The End of Empire: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah

My sermon for Rosh Hanshanah Day 5769 was something of a sequel to the one I delivered the night before. I’ve reworked it here, based on a version I gave today at Lake St. Church’s World Community Sabbath. (Those of you who read the previous sermon will notice I carried some passages over into this one).

Click below to read:

Before I begin my remarks to you today, I’d like to do a brief review of my words from last night. For those of you who weren’t here, or who might have forgotten overnight, I talked about the concept of “sustainability”  and I shepped some naches over the ways that JRC has committed itself to the sustainability of our world. I also explored the concept of spiritual sustainability and how critical I believe it is for our lives. And toward the end of my remarks, I suggested briefly that our recent financial meltdown might well a sign that our country has been living an unsustainable manner – and that we’re currently experiencing the dire consequences of our behavior.

Now I know this word, “sustainability” is bandied about a great deal these days, in a variety of different contexts. Some might even consider it to be something of a buzzword. But the thing about buzzwords?  Sometimes it’s true, they do reflect temporary fads or the concept du jour. But in some instances the popularity of a particular word might just indicate an idea whose time has come.

So what does it mean when we say that something is “sustainable?” In the most basic formulation it simply means that something has the ability to thrive with permanence and continuity without exhausting limited resources. This is a fairly straightforward concept, but it is obvious that it becoming increasingly difficult for us to grasp.  In the Western world we tend to take our sustainability for granted.  In our country in particular, I believe our power and privilege creates the illusion of permanence – we take for granted that our resources are somehow inexhaustible; that everything upon which we’ve come to depend will somehow be magically sustained on its own accord.

But of course it isn’t so. The earth’s natural resources are not inexhaustible. Nor are the human resources of our communities. Nor are the economic resources of our nation. And if we continue to plunder or exploit any of these impermanent commodities, our wells will eventually run dry. This may seem patently obvious, but if it is, we certainly don’t seem to be getting it. The only way we will sustain the precious but limited resources of our world is if we ourselves take responsibility for their sustenance.  If we understand that their care and maintenance are up to us and only us. If we live mindful disciplined lives, taking care at every turn not to squander our blessings. Indeed, it is only when we see ourselves as primary agents of sustainability that we truly ensure a future for ourselves and our world.

The notion of a sustainable world is also a profoundly religious concept.  As a matter of fact, it’s the very first teaching in the Bible. In the first chapter of Genesis, we read that God creates an ordered and orderly world – and along with it, God creates the means for its ongoing sustenance. The earth, in turn brings forth “seed-bearing plants…each true to its type, with its seed in it.” (1:2) God also creates the various species of the animal world each with the power to procreate and commands them to be fruitful and multiply. When God creates man and woman, God also commands them to be fruitful and multiply but then God goes one step further. God puts the ongoing care and sustenance of the earth in their hands.

For whatever reason, God doesn’t just take care of the world alone, nor does God create a world that can simply take care of itself. This sacred job is given to humanity just as creation is barely out of the starting gate. A famous Midrash – an early Rabbinic teaching – makes this point radically clear for us:

When God created the first human beings, God showed them around the Garden of Eden and said to them, ‘Look at my handiwork, my creation, how beautiful and balanced it is. Be careful not to ruin or destroy my world, for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.

The point here, I think, is clear. The world was designed to be sustained, but it is not self-sustaining. The future of the world, quite simply, is up to us.

By now, we are all too familiar with the environmental implications of this teaching. And it’s gratifying that we seem to be witnessing a major sea change in green awareness in this country. The explosion in sustainable building and the increased production of hybrids and fuel-efficient cars could be a sign that maybe, just maybe, we’re starting to get it. Of course, as important as it is for us to promote green living as private citizens, we won’t see a true environmental impact in our world until nations themselves make policy to fundamentally change the way they consume energy.

And as a nation, America has to come to grips with the fact we are by far the most extravagant consumer of the world’s energy. In fact, we’re the most extravagant consumer of energy in the history of the world. America, a country with less than 5% of the world’s population currently uses 25% of the world’s energy.  Of course it is true that since our economy is larger than any other country, it requires more energy to sustain it. But it is also true that our lifestyle is twice as energy-intensive as that of other affluent countries – and about ten times the average globally.

Personally, I believe that energy over-consumption is only part of a larger sustainability problem in our country. It’s not simply an environmental issue. If we’re going to be totally frank, we’ll have to admit that our country is squandering precious resources on almost every level at an ever-increasing rate. In this regard, we’re heading down the road in which empires have traditionally traveled. And like all empires, we’ve begun to buckle under the weight of our own power and ambition.

