Hayeenu Kekholmim: Dreaming up a sustainable future now

D’VAR TORAH / SERMON      RABBI DAVID BENJAMIN FAINSILBER                                        ROSH HASHANAH                        1 TISHREI 5780 // SEPTEMBER 30, 2019

Shana tova, friends.
What a blessing that we get to gather together, all-ages,
in this holy sanctuary.
For this special day and occasion,
I want to tell you three stories.

Let me begin with our very first story:
Bereisheet bara Elohim et ha-Shamayim v’et ha-Aretz.
In the beginning, G-d created the skies and the earth…
Here we are celebrating the birthday of the world
coming into existence
and this year—5780,
the big bang of 13.8 billion years ago,
condensed into our few thousand years of memory.
A chain reaction set off,
to bring us none other than:
the light and expansive skies,
the heavens and the great waters,
the earth and mud,
the tall grasses and tiny seeds,
luscious plants and the red wood trees,
the twinkling stars, black holes, and reflecting moon,
the blazing sun upon our backs,
the blob fish and snails and really long caterpillars,
the soaring eagles of the sky,
the orangutan and beasts on land.
And we humans.

WOW! What a wondrous, cool, fantastic world we live in!

What is your WOW in the WORLD?
What do you love most about this earth we inhabit?
Our Olam Chesed Education Center youth said they love how:
“Hummingbirds rotate their wings in a figure eight
80 times per second!” Per second!
“How when honey bees get pollen from plants,
they have to buzzzzz in different frequencies
depending on the flower.”
Another shared that “fisher cats cry like babies
to scare away their prey.”
and how “wolves have a bite force of up to 1200 pounds.”
And “maple syrup”. I mean, seriously—MAPLE SYRUP!
WOW in the world indeed.

Rosh haShanah is a day to be in awe of creation.
To celebrate how blessed we are to exist
on this outrageously diverse and funky world!
As in Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words:
“Life without wonder is not worth living.”

Now, let me share with you a second story.
I want to tell you a tale of dreamers,
a story that spans generations, centuries even,
a tale that will open our eyes to wonder and creativity.

This is one of the many stories
of the famed Honi ha-Ma’agel, Honi the Circle-Drawer.
a Jewish miracle worker
during the first century CE.

One day, Honi was journeying along the road
when he saw a woman planting a carob tree.
Honi asked the woman:
“How long does it take for this tree to bear fruit?”
The woman replied: “Seventy years.”
Honi responded:
“How can you be certain that you will live another seventy years?”
She replied: “When I was born,
I found already grown carob trees in the world.
Just as my ancestors planted those for me,
so I too plant these for my children.”

Let me show you what the carob fruit looks and feels like.
Check it out. Pass it around.
How amazing that our own world can produce these delicious fruit.

So then Honi sat down to have a meal and suddenly,
sleep overcame him.
As he slept, a rocky formation enclosed upon him
which hid him from sight
and he slept for seventy years!

When he awoke, he saw a woman gathering the fruit of the carob tree.
Honi asks her, “Are you the woman who planted the tree?”
The woman replied: “I am her grand-daughter.”
Honi exclaimed:
“It is clear that I slept for seventy years!”
(Babylonian Talmud, tractate Ta’anit, page 23a.)

What a fascinating story, right?
Miracles, time travel, 70 years of sleep.
Let me tell you what I think this story is teaching us today.

First, I understand this tale as the Jewish equivalent
of the First Nations/Native American teaching:
“In every deliberation,
we must consider the impact on the seven generations.”
We are accountable to all the generations
we might be so blessed to know in our lifetime—
our great-grandparents, grandparents, parents,
our own generation,
and that of our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Seven generations.
What made that woman plant that carob tree
when she knew she would not even be alive to enjoy its fruits?
She understood that our dreams for the future
and our present way of life
ought to be in gratitude to our ancestors
and in responsibility to our descendents.

Second, the story also teaches us that
we are co-creators with G-d.
In the act of planting that tree, the woman in the story
plays a central role in making the world a more sustainable place.
We, too, can be and already are co-creators with G-d.

Third, Honi experienced and understood what it means
for distant goals to come to fruition.
Here’s the part of the story I didn’t tell you yet.
After Honi wakes up from his slumber,
he has a revelation about a verse in our book of Psalms.
There’s a verse that says
Hayeenu kekholmim, we were like dreamers,
as we know from Birkat haMazon, the blessing after eating a meal.
And these words refer to the 70 years of Babylonian exile
from the Land of Israel.
Even in one of the most difficult periods of exile in Jewish history,
we were like dreamers,
our imaginations wide-open,
dreaming big, bold, far-reaching dreams.

