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8 Billion Gods of Retribution (Kol Nidre Sermon, 2021/5782)


Is God punishing us?

We have all had moments, brief though they may be, in which the question occurred to us. And with more than 650,000 Americans killed by a raging pandemic, and with most of us on Zoom or here wearing masks, the thought may have occurred to us lately more often than we would prefer. While we are in our rational minds, most of us shake off that thought, rejecting out of hand a God of retribution.

But lately, I have had the great fortune of binge-watching a very special show on Netflix, called “The Good Place,” starring Kristin Bell and Ted Danson. The show takes place entirely in the afterlife. We learn after some time that no one has gotten into the Good Place for the last 500 years, because in the modern world, decision-making has gotten far more morally complex, and the tiny little things we do can cause suffering to another human or another creature half the world away. It made me wonder if we are deluding ourselves when we think of ourselves as good people and moral beings. Shver tzu zayn a yid. It’s hard to be a Jew. It’s hard to be good.

I had another disturbing thought at the very beginning of this pandemic. We were all locked down. We were holding services on Zoom. No one was allowed to come into this building or the preschool building for a while. I was barred from visiting my hospice patients in person. I didn’t drive my car for weeks. It took little time for cabin fever to start setting in. So I began walking more – in the morning, down a riparian habitat path, around the block, around the neighborhood, and noticed all the hummingbirds, all the fruit trees, the hawks, the cats, even met some neighbors! Imagine that! But there was one thing I noticed more than anything else, and that was something that wasn’t there. Noise. It was so quiet, so peaceful, and as I walked through this peace and quiet, I thought of a quote from the Torah: “The land will have its Sabbaths.” And thus my bliss was shattered.

I then wondered about the joy of the squirrels not getting run over by cars. I wondered about the joy of the seagulls not having to breathe in the contrails of jet planes. And I wondered maybe this pandemic may be the best thing that could happen to just about every other species on earth save our own. And I wondered about this so-called God of retribution. Maybe we are only looking at half the story when we think of God this way. Maybe what we see as a God of retribution is actually a God of defense – defense of other species, defense of the land itself.

Where do we learn that “the land will have its Sabbaths?” It comes from an obscure section near the end of Leviticus, in a series of curses in retribution for failing to obey God or observing “all these commandments.” It is a custom to chant these words sotto voce as we come across them in our Torah scroll. I had an opportunity to look these over recently, and let’s see if you notice what I’ve noticed:

But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments… I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you – consumption and fever… you shall sow your seed to no purpose… I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper. Your land shall not yield its produce, nor the trees of the land yield their fruit… I will go on smiting you sevenfold for your sins. I will loose wild beasts against you, and they shall bereave you of your children and wipe out your cattle. I will bring a sword against you to wreak vengeance for the covenant; and if you withdraw into your cities, I will send pestilence among you…

Then shall the land make up for its sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate… then shall the land rest and make up for its sabbath years. It shall observe the rest that it did not observe in your sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it.

The God of Leviticus promises this to those who do not uphold the covenant, but in these curses makes reference to only one solitary sin, the failure to observe the commandment of sh’mita, or a sabbatical for the land. Just prior to this section, we learn the following:

When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. In the seventh year that land shall have a sabbath of complete rest; you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines. But you may eat whatever the land during its sabbath will produce – you, your male and female and female servants – and your cattle and the beasts in your land may eat all its yield.

You shall count off seven cycles of years – seven times seven years. Then you shall sound the shofar loudly, On Yom Kippur, you shall hallow the jubilee year. You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants. Each of you shall return to your holding and to your family. You shall not sow, neither shall you reap the aftergrowth or harvest.

The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.

This is the only place in the Torah where the shofar is explicitly mentioned in connection with the High Holy Days, and it is why it will be sounded tomorrow night. It is also where the Shabbat Shabbaton of Yom Kippur and the Shabbat Shabbaton of the Jubilee year – a complete Sabbath of rest, are mentioned as one and the same.

You may have heard of these mitzvot and wonder what became of them: the idea that the land must lie fallow every 7 years – by the way, we are now living in that year, the sh’mita year; that all debts are to be cancelled on the sh’mita year; the idea that reparations are required every 50 years, the jubilee year, in which each Israelite reclaims one’s divinely ordained tribal patch of land.

Over time, as our people moved from a primarily agrarian to a primarily mercantile society, these mitzvot became quite unworkable. And as we became a mostly Diaspora people, these mitzvot by definition did not even apply. Even if we were in the land of Israel, our rabbis ordained a prozbul, or a work-around document. Private loans were forgiven, but loans overseen by a rabbinic court were not subject to this mitzvah. And so eternal debt was enabled.

And in modern Israel, the markets will be filled with tomatoes and cucumbers all year, because Jewish farm owners sell their land during the sh’mita year to non-Jews, who are not subject to the mitzvot. The end result is: the land is not having its sabbaths.

That is because we treat land as something we own. But the land belongs to God, not us. Even we ourselves – body and soul – belong to God. Our sages, of blessed memory say, ten lo mishelo, she-ata v’shelkha shelo. Give God what is God’s, for you and yours are Gods. We own nothing at all. We are merely renters, strangers, sojourners. Servants – of God.

Yet we act like capricious gods, doing whatever we want with the land. We pillage it, slice off the tops of mountains for their coal, poison the waters, destroy the buffalo, run our ATVs over desert tortoises, fill the air with pollutants, extinguish entire species, encroach on their land, encroach on the forests, dump the sewage and refuse from cruise ships onto the heads of whales. We put whatever we feel like into our mouths, without wondering where it came from. It is getting so bad that the earth itself is warming at unprecedented rates. Mt. Shasta has no snowcap for the first time in memory. The Chinook salmon in the Sacramento river are nearly extinct because the water is too warm. Catastrophic floods and wildfires are happening at the same time. 30 million people were displaced by climate change related disasters last year alone. 150,000 people are killed each and every year from the effects of climate change. And the pandemic? Although it was not caused by climate change, both have the same mother: our mad dash to encroach even further upon the planet, to destroy the planet and ourselves in the process. And climate change weakens our defenses against pandemics themselves.

