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Rosh Hashanah Day 2: Taking Control in the Anthropocene

09/28/2022 09:58:25 AM


Rabbi Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon

Today is the anniversary of creation.

In honor of our wondrous planet, I'd like to tell you the story of the Hula Valley. And I will also take you through three very different versions of the story of the creation of the world.

Hula is in the north of Israel, east of the Golan. How many people in the room have been there?

Have you been there during the bird migration season?

Not long ago, much of the valley was filled with a lake - Lake Hula. In winter, it was 9 feet deep. In summer, 5 feet. 

For ancient peoples, the lake was an important junction on the trade routes connecting Damascus, the Mediterranean coast, and Egypt. Damascus to Egypt is about 5- or 600 miles. That was a long way before the days of cars and airplanes. What a relief, to be able to fill your skins from Hula's water, and have a dinner of fresh fish or duck caught that day out on the lake. 

Lake Hula was also a critical rest stop for traveling birds. Twice a year - in the fall and the spring, they flocked to the lake en route between Europe, Asia and Africa. During the day, the skies we re filled with big sea birds: cranes, storks, pelicans. But far more birds fly at night, especially the smaller ones, who need to be wary of predators.

For example, the willow warbler. A tiny bird, it weighs about as much as one of those little packets of ketchup you get at a fast-food place. Its nesting grounds are way up north in Siberia, and it winters down in Africa, south of the Sahara. It flies 7 thousand and five hundred mules each way. Now that's a long trip without a car or an airplane! What a relief to be able to rest a day in the Hula Valley, to take a long drink from the lake and feast on insects that live by the water.

But the lake took up a lot of potential farmland, and it also attracted mosquitoes who brought malaria. In the late 19th century, locals tried to drain some of the water. Later, Turkey and then England planned much larger scale drainage projects that never got off the ground.

It took Israeli ingenuity to finally make it happen. The Jewish state was born in 1948. Two years later, they got started on the Hula drainage project. It was a classic Israeli success story. Drain the swamp, tame the wilderness, make the land our own. And they did it. We did it. (I wasn't born yet, but I'm a Zionist, so it's my story, too.) In 1958, the project was completed. Hula became an agricultural center, providing much needed food for Israel's booming population. The water that was diverted from the lake also helped boost the country's water supply. And malaria was defeated.

The chalutzim - Israel's pioneers who drained the swamps in the north and made the deserts bloom in the south - fill the archetype of the Torah's very first sory. The world began in chaos - Tohu VaVohu. In step by orderly step, God shaped the chaos. Light separated from darkness. The wild waters organized into sky and ocean. Each type of species created in its place. And, at the pinnacle of creation - humanity. Created in the image of God, and commanded to continue God's work - subduing the savage land and all of its creatures. 

וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֮ אֱלֹהִים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ (וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃)

God blessed them and God said to them, "Be fertile and multiply, fill the land and conquer it; rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth."

And that's what we have done. Not just Israelis, of course, all of humanity. 

פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ We have been fertile and multiplied. Our numbers are expected to reach 8 billion by November of this year.

וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ  We have filled the land and conquered it. Our roads crisscross the planet - there;s almost no place on earth we can't go. We are no longer limited by the cycles of sunrise and sunset. We created our own lights, and they fill the skies. 

וּרְד֞וּ בְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה We rule all the living things that creep on earth. We've driven out the predators that threatened us, and favored the species that bring us comfort. Did you know that humans and our livestock between us now make up 96% of the biomass of all mammals on this planet!

Throughout the first chapter of Genesis, God is referred to only as Elohim, a name which the rabbis connected to the more austere, unyielding side of God. 

And we, created in this image, have dominion over out planet. We drain lakes to create farmland. We create the reshape mountains, for quarries and roads and ski hills. We move rivers. We destroy and we plant entire forests. 

But there is a second version of the creation story, right there in the Torah. Genesis chapter 2. In this story, the tetragrammaton Y-H-V-H joins the name Elohim. The tetragrammaton is not pronounceable; we usually read it as Adonai or Hashem. The rabbis associated this name with the more giving side of God. In Genesis 2, Hashem seems like a farmer or a midwife, not a Lord or Master. He dug in the dirt to create Adam. He breathed his own breath in Adam's  nostrils to bring him to life. He created Eve from the messy flesh of Adam's own body. 

