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Rosh Hashanah - 2007 / 5768

09/01/2007 09:04:29 PM


Rabbi Carey Brown

This summer I spent a wonderful portion of my vacation backpacking in the woods of Baxter State Park in northern Maine.  The park was as beautiful as any I have ever seen and it felt renewing to be completely immersed in nature, at least for a few days.  As Gregg and I made our way along the trails I noticed an impressive number of planks laid across the muddy and wet portions of the hiking paths, a sight common on trails across America. The planks were long and narrow, only wide enough for one person to cross gingerly, yet sturdy enough to carry me and my full pack without a problem. At some times it was quite a balancing act to get across the thin planks, but I came to appreciate their purpose: they kept me from the mud and the mud from me. 
On some muddy sections of the trail, no planks had been laid, and we were left with two options: tramp through the mud or go around.  When I was a teenager experiencing my first hiking trips, I remember my counselors instructing me to go directly through the mud.  Why?  Because that path had already been forged, and it was unnecessary, as well as unfair to the earth to forge a new path.  It was all part of the wider wilderness principle that was imparted to me: “Leave no Trace.”  And so my friends and I sunk our feet happily into the sloppy, slippery mud.

But now, as an adult, I was not as anxious to cake my boots in mud.  And I saw that many people who had traveled the path before us were also looking to avoid the same mess.  Small, alternate routes criss-crossed the original path, and at muddy sections, the path was significantly wider than intended.  Our human footprints were impacting the earth more than necessary and the imprints were quite visible.

Have you noticed during the past year that the word “footprint” has become frequently used in our daily lexicon?  Environmental advocates have encouraged us to think about the “carbon footprints” that we leave on the various paths of our lives.  Our carbon footprint, as most of you have come to know, is the amount of carbon-dioxide that each of us contributes to the atmosphere as a result of our daily living habits.  Whenever we run the air-conditioner, take a flight, idle our engines while we wait to pick up our kids, or turn on our computers, we produce carbon emissions.  Just like a footprint left by our hiking boots on the trail, so too with our carbon output do we leave a trace.  Even the choices that we make at the grocery store can impact our carbon footprint.  After all, shipping an avocado out of season from South America to Massachusetts requires a tremendous amount of fuel.  Unlike the imprints of our boots on the trail, however, carbon footprints are mostly invisible and decreasing the size of our footprint is much more difficult than merely laying down planks of wood.

As our reliance on technology grows, along with our increased dependence on a global economy, our carbon emissions will continue to rise.  And as a result, we begin to see the pressing need for alternative solutions to our energy consumption.  After all, are we really willing to experience the consequences that might follow if we do not commit to the efforts to decrease our footprint?

These questions are popping up in conversation with great regularity, thanks to cultural influences such as Al Gore’s movie – An Inconvenient Truth, and activists like Lexington native Bill McKibben.  We are proud that our own LEFTY youth group sponsored a campaign last year to encourage all of us to commit to using compact fluorescent light bulbs in our homes, which decreases our carbon output by 800 pounds of CO2 per bulb.

Nevertheless, these questions are not simply reflective of a contemporary fad.  These are deep, troubling questions about our relationship to the environment that rabbis have been aware of for many centuries, and speak to the core of Jewish tradition.

Jewish literature is filled with ponderings about our responsibilities to the next generation for maintaining the earth.  Our tradition makes it quite clear that Judaism demands an ethical consideration of those who will come after us when making decisions that will affect their lives.  In other words, environmentalism is an essential value to pursue as we work to fulfill our Jewish obligation to prepare the world for future generations.

This very lesson is taught in a well-known Talmudic story1:

One day a man named Honi was journeying on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree.  He asked him, “How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit?” The man replied, “Seventy years.” Honi continued to question him: “Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?” The man replied, “I found [grown] carob trees in the world; just as my ancestors planted for me so I too plant for my children.”

Honi sat down to have a meal, and sleep overcame him. As he slept, a rocky formation enclosed upon him, which hid him from sight.  [When he awoke, some seventy years later] he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree, and he asked him, “Are you the man who planted the tree?” The man replied, “No, I am his grandson.”

Surely the story of Honi illustrates the need for us to consider our legacy in the world.  There is something profound about the imperative to consider generations we may never personally come to know.

If we continue with the status quo, the impact on the environment will be disastrous for future generations.  Consider the footprints that we are currently leaving on the earth as a result of our daily behaviors:

Every day, the average American produces four pounds of trash, creating 1,460 pounds per year.  Americans make up 5% of the world’s population, but we create more than 40% of its trash.  Yes, we read with anger in the news how other countries, such as China, are polluting at a grotesque rate.  While this is frustrating, we have to acknowledge that we are first responsible for our own backyards.

Our national carbon output is cause for concern as well: 20 tons, 40,000 lbs, of CO2 per year.  That is a big footprint.  Some of you may have already taken a personal audit of your family’s carbon footprint.  If you have not, I encourage you – after the holiday – to find a carbon calculator on the Internet to see how your household adds up.  Can you determine ways as a family to decrease your output?  What impact might we have on future generations if we were to decrease our personal footprints by 15% this year or 25% over the next five years?

