Monthly Archives: November 2016

Which Comes First, the Chicken or the Egg?

-by Rev. Steven Davis

In my case, it was the egg. Permit me to elaborate.

My stepdaughter Lisa and I have the kind of relationship that lots of stepdaughters and stepfathers have. It is a tentative and sometimes treacherous relationship. I came into my daughter’s life (I usually omit the “step” step part) when she was 8 years old. While I think I have brought some semblance of fatherly love and family security, she has also afforded me a kind of love and wisdom that I may not have gotten in any other way.

My daughter is a Professor of Cultural/Medical Anthropology. How she managed to make this way in the world is something of a wonder for me. It has to do with the absolute and unconditional love of her mother, of course, but also her own fortitude and academic acumen that has propelled her through times of discouragement, relational break ups, serious health concerns. . .and surviving and even thriving in a challenging, competitive academic milieu.

She has been one of the most effective spiritual guides in my life, exacting from me sorrow for my own shortcomings and forgiveness of hers. She has made me so proud, so furious, so flummoxed, so better a person. She has challenged me on so many fronts, including her orientation to the environment and food justice. There have been family Thanksgivings that she has boycotted because of our placing at the celebration’s traditional centerpiece a “dead bird.”

And yet, over these years, her journey in young adulthood as an on-again, off-again vegan and food justice proponent has informed my own attitude to food consumption and both its healthful and social effects.

Back to the original puzzlement of which comes first: the chicken or the egg.

When along with her two dogs she added a half dozen chickens to her family life, I was incredulous. A single mother with a demanding position at the University, she appalled me with her building a chicken coop in her backyard, eventually adding two ducks and even more chickens with all the accoutrements of table scraps strewn and served up in the yard, straw scattered everywhere, and the daily requisite attentions of letting out at dawn and in at duck of this clucking, quacking brood.

For me, the eggs came first. Yes, of course, the chickens preceded them but in my conversion to accepting her farm-style activities, it was the eggs. Almost every day she collects them and then serves them to us when we visit. They are delicious, which was an adjective that I’d never ascribed to eggs before. They had always come in the form of a sectioned, cardboard container from a chilled section of the grocery. The eggs she served and that she distributes to friends and neighbors are over the top in the taste category. The shells are all shades from pure white to tan to a muted green. The yolks are perfectly gold.

And then watching her, sometimes joining her in rounding up these creatures at evening, I have come to appreciate how their different personalities out distance the size of their brains in instilling in me a fondness for them.

I should have seen this coming. It was she who, in graduate school, managed to create a space for organics in a neighboring community garden. She tilled, planted, watered, cared for these emergent gifts of the earth long before I came to create my own organic garden while on a sabbatical leave from the consuming demands of my everyday profession. It was my appreciation of her environmental awareness but also her embodiment of it that has shifted me away from affording the cheapest produce in the grocery to paying attention to- and, yes, some extra money, for healthful food choices.

That my daughter folds this environmental action into her personal life coincides with the work she does as an anthropologist working with marginal neighborhoods in her city and communities on the surrounding Native American reservation. She schools them, as she has me, in ways to respect the earth, enjoy its treasures, and better the world.

Chicken or egg? For me it is both. The timing doesn’t matter anymore. That her passion and professional witness reaches far beyond her backyard and her stepfather’s conventional urban upbringing is a source of pride for me. And a source of hope for the future.

This Thanksgiving there will be, still, a turkey as our family’s centerpiece. She now cuts us some slack on this holiday. But a slacker in other ways far more important? Never.

We are so thankful for YOU!

Thank you! We’re grateful for your devotion to protecting Earth against the threats of climate change and pollution. And we’re grateful that you act on your convictions by giving generously of time and resources to Arizona Interfaith Power & Light.

We are also grateful for the gifts of our Mother/Sister Earth:  breathable air, drinkable water, nourishing food, and the Beauty that surrounds us and fills us. Today, those Holy gifts are threatened like never before.  Recent political tides in our country threaten to swamp the progress we’ve made to protect our fragile planet home.  That’s why your continuing help by year-end is so crucial.

As we prepare to push back with a full slate of activities in 2017, please stand with us once again—not in fear or anger, but in hope and gratitude.

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Gratitude is our common bond. It permeates the variety of religious traditions and mid-winter festivals we celebrate—Chanukah, Christmas, Solstice, Diwali, Kwanza.

So the season of giving thanks is very important to us, and at the heart of every Thanksgiving feast is the gift of abundant, nourishing food.

