Hope Springs Eternal

Sermon delivered on April 18, 2008, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

“Hope” has become controversial lately. We had a presidential candidate from Hope, Arkansas. We have another whose husband hails from the same town. A third consistently proclaims “the audacity of hope.” Many have questioned the depth of hope as a political philosophy or as a blueprint for our nation’s future. Hope, they rightly say, is not enough. Hope will only transform our nation and our world if it is accompanied by thoughtful plans and concerted action.

Passover is all about faith, accompanied by the study and performance of mitzvot. Passover helps us translate the secular terminology of hope into religious language. Faith is the religious person’s “hope.” Torah and rabbinic teaching lay out the “plan” that God ordains for the future. Jewish “action” is observing mitzvot.

My hope and even my faith have been bolstered lately, by a series of very unusual television advertisements. I wonder if you have seen them, too. Rev. Pat Robertson is sitting on a park bench with Rev. Al Sharpton. Needless to say, I don’t think highly of either. One can assume that they don’t much like one another. They act friendly enough in the ad, though, as they confess that they agree about very little. Then, they tell the viewer that their thoughts converge on one important matter: the welfare of the Earth. Revs. Robertson and Sharpton urge us to acknowledge that our planet is in trouble. Earth, they say, is a responsibility we share. All of us must work to assure the future health of our natural world. The message is essentially the same from a similarly odd couple, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and a predecessor of hers in that post, Newt Gingrich. Perhaps this pair possesses a bit more credibility with us at Temple Beth-El than Sharpton and Robertson! I’m wondering if the next ad will feature David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal.

Like these diverse public figures, Passover calls upon us to pay attention to the Earth. Early in the Seder, we shall enjoy a delectable hors d’oeuvre: a sprig of parsley, dipped in salt water. We know that the salt water represents the tears that our ancestors shed in Egyptian bondage, but why the parsley?

“Why the parsley” is not one of the four questions. However, it could be. I’ve read a variety of explanations, but those are fodder for other sermons. The Haggadah we use at our house suggests that we read from Song of Songs, biblical springtime poetry, as we take up the parsley. “For lo the winter has passed and the rain is gone,” we sing.

Passover does not arrive in springtime accidentally. In fact, the ancient Rabbis teach that the very first mitzvah articulated in the Torah is the commandment that the springtime month, this month in which Passover falls, be counted as the first among the months. No, we’re not in a new year; Rosh Hashanah is on the first of the seventh month. We begin counting months in the spring, as the Earth renews itself.

Parsley, then, becomes, like the egg on the Seder plate, a symbol of rebirth. Our people finds renewal in liberation from bondage, just as the Earth rejuvenates in springtime. Observing the mitzvah of the green herb, and of asking questions about the Seder plate, lead us to concentrate on the season of renewal. Spring is indeed a season of hope, even this year, when we are acutely aware that the future of our Earth is fragile.

Tomorrow night, as we dip our parsley, let us pledge our own commitment to the perpetual promise of spring. This year, as we celebrate Passover, let us study Torah, teaching us of our responsibility to the Earth. This Pesah, may we act upon our learning, performing the mitzvah of tikkun olam, in this case quite literally repairing the world itself. As we were strangers in the Land of Egypt, so may we acknowledge that our planet itself is in bondage today. Let us resolve to set Earth free from the dangers that beset the common home of humanity.

Sadly, Earth is in trouble. One need not agree with every claim of An Inconvenient Truth. I suspect that, irrespective of what Rev. Sharpton and Speaker Pelosi may think, former Speaker Gingrich and Rev. Robertson do not consider former Vice-President Gore to be the chief authority on the matter. They and we can agree, though, because we know that excessive consumption is as bad for the Earth as it is for the human body and soul. The Earth is getting warmer. Reputable scientists agree that, at least to some extent, this warming is the result of human activity. Especially in the United States, the ways that we travel, the way that we live, adds a tremendous amount of carbon to the atmosphere.

The problem, of course, does not stem from our country alone. Nations with fewer financial resources often produce much more pollution than American law would allow here. More human beings, with our numbers burgeoning throughout the world, will mean more carbon in the atmosphere, unless urgent action is taken. Growing human population is a blessing, ordained by God. Like most blessings, though, our increasing numbers are accompanied by consequences.

The results could be devastating.

Because of my faith, I am more optimistic than many environmentalists. Our planet has survived some severe changes in temperature in ages past. The Earth’s regenerative powers are gifts from God stronger than any human destructive forces. In the long run, life on Earth will survive this period of warming; spring will return, with God’s blessing.

However, in the nearer term, our sins of consumption threaten vulnerable human lives and the existence of some of the species for which we have been commanded to take responsibility. As sea level rises, life will become increasingly precarious along coastlines worldwide. In Africa, Latin America and Asia, some of our poorest fellow human beings live on the ocean’s coast; and some say that we have begun to see the negative effects much closer to home, in Louisiana. If we, in the over-consuming west, do not act fast, and if we don’t help arrest the spread of mushrooming production of carbon in the developing world, hundreds of millions of men, women and children will see their lives threatened. Think of all those impoverished parts of the world that were devastated by that horrible tsunami a couple of years ago. Now imagine all those same people and places permanently devastated, the ocean overtaking homes and villages and cities along all the vast coastlines of the world.

We are taught that human beings are very much a part of creation, standing at its pinnacle. Genesis instructs that we have dominion over the Earth. One does not have to believe that the creation story is scientifically accurate in order to accept this truth: Human beings constitute the one species both capable and commanded to take care of all others, and of the planet itself. As religious people, we believe that God has commanded us to attend to the welfare of all creation. It’s a mitzvah, a sacred religious obligation.

Each of us lives in covenant with God, so every individual has a responsibility to reduce consumption of pollutants. We should drive more efficient cars. We should switch to those funny-looking light bulbs that save energy.

Sadly, many in our midst lack the means to make these changes on their own. Being energy efficient can be more expensive even than buying gas that is priced like gold.

As an entire society and as a world community, our government and others must demand higher fuel efficiency for automobiles. We must act collectively to reduce the pollution that is warming the earth. For example, government regulations that require Detroit to produce more fuel-efficient automobiles would not only protect the environment, they will enhance our homeland security by making us less dependant upon foreign oil and could ultimately save the failing American automotive industry. Creative solutions have been proposed with respect to manufacturing emissions. Right here in San Antonio, our own Temple member, Bill Sinkin, has devoted his life in recent years to the development of solar energy. All these tactics, and more, are laudable and necessary, as we seek to save our planet.

On Passover Eve, children will get up from their Seder tables to open the door to the prophet Elijah. That prophet does not die at the end of his biblical life. Instead, he is taken up into the heavens by a fiery chariot. Elijah is referenced in the Haftarah that Gabe will chant tomorrow, a special biblical reading for Shabbat HaGadol, this great Sabbath before Passover. In that reading from the words of the Prophet Malachi, we are promised that Elijah will return to herald the coming of a messianic era. As we celebrate our people’s liberation from bondage in ages past, we pray for an eternal springtime, a perfect future in which all the Earth’s plagues will end.

Let our faith this Passover be buttressed by action. Let us join hands, across all political and religious lines. Let us work as individuals, as the Jewish people, as a nation and as a global community to save our planet. Then may we truly be God’s partners in the everlasting renewal of our home, planet Earth. Then will hope become faith, imbued with the deepest meaning.