America’s Days of Awe
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg
Delivered 10/9/08 on Yom Kippur, 5769
Please understand that I offer the following words according to the traditional warning every responsible darshan must give to a congregation. I give these words, ‘lefi ani’ut daati’ according to the poverty of my opinion. Please accept it as heartfelt, and my best attempt to capture the momentous times we live in.
“On Rosh Hashannah it is written. On Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many will leave the world, and how may shall be born. “
These austere words come from the Unetaneh Tokef prayer which we chant on Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur. Unetaneh Tokef paints a vivid picture of a God sitting in judgment of His creation: “You review every living being, measuring the years and decreeing the destiny of every creature. “ Our fate hangs in the balance. Following a litany of couplets of opposing fates, life and death, health and sickness, serenity and depression, we respond with words of hope:
“But Repentance, prayer, and deeds of kindness can remove the severity of the decree.”
This is the prayer that captures the mood this season of the year and gives it the gravity and solemnity we associate with the Days of Awe. The gravity flows from our tradition’s view that at least once a year we really need to take stock of our lives and make a serious effort to change our direction. The truth is that like anything else, this annual ritual can become rote and thoughtless. But not this year.
Not this year, because we are witnessing a strange and powerful convergence. Our annual season of Teshuvah corresponds to a national perhaps a worldwide crisis of Teshuvah. What do I mean? During this season Jews are supposed to review our actions, overcome denial of our wrongful behaviors, apologize to those we have hurt, confess to these behaviors to God , and begin the arduous process of internal and external change which we call Teshuvah. We are not the only ones trying to do this during this season. Our entire nation is engaged in a sort of Teshuvah as it comes to terms with the truth concerning our situation. We are now in a crisis that is forcing us to review our past actions. We are compelled to confront our national denial. New realities have placed before us the true weight of the challenges ahead of us.
So this is the American Unetaneh Tokef prayer of 2008:
Who shall grow rich, who shall sink into poverty; who shall sleep securely in her bed, who will find herself on the street; who will draw from his savings, who will find his savings are no more; who will go to work every morning, who will have no job go to; who will go to his medical specialist; who will not see the doctor to save expenses; who will go bankrupt, who will have money to invest at the bottom of the market; who will lose his house to a hurricane, who will benefit from a climate change ; who will fear a terror strike, who will feel secure from violence; who will feel let down by his country, who will find new hope in his country; who will be proud of his country, who will feel betrayed by his country; who will gain faith in humanity, who will lose his faith in humanity.
Teshuvah, Tefilah, Tzedaka avert the harshness of the decree.
Our tradition uses the terms Teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedaka as actions that will avert the harshness of the decree. We know what these mean in our Jewish cultural-religious framework. What do they mean for a country that is at such a critical fork in the road, at a decisive moment in our history?
Our country needs to strive for Teshuvah. What does national teshuvah mean?
Teshuvah means to turn or change. Everyone is calling for change. Real change comes after we overcome denial. We have been in the relentless grip of denial.
First, we have been in denial about the consequences of our indebtedness. The economy in a tailspin has brought this denial into sharp and scary focus. In 1980 the ratio of national debt to the gross national product stood at 31%, the lowest since 1931. By 2006 public debt topped nine trillion or 70% of the gross national product. Take our own personal debt. In the postwar years personal savings had averaged a robust 8-10% of disposable income. After 1985 that 10% collapsed to what it is today: Zero.
According to a report on national debt: Between 1989 and 2001, credit-card debt nearly tripled, soaring from $238 billion to $692 billion. By last year, it was up to $937 billion. As the foreclosure crisis and the credit crisis has brought home, we have been living in a house of cards built on debt. We cannot deny this as we witness millions of people falling out of the middle class. This irresponsibility starts at the top. When Vice President Cheney was asked if cutting taxes might be at odds with invading Iraq, he said: “Deficits don’t matter.”
Second, we have been in the grips of a long standing denial about the consequences of our dependence on foreign oil.
In World War II, America was able to fully supply its energy needs. That is not hard for us to imagine in Long Beach since we see the remnant of the oil industry still pumping up and down in our neighborhood. We can go to the 60’s era Petroleum club building across the street on Linden and reminisce about a time of an energy independent America. But in 1972 domestic oil production peaked. At the end of Reagan’s presidency foreign oil constituted 41% of oil consumed in the United States. In 2005 60% of our oil came from outside the country and we consume 25% of the world’s oil supply.
As we fight two wars, our dependence on foreign oil also fuels those who are fighting our soldiers in Iraq and. As Tom Friedman writes, “our purchases enrich conservative Islamic governments where portions of their profits find their way to charities, mosques, religious schools that help sustain anti- American terrorist groups, suicide bombers, preachers, and anti- Semitic textbooks and propaganda. --- purchase are helpings to strengthen the most intolerant, anti-modern, anti-Western, anti-women’s rights and anti pluralistic strain of Islam. Our oil purchases are helping to finance a reversal of the democratic trends in Russia, Latin America, and elsewhere that was set in motion by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Communism. Our growing dependence on oil is fueling an ugly global energy scramble which is exemplified by China’s propping up of a murderous and genocidal dictatorship in oil-rich Sudan.” (from Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Tom Friedman)
Our oil addiction is even more destructive than this for as Friedman argues, “it makes global warming warmer, petro-dictators stronger, clean air dirtier, poor people poorer, democratic countries weaker and radical terrorists richer.”
Listen to these words: “We must end this intolerable dependence on foreign oil. Energy will be the immediate test of our ability to unite this Nation and it can also be the standard around which we rally. We can seize control again of our common destiny…. We need a federal agency to cut through the red tape, the delays and the endless roadblocks to completing key energy projects.” (President Carter as quoted in Bacevich, The Limits of Power.)
