The Season of our Sustenance: A Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah

As I sat down to write my sermons this New Year, I somehow found myself returning to the theme of “sustainability.”  Click below for my remarks on Erev Rosh Hashanah:

I’ve always felt that one of the most valuable things about the New Year is the way it effectively shifts us into a different spiritual gear. Our lives and our world rush forward sometimes at warp speed, and then Rosh Hashanah comes to offer us a chance to slow down, take stock, and hopefully to recapture a sense of order and purpose before we begin again.

That’s not to say it’s easy to do.  Especially in a year such as this. It has been, needless to say, a profoundly eventful year for our country and for the world. It’s been a powerfully eventful year for JRC. And I will confess there have been times these past few weeks when I’ve done my share of time just gazing into my computer screen, unsure of just how or where to start.

Still. as difficult as this can sometimes be, I receive this opportunity as a gift.  I wanted so much tonight to talk about our pretty remarkable year at JRC – and yes, there was just so much to say. But in the end I appreciated the chance to sit back and think about how far we’ve come since we last gathered here together. And as I gave myself more time to put the year into context, little by little, I found myself inevitably returning to certain common denominators, certain common themes.  One word in particular seemed to present itself more than any other.  And that word is sustainability.

Now I know this word 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 if you will. 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 live and thrive with permanence and continuity without exhausting limited resources. This is a fairly straightforward concept, but in the 21st century it appears to be 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, only when we see ourselves as primary agents of sustainability will we truly ensure the future viability of our lives and our world.

This is, in fact, a primary teaching of Jewish tradition.  It’s actually the very first teaching in the Torah. 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 will 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 – one I know I’ve shared with you before – 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.

We are now all too familiar with the environmental implications of this teaching. And I am immensely proud that as a religious community, JRC is not just talking the talk. By now you all should know the recent happy news: JRC has officially attained LEED certification at the Platinum Level by the US Green Building Council, which makes our synagogue building the highest-rated green house of worship in the world.

By all means, we should take profound pride in what we have accomplished.   But for me at least, my pride comes not from the certification itself, but largely from how we managed to accomplish this.  People are often surprised to learn that before we began our building process, JRC was not particularly known as a leader in the environmental movement. When we considered building green, most of our members were not all that knowledgeable about sustainable technology or energy efficiency or the science of carbon footprints. But what did excite us and eventually commit us to this project were the spiritual values underlying it. Once we grasped the religious imperative of living sustainably, we quickly found folks became invested in this project in a much deeper way.

Now that we’ve become ambassadors of this issue in the religious community, this is my primary message: it’s not as difficult as it looks.  You don’t have to a scientist or an engineer or a lifelong environmental activist. Like anything else, all you need to be is someone who cares about the future of our world, who is willing to learn what you need to know and who is ready to live a more mindful way of life.

In the end, as wonderful as it is to be honored in this way, I think the biggest honor will be when we see other houses of worship seeing what we’ve done and following suit.  Then we can take real pride in the fact that what we did truly made a difference. That we, in our way, helped to contribute to a new movement of spiritual sustainability in the religious community.   And by the same token, I hope what we’ve accomplished will continue to be a source of inspiration to us – to compel each and every one of us to take stock and to think more deeply how we can live sustainable lives.  In our homes and as advocates in our communities, our nation and the world. So yes, Mazel Tov to us all. We send out our heartfelt thanks and appreciation to all of the members who contributed to this amazing, humbling accomplishment. And now the real work truly begins for us.

By the way, while we are talking about our new building, we also shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it is facilitating sustainability in another way: it is enabling our JRC community itself to be sustained into its future. After all, before we ever heard of LEED certification, we decided to build a new home for JRC to ensure its viability for future generations of Jews. It was a leap of faith for many reasons, but in the end it was a leap we felt we needed to take. In an age in which many synagogues are shrinking or merging or disappearing completely, we believed in what JRC stood for and felt it was a religious vision worth preserving. That we were able to accomplish this – and in such a way that further invested our members in JRC’s future – should be an important and hopeful sign for us all.