Judaism takes seriously the influence that one generation can impart upon those who follow.  There is a majestic moment in the High Holiday liturgy, one that I find to be personally powerful, which considers the impact of one generation on the next.  Tomorrow morning, you will notice the dramatic apex of the service when we approach the ark to recite the words of Avinu Malkeinu.  At the same time, we will pause to recite those words Moses used to appease God atop of Mt. Sinai, the thirteen attributes of God’s character:

Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v’chanun, erech apayim, v’rav chessed v’emet, notzeir chessed l’alafim, nosei avon va’fesha v’chata, v’nakei.

Adoani, Adonai, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.

Fitting for the season of repentance, this piece of liturgy, from the book of Exodus in the Torah, illustrates God’s compassion and reminds us that if we approach God with humility, God will extend kindness to us.  It is a plea of mercy, accompanied by a bit of flattery, which we hope will put us in good favor before God.

The interesting thing about this liturgy, however, is that it contains only one fraction of the Biblical verse that is its source.  The original verse in the Torah continues to say this about God:

God visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation.  (Exodus 34:6-7)

It is difficult to think about God in these terms of Divine retribution.  And it seems that for the rabbis who composed the festival liturgy, that they too had a difficult time reconciling their ideas about God’s mercy with the last few phrases of this selection of attributes.  

There is even inconsistency with this idea within the Torah itself.  In Deuteronomy we read:

Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children put to death for parents: a person shall be put to death only for his own crime. (Deuteronomy 24:16)

I have always been of the opinion that we should lean toward the Deuteronomic version of this notion of Divine retribution.  How can it be that God would punish the children on account of the sins of their parents?  Does it not go against the very notions of human free will – a very Jewish doctrine, by the way – to think otherwise?

And yet, the idea that our actions can impact generations to come is not one to be brushed aside so quickly.  For might there be some truth to this statement?  That our iniquity impacts those that will come after us, perhaps not only our children or grandchildren, but great-grandchildren, and beyond?

Rabbis have been wrestling with the contradictions between these two verses in Exodus and Deuteronomy for generations.  One the one hand, Deuteronomy teaches that God demands equal justice for all generations, irregardless of the actions of parents or children.  On the other hand, Exodus implies that the punishment devoted to a parent can be inherited by children.  How can we have it both ways?  From a traditional point of view, no verses in the Torah are extraneous or contradictory, so there must be a reason that both ideas are included within our teaching.

The rabbis respond with varied interpretations to resolve this contradiction.  A Medieval commentator2, Gersonides, posits that the Torah does not mean that God would directly impose a punishment on the children of transgressors, but rather that the children would at times suffer the consequences of a punishment imposed upon the parent.  Therefore, the verse in Exodus comes as a deterrent to warn parents not to transgress at the expense of their children.

There is a wonderful midrash that takes this idea a step further3:

R. Yehudah says: “I [God] take your sins in my hand and suspend them for four generations.”

In R. Yehudah's conception, the children are not punished for the sins of the parents.  Moreover, they can actually redeem their parents through proper behavior. The punishment of the parent is suspended. If his descendants are meritorious, his punishment is subsequently cancelled.

What a profound idea: that the consequences of our parents’ actions can be reversed or cancelled if we act meritoriously to change the damage that was already done!

The Rabbinic interpretations that we have examined have one thing in common – they all contend that God does not impose a punishment on innocent children because of the sins of their parents. But the verse in Exodus contains a strong message of warning to parents that their negative behavior can have a significant impact on their children.

Let this new year serve as an inspiration for us to think about the effect our actions might have on the 3rd or 4th generation that will inherit our earth.  Will we leave it to our children to determine how to redeem themselves from our mistakes, or might we be the ones to do as Rabbi Yehudah challenges us in the Midrash: to fix those mistakes that generations before us have made and take the actions that will help to correct the damage that has already been done?

Let us commit this Rosh Hashanah to making this a year in which we promote energy efficiency, decrease the size of our carbon footprint, and commit that our generation will be the one to clean up the mess.  Let us commit to taking steps to green our own homes and our synagogue to save our great-grandchildren from inheriting our mistakes.  Let us call on our government to commit to stronger emissions standards and develop alternative energies. 

Environmentalism is part of a broader Jewish ethic – the ethic of thinking of our children’s future and the world that will be bequeathed by us to future generations.  We all think about our children’s future on a daily basis.  We make sure they have immunizations to prevent disease, we put aside money for college tuition, we send them to Hebrew school to impress upon them moral values that we hope will guide them into the future.  Protecting the earth for their inheritance and the inheritance of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren is no less part of that ethic.

Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v’chanun, erech apayim, v’rav chessed v’emet, notzeir chessed l’alafim… l’alafim, to the 1000th…

God extends chessed, extends kindness, to the 1000th generation.  Imagine the kindness extended to the countless generations ahead, if only we follow the necessary measures to ensure the safety of our planet today.

The holiness of this task was understood just as clearly nearly 900 years ago by the great Medieval Spanish commentator, Abraham ibn Ezra.  I close with the words of his poem, “God Everywhere”:

“Wherever I turn my eyes, around on Earth or to the heavens/I see you in the field of stars/ I see You in the yield of the land/in every breath and sound, a blade of grass, a simple flower, an echo of Your holy Name.”

Shanah Tovah.


1-BT Ta’anit 23a

2-Gersonides, a 14th century rabbi and philosopher from France

3Mechilta of R. Shimon Bar Yochai

Sat, December 4 2021 30 Kislev 5782