We are all hungry.  We all need to eat to survive and thrive.  But we can be sensitive to the planet even as we meet our needs. One of the best ways we can reduce our impact on the earth is by paying attention to our carbon “food-print.”  That is why we have chosen “Food Justice” as one of our primary goals for the year.

This Thanksgiving, as you gather with family and friends we invite you to talk about how your food choices and cutting your food waste will help the climate.

 

Click here to check out our IPL Green Thanksgiving Guide and try the Thanksgiving calculator to help you waste less food.

 

In this time of uncertainty about how our country will address climate change, Thanksgiving can be a time to come together and focus on the gifts of Creation.  At AZIPL this Thanksgiving season, are giving thanks for you, our network, our activists, our congregations, and our supporters.  You are sustaining this movement to build a new relationship with the Earth.  You are making a difference in so many ways:  from your table to your home to your house of worship.

 

We are grateful to call you partners in caring for Creation!

Sincerely,

Rev. Doug Bland, Executive Director, AZIPL

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Seed, The Untold Story

Join others this coming Monday, November 21 at 7:30 pm at Tempe Marketplace 16 for the showing of “Seed, The Untold Story”.  We need to increase our awareness of the entire food system.  It is logical to start with seeds.  In the last century, alone, 94% of our seed varieties have disappeared.  Follow these seed keepers in the documentary to gain some perspective on our 12,000 year-old legacy.  Rediscover our lost connection to our most treasured resource and revive a cultural connection to seeds.

Go to https://gathr.us/screening/18421 buy your tickets NOW!

Hope to see you there.

Cultivate South Phoenix

How do you transform a food desert into a food oasis?  Check out the plans of Cultivate South Phoenix. This neighborhood-based partnership is leasing an 18-acre site from the Roosevelt School District to help transform that area.  This incubator farm initiative will provide fresh, affordable produce for the neighborhood and a living wage for small farmers.  It represents a holistic approach to promote the wellness of families and children in south Phoenix through affordable access to healthy foods, active living and the healthy roots of their culture.

The project will include a community garden and several larger parcels for farming.  Cultivate South Phoenix hopes to achieve a neighborhood-level food system, integrated with arts and educational programming.

Explore this link to see a video that provides a visual overview of this very visionary initiative, https://www.generosity.com/community-fundraising/spaces-of-opportunity/x/15165714.  More news as the project evolves.  Thanks to Nic de la Fuente of that group and the Desert Botanical Garden for sharing this story with AZIPL.

Share your community garden story with us and we will post it for others to see the tangible rewards of this growing food justice movement.

Evangelicals and Climate Change

by Chris Schutte

On October 3 of this year President Obama gave an update on the progress of his administration’s action to combat climate change. Among the many interesting  and important facts he shared, I’d like to highlight two. First, toward the end of his comments, the President said, “there are a lot of evangelicals who are actually generally on the conservative side of the spectrum that care deeply about this planet that God made.” Second, the President was accompanied at this news conference not only by Leonardo DiCaprio, but also by Kathleen Hayhoe, an Evangelical Christian and climate scientist who was profiled by NPR in 2014.

 

This may come as a surprise to many, as, according to a recent study, white evangelical Protestants are more likely than any other religious group to be climate change Skeptics. Only 27% of white evangelical Protestants are climate change Believers, while 29% are Sympathizers and nearly 4-in-10 (39%) are Skeptics. However, there is positive momentum among many evangelicals on this important issue.

In 2004, the National Association of Evangelicals, which is comprised of several leading evangelical denominations and institutions, published a document called “For the Health of the Nation,” which outlined a constructive public agenda for evangelicals. Not surprisingly, the sanctity of life and family life were featured, but, in addition, poverty, human rights, peacemaking, and, importantly “creation care” are also included. While climate change is not mentioned explicitly, it is stated, “We urge Christians to shape their personal lives in creation-friendly ways: practicing effective recycling, conserving resources, and experiencing the joy of contact with nature. We urge government to encourage fuel efficiency, reduce pollution, encourage sustainable use of natural resources, and provide for the proper care of wildlife and their natural habitats.”

In 2010, the Lausanne Conference on World Evangelization met in Cape Town, and the conference’s final statement included an urgent call to care for creation, rooted in the theological principles of creation and redemption. In the section titled, “Love for God’s world,” the authors write that such love, “demands that we repent of our part in the destruction, waste and pollution of the earth’s resources and our collusion in the toxic idolatry of consumerism. Instead, we commit ourselves to urgent and prophetic ecological responsibility.”

