Jewish sermons/midrash

Since action on climate change must be an integral part of responding to God's message today, this needs to be reflected in the formal reflections and conversation of the community. Here are some possible sermon ideas and outlines to work on.

Since action on climate change must be an integral part of responding to God's message today, this needs to be reflected in the formal reflections and conversation of the community. Here are some possible sermon ideas and outlines to work on:

Wastefulness does not stop with trees!

Reprinted with permission from Chabad.org.

"Recycle, Reduce & Reuse" has deep roots in Jewish tradition. Even before Greenpeace came on the scene, the Torah had already charted out an environmental ethic. It's all in this verse in Deuteronomy (20:19):

"When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees."

The rabbis of the Talmud explained, "If during times of war we are forbidden to cut down our enemies' trees, then we certainly may not destroy productive trees in times of peace." And it doesn't stop with trees. Destroying or ruining foods, clothes, dishes, plants, springs of water, or anything else that could be of benefit to someone is out of bounds, even if they have no owner. Nevertheless, this is not preservation for the sake of preservation. When there is no way to fix or build except by destroying something along the way, then destroying can be considered part of building. But there are limits to what is considered productive destruction. For example, breaking a crystal vase to demonstrate to your children how upset you are with their naughty behaviour is not considered productive for these purposes.

The Warning in the White Fire

Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black

Each year in the Jewish tradition we get to the end of the Torah-reading cycle, with Moses looking across the whole spread and potential of the Promised Land, from the top of Mount N'vo. He is to see the future, but to be no further part of it (Deuteronomy 34:1-5). He has done what he can to bring the Israelites to this point, to set them on the right path for a secure future – but will it be a future of peace and harmony with the existing inhabitants of the land, and with the land itself – or bloodshed and warfare in perpetuity for the limited resources it holds, challenges already experienced and foreshadowed over water, even back in the ancestral stories? Abraham swore a peace agreement with Avimelech, from which Be'er Sheva is named (Genesis 21:31). ' Isaac's tribesmen eventually found an area where they could settle and extract water without dissent from the neighbours, calling it 'Rehovot' (wide space), saying 'God has given us enough space to expand' (Genesis 26:22). Today, grazing land, and potable water, are under even more pressure from hugely increased populations and demands.

From Moses looking out across the land of such promise, this 'high vantage point', we experience a cliff-hanger every year! We wind back the Torah to the beginning, and commence our cycle of readings once more, with the first weekly portion, Bereshit, the story of Creation. It is perhaps too easy to overlook the central message of this portion. Our task, our human responsibility, is to look after God's world, to tend it, to till it, to 'subdue' it – but never in a destructive sense. We may use it, we may eat from it, but it is clear that we must maintain it in a healthy state to pass on to the generations to come. In short, thousands of years before the term was coined, Bereshit is the strongest of mandates for Sustainability.

The letters of the Torah have been described as 'black fire' – but the spaces between the letters are the 'white fire' – they too can be significant. The spaces between the letters and the stories give the opportunity for the unanswered – even unasked – questions and possible answers, embracing the experience, learning and imagination of the generations. The black fire is the written law, but the white fire allows for the oral law, the interpretation and application for each generation, the midrash and the halachah.

If the first portion, Bereshit, sets out our responsibility to God's world, the second portion, Noach, is a pretty strong warning of what will happen if we fail. Reflect on the predictions for rising sea levels with the current rate of melting ice caps. And, lest we still find some reassurance in the message of the rainbow that 'God will prevent another flood', let me draw your attention to Genesis 8:21, where God is recorded as saying 'Never again will I doom the earth because of humanity'... In the space after the black fire of those words, we should write in flaming white letters: 'but never forget the warning of what you can bring upon yourselves'. Indeed, reading the juxtaposition of the very first two portions of the Torah as an environmental warning is itself a new understanding which today we can see, which humans have never been in a position to see before. As we roll back the scroll each year to start again, we say 'turn it and turn it, for all is in it'. It is just a question of how well we can read the white fire with the black – what new messages we dare to see in these ancient words.

Chanukah thought:

By Rabbi Jeff Sultar & The Shalom Center's Green Menorah Covenant Campaign, [email protected], 2007

During Hanukkah, we celebrate the use of one day's worth of oil to meet 8 days' needs. Hanukkah can be seen, then, as the festival that has the most to teach and inspire us about energy use.

What has the 10th commandment got to do with Climate Change? Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black

We need to curb the materialist urge – and perhaps this is what the 10th commandment – thou shalt not covet – is addressing. It is against materialism – the driving force of society and the cause of our downfall – many of us have so much more than we need. Do not lust after THINGS. I often quote the aphorism 'There there little luxury, don't you cry, you'll be a necessity by and by!' Electric car windows, the latest mobile phone, large homes. How did we manage without them? Of course we do need new things from time to time – but we need to get used to having fewer, and more energy- and resource-efficient goods, if they are to lead us towards a sustainable world.