By 2070, we can expect one out of 3 people in the world to reside in areas too hot, too parched or too flooded to be habitable, and yes, that includes sunny California. That means my children will not enjoy their retirement. They will have to move. Los Angeles will become a shell of its former self, a real life version of all those dystopian movies we’ve been watching. Much of the world will become a God-forsaken place.

That is, if we do nothing about it. Or if we don’t do enough by the end of this decade.

There are seeds of hope, however. And California is leading the way. We are on track to reduce our carbon emissions in 2030 by 40% under 1990 levels. With your advocacy, California is on a quest to become carbon neutral by 2045, and by 2035, all new cars sold in California will be electric. Legislation is pending in Congress that would cut our greenhouse emissions by 50% by 2030, and become a carbon neutral nation by 2050.

But even that won’t be nearly enough. If we learn anything of value about the Jewish tradition, it must be this: We aren’t perfect. We make mistakes. We do things not thinking of their impact on others. We are beating our hearts about the sins we have sinned, but we left a few out. Here are some sins we can think about:

For the sin we have sinned against You and Your earth by driving a gas-guzzler

For the sin we have sinned against You and Your earth by leaving the water on while we shower, brush our teeth and wash our dishes.

For the sin we have sinned against You and Your earth by not putting solar panels on our homes.

For the sin we have sinned against You and Your earth by turning the thermostat below 78 degrees in the summer.

For the sin we have sinned against You and Your earth by wanting to experience the earth – to travel, to eat exotic foods, to take cruises, without thinking about what we destroy in the process.

For the sin we have sinned against You and Your earth by planting non-native grasses and other species and hastening the extinction of bees and butterflies.

For the sin we have sinned against You and Your earth by our lust for beef, resulting in dangerous levels of methane and clearcutting of football fields worth of rainforest each and every day.

For all these sins, O God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us At-one-ment.

But the Talmud teaches us: “one who says, I will sin and repent, then I will sin and repent, and God will grant me At-one-ment, that one will not gain at-one-ment.” If we can expect God to forgive us, to pardon us, to grant us at-one-ment, we have to actually change our behavior! Maimonides says feeling bad about a sin is only the first step. We need to apologize to those we wronged. We need to apologize to God. And when the opportunity to sin again arises, we do not repeat the sin.

If we continue to repeat the sin, at-one-ment is not available to us. The world hurtles inexorably towards uninhabitability, and our children suffer. Is this what Exodus means when it speaks of God visiting the sins of the fathers unto the children, the children’s children, and unto the 3rd or 4th generations? Is God punishing us for our generations of sins against the earth? The answer to that is above my pay grade. But there is one thing I am quite sure of. We are punishing ourselves. We are punishing our children. We are punishing our grandchildren. We are the ones acting and thinking like 8 billion gods of retribution.

But the earth, denuded and starved, will have the last laugh. If we do not save it, the earth will save itself. By unleashing its retribution in its own defense. The earth will have its Sabbaths. With or without us. The earth will have its Sabbaths, with or without millions of endangered species. The earth will have its Sabbaths, with or without sea ice. The earth will have its Sabbaths, with or without Los Angeles. The earth will have its Sabbaths, with or without Torah.

If we are to confess our sins as a community, it is long past time to take responsibility as a community. It is long past time to feel bad about our sins against the earth. It is long past time to express regret for these sins. It is long past time to beat our chests before God. The opportunity to commit sins against the earth remains constantly before us, even during this hour of self-denial. Tonight we must take up Maimonides’ torch and resolve not to sin again while opportunities to do so abound.

Tonight we begin a community-wide mobilization to true and complete teshuva – true and complete repentance for our sins against God’s earth. Our community will soon be mobilizing a climate solutions group – a group dedicated to changing the personal behavior of Jews and non-Jews, and to changing the official behavior of Jewish and non-Jewish institutions. All are invited to join us – chaver or not – Jewish or not.

And tonight, I am proud to announce an agreement among myself, our synagogue’s president and its executive director, to undertake this quest: an all-hands on deck mobilization of our sacred community. Tonight we are asking you to Take the Pledge. To make your next vehicle purchase electric or hybrid. The plan is to set up a program where you can donate your present car to us, through a non-profit 3rd party, with 100% of the synagogue’s proceeds going to capital improvements designed to reduce and ultimately eliminate our carbon footprint. I call on all of our sacred community to mobilize, to advocate, to research, to provide feedback, to match our efforts, and to help us come up with a master plan by Tu Bishevat – the Jewish Earth Day, 6 months and 5 days from today – to become a carbon neutral institution and to become carbon neutral chaverim.

Information on this ground-breaking initiative – or rather, ground-saving initiative – has been provided at the front desk and is being shared with all of you on Zoom via chat. Please make sure to grab that flyer, or click and bookmark that link. It contains a form enabling your immediate participation.

If we say “we have sinned,” and yet we keep sinning, At-One-Ment is and should not be available to us. We cannot be At One with this grave crime on our conscience. We should rage, rage against any feeling of At-One-Ment that comes at the price of nihilism and apathy. The gates of prayer are being Ne’ila’d, or locked, when three stars light the sky tomorrow night. If we wish for our prayers to be answered, we absolutely must firmly resolve to wean ourselves off the most destructive sin of them all. Let us go and sin no more. Have a meaningful fast.


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