 

Also, in his 2010 book The Radical Disciple, John Stott, who has been described as the Evangelical pope, included a chapter on creation care. He identifies climate change as “the most serious” global threat facing our planet, and celebrates the work of Christian environmental groups such as A Rocha (56). He often refers to the work of his protégé Chris Wright, an Old Testament scholar who, in his book The Mission of God, writes that, “It seems quite inexplicable to me that there are some Christians who claim to love and worship God, to be disciples of Jesus and yet have no concern for the earth that bears his stamp of ownership” (414).

 

Finally, in October of 2016, Mitch Hescox, the founder of the Evangelical Environmental Network, wrote a piece for time.com titled “The Conservative Christian Case for Climate Change Action,” in which he ties his advocacy to combat climate change to his pro-life convictions. He writes, “To be ‘pro-life’ is to care deeply about the great moral challenge of climate change, as climate disruptions impact each child of God in every nation.”

 

So, while the Evangelical Christian community in the United States has been slow to embrace the science that overwhelmingly suggests that human activity is causing climate change, and that climate change is already having a disproportionate impact on the world’s most vulnerable populations, that is changing.

 

Robust theological commitments to God as Creator and the bodily resurrection of Jesus, as well as a commitment to the world’s most vulnerable make Evangelicals potential allies of others working to combat climate change. As Peter Harris, founder of the above mentioned A Rocha recently wrote for Christianity Today, “we are still just beginning. Our worship and work and witness will be incomplete until our responsibility to conserve the glorious, God-given diversity of earth’s creatures becomes second nature.” Amen.

Pastor Chris Schutte

Pastor Chris Schutte

is a pastor at Christ Church in Phoenix, AZ.

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After the Election

This morning we as faith-based climate change activists woke up to some difficult news:  By a narrow margin, our nation has elected a President who believes that climate change is a “hoax” and members of the Senate and the House of Representatives who deny the reality of climate change.  We fear what will become of God’s Earth under the leadership of those who do not seem to take stewardship of the Earth seriously. We fear what will become of the least of these—the widow, the orphan, and the poor, to use a biblical metaphor—as climate change progresses. We know they are already the first and hardest hit by massive storms and heat waves in our own country, and that overseas they are also the first affected by food shortages and drought.

The difficulty of achieving our climate change goals does not relieve us of responsibility for caring for God’s Earth and for God’s people. Fortunately, as people of faith we have deep wellsprings of traditional resources to draw upon to fortify our resolve during these challenging times. And most importantly, we have each other. Arizona Interfaith Power and Light is an organization that gathers people from all faiths: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Native American to name just a few. We bring together people of all races and ethnicities for the purposes of creating a more just and sustainable Arizona.

If you are disappointed about the election results, we encourage you to take action. Join with us in ways large and small because we will need all hands on deck in order to make progress on reducing greenhouse gases.

  • Here are some ways you can help:
  • Send us your original .jpg of Arizona’s natural beauty or your own backyard for use in our greeting cards fundraiser
  • Host a house party with 8-12 of your friends to begin building community and invite us to speak
  • Assist with planning one of the many events we have planned for the coming year
  • Help set up at events
  • Staff an information table at an event
  • Contribute content for posting on our blog (Spiritual Reflection, Education, Action or Advocacy-oriented)
  • Contribute your expertise in bookkeeping, website management, note taking, or even legislative research
  • Donate to AZIPL on our website: https://www.azipl.org/ (even $5 is appreciated, and it might make you feel hopeful!)
  • Share this blog with friends in a personal email or on Facebook to help spread the word!

Thank you for your support of AZIPL and please let us know how we can support you as we all adjust to this shocking and sad (for our climate) news.

 

Why Buy Organic?

Many people buy organic foods because they are concerned about pesticide exposure, despite the fact that many studies

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https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sign_at_the_Sonoma_Farmers_market_-_Stierch.jpg

do not seem to demonstrate any nutritional advantage of one over the other. Numerous studies have failed to demonstrate health benefits one over the other.[1] Yet, one small and very recent study suggests that several omega-3 fatty acids, known for their boon to neurological and immune health, are increased in organic milk.[2] But as people of faith, our concerns with food must go far beyond personal gain. We must ask ourselves how our choices contribute to justice and equity in the world as a whole, and how our food choices reflect our religious identities and spiritual practices.