He placed Adam and Eve in a plentiful garden. He did not tell them to conquer or master to it, but לְעַבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשָמְרָֽהּ, to work it and protect it. 

If we have fulfilled God's commandment to humanity in chapter one of Genesis, we have failed the commandment of chapter 2. 

We did not know how to both subdue the land and protect it.

Draining Lake Hula had consequences that seem obvious now, but int he 1950s few people were thinking about them. Through the 60s and 70s, the valley was beset by both fires and floods. Microbial growth burst out of control, poisoning the region with too many nitrates. Field mice became a huge nuisance to farmers, while 119 native animal species were lost to the region. Many local plant species went extinct.

And those amazing migratory birds? They were no longer seen in Israel's skies.

It's not just Israel, of course. Ornithologists everywhere feel they are racing against time to save numerous species from going over the edge.

Lakeside real estate has many human uses, none of which make for good layover spots for little Warblers. 

Other birds evolved to fly directly over the ocean, without stopping. A Bar-tailed Godwit holds the record at 239 hours in the air with no rest. (Nine days!) These birds have to contend with changing weather patterns, as the climate changes.

Artificial lights throw off the navigation of many birds who depend on the stars for direction.

Even our noise is a problem. In 2012, on an isolated ridge in Idaho, ecologist Jesse Barber and colleagues set up loudspeakers to play sounds of passing cars. They called it a "phantom road" - there was nothing there except the noise. That was enough to seriously disrupt the birds who normally layover on that ridge. 

Since then, hundreds of studies have shown traffic noise to harm all kinds of species, from prairie dogs to insects. But roads have been one of humanity's most powerful tools to contain the planet. 83% of the land in the contiguous United States is within at most a kilometer of a road. Where are the wild animals to go?

I spoke recently to Professor Liz Hadly, an ecologist at Stanford. Lis said to me, "Humans evolved amidst nature, surrounded by nature. Now, nature is embedded in humanity."

Lis is contributing to the efforts of a working group of scientists, who are preparing a case for the International Commission on Stratigraphy, to officially acknowledge a new geological epoch. The Holocene is a geological epoch that began 11,650 years ago with the end of the last ice age. These scientists argue that the Holocene ended at about 1950, when humans began to leave an imprint on the planet that will remain in the geological record for hundreds of thousands of years to come. We have begun a new epoch: the Anthropocene. Anthro- as in anthropology. The epoch of humanity. 

And there is no going back.

For me, coming to terms with this realization is like coming to terms with the aging of my own body. I will never again be able to read the small dots on Hebrew text again without the help of reading classes. My memory will never be as sharp as it was, my back will never be as strong. These are truths that are hard to accept.

It is even harder to accept that we will never be able to undo much of the damage we have caused on planet earth. The coral reefs will never return to their past glory. Liz told me that some of the forests that have been destroyed are growing back as shrub land, without trees. They will have a different kind of beauty. We will never be able to clean the land and sea of all the toxins that seep from our plastics and spew from our factories and oil refineries - toxins that are changing the biochemistry of nearly every species on earth. 

As we grow old, most of us mourn our lost youth. We need to feel that grief  - and then move from grief to acceptance, and from acceptance to joy int he wisdom of our years. So, too, we must allow ourselves to mourn what has been lost on our planet. If we don't grieve, we cannot reach acceptance, and without acceptance we cannot move to action.

This is teshuva, what the high holidays are all about! Ashamnu, we have sinned. We must admit that we cannot undo the changes we've made. We cannot even stop further changes from happening. But we do have choices. Choices about how much change continues to happen, and how fast, and what kinds of change. 

We must recognize the truth of Genesis one. We are the master species. We must own our power, and use it to fulfill the role offered to us in Genesis 2. We must become stewards of the planet. 

Our tradition offers one more creation story. The kabbalist's view of creation. 