Now I’d like to share with you yet another example of how JRC learned important first-hand lessons about sustainability in the past year. It occurred this past July, when twenty-five of us participated in JRC’s second service delegation to Africa.  We traveled first to Rwanda, where we were hosted by WE-ACTx, an NGO that seeks to serves Rwandan women and children affected by HIV. A primary focus of WE-ACTx is serving the numerous women who were infected with HIV through rape during the 1994 genocide. During our stay, we also toured genocide sites, spoke with citizens and witnessed Rwanda’s courageous attempts to sustain the soul of their nation in the wake of that terrible trauma.

In Uganda we visited our old friends in the Foundation for the Development of Needy Communities, the NGO who hosted us during our first service delegation three years ago. As many of you know, FDNC promotes grassroots sustainable development in Eastern Uganda through a number of wonderful initiatives, including community health projects, a vocational school, music education, capacity building, among many more examples.

We also spent a great deal of time with the members of the Mirembe Kawomera Fair Trade coffee cooperative.  JRC has long been a supporter of this project and I know many of you have bought Mirembe Coffee at JRC over the years. For those of you who are not familiar, Mirembe Kawomera is an interfaith effort of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim coffee farmers who have founded a coop to get a fairer price for their product, to create better future for their communities, and to make a provide a real, living example of inter-religious cooperation. During our visit, we got to meet with the leadership of the coop, attend Muslim, Jewish and Christian services, and even had the opportunity to participate in the coffee harvest.

There is a great deal to say about our experiences in Rwanda and Uganda.  I think there are easily at least two dozen sermons that could come out of this one trip alone. For now, however, I want to return to my theme of sustainability. For primary among the lessons we learned was this eternal, sacred truth: communities can only be sustained when individuals take responsibility for their sustenance.   The developing world provides us with the most powerful examples of this fact.  Indeed, every day of our trip we came face to face with this reality: over and over we met with individuals who didn’t take the future of their lives or their communities for granted for one second.

As it turns out, the Torah also has a great deal to say about socio-economic sustainability. Over and over again 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 community they have pledged to create.

God commands the Israelites repeatedly that they will have a future on the land only if they ensure the sustenance of all their citizens. And even though there is bounty in the land, they’re told that they cannot merely assume the equitable distribution of resources. In Deuteronomy we find this famous passage: “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and the needy kinsman in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11)

Jewish tradition has expanded considerably upon these laws from Torah.  While we must never shirk our responsibility to sustain the needy among us, the ideal form of tzedakah, as Moses Maimonidies famously taught, is to enable others to become self-sustaining. In Jewish tradition, we are commanded to sustain others, but ensuring their future sustainability is among our most sacrosanct commandments. Why? Because on a purely human level, it breaks down the unequal power dynamic between giver and recipient. It views human dignity and self-sufficiency as our highest aspiration – in a sense even higher than charity itself.

I believe what Maimonidies suggested so long ago is still powerfully relevant to the work of global sustainable development: the highest and most effect form of global action is the kind that will help a community to sustain itself. This is why I am so proud that JRC has forged such deep relationships with NGOs such as WE-ACTx and FDNC and a cooperative like Mirembe Kawomera. Because these organizations represent real members of real communities on the ground who are working every day to create sustainable development for themselves and their communities. Here again, I am so proud to be part of a congregation that gets it. That nurturing sustainability is an important part of the congregational work we do.

I mentioned earlier that those with power and privilege – those blessed with abundant resources – tend to take their sustainability for granted. Our country in particular has been particularly adept at living under an illusion of self-sustainability and invulnerability. But those days, it seems, are fast coming to an end. Our nation’s financial meltdown hasn’t occurred in a vacuum. It’s not a current event. We might well put it this way: our country has been living in a decidedly unsustainable way for far too long and now we’re finally seeing our chickens are coming home to roost. This, however, is a sermon for another day – tomorrow, as a matter of fact – so if you want to hear that one, you’ll have to come back in the morning.

