The Palace is on Fire: Environmental Teshuvah (Turning) for 5780

Lauren Grabelle Herrmann
12 min readOct 15, 2019

There is a well-known midrash that speaks of the time before Abraham’s call to start a new nation. The midrash imagines that when Abraham (Abram) was journeying from place to place, he came upon a palace which was burning.

He stopped and asked, “Is it possible that this palace has no master?”

Whereupon God said, “I am the master of this palace.”

Because of this, God called Abraham and says “Lech L’cha: Go forth.”

The midrash teaches that Abraham’s faith — and God’s trust in him — originates from witnessing the brokenness. We assume there must have been others who passed by or looked away. But Abraham dares to stop, take note, and recognize that something is terribly wrong.

The midrash is subversive in its understanding of the roles of God and people. While God does acknowledge responsibility for the totality — ownership of the world palace — God does NOT then put out the flames. The palace still burns.

Instead, God calls Abraham to the task. Go forth. Go build a people that can, like you, pay attention; that, like you, ask the big and necessary questions; and like you, can and will do the work of addressing and healing a palace, a world that is on fire.

Abraham is the father of the Jewish people, our oldest ancestor. We follow in his footsteps. This isn’t just a midrash. It’s a mission statement for the Jewish people.

Here we are in 2019, many, many years from Abraham and from the time this midrash was written. And quite literally, the palace is on fire. The amazon is burning. Cities are flooding. Icecaps are melting. Oceans are warming. Species are dying.

A few thousand years after Abraham, a 16 year old Swedish climate activist/climate prophet named Greta Thunberg spoke these words to the World Economic Forum (on January 24, 2019) that echo our rabbinic ancestors’. She said: “I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.”

This is the season of teshuvah, turning. For the 40 days starting with Elul and especially over the last 10, we engage in heshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls. On Yom Kippur, something shifts. We go from the “I” to the “we.” Ashamnu, Bagadnu. We seek to take responsibility not simply for individual wrongdoings but for the collective.

In this time of collective turning and responsibility, there is no more important topic, in my mind, for us to grapple with than the climate emergency, which is, as many argue, the greatest challenge of our time and one of the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced. And as challenging as it is for us to face the threats of the climate crisis, I want to invite us this evening to summon the hutzpah of Abraham, our oldest Jewish ancestor, and the courage of a young activist to notice, to cry out; to ask “Who is responsible for this palace?” and “What do we do? How do we put out the flames?”

Noticing/Crying out

Before I go any further, I ask everyone to pause for a second and take a breath and notice what might have arisen since I began my talk. Fear? Anxiety? Anger? Frustration? Grief?

The climate emergency is a really hard topic to talk about for a lot of reasons — because it feels out of our grasp; because it feels so overwhelming; because it is scary. I struggle with all these feelings. In preparing this talk, I have done some self reflection, and I have noticed that I tend to read virtually every major article in the Times and the a good number that come through my social media feed — except (until recently!) the articles on the climate emergency, especially ones with frightening statistics. I typically save those for later — and never come back to them.

And when the climate comes up in conversation, even in a casual “wow it is hot, let’s blame global warming” way, I am quick to change the topic. My fight or flight reactors are strong — and like Jonah upon hearing the call to preach to Ninaveh, most of the time, I flee.

I also looked back in my notes and re-read a sermon I gave to my former congregation on environmental teshuvah eleven years ago, and I was surprised by how much has changed in little more than a decade. Back then, we saw global scorching as a problem- yet it still felt abstract.

Eleven years ago, I said we were in a turning point moment. Kol Vahomer- all the more so, now, in 2019.

This past July was the hottest month on record on the planet, in a 140 year record, with the planet a 1.71 degrees higher than the 20th century average. The record warmth also shrank Arctic and Antarctic sea ice to historic lows. September 2019 (a few days ago) was the hottest September on record.

The world’s leading climate scientists believe that we must hold the planet’s warming to 1.5 degrees celsius (.5 degrees less than the Paris accords) and do so by 2030 to avert or mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. Given the current trajectory, if we do nothing, scientists project a four degree temperature increase in that time. Vulnerable populations at home and in the Global South are at a greater risk for experiencing catastrophic impacts. The World Health Organization estimates that climate -related deaths will reach 250,000 per year between 2030 and 2050. And a 2018 World Bank report estimated that by 2050, there would be 143 million climate change-driven migrants from the regions of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and southeast Asia alone.