As the insightful midrash on Ecclesiastes says, 'As soon as God created Adam, he was shown the Garden of Eden. 'See how fine and excellent My world is – and all created for you. Do not corrupt or devastate it, for there will be no-one to repair it after you' (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13).

It could be that the tenth commandment, the one we never really understood, and which never seemed to rank alongside the prohibitions on stealing, murder and adultery, or on Shabbat or graven images, might turn out to be one of the most important of all for human survival.

Rabbi Yonatan Neril explains the benefits of finding a sustainable path in modern Jewish society.

One of the most significant sustainability challenges of our time is how we produce, use, and relate to energy. Today billions of people use fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas for energy. While use of these resources has greatly increased standards of living, it also has driven significant worldwide environmental impacts.

The Jewish tradition teaches us to use energy wisely. In some cases, wasting energy is a violation of Bal Tashchit, the prohibition not to waste excessively. For example, the Talmudic Sage Mar Zutra stated, "One who covers an oil lamp [causing the flame to burn inefficiently] or uncovers a kerosene lamp [allowing the fuel to evaporate faster] violates the prohibition of Bal Tashchit" (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 67b).

Based on this teaching of the Talmud, the Ben Ish Chai (Rabbi Yosef Chaim ben Eliyahu, a major Iraqi nineteenth century authority on Jewish law, in Torah Lishma section 76), addressed a case in which a person lit two wicks in oil for use at night. The person left both wicks lit throughout the night in the event they woke up in the middle of the night and needed to see. In order to prevent waste, the Ben Ish Chai instructed the man to extinguish one wick before going to bed, since were he to get up at night, he would only need the light of one wick; keeping the second wick lit would be a transgression of Bal Tashchit, the prohibition not to destroy or waste. This response shows a high degree of concern for wasting energy in a case where someone does not derive benefit from the additional use of energy.

Similarly, the Ben Ish Chai discusses a case in which a person puts a large amount of oil before Shabbat (Sabbath) in a lamp in their home in order for it to remain lit for all of Shabbat. He rejects this practice as a waste of oil and a transgression of Bal Tashchit, since the light from this lamp will not be of benefit to a person during the day in their sun-lit home. The mitzva (commandment) of Bal Tashchit—do not destroy or waste—communicates a deeper Jewish message about the value of things: there is never enough to waste even if there is plenty right now. In this vein, Rabbi Samphson Raphael Hirsch teaches that God conveys through this commandment that "Only if you use the things around you for wise human purposes, sanctified by the word of My teaching, only then are you a mensch (decent human being) and have the right over them which I have given you as a human" (Horeb, sections 397, 398).

In our time, the above views may be relevant concerning leaving lights, heaters, air conditioners, or other appliances running for all of Shabbat or during the week when a person will not derive benefit from them. Another area where this may apply is in 'standby' appliance use in most homes. According to the Energy Analysis Department of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, "a surprisingly large number of electrical products—from TVs to microwave ovens to air conditioners—cannot be switched off completely without being unplugged... A typical (American) home has forty products constantly drawing power. Together these amount to almost 10% of residential electricity use" (http://standby.lbl.gov/ )

Energy use causes a host of serious problems such as air pollution, climate change, and mercury in fish. Studies show a correlation between air pollution and premature deaths due to lung cancer. Researchers conclude that when air pollution in a city declines, the city benefits with a directly proportional drop in death rates.

Rabbi Ezra Batzri, former head of the Sephardi Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem, writes that a character trait of a righteous person (Midat Hasidut) is being careful about not damaging others even indirectly. The Mishnah expresses this concern for protecting our neighbours by instructing that tanneries, which produce noxious odours, must be sufficiently distanced from human settlements so as not to negatively affect the air people breathe in the vicinity (BavaBatra 25a).

Today, we can use less energy and reduce the amount of coal and gasoline burned, diminish the health impacts from the resultant air pollution, and uphold the rabbinic advice not to damage others indirectly. We might do so by driving less, eating less meat or globalized food, and taking fewer plane trips. It is in the realm of personal consumption that Jewish thought may best inform our energy and climate challenges today and empower us to change. To generate broader changes in other people and in our world, we must start with our own actions.

The prophet Isaiah repeatedly calls on the Jewish people to be a "light unto the nations." Rabbi David Kimchi (France, 1160-1235) explains that 'light' here refers to the Torah. In our times, let us find inspiration and light in the profound teachings of our tradition that address our central challenges. And let the light that emerges from our example reveal to the world a new sustainable path.