These were not said on the campaign trails of 2008, but from a president in a national address to the nation in 1979.
We are paying big time for 30 years of denial. We have been in denial about how our consumption is undermining our nation and altering the earth.
Tom Friedman, quoting an environmental scientist, writes. “People don’t seem to realize, that it is not like we are on the Titanic and we have to avoid the iceberg. We’ve already hit the iceberg. The water is rushing down below. But some people don’t want to leave the dance floor; others don’t want to give up on the buffet. But if we don’t make the hard choices, nature will make them for us. Right now. “ p. 216.
What is it that stands before us, which we cannot deny:
In his excellent new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Friedman, identifies five big problems which we can no longer ignore.
The growing demand for ever scarcer energy supplies and natural resources; a massive transfer of wealth to oil rich countries and their petrodictators; disruptive climate change; energy poverty, which is sharply dividing the world into electricity haves and electricity have nots; and rapidly accelerating biodiversity loss, as plants and animals go extinct at record rates. These five problems define the Energy-Climate Era we have entered. “ p. 26.
Teshuvah is overcoming our denial to face reality. Our next president will be judged on his ability to lead us toward facing these problems squarely. We cannot afford to wait another 30 years.
After Teshuvah, we are called to engage in Tefilah-prayer. But will prayer really help us. Take for instance the prayers for rain of the former Prime Minister of Australia. On April 19, 2007, in the face of the Big Dry, a seven year drought, John Howard asked his countrymen to put their hands together and beseech the Good Lord for a gully washing downpour. His prayers did not save Howard from voter wrath.
The election held in Australia later that year was the first election in history in which climate change-specifically the government’s failure to respond to it with policies rather than prayers, was among one of the issues. Howard and his party were defeated. The new prime minister ratified the climate change protocols of Kyoto immediately after his election which the previous administration had refused to do.
Prayer cannot overcome bad policy. Desperate prayer and the yearning for a messianic solution is a sign of people coming under the grip of an apocalyptic world view. This is a real danger, because apocalyptically generated prayers produce a passivity which will further undermine our efforts to stem the global crisis we face. Rather the prayer that is called, appeals to God to give us the strength to be courageous, to overcome complacency and despair, to act, to find ways to join with others to live purposely to fight against the impacts of global warming.
Which brings us to the final action that averts the harsh decree, Tzedaka. Tzedaka is not only charity or the giving of gifts to the poor. Tzedaka means to act justly, to right a wrong, to balance something that is imbalanced.
First, to live according to tzedaka we must pay attention and confront what we have denied. We are called upon to engage in what we have ignored and act to correct our errors.
In the case of our dependencies on oil and our environmental impacts, we have a lot to do. We must try to live as environmentally sustainable life as we can. We must make sure our environmental awareness and behavior is always improving. We need to consider the products we consume, the cars we drive, the way we eat, the causes we support. This will not suffice.
Tzedaka means to act with others to bring about improvement to the world because acting as individuals is not sufficient. Do you support organizations that work to address the issues I have placed before you? If not, you need to learn about them and support them. Does our congregation provide a way for people to come together to learn about what we can do? It is not right that we have no active Tikun Olam group in our congregation that educates our membership and helps us to act more powerfully as a collective. Are there people willing to step up to help our community participate in the most important cause of our lifetimes?
Tzedaka involves scrutinizing the causes we support and the leaders we choose to lead us. As Friedman suggests, “it is much more important to change your leaders than your lightbulbs.
One of the great debates of our time has been the role of government in helping or hindering the confrontation with our indebtedness, our dependency on foreign oil, and our exacerbating climate change. We must hold our leaders accountable for they write the rules and regulations. The rules and regulations shape markets and change the behavior and incentives of millions of people at once.
We need to hold our leaders accountable. Do they take action to face the situation or do they give excuses or fail to lead?
Tzedaka carries with it a connotation which applies to the enormous challenge before us. In Genesis God decides to reveal to a human being his innermost thoughts about the fate of Sodom and Gemora. This part of our Torah is unique in all of ancient literature because it depicts a God who desires to consult with a human being. How does God justify this consultation?
“I have singled him out that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing just what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Avraham what he promised him.” (Genesis. 18:19)
Abraham is chosen by God because of what he will do for his children. He will teach them tzedek and mishpat. The sign of a Jew is to model and educate the next generation into a life committed to doing what is right and just.
What kind of world are we are giving to our children and grandchildren? Have we shown to them that we care, that we have tried our very best to give them a sustainable world?
A 12 year old spoke these words at the Earth Summit in Rio De Janero a few years ago.
“In my life, I have dreamt of seeing the great herds of wild animals, jungles and rain forests full of birds and butterflies, but now I wonder if they will even exist for my children to see. Did you have to worry about these things when you were my age? All this is happening before our eyes and yet we act as if we have all the time we want and all the solutions. You don’t know how to bring the salmon back up a dead stream. You don’t know how to bring back an animal now extinct. And you can’t bring back the forest that once grew where there is now a dessert. If you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it.
At school, even in kindergarten, you teach us how to behave in the world. You teach us not to fight with others, to work things out, to share-not to be greedy. Then why do you go out and do things you tell us not to do? -----Parents should be able to comfort their children by saying everything is going to be alright; it’s not the end of the world. We are doing the best we can. But I don’t think you can say that to us anymore. Are we even on your list of priorities? My dad always says, You are what you do, not what you say. Well what you do makes me cry at night. You grown-ups say you love us, but I challenge you. Please make your actions reflect your words.” (P. 396 in Friedman)
God will avert the harshness of the decree when we act with all our energy to give a sustainable world to our children. I ask all of us? Are we doing enough?