Editor’s note: This was originally presented as a Rosh Hashanah sermon by Rabbi Moshe Heyn of the Coastside Jewish Community on Sept. 6. We felt that the themes would speak to the grassroots activists that make up our readers.
You can watch Rabbi Heyn giving this sermon here.
How are you feeling?
It’s been a tough year. A year and half later, we are still dealing with COVID and now the delta variant. Doctors and nurses are burnt out begging people to get vaccinated. Almost 700,000 Americans are dead and there are still those who refuse to take the vaccine and wear a mask in public places.
There’s global warming. Last July was the hottest on record. There are devastating fires in California, Oregon and Washington. There’s an extreme drought in many states and 40 million people depend on the Colorado River for water, which is now at its lowest level ever.
How are you feeling?
There was the January 6th storming of the U.S. Capitol. Its objective was to stage a coup and kill those in power, including the vice president. There were $30 million in damages and still many refuse to acknowledge that it was anything more than a peaceful protest.
Fake news and conspiracy theories continue to proliferate. There is an uptick in antisemitism and attacks on Asians. Just last year, we had the highest number of hate crimes since 2008.
How are you feeling?
In Afghanistan the war has ended, but what is going to happen to our Afghani friends who were left behind? And what about the refugee crisis that is unfolding and the rest of that country’s citizens?
The earthquake in Haiti has killed 2,200 people and injured nearly 13,000, with 53,000 homes destroyed. And then they get a direct hit from Hurricane Grace.
How are you feeling?
Ethiopia’s Tigray region is facing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, with 350,000 people threatened by famine and the most severe starvation crisis in the world right now, caused by human conflicts.
The crisis that may be affecting us closest to home is the impact of the pandemic, with family members and friends trying to cope with the loved ones who are sick or have died. And with the economic impact it’s had on many families who are at risk of being evicted and becoming homeless.
All of this makes me feel sick.
Making all of this worse is the fact that the state of politics today is worse than it’s been since the Civil War. I went to visit my parents in Baltimore about two weeks ago. We made a trip up to Gettysburg one afternoon…
The three-day battle at Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War with more than 50,000 estimated casualties. Standing in those fields — where there were about 160,000 soldiers slaughtering each other under the command of their generals — how could such savagery ever be glorified?
We stood on the hill where Lincoln stood when he delivered the Gettysburg Address. What would he think if he knew that from that spot today you can see a McDonald’s and a Kentucky Fried Chicken? Worse still, what would Lincoln think about the systemic racism and income inequality that continues to persist in our country, the voter suppression efforts in full swing in many states, and those who deny science and the reality of climate change?
Sadly, of all these concerns, perhaps the most pressing is the climate crisis. It’s been said that we are the first generation to feel the effects of climate change and we are the last generation who can do anything about it. But how can we do anything but succumb to despair? Given how I’m feeling now.
David Wallace-Wells, the author of a #1 New York Times bestseller, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” observes: “We have not developed much of a religion of meaning around climate change that might comfort us, or give us purpose, in the face of possible annihilation.”
What does that mean? A religion of meaning around climate change?
We can begin by asking, “What wisdom and meaning does our religion offer in the midst of a climate crisis?” Being a Jew is about taking responsibility for our sacred obligations, whether to God, to our community, or to our world. How are we to respond when the needs of the world are so massive, so overwhelming, so hard to even fathom? When burying our heads in the sand is just another form of climate change denial? How can we process this brutal reality?
I believe that is the purpose of our religion and the purpose of these High Holy Days in particular.
I know that Rosh Hashanah is partly intended to be celebrated as a happy day. It’s the birthday of the world and the beginning of the New Year, but it is also the first of the 10 Days of Awe.
Tomorrow morning, we will recite a prayer known as the Unetaneh Tokef. It reads,“On Rosh Hashanah it is written and revealed, and on Yom Kippur, the course of every life is sealed. How many shall pass on, how many shall thrive; who shall live on and who shall die…”
It goes on in quite stark and ominous terms, then concludes, “U’teshuvah, u’tefillah and u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’ah ha’gezerah.” Which means that our lives hang in a precarious balance from day to day, but teshuvah, and tefillah, and tzedakah have the power to change how we experience life and its painful uncertainties.
Tzedakah, as you probably know, literally means righteousness. It is our ability to pursue justice and to act from a place of clarity and generosity.
Tefillah, as you probably know, means prayer, but on a deeper level it is the ability to recognize and acknowledge our vulnerability and interdependence and, at the same time, to hold onto and articulate gratitude, hope, and awe.
