High Holiday Message from Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen

Posted on Sep 02, 2015

Forty years ago this fall, I moved into an apartment in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood of Jerusalem and began participating in a program called Mishmar Ezrachi, or civil guard. The officials in charge instructed us on what to do if we sighted suspicious activity and trained us in the use of the old M-1 rifles with which we were supplied each time we went on patrol. My partner for guard duty was my upstairs neighbor Lilian, who was not only an excellent conversationalist but contributed the use of her bright red Volvo for some of our late-night tours of the neighborhood. It felt good to be working for the larger good of Israel so soon after my arrival and barely two years after the Yom Kippur War—though I confess I was unsure just how much of a difference our efforts actually made. I experienced great relief when each patrol passed uneventfully: the Volvo parked once more at the curb, the rifle safely stored, and the city’s slumber remaining undisturbed.

I know I am not the only one for whom a good night’s sleep does not come easily in 2015: not in Israel and not in America, not for Jews and not for others who care about the state of the world as we approach another Rosh Hashanah. The day is described by our liturgy—in the passage immediately following the blowing of the shofar—as the “the world’s birthday, the day when all its creatures are called to judgment.” This year, the call that I hear, the response for which we will be judged, has to do with stewardship of God’s creation.

Pope Francis invoked this theme eloquently in his recent encyclical on the threat climate change poses to global well-being. The power of his message, I think, lies in its call for dramatic change in the broad set of attitudes and behaviors that have led to the current crisis, and his confidence that such transformation is not only necessary but possible. The encyclical reads at many points like a commentary on the High Holidays call for thorough going teshuvah, in order that we—the “we” enlarged in this case to include “all creatures” and the planet we share—may continue to be written in the book of life. I want to dwell on four aspects of that call.

First, and most important, there is the need to discard belief that the world is ours to do with as we please, as if by right. Jewish morning prayers begin daily with thanks for a body and soul that are on loan and must not be abused; the Torah begins with creation stories that remind us, as Pope Francis put it, “that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen. 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air, and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.” We owe the earth—and God—responsible stewardship of the gifts entrusted to us. Failure to provide it amounts to a sin “before God” for which the High Holy Day liturgy calls us to account.

Second, there is the insistence that we cannot separate care for the planet from care for the human beings who populate it. We’ve all met or heard about individuals who are great animal-lovers but are undisturbed by poverty and injustice. It is not uncommon to encounter people who defend the earth against despoilment but will not raise their voices to protest the degradation of human life. The Rabbis made it a rule long ago that Jews cannot ask for forgiveness from God if we have not sought—and won it from our fellow human beings. Our turn away from exploitation of the earth, if it is to be decisive and long-lasting, must be accompanied by a parallel turn away from exploitation of other human beings.

Third, our responsibilities also extend to future generations. The Jewish calendar decrees that, immediately before Rosh Hashanah each year, Jews read the Torah portion in which Moses declares that the covenant binding God and Israel is made “not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with you this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day” (Deut. 29:13–14). I find great personal meaning in these words. They assure me that the covenant includes me as much as it had included my ancestors and will include my descendants. I am part of a larger story; I walk a path that began long before I arrived in the world and will continue long after I am gone. And with that gift, too, comes responsibility: the need to apportion the earth’s resources wisely and justly among all who share it with us now and with those who will come after us.

Many contemporary Jews—myself included—have difficulty with Deuteronomy’s conviction that “soil devastated by sulfur and salt, beyond sowing and producing no grass growing in it” (29:22)will come as divine punishment for Israel’s misdeeds and abate when Israel repents and returns to God. Modern scientific minds should have far less of a problem with a human-centered account of the causes for the current environmental crisis. Even if we disagree about the details of that causality, we can and should affirm the need for repentance and return, which take the form of changes in both attitudes and behavior.

I think we resist the teshuvah required, in part, because the task seems daunting: knowing how hard it is to change individual lives and relationships, can we really expect world leaders who rarely agree on anything to come together, lead their people in changing ingrained habits of consumption, and cut back dramatically on carbon emissions and use of fossil fuels? And will they have the wisdom and courage to do so now, in 5776, before it is too late? Pope Francis does not flinch from expressing hope that the enormity and urgency of the crisis may themselves impel the world’s peoples, inspired by religion as well as reason, to make the turning required. The Rabbis pursue exactly the same strategy in the High Holiday liturgy. Their message, too, like the shofar, is both a call to responsibility and a call to hope.

At JTS, an institution that trains Jewish leaders to serve our people and our tradition, both calls are ever-present: hope, because we know and teach the ways in which past Jewish communities have drawn on the Torah’s wisdom to confront and master challenges that seemed insurmountable, and responsibility, because our classrooms are filled with students and faculty who have chosen to dedicate their talents—and their lives—to helping the tradition speak clearly and powerfully to the contemporary situation. M-1 rifles and civil guard patrols will not safeguard Israel in 2015; time-worn patterns of fuel consumption will not safeguard the planet; interpretations of Judaism that served our parents and grandparents must likewise be renewed to guide us through the unprecedented threats to Israel’s well-being—and the world’s—that weigh so heavily on us as we approach the Days of Awe.

That is our task and our privilege. Face up to your problems, the liturgy advises individuals, communities, and nations alike. Shirking them will not avail. Draw deeply on the resources of your tradition, and join with allies who share your planet and your concerns. Do not by any means count on God to make things right for you—but trust that, if you have done the proper turning, help may come ‘from some other place.’ God too may ‘hear the sound of the shofar, and remember’ the creatures doing all they can to protect and tend the garden that may again prove an Eden in which all who live can flourish.