We here at AZIPL are promoting food justice as it connects to climate change, as there are clear connections between farming practices and climate change. Organic farming has been found to produce more-fertile soil, use less fertilizer and much less herbicide, consume less energy trap more carbon in the soil and produce more profit for farmers whereas conventional systems are touted for their higher yields and some studies suggest that no-till conventional farming is superior at preventing erosion.[3] The reduced consumption of energy and petroleum-based fertilizers and herbicides are where the environmental benefits arise, so from our perspective anyone hoping to reduce their carbon-footprint would be wise to choose organic.

But how does the justice concern fit into this? Well, as is likely well-known at this point, climate change as a whole is most detrimental to those in developing nations and the poor in our own nation who are most vulnerable to any crisis. Even more specifically, however, farm workers face health hazards from exposure to pesticides and herbicides used in conventional farming, not to mention abusive and exploitive labor practices and poverty wages.[4]

The increa624px-warning2pesticidessed cost of organic foods results in large part from their more humane treatment of laborers. And at least one small study confirms “the increased presence of DNA damage in farmers exposed to pesticides,” demonstrating that “exposure conditions may influence observed effects.”[5] While they caution that “these results must be interpreted with caution due to the small size of the sample and the unbalanced distribution of individuals in the three study group,” we think this study has merit. And we believe that overall, organic farming is not only better for the earth’s ecosystems, but is also a more just approach to food production.

Food choices have long been the purview of many religious systems, yet we know that few decisions are more personal than decisions about what to eat. Most religious traditions—Eastern and Western—have long concerned themselves with issues such as care for the poor, sacred eating, and restraining the appetites.  Organics can indeed be expensive, and we would never insist that you purchase exclusively organic food. However, we encourage you to make the purchase of an increased number of organic products a vital part of your spiritual practice that puts into action your commitments to caring for the less fortunate.

 

Resources:

[1] Dangour Alan D. et al. “Nutrition-related health effects of organic foods: a systematic review.” Am J Clin Nutr. 92:1 (2010 Jul): 203-10.

[2] Średnicka-Tober, Dominika et al. “Higher PUFA and n-3 PUFA, Conjugated Linoleic Acid, α-Tocopherol and Iron, but Lower Iodine and Selenium Concentrations in Organic Milk: A Systematic Literature Review and Meta- and Redundancy Analyses.” The British Journal of Nutrition 115.6 (2016): 1043–1060. PMC. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.

[3] Haspel, Tamar “Is Organic Agriculture Really Better for the Environment?” The Washington Post May 14, 2016. 23 Oct. 2016.

[4] Gottlieb, Robert and Anupama Joshi. Food Justice Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010 pages 13-38.

[5] Costa, Carla et al. “Is Organic Farming Safer to Farmers’ Health? A Comparison between Organic and Traditional Farming.” Toxicology letters 230.2 (2014): 166–176. PMC. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.

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Standing with Standing Rock

My body is still in Tempe, but my heart and mind are in North Dakota today.  Last week a call was issued for clergy from many faith traditions to come and stand witness with the Standing Rock Nation in its protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline.  This pipeline would carry oil from North Dakota to Illinois, crossing lands and rivers that provide water to millions.  The advocates at Standing Rock have resolutely declared that they are not protestors but protectors, acting out of a sacred commitment to protecting all life. They say, “water is life.” Yet, they face violence.

They have stood as peacemakers while government authorities and hate-filled hecklers deride them as criminals, rioters, and terrorists. Recent reports tell the story of children, women, and men gathering in prayer and song, only to suffer at the hands of those wielding batons and pointing rifles. We have witnessed an escalating, militarized response to their acts of nonviolence. Advocates have been arrested, strip-searched, and humiliated.

So far more than 400 clergy from 15 different faith traditions have registered to Stand With Standing Rock.  They join together as a Peaceful, Prayerful, Lawful, Non-Violent witness. The Standing Rock Sioux challenge us to re-consider our theology.  As T.S. Eliot said, “A wrong attitude toward nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude toward God.”

Environmental destruction is a spiritual issue.  Our theology—which gives (some) humans “dominion” and disregards the lives of other creatures—is killing us and destroying life on the planet.  We need to name it for what it is:  sin.  Augustine spoke of sin as “disordered loves.”  We love a lot of things: our family, truth, our nation, money, popularity, God, dark chocolate, clean air.  But sometimes we get those loves out of order.