Friends, young and…older,
at times, we have forgotten that we are dreamers and co-creators.
We have distanced ourselves
from the health and vitality of our natural world.
We know with certain fact that human actions and behaviours
have already caused great damage to this earth.
A climate crisis is upon us.

On a recent Vermont Edition on Vermont Public Radio,
Tom Rogers, biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Department,
said how climate adaptation that once took hundreds of years
is happening at striking rates, even in Vermont—
birds are migrating at different times,
buds and insects are popping out early and unpredictably,
blue birds have been seen nesting as early as February,
bears are coming out of hibernation
because of unseasonably warm winter days.

Has anyone heard of Greta Thunberg from Sweden?
She’s the gutsy 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist
making waves across the world.
Addressing the UN, Greta declared:
“I don’t care about being unpopular.
I care about climate justice and a living planet.”
In resonance with our Honi story,
she looks ahead many years later:
“The year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday.
If I have children maybe they will spend that day with me.
Maybe they will ask me about you.
Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything
while there still was time to act.
You say you love your children above all else,
and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.”

Greta has inspired millions, including local students,
to take action across the entire world
with her hard-hitting words.
As the famous scientist Bill Nye, the Science Guy, has said:
“Young people are going to make these changes.
They are going to get it done.”

I turn now to our own JCOGS youth and teens:
You are the ones with the greatest capacity
to wonder and imagine a more sustainable world.
All the more so, you youth who are growing up in rural Vermont—
you who know how to have more fun with nature than anyone else.
Lead the way!
Your Jewish community will do everything in our power to support you.
You children and teens have a sacred role to play in this wider world.
What will you do?

What will we all do?
Think for a moment—
on a scale of 1-10:
how seriously have you taken in the possibility
of the worst of the climate crisis and its current timeline?
What are your dreams for future generations?
What good will we do with the precious gift that is our Mother Earth?

We humans are innovators.
We are capable of harnessing
our wonder, our appreciation, our imaginations
to meet this climate crisis.

Albert Einstein once said,
You can’t solve a problem with the same kind of thinking
that got you into the problem in the first place.”

Friends, innovators, dreamers—
here we are, on Rosh haShanah,
our time to see ourselves as co-creators with G-d.

What role might JCOGS play in dreaming?
There are things we can do on our own,
from our places of influence,
and also as a congregation:
Think renewables, the cars we drive, what we eat,
changing our light blubs, heat pumps, weatherizing,
reducing food waste, living simpler lives,
planting trees, putting in solar panels, wind turbines,
eating plant-rich diets.
Think forestry and conservation.
Think global energy consumption.
Think writing citizen editorials in our local papers,
artistic and musical expression, scientific research.
Think advocating changes with our elected officials.
Think resilience, sacrifices, opportunities, impact, and community.

Maybe you’ve noticed some changes at JCOGS
related to greening and sustainability.
We’re composting and eating off of reusable plates.
We’re reducing our waste.
We clean with green products.
What we’ve done is wonderful.
But it’s not enough.

Let us open our eyes.
We require systemic change.
We can start a big, bold conversation
within JCOGS and our greater community,
awakening hearts and minds.

Like the conversations we are having right now
about a green burial section in our JCOGS cemetery.
Or what about the fact that JCOGS will need a new tent soon:
How about a solar array instead of a tent
to shield us from the weather?
Think small and big scale.
Who knows what possibilities
we might come up with as a congregation
when we begin dreaming.

I want to end with a third story, as promised.
It’s the story of the creation of humankind.

וַיִּיצֶר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה
Gen. 2:7 and YHVH, G-d, formed the human/ha-Adam,
of dust from the earth/ha-Adamah.
As G-d blew the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils,
ha-Adam, the human became a living being.

Adam from Adamah.
Humanity created from earth.
Co-creators with G-d.

Think back to your WOW in the world.
What do you love about this earth?
What do you find utterly amazing?
Imagine this world in 70 years.
Be a dreamer…take a moment right now to dream.

Hayeenu kekholmim: we are dreamers—
for the seven generations,
for our youth,
for our one precious earth.
We are this earth, Adam/Adamah.
What world will we wake up to in 70 years
because of our actions today?

In the words of Greta Thunberg:
“The moment we decide to fulfill something, we can do anything.”
We must simply awake from our slumber and begin dreaming.

Gmar chatima tova, may we be written in the Book of Life
for generations to come.
Shana tova.

Would you sing with me?
Adamah vaShamayim
Olam Chesed