For good reason, many say that climate change is complicated. Solving it would involve intergovernmental cooperation that is not precedent, compromises from industries and businesses driven by profits; technologies not yet invented; and a radical restructuring of our economies and even way of life.

While the issue and potential solutions may be complicated, our response in this moment need not be.

We should take the lead of Abraham. When we see a palace on fire, we should not concern ourselves over how hard it will be to put out the flames; how many firemen or women we need to do the job. We should not look at the beloved palace and say “It’s impossible to save — it’s just too big of a fire- let’s just keep going, business as usual.”

Rather, we should stop, notice and cry out: Our beloved Palace Earth in on fire! There is no Planet B.

This is the first step.

Rather, we should stop, notice and cry out: Our beloved Palace Earth in on fire! There is no Planet B.

This is the first step.

“Is it possible that the palace has no master?”

Seeing the palace on fire, Abraham asks: “Is it possible that the palace has no master?” In other words: Who is in charge here?

To answer that question for ourselves in this moment of climate crisis, I invite us to turn to the sources of our tradition for guidance, starting with our earliest stories. Adam, the first human being, whose name comes from the word “adamah” -earth because out of the earth he was formed, is placed in the Garden of Eden. He is given a task: “l’avda ul’sham-rah.”

The traditional translation “To till and to tend it” does a disservice to the power and meaning of the text.

L’avdah” can mean “to work” but the word also comes from the Hebrew word “eved” — servant and “avodah” — service. In the words of Rabbi Michael Cohen, The connection with ‘eved’ teaches that “we are not the masters of the environment, we are its servant.”

“Ul’shamrah” comes from the word that means to guard or protect. The way that we protect children, we are to protect and guard the earth.

The rabbis continue this theme of stewardship in a midrash that demonstrates awareness of the human desire to exploit natural resources, foreshadowing our current dilemma. The midrash says that when Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden, God Godself took the first creature around to all the various trees in the Garden, saying: “See how beautiful and praiseworthy my Creations are! Take care, therefore, that you do not destroy my world, for if you do, there will be no one left to mend what you have destroyed.”

It’s amazing to me that a text written around 200–400 CE understood the danger of the exploitation of natural resources well before the industrial era when carbon emissions began to change our weather. Rabbi Ethan Witkovsky teaches on this midrash, “God’s warning, built into the origins of us and of the world, is an explicit reminder that nature is not invincible, we must care about it not only for ourselves but for the future.”

There is so much torah and interpretive support for sustainability. From the shemitah- the radical idea that the LAND itself needs rest every seven years; to the concept of land ownership-land belongs to God and we are only renters; to the prohibition of hopping down fruit trees in war time- an instruction that gives birth to the value of “ba’al tashkit” — honoring the earth and our resources by not wasting — the torah tells us in so many ways that we are stewards on this earth. We are responsible for all of Creation.

Judaism also teaches us in so many ways about the value and dignity of human lives, including the value of Pikuach Nefesh — saving a life is like saving an entire world. Climate change is also a human issue and lives are at stake.

While this sounds lofty, it may also feel like a burden when it comes to the climate crisis. After all, we are not the ones who polluted the earth. We inherited the debts of unregulated industrialization and globalization. How can we, who have such a small part in the creation of the problem, be “responsible for all of Creation.”

To this I quote Abraham Joshua Heschel who said, “In a civilized society, some are guilty but all are responsible.”

What do we do now? How will we put out the flames?

Our eyes are open. We have seen the palace on fire. We have asked who owns that palace and who is responsible and the finger is pointed right back at us. Now: What do we do about it?

Hazon, the largest Jewish environmental organization in North America, has an answer: Make this year, 5780, a year of environmental teshuvah (repentance, turning). Environmental teshuvah is defined as “the outward manifestation of our commitment to doing better for the planet.”

Each and every day, we make decisions- mostly small but sometimes big decisions — that impact the environment. The food we eat, the amount of food we buy, the clothes we wear, the stocks and portfolios our finances are invested in, the ways we travel are just a few examples.