 

The #1 rationale for every barrel of oil pumped, every mountaintop removed, for every stream polluted, every mine dug is always “jobs” or “the economy.”  We love jobs—and we should.  We love a robust economy—and we should.  But at what cost?  The Standing Rock Sioux invite us to reorder our loves.

 

If anyone needs good jobs, it’s the Standing Rock Tribe. The Standing Rock poverty rate is 43.2%, nearly triple the national average of 14.5%.  In North Dakota—where an oil boom has bolstered the state economy and driven the unemployment rate down to just 3.1%—the unemployment rate on the Reservation is 79%.  If anyone has the right to argue for jobs at any cost, jobs over the environment, it’s the Standing Rock Nation.  Yet, they courageously, prophetically insist that clean air, pure water and the future of our children deserve to be considered higher loves.  Today I’m Standing with Standing Rock.

 

Rev. Doug Bland

Executive Director

Arizona Interfaith Power and Light

‘To Till and To Tend:’ A Spiritual Approach to Climate Change

Rabbi Michael Wasserman of The New Shul in Scottsdale delivered this compelling sermon on Rosh Hashanah and has been gracious enough to share it with us. We are grateful for his generosity, and it is published in its entirety:

 

 

There is a paradox at the heart of Rosh Hashanah. On the one hand, Rosh Hashanah is a day that – maybe more than any other – calls on us to step back from the general culture in which we live most of our lives and to remember that being Jews means being different. All over the world, on this day, Jews who rarely think about what makes them different from everyone else are taking time to be different, to do something that makes them different, to follow a different calendar, to reconnect with a tradition that sets them apart from everyone else.

But once we get to shul and start to reconnect with that which makes us different, once we start thinking about what Rosh Hashanah is really about, it turns out that Rosh Hashanah has surprisingly little to say to us as Jews in particular. It is a day that speaks to us more as human beings in general than as Jews.  In the central, defining blessing of the Amidah for the Days of Awe, we speak of God – in language that is unique to these days – as Melekh al kol ha-aretz – the King of All the World,  not just of the Jews in particular but of all humanity.

That is the paradox of this holiday. This day on which we feel the greatest obligation to honor that which makes us different, is not ultimately about what makes us different at all, but about that which we have in common with all people.

Every Jewish holiday has a story that it teaches. Pesah is about the story of the exodus from Egypt. Sukkot is about the story of our wandering in the desert. Shavuot is about the story of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Hanukah is about the Maccabees. Purim is about Mordecai and Esther. They are all stories about the Jewish people in particular.

But the story of Rosh Hashanah is different. It is a story, not about the Jewish people specifically, but about humanity in general. According to the ancient rabbis, Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of the world. Or more specifically, according to one opinion in the Talmud, Rosh Hashanah commemorates the sixth day of the creation of the world, the day on which human beings were created. The story of Rosh Hashanah is a story about who we were before there were any differences between us, before there were different kinds of people at all. It is a story, not about what it means to be Jewish in particular, but about what it means to be human.  Rosh Hashanah challenges us to look at the human condition, to ask: What is our place in this world as human beings, what is our relationship to God, and to the earth, and to each other?

So what I want to do with you this morning is to look back at the story of creation, as the Torah tells it in the first chapters of the book of Genesis, and see what it has to teach us about what it means to be a human being.

As you might expect it, the Torah – as it does in so many other places – gives us mixed messages on this subject. That is because there is not just one but two very different stories in the book of Genesis about how human beings came to be. The stories are so different that Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik, in his great essay “The Lonely Man of Faith,” said that the two stories are intended to contrast with one another. Their purpose, he said, is to give us two alternative visions of what it means to be a human being, both of which we need to keep in mind. The first of the two stories is in the first chapter of Genesis, on the sixth day of creation. Here is what it says

 

God said, “Let us make humanity in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” And God created humanity in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”

 

But then, just a few sentences later, in the second chapter of the book of Genesis, the Torah tells a very different story about how we human beings came to be. Here is what Genesis chapter 2 says (it’s a longer story, so I am editing out the parts that don’t directly touch on our subject):

 

When the Lord God made earth and heaven – when no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because the Lord God had not sent rain upon the earth, there being no man to till the soil. . . the Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being. The Lord God planted a garden in Eden. . . The Lord God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to till and to tend it. And the Lord God commanded the man: “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat, but as for the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you must not eat of it, for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.” The Lord God said, “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a fitting helper for him.” And the Lord God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name. But for Adam no fitting helper was found. So the Lord God cast a deep sleep upon the man, and, while he slept, He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that spot. And the Lord God fashioned the rib that He had taken from the man into a woman, and He brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. For from man was she taken.” Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh.