But the word I want to draw your attention to this evening is a word we usually only encounter this time of year. Teshuvah means repentance, response, return. It is the ability to see things as they are and then to move, to change course, to come back to center, to reconcile.
Could these three values form the basis of a religion of meaning? A way to find our way through this morass of conflict; a bloody battlefield as it may seem? I believe so. And I believe it begins with Teshuvah — the very act of turning — itself.
There was once a rabbi who asked her students, How far is it from East to West? One student said: From as far as you can see from there to there? No. Another shouted: 3,000 miles, from the East Coast to the West Coast? No. Another proudly asserted: 12,000 miles, half the circumference of the earth? No, the rabbi said. It is the step or two that it takes to turn and face the opposite direction. It’s a very short distance but a radically significant act that is possible for anyone. One could call it the Great Turning.
In the 1990s, Joanna Macy began speaking about the Great Turning. She’s long been an environmental activist, author of 12 books, and a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology. At 92, she lives in Berkeley and still speaks and teaches internationally, at least by Zoom. She has served as adjunct professor to several graduate schools in the Bay Area, including the California Institute of Integral Studies.
As Macy described it, the Great Turning is a shift from an industrial growth society to a life-sustaining network of communities. She says it is the third major revolution of human existence, after the agricultural and industrial revolutions. “But the most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth,” Macy says, “is not that we are on the way to destroying the world — we’ve actually been on the way for quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and each other.”
Perhaps the most visible aspect of the Great Turning is the actions being taken to slow the damage to Earth and its beings. These actions include all the political, legislative, and legal initiatives, as well as direct actions like blockades, boycotts, civil disobedience, and other forms of refusal. Work of this kind buys time. It saves some lives, and some ecosystems, species and cultures; but it is insufficient, by itself, to bring about the change that is needed.
The second aspect of the Great Turning is looking at structural causes and developing structural alternatives. To free ourselves and our planet from the damage being inflicted by an industrial growth society, we must understand its dynamics. What are the tacit agreements that create obscene wealth for a few, while gradually but steadily impoverishing the rest of humanity? What interlocking causes indenture us to an insatiable economy that uses our Earth as a resource to be exploited and depleted? It takes courage and confidence in our own common sense to look at it with realism; and in doing so, we demystify the workings of the global economy. When we see how it operates, we are less tempted to demonize the politicians and CEOs who are enslaved by it. And for all the apparent might of the industrial growth society, we can also see its fragility — how dependent it is on our obedience and how doomed it is to devour itself.
In addition to learning how the present system works, we are developing alternatives. In communities like ours, new social and economic arrangements are taking root. Not waiting for our national or state politicos to catch up, we are coming together to take action. Flowing from our creativity and collaborative efforts, these actions may look marginal but they hold the seeds for a brighter future.
But these structural alternatives cannot take root and survive without the third aspect of the Great Turning: a shift in consciousness. The alternative structures must mirror what we want and how we relate to Earth and each other. They require, in other words, a shift in our perception of reality. Fortunately, that shift is already underway in the proliferation of activists and organizations who are on the leading edge of healthy and mindful living.
The frame of mind that results from this shift in consciousness can save us from succumbing to panic on the one hand or despair and paralysis on the other. It can help us resist the temptation to stick our heads in the sand or to turn on each other, as is the norm these days in politics. It can help us find the equilibrium and clarity we need to adopt a pragmatic approach to life and to be leaders in an otherwise polarized and traumatized world.
This is the key to renewal and our capacity to thrive. Among the myriad of problems and the myriad of solutions, these three aspects of the Great Turning can help us find our way.
- Actions to slow the damage to Earth and its beings
- Looking at structural causes and developing alternatives
- A shift in consciousness
As I think about it, these three aspects line up nicely with the language of our liturgy; our religion of meaning.
- Actions to slow the damage to Earth and its beings is the work of our hands / Tzedakah
- Looking at structural causes and developing alternatives is the work of our minds, where thought finds expression in language / Tefillah
- A shift in consciousness could be thought of as the work of our hearts / Teshuvah
All three of these aspects of life are essential. Tonight and as we enter the next 10 Days of Awe, I want you to be mindful of how we are participating in this Great Turning with our hands, our minds, whether in thought or in speech, and with our hearts.
Mussar is a spiritual practice that integrates all three. We’ll talk about that in the days ahead but for now, Judaism is a religion of meaning. We just have to look at it deeper than we have looked at it to understand the meaning of these Days of Awe and its liturgy; and the meaning of Teshuvah.
What is the distance between East and West? This act of turning is, in itself, the Great Turning.
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