Rosh HaShanah is a time of rebirth. However, this fall holiday brings a different sort of rebirth than springtime: After months of grueling heat and decay, the earth is refreshed with kernels of September green. In Israel, palm trees blossom with honey-sweet dates during the fall, providing the flavor of our celebration of the birthday of the universe.
Yet while the earth renews itself physically, we renew ourselves spiritually.
For this reason, Rosh HaShanah, also known as the Day of Remembrance, is the traditional time of year for heshbon nefesh, "taking stock of the soul." As I take stock of this past year, I find myself thinking more than ever before about Judaism’s view of the earth. I recall a G-Eight summit to discuss governmental responses to global warming and gas emissions. I remember the United Nations scientific panel declaring that it is "very likely" that human activity is the cause of "unequivocal" warming and climate change. I also recollect the stir over the Oscar-winning documentary "An Inconvenient Truth." I am reminded again and again that the earth and, in turn, humanity are in potential crisis.
Will this Rosh HaShanah bring more awareness of this crisis and teshuvah, meaningful change, than the last one?
Consider this past March, when, before his death, Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, one of the largest evangelical political lobby groups, launched into a fiery tirade in which he derided environmentalists, opposing anyone who accepts the possibility of global warming.
Rather than scientific proofs, Falwell offered interpretations of biblical verses as his evidence, concluding, "I agree every Christian ought to be an environmentalist of reasonable sort. We should certainly pick up trash. We ought to beautify the earth as best we can."
But, he also said, "we shouldn’t be hugging trees and worshipping the creation more than we worship the Creator, and that is what global warming is all about."
Although Falwell offered one religious perspective on the earth and the environment (one, likely, not shared by all evangelicals), it is antithetical to the Jewish perspective. After all, every Jewish holiday born out of the Torah is associated with honoring the earth and the cycle of the seasons. Furthermore, Maimonides taught that we come to love, appreciate, and know God when we "contemplate God’s wondrous and great deeds and creations."
True, the first chapter of Genesis says that mankind "shall rule" the creatures of the earth and expresses that mankind is the apex of God’s creation, but in no way does it indicate that everything that precedes mankind is unimportant.
In fact, God markedly identified each as "good." Moreover, the medieval collection of midrashim, Pirke de Rebbe Eliezer, suggests that Genesis’s distinction of man as "ruler" means spiritual leader. After man was created, the other creatures feared him, worshipping him as their creator. Yet, he humbled himself and used his power over them to make common cause with them, by leading them to "make God King, the one who created us all."
Rosh HaShanah is a time to remember the moral of the creation account, acknowledging our unique status as masters of the earth, while stressing Judaism’s core theological assertion: God is the creator of the universe and it belongs to Him. We remind ourselves of this when we ask God for yearly blessings, echoed by the poet’s supplication in our High Holiday prayer book: "In Your lovingkindness and faithfulness, O Lord, support Your world that is judged at the four seasons of each year When You visit the earth on this Rosh HaShanah, invest it with righteousness, with fruits and dew, with rains and warmth ."
The fundamental lesson of Rosh HaShanah and the fall holidays is twofold: that we human beings have incredible power for which we must be grateful, and that we must set limits upon this power. Throughout the fall holidays, we confess our transgressions, our acts of selfishness, self-importance, and entitlement. Indeed, Falwell had it exactly backwards: By loving the earth and protecting its supreme value, we are in fact serving and showing reverence to God as the Creator. We are the chief custodians of the earth, "placed in the garden to till and tend it." (Genesis ‘:15)
By merely picking up trash, we belittle the intention of God’s creation. Again our rabbis expound: "When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said, "Look at my works! See how beautiful they are how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it." (Midrash, Ecclesiastes Rabbah)
The scientific disciplines teach us that the earth and its ecosystems live in a delicate balance. Our Torah teaches us that we are supposed to preserve and keep that balance sustainable, respecting the trees, plants, and animals by how we grow, reap, yoke, and even slaughter them. If we learn anything during the holiday season, it is that what we do in the world matters. Our actions have an impact, and it is the intent behind those actions, as well as our commitment to tikkun olam, repairing an imperfect world, that marks our sacred pact with God.