 

This second story differs from the first one in a lot of ways. First of all, it differs in its basic chronology. According to the first story, God created humanity – both male and female – last, after all the plants and other animals. But according to the second story, God created man – man as in male – first. Then God created plants, then animals, and finally God created woman last.

The different chronologies of the two stories point to two very different visions of what it means to be human in God’s world. It is not just the details of the story that are different. The two stories – by way of their different chronologies – paint radically different pictures of who we are, and what our purpose in this world is.

According to the first story, we were created last – male and female together – because we were – and are – the capstone of creation. We are the crowning glory of God’s world, the final touch. We differ from the rest of creation in that we were created in God’s image, after God’s likeness. We were put here to be God’s viceroys on earth. God gave us the mandate to rule over everything else that God had already created, in an almost God-like way. We were created whole and complete, male and female unified from the beginning. That is to say, we were never lonely. We never had to search for our other half. In that way too, there was something God-like about us.

But according to the second story, in the second chapter of Genesis, our origin and our status were much humbler, and our struggles were more difficult. The second story does not say that we were made in God’s image. Instead it says that we were made from the dust of the earth. Far from being put here to rule the world, the second story says that we were put here to till and to tend it  – l’ovdah u-l’shomrah.  Man was created first because his role would be to till the soil, to care for everything that would be created afterwards. He was like a building superintendent who needed to be hired before the rest of the tenants could move in.

And far from being created whole and complete, the story says that man was created lonely and incomplete, searching for his other half. Man was created vulnerable and alone, without a mate. God created man that way because man’s needs were really not God’s priority.  Our role was to serve. God only noticed later that “it is not good for man to be alone.”

So Eve came into the world only after everything else had been created. And in order for Eve to come into existence, Adam had to sacrifice a rib. In other words, he could escape his loneliness only by giving up part of himself, by becoming even more incomplete than he already was.  According to the second story, we are far from God-like creatures. In fact, God warns us that, if we try to be like God, if we eat from the tree of knowledge, we will die. In other words, we are not the boss. We just work here.

So the two stories offer very different visions of who we are as human beings, in relation to God, in relation to the rest of the world, and in relation to each other. According to the first story, we stand above creation, whole and complete, and rule it with a God-like mandate. According to the second story, we stand very much within creation. We come from the soil, just like the crops that we will till. We are vulnerable and fragile and lonely beings. We are here to care for God’s earth, not to rule it.

So the question is: Which story is true? And the answer, of course – in good Jewish fashion – is: both of them. I don’t mean that they are literally, historically true, but that they both say something true about who we are, and who we are meant to be, in this world.

That said, we should be clear that, for most of human history, the second story was truer than the first, in that it painted a more accurate picture of what being human was actually like. The first story – the story about how we were created in God’s image and were put here to rule – was a story more about what we aspired to be than what we actually were.

Human beings like us – with the same bodies and brains that we have – evolved on this planet about 200,000 years ago. And for most of those 200,000 years of human history, life was a struggle.  All that we had was what we were able to gather or kill with our own hands, or scratch out of the soil. Life was short and hard. We were vulnerable to disease and to violence. We were not God-like beings at all, but very much part of the natural world. That remained true even after the rise of civilizations with recorded histories about 5000 years ago, and even after the rise of our own particular civilization, Jewish civilization, a few thousand years later. For most people – except maybe for a tiny elite – life was still short and difficult and anonymous. Far from ruling nature, we struggled to survive within it.

It is only in the last few centuries – an incredibly brief amount of time in the larger scheme of things – that we actually did begin to rule God’s world, to assert real control over it. Beginning with the scientific revolution of the 17th century, and then the industrial revolution of the 18th century, human beings began to realize the promise of that first creation story. We began to truly rule nature, to tame the world around us. We unlocked nature’s secrets, we cured diseases, we explored the planet and the solar system, we built modern cities, with modern water and sanitation systems and energy grids, and communication networks. We extended human life. We became God-like beings. The dream of Genesis chapter 1, the dream of ruling God’s earth, in God’s place, became something close to a reality.

For the most part, realizing that dream has been an incredible blessing. Life is so much better than it was. We should be grateful that we live in a world where the vision of Genesis chapter 1 has largely come true.

But there is a downside to that progress as well. With the same God-like gifts that we used to make our lives better, we also built weapons with the power to destroy lives by the millions. And in our passion to control the natural world, we have damaged and degraded nature, in ways that threaten the survival of other species, and even perhaps our own. In taking control of our environment, we have set in motion an environmental crisis that threatens the very civilization that gave us that control.