The most recent example of this, of course, is our recent financial meltdown. It’s true, Wall St. has been living in an economically unsustainable manner for some time, and now their chickens are coming home to roost. But what did we expect?  If we want to be entirely honest, our entire nation has literally been living on borrowed time. Though our GDP for now is still the highest in the world, the world’s only so-called superpower now has a national debt that is nearly $10 trillion and increases at an average of $2.32 billion every day.

And look at how we’ve set our national priorities – we’re squandering our nation’s wealth the way all empires historically do: on increased military power. We maintain a military presence in virtually every corner of the planet.  Our country’s 2009 defense budget is $515.4 billion, roughly equal to the total military budgets of all the rest of the world’s nations combined.  But this doesn’t include money for fighting the so-called “War on Terror.” Since 9/11, Congress has approved a total of about $859 billion for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and for military base security. We’re spending $500,000 a minute on the Iraq war alone.  By the way, it’s been estimated that the money spent on one day of the Iraq war could buy homes for almost 6,500 families, health care for 423,529 children, or could outfit 1.27 million homes with renewable electricity.

In other words, we’ve been spending more and more money we don’t have to shore up our power and privilege at the expense of our own citizens. As is typically the case with empires, our nation’s wealth been has increasingly controlled by an ever-narrowing elite. In the last twenty-five years, 60 percent of American households have lost real income despite working longer and harder.  At the same time, all gains in income went to a mere five percent of the population. And for the top one percent, income quadrupled between 1979 and 2004.  Meanwhile, the financial safety net for the most vulnerable among us is disappearing quickly.

This is the inevitable outcome of an overall system that offers breaks and rewards almost exclusively to the wealthy and powerful, while assuming the rest will simply trickle down to everyone else. Meanwhile the wealthiest nation in the world cannot find the financial wherewithal to ensure basic health care for all its citizens. Our job market is shrinking, we’re making increasing cuts in education, social service programs for the growing numbers of hungry and homeless – you certainly know the list as well as I do…

And in addition to the well-being of our citizens, we’re also failing to ensure the well-being of our country’s essential infrastructure. While so many other nations around the world are investing in 21st century technologies, our levees are bursting, our bridges are collapsing, our transit systems are decaying. It has become so serious that many are suggesting we cannot reasonably be considered a developed nation in certain parts of our country. A non-partisan coalition of local and state leaders, recently estimated it would take at least $1.6 trillion dollars over the next five years to address the US infrastructure crisis.

We’ve all been deeply shaken by this current crisis, but I hope we are able to understand that it’s really only the financial symptom of a larger road our nation has been going down for some time. We’ve been living in an unsustainable manner. We’ve been living literally on borrowed time. Like all empires, we’ve been operating under the illusion of invulnerability, but it was inevitable that sooner or later, our bubble was going to burst.

So what’s a crumbling empire to do? Where do we go from here? What are the alternatives?  Well, one thing I’d like to point out is that we Jews have had a long history with empires. Whether it was the Babylonian Empire, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires – we’ve lived among them, we’ve been oppressed by many of them, and we’ve witnessed many a mighty empire rise and fall over the centuries.

This, in fact, is one classical rabbinic interpretation of the story of Jacob’s dream. A well-known Midrash tells us that the various ascending and descending angels on Jacob’s ladder represent the rising and falling fortunes of the various empires to which the Jewish people would be exiled. First the angel representing Babylonia ascends 70 rungs, (for seventy years of exile) then falls down. Next the angel representing the Persian Empire ascends and falls, as does the angel representing the Greek empire. Only the fourth angel, representing the Roman Empire keeps climbing higher and higher into the clouds. Since Rome was represented in the Rabbinic imagination by Jacob’s twin brother Esau, Jacob fears that his children would never be free of Esau’s domination. But God assures Israel that in the end, even the mighty Roman Empire will fall as well.

I’d also like to point out that Biblical tradition has a great deal to say about the sacred importance of building a sacred nation. Before they enter the Promised Land, God tells the Israelites they are about to enter a land flowing with milk and honey – a land that contains all they will ever need. But God also says it will all be lost to them in a second if they do not uphold the covenant and create the kind of holy nation they have pledged to create.

God commands the Israelites repeatedly that they will have a future on the land only if they are worthy of it. If they ensure the sustenance of all their citizens. If they commit to the equitable distribution of resources. If they protect the vulnerable in their land: the orphan, the widow, the stranger. And most of all, if they realize that in the end, this land does not ultimately belong to them. The land belongs to God and they will always be but resident aliens upon it. And what happens if they forget all this? If they refuse or fail to live up to this sacred covenant? The Bible describes the consequences with its inimitably colorful language: the land will surely vomit them out.

