our community the ramifications of our actions and pledge ourselves to meaningful action and substantive change before anymore irreparable damage can be done to our only world, the world of God’s creation.

I pray that such may be our personal and communal commitment to sincere repentance this year of 5778 and may you, God, the One Who Spoke and thus the World Came into Being, help support us in doing so. כן יהי רצון, may that be God’s will as it is our own.

[1] Sarna, N. Understanding Judaism (New York: Schoken Books, 1966), pg. 15.