In other words, as we have made the dream of Genesis chapter 1 a reality, we have often forgotten the message of Genesis chapter 2. We have forgotten that our job is also to be caretakers – l’ovdah u-l’shomrah, to till and to tend God’s world. In celebrating our triumphs over nature, we have forgotten that we are still part of nature. We do not own this world. Though we are images of God, we are not God. We have forgotten the warning that God gave to Adam in the second creation story – that, if we try to be God, if we act as if we are God, we will not survive.

For most of human history, Genesis chapter 2 was our reality, and Genesis chapter 1 was what we aspired to. Now that Genesis chapter 1 is increasingly our reality, there is an urgent, pressing need for us to recover some of the spirit of humility of Genesis chapter 2.

My teacher, Rabbi Arthur Green, has said that the environmental crisis that humanity faces today is at is, heart, a spiritual crisis. It is a crisis of the human heart and soul. And I think that is true. We often think of the problem as a technical one. We ask: can we come up with new public policies and new technologies that will enable us to limit the damage that we are doing to this world? That is the right question, as far as it goes. But there is a deeper question that goes with it, and that can’t really be separated from it. That is: Can we recover some of the humility that goes with being caretakers? Can we remember that this planet is not ours?  Amidst the policy work and the technological work that we have to do, we also have spiritual work to do. We have to learn to take the second story of our creation, the story that teaches us about our limits, much more seriously. Without that change of heart, without the recognition that we do not have unlimited rights to use this world for our own ends, we will not be able to make the practical changes that we have to make. And without those changes, we risk terrible consequences down the line, for ourselves and countless other species as well.

The Torah offers models of how we can cultivate that awareness of our limits in our religious lives. It is a striking thing that, even thousands of years ago, at a time when we had much less power over nature and it was much more obvious that we did not own the world, the Torah made it a priority to teach that lesson anyway – not just in stories like the stories of creation, but through the practical patterns of religious life. It is almost as if the Torah was looking toward the day, centuries in the future, when that message – that we do not own this world – would become a matter of life or death. Or maybe it’s just that arrogance has always been a human pitfall, even back when we had much less to be arrogant about. The temptation to believe that we own the world was a spiritual problem that the Torah felt the need to address, long before it was a practical problem that threatened human civilization.

In any case, we have powerful models in our tradition of religious practices that were designed to cultivate and reinforce that spiritual insight – that the world is ultimately God’s, not ours.

One example was the law of the land-sabbath, which the Torah teaches in several places. Every seventh year, the Torah teaches, farmers were to let their land lie fallow. We were not plant or to harvest. Whatever grew by itself, from seeds left behind from the previous crop, was free for anyone to take.

What was the purpose of the land-sabbath? Rashi explained that to let the land lie fallow was to act as if we did not own it. The point of the land-sabbath was that, every seventh year, we were to act as if we had no right to work the land because it was not ours. The purpose of the land-sabbath was – and is – to cultivate the awareness that the land, in fact, does not belong to us. It belongs to God, and we just live there. By commanding us to renounce our ownership every seventh year, the Torah took that theological insight and made it very real, very tangible.

The law of the Yovel, the Jubilee year, taught the same thing in an even more powerful way. According to the law of the Yovel, every fiftieth year – after seven cycles of seven years – all land-sales that had taken place during the previous forty-nine years were cancelled, and the land reverted back to its original owners or their heirs. Here the Torah itself explains the reason. It says: “the land shall not be sold in perpetuity, because the land is mine,” God says, “and you are sojourners in my world.” We were not permitted to sell land permanently, because, ultimately, it was not ours to sell. That was the message of the Yovel.

Today we need to cultivate that wisdom with an urgency greater than that ancient Israelite farmers ever faced. At a time when we have so much power to control the natural world that it is easy to believe that we do in fact own it, that message – that this world belongs to God, not us – has life-and-death importance.  The most pressing mitzvah of our age, I believe, is to relearn that insight in our own way. We have to find new ways to build that insight into our religious lives, the lives of urban people living in a post-modern world, just as the Torah built that insight into the lives of ancient Jewish farmers. We have to create our own religious disciplines that do for us what those old laws did for ancient farmers in the land of Israel – weave the wisdom of the second creation story, the awareness that this world does not belong to us, into the fabric of our lives.