In the beginning, before the world was chaos, it was One. A great, unending, indivisible light. The Ein Sof. Oneness does not allow for change or creation. So the Ein Sof somehow contracted itself, to make space for the world. Now, instead of one there were two: the light and the dark. Tendrils of that great light pushed into the darkness. Vessels formed to contain the light and shape it into a world. 

But the light was too great for the vessels, and they shattered. Shards of vessels and sparks of light flew all over the universe. The breakage brought evil and chaos into the world. It is the designated role of humanity - and especially the Jewish people - to repair the world. Tikkun Olam. With every mitzvah we perform, we gather up a spark of light and return it to its source.

This version of the creation story was formulated in the 16th Century by Rabbi Isaac Luria - also known as the Ari. At a time when Jews were powerless against enormous, violent forces, the Ari gave our people hope. You cannot stop the Inquisition, or the expulsions, or the daily instabilities of life. But you have great power. Because with each mitzvah you do, you help repair the universe.

I asked Professor Liz Hadly what gives her hope. I was expecting to hear about big actions by big players. She said: "What gives me hope is the number of people now who really care."

I shared with her something I had heard in a Shabbat sermon from Rabbi Ezray. He was quoting a person named Anne Marie Bonneau, who is an advocate for reducing our use of plastic. Plastics are doing terrible damage. And we all use them. Thinking about the prevalence of plastic in my life can leave me feeling hopeless. Bonneau said: "We don't need a few conservationists doing a perfect job. We need many conservationists doing an imperfect job."

Liz agrees. She said to me: "We need change from the bottom up."

The kind of change that CBJs environmental committee is working towards. I hope everyone in this room will come to our event on Sukkot. You'll hear from three CBJ members who are making significant, bottom-up kind of difference, and come away inspired with things you yourself can do.

"We also need change from the top down," Liz continued. 

She didn't give an example, but I thought about the impact of our state-wide referendum on single use shopping bags. The moral imperative was not enough to break most of us from the disposable bag habit. It took a ten-cent surcharge to get us to change our ways!

Bottom-up and top-down, we need everything we have to cultivate a Tikkun Olam mind set. Every time you choose a reusable bag or bottle, it's not "just a few gallons of gas". It's a spark of divine light, returned to its source. With each of us gathering as many sparks as we can, all of us working together, it will become millions and billions of divine lights restored. We can nudge our planet away from chaos. We can shape a future on earth to sustain generations to come.

In the 1980s, the Jewish National Fund stepped up to examine what had happened in the Hula Valley. They orchestrated an ambitious compromise between agriculture and stewardship. Between לְעבְדָ֖הּ, to work it and לשמְרָֽהּ to protect it.

They did not try to restore Lake Hula. Instead, they created a much smaller new Lake Agmon, near the southern edge of where Lake Hula once sat. Much of the valley is still farmland. A complex system of pumps and filters now helps manage the water table. 

But around Lake Agmon, plant species that had been lost were reintroduced. Other returned on their own. And, best of all, the birds came back! Today, 100's of millions of birds pass through Israel every fall and spring, filling the skies and the Hula Valley. 

It is not a coincidence that the project to drain Lake Hula began in 1951, right at the time that scientists now recognize as the dawn of the Anthropocene. Back then, we had power but not knowledge - a dangerous combination. Plastics were this amazing miracle of science that enabled us to do more, be more. Automobiles gave us freedom to go, go, go. And who had even heard of light pollution, or noise pollution? Without any of that knowledge, how could we have been expected to both subdue the planet and protect it? 

But now we know better. And with knowledge comes an even greater power. The power of stewardship.

The Anthropocene is the epoch of humanity. WE are the masters. Truly, btselem Elohim, in the image of God, we control the planet. And it is on us to shape a planet earth that we will still want to inhabit, four ourselves and for our children's children's children. We have the power of Tikun Olam. Bit by bit, each of us contributing, together we can reclaim the garden. I know we can do it.

Shanah Tovah.

Correction: When delivering this sermon, I said that the world record for flight time was held by a Bar Tailed Godwit, at 239 days.  In fact, the record is 239 hours.

Wed, December 7 2022 13 Kislev 5783