On his new album the great Randy Newman sings, “The end of empire is messy at best.” That may historically be true, but it doesn’t have to be.  The world is indeed changing quickly and we seem to be realizing that we’re approaching a critical turning point. Other countries are quickly leveling the playing field and I believe it is safe to say there are going to be drastic and dramatic changes in the international community over the coming decades.   This change may indeed be painful, profoundly painful for many of us, but also represent an opportunity. Indeed, some of the most important movements of social change in this country have emerged from periods of social turmoil. Though it can often be difficult for us to see when we’re in the midst of it, crisis can very often be the midwife of rebirth.

We’re hearing a great deal about change these days, so I might as well weigh in myself: I would suggest the most critical change we need is a change from the culture of empire to a culture of sustainability. We can either do down like all empires, kicking and screaming, or we can recognize that the world is changing and if we are to survive we’ll have to change as well. We’ll have to make some sacrifices in the way we live, we’ll have to accept that amassing power and privilege will not make us stronger. And like the ancient Israelites, we will have to learn to live covenentally: to create a nation in which the community is accountable to the individual just as much as the individual is accountable to the community.

I’m not naïve. I have no illusions how difficult this is going to be. So I’ll end with just a few suggestions. And as tempted as I am, I’m not going to trivialize this issue by discussing the election. Now, I don’t disagree with those who say this is the most critical election any of us will ever face in our lifetimes and I also agree that there is so much riding on this election. But in the end, we need to accept that the problem goes much deeper than can be solved by the changing of just one leader.  Please don’t get me wrong: I want a change in the White House as much as anyone, believe me. But I think we also need to come to grips with the truth that in the end, wise leadership is only part of the answer.

Indeed, the day our new President takes power, these profound structural problems are not going to magically disappear.  We need to remind ourselves that we entrust our leaders with enormous power. And if are going to turn back the road to empire, if we do seek to promote a culture of sustainability for our country, then it will be our job to speak truth to power, to keep the power honest, to demand that the power remain accountable to those they serve, no matter who our leaders might be.

In this, I believe our religious communities have a critical role to play. As the popular saying goes, religious communities don’t only exist to comfort the afflicted, they also exist to afflict the comfortable. Hasn’t this been the job of religion at its best from time immemorial? To warn against the deification of human power? To affirm that no matter how powerful we may become, there will always be a Power greater than even our own? To remind leaders and nations that in the end, it is not by might and not by power that God’s world will be sustained?

For the Jewish community, it is a season of new beginnings, of new opportunity, new hope. If this will be a truly new year, it will not just be up to our leaders to make it so – it will be up to us as Americans, as people of faith, as communities of conscience – to do what we must to promote a vision of sustainability in our country.  In the meantime, whatever change may come in the short term, I know that you join me in my prayer for the most vulnerable members of our nation: the homeless, the unemployed, the uninsured, the undocumented. During the terribly difficult days ahead, may they find sustenance and security, comfort and hope.  May our country come through this painful time even stronger in spirit. And may we all do we can to make it so.

Ken Yehi R’tzoneinu – May it be our will.


3 Comments on “The End of Empire: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah”

  1. Susan says:

    “For whatever reason, God doesn’t just take care of the world alone, nor does God create a world that can simply take care of itself.”

    You know, as an atheist, it’s amazing how different is my perspective on this. The world will go on fine without us. My evidence is that it did just peachy for billions of years before us, and it certainly hasn’t benefited from our relatively recent presence. I think life on Earth will continue quite successfully (and certainly in a much more “balanced” fashion) once we’re gone. We’re not the only species in danger thanks to our actions, but “the World” as a whole will hardly note our absence.

    And I think Randy Newman is right– our (U.S.– the Chinese have a ways more to go) Empire is ending, and I don’t see how it can be anything but messy; we were pretty messy when we were riding high, and I strongly doubt we’ll be quiet, orderly and sensible on the way down. Also, he IS a genius.

    I’m with you on the necessity for sustainability and dramatic attitude changes in order for *humans* to continue to prosper, but I don’t believe anything we do is required to “Save the Earth”– it’s a lot bigger than that.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Susan. I think your atheistic perspective presents a fascinating challenge. I don’t disagree that the world hasn’t benefited from our relatively recent presence, but I would say that is only because we haven’t taken seriously enough our role as stewards of creation. Whether or not the world did better before us or would do better without us is really rather moot. The fate of the earth and the fate of humankind are now radically intertwined (as Genesis indeed teaches). This is why I appreciate the religious perspective: it forces us to take seriously our responsibility to the world.

    BTW: I’m not sure I understand your final paragraph. We do indeed have the power to hasten the demise of the earth (not to mention destroy it outright with our own weapons of destruction.) What could be “bigger” than ensuring the future viability of our world?

  3. Ruth Rosen says:

    Thanks Brant. Much to ponder. I especially like the phrase concerning religion’s obligation to “afflict the comfortable”.

    This is a fine mess we are in to quote Laurel and Hardy.

    L’Shana Tova


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