One of my goals for this year is to make environmental sensitivity a greater part of our religious life here in The New Shul – to take it seriously not only as a moral issue but as a spiritual issue as well. It is not that we have been indifferent to those issues up to now, because we haven’t been. But it’s time for us to do more, and to do so consciously and reflectively. I think it’s time for us to think seriously about how we can be more efficient in our use of energy, how we can minimize waste and deal more responsibly with the waste that we do generate – and to do so in a way that helps to shape the spiritual life of our community.  Just as ancient laws concerning land use and land ownership were also spiritual teaching tools, our policies on how to manage resources here in our shul can be as well.

To those who ask: Why focus on the shul in particular, when the problem is society in general, and when what we do here in this small institution will make so little difference in the larger scheme of things? – I would say that shul is exactly the place where we should begin. The purpose of a shul is to train our souls. When we come to shul, we come in search of a more open heart. We come in search of deeper wisdom. And so the shul is the natural place to do this work of deepening our consciousness of what it means – and ought to mean – to be a human being in God’s world.

So in the coming year, I would like us to think about how we can make environmental responsibility a more prominent feature of our spiritual community, so that the wisdom of Genesis chapter 2 will be part of what we learn and relearn week to week, just by being here.

I believe that cultivating the awareness that this world is not ultimately ours will help us in the other spiritual work that we do here as well. Structuring more environmental sensitivity in our shul will help us to pray better. It will help us to hear the voice of Sinai more deeply in the sacred texts that we study. It will help to bring more of God’s presence into our shul.

Let me explain why. It is not a coincidence that the modern world is faced with an environmental crisis at the same time it is struggling with a spiritual crisis. It is not coincidence that this era, when the future of our life on this planet is in crisis is also a time when life seems spiritually empty for more and more people. The environmental and the spiritual are two sides of the same coin. The same spiritual arrogance that threatens our environment today has always been the greatest obstacle to an authentic relationship with God. When we can’t find God in our lives, it is usually because we are taking up all the space, because our own sense of entitlement leaves no room for God in our hearts – in other words, because we think we own the world.

And so I believe that structuring into our shul a greater recognition that this world is God’s world, not ours, will help us to make more room for the sh’khinah, for God’s presence in our prayer life as well. Limiting our sense of entitlement, remembering that our rights on this planet go only so far, will help us to be a more sacred community in all respects.

If you would like to be part of an environmental working group in our shul, that will look at the products that we buy and how we dispose of those products, at the ways in which we use resources in general – and will help us to put new procedures into place that will be visible to all of us and will help to shape the spiritual life of this community week to week – then I would like to hear from you. So please let me know.

It’s easy to say that, at a time when we have so many other things on our plate – when the world seems to be spinning out of control in much more immediate ways, when violence and extremism are on the rise, when our politics are in crisis, when the Jewish community itself is increasingly split between factions that can barely speak to one another  – that focusing on this issue seems to be an indulgence. Shouldn’t we take care of more immediate things first?

But the truth is that there is nothing more important than this. To remember that this world does not belong to us – that we are not God – is in fact the most pressing challenge that we face today. In part, that is because the environmental crisis, in the larger scheme of things, dwarfs all other crises. It is the defining crisis of the 21st century.  But it is also because we won’t solve any of the other challenges that we face unless we re-learn some of that same humility. If we are to make any progress on repairing the rest of what is broken in our world – in politics, in religion – then we have to start, also, by making ourselves smaller. We have to start with the awareness that we are temporary residents in God’s world, that we are here l’ovda u-l’shomra, to till and to tend.  That is certainly true of the bitter conflicts in our own particular world, the Jewish world. Don’t all those conflicts start with arrogance, with an exaggerated sense by either side that they have all the answers? In all of those areas, challenging our own sense of entitlement is the beginning of wisdom.

I began by pointing out that Rosh Hashanah is much more about what makes us human than about what makes us Jews in particular. But maybe the larger point is that the two are not really that different. We build sacred communities like this one – we teach ourselves to speak the particular language of the Jewish tradition – because we want to be better people, with more open hearts. We believe that being better Jews helps us to live more meaningfully as human beings. And on the other hand, challenging ourselves to think more deeply about what it means to be a human being in God’s world, what our work on this planet really is, makes us better Jews. It brings new energy into the life of our religious communities.

May the new year be a time of sweetness and blessings, a time of growth and insight, for all of us.

 

Rabbi Michael Wasserman

The New Shul

7825 E Paradise Ln.

Scottsdale, AZ 85260