In 5780, the year of environmental teshuvah, I ask us: what decisions or changes can we make to reflect our commitment to doing better for the planet? Just like with any commitment or practice, we should not set ourselves up for failure — if we say, we will change our ways all at once and in every area of our life — we will likely not be able to sustain the effort. To set ourselves up for success, let’s focus on one or two only and make them both challenging and do-able. Some examples are: committing to abstaining from single use plastic bottles and bags; eating one less meat meal per week; traveling by airplane less frequently and when you travel by plane, buying carbon offsets; purchasing the food you need rather than think you need to avoid food waste and compost food scraps.

In our community, we value mitzvot as spiritual practices not only for their own sake but because they help us awaken to gratitude and affirm our values. Let’s view our individual environmental practices in this light. Even if our decision to unplug our electronics when we aren’t using them is not going to make a significant dent in the colossal problem of climate change, it can remind us that we care about the earth and that we are committed to doing something about it. The more we engage in these small acts, the more we remember. That memory can fuel a larger commitment to speaking up and acting for the sake of our planet.

Even as we consider our individual and congregational commitments, we must remember that individual actions are not the primary cause — nor primary remedy- of the climate crisis. We must speak loudly and clearly, bringing our Jewish values of stewardship and justice into the public square and demand that our country and world leaders commit to keep the temperatures’ warming down to 1.5 degrees celsius.

We are not alone. A mass movement is building. In August 2018, Greta Thunberg decided that she would no longer go to school rather strike in front of the Swedish parliament. She sat alone.

Greta’s First Climate March

Greta’s picture soon went viral and has inspired other kids to start striking and most importantly speaking out for change. On September 20, 2019, just thirteen months after protesting alone, millions of people, mostly children and teens marched in the largest climate mobilization of all time. Over the week of action (9/20–9/27), 7.6 million people are reported to have attended strikes in 6135 actions in 185 countries from major cities to small towns and rural villages in the Global South.

NYC March September 20 2019

Earlier, I spoke about the fear, overwhelm, grief I feel regarding this issue — how sometimes I want to be like Jonah and run away. Something shifted for me when I marched with members of my family and this community on September 20. The march was youth led, youth driven. I looked around and absorbed. If these young people can face an uncertain future and say: “I am not going to just let this happen, I am going to do something about it,” then how can I not follow their lead? If they call upon me and ask me for their solidarity and help, how can I not answer?

In that moment, I understood the concept spoken about in the Talmud — teshuva me’ahavah — teshuvah (motivated) from love, which is contrasted with teshuvah me-yirah- teshuvah (motivated) from fear. According to the talmud, are both acceptable forms of teshuvah but teshuvah from love is more powerful.

In terms of the global climate crisis, we certainly feel the need to change due to fear of consequences for our planet -teshuvah me-yirah. Seeing the house/palace on fire can motivate us. Seeing the emergency is important for our prioritization.

And it is also important — and perhaps most impactful for our long-term engagement- to be motivated to change out of love.

My oldest child is four years younger than Greta. My son is 8 years younger. Just as I make sure they have housing, food and water, I need to do whatever I can to make sure they have a habitable planet and city (especially for when I am no longer around). Not because I have to. Rather because I love them more than life itself. Because I want them to have a future of promise. I want them to live in a world that is good and gracious and kind. I know that each of us has children, grandchildren, friends in their lives who will be more greatly impacted by the climate crisis. Out of love for them, we commit to this meeting this challenge.

5780: This is the year for environmental teshuvah.

As Abraham stopped and notice, we notice: Our palace is on fire! We cannot keep walking by.

As Abraham asked who is responsible and found himself on a new mission, so too may we hear this call to turn and return so that our actions match our commitments.

As Abraham began a journey, so do we tonight.

Gmar Hatima Tova & Shana Tova.

Notes:

Bereishit Rabbah 39:1

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/01/our-house-is-on-fire-16-year-old-greta-thunberg-speaks-truth-to-power/

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/10/04/global-warming-september-2019-hottest-record/3865898002

Intergovernmental panel on climate change. https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/

Genesis 2:15

Kohelet Rabbah 7:13

R Ethan Witkovsky Sermon distributed by Hazon in October 2019

Yoma 86b

I recommend Greta’s Speech to the U.N. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/video/2019/sep/23/greta-thunberg-to-world-leaders-how-dare-you-you-have-stolen-my-dreams-and-my-childhood-video

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