I’d actually like to conclude by addressing a different form of sustenance – one that is particularly relevant to our season. After all, why do we gather here year after year? Why do we come back here if not our desire for sustenance? To give thanks for the blessings of the past year, to mourn its losses, and to pray that we and those we love will be sustained for just one more.

I do believe with all my heart that everything I’ve been talking about: environmental sustainability, social sustainability, economic sustainability, it all applies to the human condition as well. There is such a thing as spiritual sustenance. That is to say, our inner lives – our souls, if you will – are also designed to be sustainable, but again, they are not self-sustaining. At the end of the day, each and every one of us must take responsibility for our own spiritual sustenance.

Again, this sounds like an obvious claim, but if it is, then why do we have such a difficult time doing it? Too often we treat our emotional resources, our spiritual resource,s as endless springs that have power of eternal self-renewal. The truth is, our inner resources more accurately resemble a well. We need to be actively involved in replenishing the water in the wells of our souls or else we will surely run dry.

On this I speak from personal experience, trust me. Like most of you, I have come to learn that it’s all well and good to preach and promote the sustenance of our world – but if we cannot commit to sustaining our own lives, our own souls, then in the end, we will not really be any good to ourselves or to anyone else.

So how do we do this? How do we find the kind of spiritual sustenance that lasts; that truly makes a difference for us? This may sound like a cop-out for a spiritual leader, but in the end I’m afraid each of us needs to answer this question for ourselves. Each of us needs to ask ourselves seriously: What are the things that cause my spiritual well to run dry?  Then in turn, what are the things that truly sustain my soul?  What are the things I need to do to fill my well back up? And finally, what am I going to do about it? How am I going to change the way I live so that I can indeed live a sustainable life?

As I say, each of us must to answer these questions ourselves. Believe me, I’m asking myself these questions and I struggle with these issues just like everyone else. But I would be doing this for a living if I thought that the spiritual traditions of Judaism didn’t have a great deal to offer us by way of spiritual sustenance.

And I will say this: although I might not believe in God in the traditional manner, I fervently believe that our searches for sustenance do bear fruit. That beyond all the exhaustible resources of our lives and our world, there is a Source of Permanence. Of Eternity. Where wells never run dry and blessings flow freely and in abundance. And however we choose to believe, whatever our theologies, I hope we can all find, connect with and hold on to this place of permanence, because I don’t think we’ll ultimately be able to sustain ourselves any other way.

Rosh Hashanah comes to remind us of this every New Year. Traditionally speaking, this is the time in which we acknowledge Malchuyot – we enthrone God’s rule over the world. I choose to understand this as the sacred recognition of a power ultimately beyond our own; and acknowledgment of that which truly lasts. During the course of the year too many of us we enthrone impermanence, we ascribe ultimate meaning to that which is only temporary, to that which will ultimately pass away. On Rosh Hashanah, however, we affirm something else: we celebrate staying power, we open ourselves up to a source of endless sustenance.

Tomorrow, before the shofar is sounded, we will proclaim, “adonai, melech, adonai malach, adonai yimloch, l’olam va’ed!” “God reigns, God has reigned, God will reign forever and ever!” Yes, these are heady and difficult words to say out loud – especially for us ornery Reconstructionists. But maybe we might view this statement as our way of affirming permanence and sustenance in a world that too often feels unsustainable. This Rosh Hashanah it’s my hope and prayer that we will find the strength to connect to this place. May it renew our thirsting spirits, may sustain our world, may it give us life as we enter this new year.

And as we are truly blessed to have been sustained long enough to reach this place once more, let’s say the blessing together:

Holy One of Blessing, your presence fills creation. You have given us life, you have sustained us, and you have brought us all to this sacred season together.


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