Sermon: Shabbat Terumah – Eco Synagogues

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 4 March 2017

In the Torah it took God 34 verses to create the entire universe.  Just Chapter One of Genesis and three verses of Chapter two.  How long did it take the Israelites to build the rather simpler Mischan – the Desert Temple?   More than 600 verses of the Torah from this Torah portion and the next four.   Why is this asked Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (at talk to launch “The Home we Build Together”) –  It was not just because getting any group of Jews to agree how to complete a building project is always a very time consuming challenge – as anyone who has been part of the group working to renew our Alyth building will attest.  Rather it is because whilst is it not so difficult for God to build a home fit for humanity, it is extremely difficult for humanity to make a home fit for God.

This morning I want to concentrate on one feature of this home for God’s presence – the main material out of which is was built – Acacia wood – Atzei Shittim.

The Acacia tree is rather remarkable.  It is common to all desert areas of the world.  Acacias can survive in areas where the annual rainfall is less than 4cm – that’s the rainfall of a serious single downpour in London.  It can withstand temperatures of well over 50 degrees centigrade or even when within 12 hours the night-time temperature falls below 0.

Acacias will put out roots more than 100 feet long in order to be able to draw some moisture for their survival.  Their leaves are tiny in their surface area so that as little water as possible is lost by evaporation but spread out wide in an umbrella like expanse so that they can take in the maximum sunshine for photosynthesis.  The tree produces no edible fruit, just hard seed pods.  Some species produce the very useful thickening agent – gum Arabic – which would also have been used in the making of the ink with which our Sifrei Torah were written and also helps to give jellybeans their distinctive texture!   Large quantities of this gum are bought by soft drink companies to stabilise their cola drinks and that’s why a friend of mine worked some years ago in Darfur to help the impoverished residents to make some money from tapping their Acacia trees.

The wood of the Acacia tree is hard, and dense and heavy – not ideal, you might have thought, for the building of furniture or even less a portable desert temple but it is what was asked for in God’s description of the Tabernacle – for no fewer than 13 elements of the Mischan:  the ark and its poles, the table of showbread and its poles, the brazen altar and its poles, and the incense altar and its poles, all the poles for the hanging of the curtains as well as the supports [boards]. In short, all the structural features of the tabernacle were constructed of acacia wood.

When Solomon built his temple he didn’t use acacia wood – instead he used cedar – a cultivated also non fruit bearing tree for which he would have had to send to Lebanon to obtain the quantities that he wanted.  The Rabbis asked why, when God gave the design for the Tabernacle was Acacia wood specified as the only wood for construction, and why then was Cedar wood used for the Temple.  The answer they gave in the Midrash Shemot Rabbah 35:2 was that “God set an example for all time, that when a man is about to build his house from a fruit-producing tree, he should be reminded: If, when the supreme King of kings commanded the Temple to be erected, His instructions were to use only such trees as are not fruit-bearing– though all things belong to Him;–how much more should this be so in your case?”

Essentially the answer was that Acacia wood was specified as it was God’s wish for us to learn to preserve our environment.  Fruit trees were necessary for the substance of life – better to use the trees such as Acacia and Cedar that will not deplete the stock of these necessities for human existence.  If we are environmentally conscious in our day then we know that the worst kind of wood to use for our homes, offices and furnishings are tropical hardwoods harvested from the rainforests whose fruit for us is the very oxygen we breathe.  Neither the tabernacle nor the temple was built from mahogany or teak – however attractive they might be.  If the most holy structure every known to the Jews could be made from the wood that was the least damaging to the environment, then so can our homes and our furniture.

When we build our Synagogue we too are trying to create a place in which we can come to experience God’s presence.  What does Alyth do to ensure that we use the modern day equivalent of Acacia wood in the way in which we build and run our Synagogue?

The Shul’s Executive and Council asked itself this question back in 2010.  The result was a group under the leadership of Paul Alter and David Brodie which worked hard to create a sustainability report for the Synagogue.  It covered all kinds of aspects of the shul – from the heat losses that come from our windows, to the way our radiators work, our lighting, recycling, transport methods and much more.  The group investigated placing solar panels on our vast expanse of roof – not such a crazy idea as much of the cost of this would be defrayed by a government grant to encourage us to conserve energy, whilst here in the bet tefillah our prayers from Pesach onwards for dew brought by plentiful sunshine would gain new meaning!

It was a good report and it was one of the inspirations for the building project which we are currently funding – to reduce the Synagogue’s use of resources, to enable it to be warmer in winter and cooler in summer through much better insulation, to stop lights being left on in unused rooms with equipment that turns them off automatically, for example, to reuse the shell of the building to create something better.

To make sure that we know what we are doing, Alyth Synagogue is among our local Synagogues which aim to found a movement called Eco Synagogues, modeled on the church movement which brings together more than 600 churches around the country of all denominations including the local Golders Green Parish Church, called Eco Churches.

( ) We will assess how good an environmental citizen we are, adapt our building, our transport systems and more to be better conservers of the environment, and diffuse what we find among our congregation, doing so in cooperation with other Synagogues across the denominations.   We are asking members who would like to be part of the Alyth Green Team, led by two experts on sustainability, to help deliver this transformation to volunteer to do so.  If that is you please let me know.

Jewish environmental consciousness is not of course just about our places of worship.  It is about our personal lives and how each of us conserves the resources of the earth.

Our Torah portion tells us that, as we heard in the portion of Noah and will hear again in the portion of Behar in Leviticus when the Sabbatical cycle conserves agriculture and again in the portion of Shoftim in Deuteronomy when we are told to conserve trees even in a time of war – that conservation and environmental consciousness are religious issues for Jews – they are mitzvot, not only twenty first century concerns.

Optimism says that change in our behavior as consumers over the coming years will reduce the effects of the carbon emissions that are causing global warming. But you do need a lot of optimism – and to recognize that consumer behaviour change can only be part of the solution.  A massive change is also needed from industrial carbon emitters.

Only 12% of the carbon emissions which produce global warming come from residential or commercial use – Electricity generation is responsible for the largest share—30 percent. Transportation generates 26 percent of global emissions. Industrial processes account for 21 percent.  (Source: US Environmental Protection Agency 2014)

This means that its not going to be enough for us as individuals to change our behaviour or consuming patterns – we are going to need to bring pressure to bear on business to preserve the world which Judaism tells us it is humankind’s responsibility to steward and care for – the real meaning for our day of the Genesis verse which gives Adam dominion over the world.

The Acacia tree has spread throughout the world, to be present in five continents by being extraordinarily sparing in the resources that it uses.  It has meant that Acacia thrives in what to other plants are completely inhospitable environments.  It will cope with pretty much whatever the natural environment has to throw at it.  Just as the Acacia was used to build the framework for the Jew’s first sanctuary so too, Alyth, our beloved Shul must, we ourselves and our families must and the businesses which create the economy that sustains us must be sparing in our use of resources so that we can truly maintain the framework for a livable world l’dor vador – from generation to generation.