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Climate Change and the Jewish New Year

I know what’s on your mind. Because it’s on my mind too.

As it happens, a few days before Rosh Hashana this year, we had the biggest march on climate change in Canadian history.

I know people are concerned. And it seems like everywhere you look, there’s a discussion; there’s an argument. Is it real? Is it not real? Can we do something about it? Should we do something? What if we do? What if we don’t?

But at the end of the day, after all of the arguments are over, there’s just us left in the middle — the regular people, the silent majority. And all we’re left doing is holding the bag. And what is the bag, in this case?

The bag is anxiety.

You know there’s an old Chassidic saying: there are only two kinds of problems. The ones you can fix, and the ones you can’t. The ones you CAN’T fix, you can’t fix, so why worry? The ones you CAN fix, you can fix, so why worry?

There’s never anything to worry about, in other words…

I’m sure, when I mention climate change, everybody in this room feels just a little pang of anxiety. A very mild feeling of overarching dread. Like the world is going to end someday, way off in the future.

Is this a problem we can fix, or a problem we can’t?

Are we anxious because we can fix it, or because we can’t?

Maybe this is the worst kind of problem, a third category that the Chassidic sage never considered would happen… a problem that someone else can fix. Oy vey, may Hashem help us!


What is Rosh Hashanah?

We call it the Jewish New Year, but it isn’t really that. Well, look… We don’t have Jewish New Year parties, where we count down to sunset (our version of midnight) like 3.. 2.. 1… Happy new year! We just don’t do that.

But if we did do that, you bet I’d be wearing my 5 7 8 0 glasses and kissing a puppet instead of the person next to me.

But we don’t do that.

It’s not the new year, it’s the head of the year. Rosh Hashanah. Rosh means head.

The head controls the body. It dictates, for the most part, what the body must do.

So Rosh Hashana dictates — it controls — what is going to happen for the rest of that year.

So that’s a pretty serious day — not a time for frivolous partying, unless you want your year to be frivolous.

I’m sure some of you are asking “why?” Why does it control the rest of the year? How does this work? Well, if I was going to explain the whole concept, suffice it to say I would be here talking until tomorrow, instead of only… [look at watch] for the next 2 hours.

Ha ha.. They laugh.

But if you look at the Machzor, our Rosh Hashanah liturgy, it’s in there. Who will live? Who will die? Who will become rich? Who will become poor? Who by strangulat… ok, I’ll stop there, you all know what I’m talking about.

But it makes you think… if all of that is decided on Rosh Hashana, how much of our life is under our control? Maybe less than we think. Maybe not.

Actually, I think that a lot of us are very aware that much of our lives are not under our direct control.

But what we fail to do is realize that it’s the same for other people. We’re very good at absolving ourselves because of factors outside our control, but when someone else messes up… it’s och and vey, people.

And when it comes to problems that we need other people to help solve — global problems, like climate change, perhaps — well, you can see how this gets very messy, very quickly.

When people, very often for reasons outside of their own control, make decisions we disagree with because we believe they’re leading to the end of the world… has anybody here been on Facebook recently? I’ve witnessed all out wars between strangers about how they choose to commute to work.

Is that how to save the world?


As Jews, we have a very similar problem.

We have a dream — a dream of a world rife with riches and empty of poverty; a world where all will live and none will die. Rosh Hashana won’t be needed anymore — the need to judge the world will be obsolete.

This all sounds nice and wonderful. It’s the Messianic dream which we’ve shared with humanity. It’s even on the outside of the United Nations.

The problem is that we Jews really disagree about how to get there.

Some of us think we need to build it ourselves, with science and technology; some say we need to do it through nationalism and building our own country; some say we need to do it by retreating from the world and staying holy; yet others believe we will get there by being an example for how the rest of the world should behave, to the highest ethical standards.

And you can imagine that these different groups don’t always get along. In everybody’s mind, because the other guy is going about it the wrong way, he’s literally responsible for the evils of the world continuing unabated for so long.

As a side note, if anybody here was trying to figure out what’s going on with the Israeli elections, it all comes down to this debate — a debate about the future of the Jewish people.

For my mentor, the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory, the solution was to be found in the same document that made the Messianic promise in the first place — the Torah. He adduced from several places that only the performance of Mitzvos — to the largest extent possible — would bring about redemption for the Jews and the world.

Along these lines, somebody once asked the Rebbe — if I want to do some personal sin in the privacy of my own home, what does it matter to the overall plan?

The Rebbe answered with a parable: imagine we are sitting on a boat together, rowing to our destination. One of us decides to drill a hole under our own seat. What’s it anyone else’s business?

I think that parable summarizes a lot of the geopolitical issues with climate change. What does it matter if we take care of it ourselves, when other countries are drilling a hole in the boat anyway?


So if you believe that someone else is drilling a hole in the boat, how should you feel? What should our response be? Our reaction?

This is where the parable breaks down. If I was in a boat and somebody was drilling a hole, I’d probably sock him, just to save all of our lives.

But the real world does not work that way. At least, not anymore. Maybe it used to.

The first thing we need to understand is that if our neighbor is drilling a hole in the earth — physically or spiritually — it’s probably not his fault.

In Jewish thought, there’s a tradition that before a child is born, a Heavenly voice announces where it will live; who it will marry; what work it will do.

We don’t really get to decide this stuff. If I’m a rabbi and I have more children than the average person — which the climate people don’t like — and I also spend a little bit more of my time giving than taking, is that even up to me? I would say it’s who I am. Maybe I made a decision long ago, maybe it was forced on me by G-d, my upbringing, or my genes- who knows? The point is, I’m not going to change now. The choice, mine or someone else’s, was already made.

When someone drives a car to work instead of biking, I believe that it has very little to do with them, and everything to do with where they are in life, their city, their culture, their job — so many things outside of their control. Ultimately, where G-d put them, in my belief.

So how do we create change in the world around us?

The Rebbe taught that firstly, it starts with us.

If you want to change the climate — again, physical or spiritual — you’re trying to make the world a more responsible place. So be more responsible — can you take more responsibility for your emotions and reactions? For the hurt you’ve caused other people?

Look at the deeper issue you’re trying to fix, and make it real to you. Make it personal. Find it in your relationships, in your dreams, in your emotions. And do something about it. Do something really, really difficult.

And secondly, when you talk to others, encourage them to do one more mitzvah. To just add a little bit today and tomorrow — accumulated, incremental change. Don’t convince anyone to sell their car — just to try taking the bike once a week — and whatever good you do is great. Or while you’re at it, follow the Biblical climate plan, and don’t emit any greenhouse gases once a week, every week. Whatever.

And that’s why you and I need to do today. We need to find the things that make us angry — the things we want to change about the world — and use that as a good indication of what we need to change in ourselves. And then decide to do one little thing, today and tomorrow. That’s Rosh Hashana, and that’s how we will change ourselves and the world.

Climate Change March in Montreal, Quebec 2019 | Photo by: Maria Merlos

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