Rabbi David’s Rosh Hashana Day 2 Sermon – Do we take too much space?
In the heady days at the end of the Soviet Union, the thinker Francis Fukuyama spoke out, and wrote his now famous work about ‘The End of History’. In it he tempted the thinking that politics was evolving towards the existence and sustaining of Liberal Democracy, where freedom and rights would be central. This year, in his book ‘Identity’ he has updated his thinking and emphasised what he wrote in his 1991 work was actually a challenge to Liberal democracy – and that challenge was the issue of recognition. And recognition he now writes is connected firmly to identity. In today’s reality, people of identity, of whatever identity, want to be recognised at least as much as other identities that are in existence. This fight for equal recognition, he calls the fight for isothymia. If all people are concerned primarily with being recognised and receiving proper recognition for who they are, these demands can sometimes clash – and that clash can be a destabilising force for democracy.
But I want to extend this idea of Fukuyama’s. Our world has seen the break down of big narratives and ideologies. We saw the defeat of fascism and of communism in the 20th century. In the wake of this breakdown, the individual and the individualistic spirit became more important. Our needs became important. What we consumed became important. What we demanded as consumers needed to be met. And we trusted that the free market would meet our needs. This is in a way how we have lived over the last 40 years, most of the years of my life actually, and of many of you sitting here and listening. Individual aspiration has been more important than ideology. Ideologies don’t work and cause damage – the individual, if allowed the freedom can be creative and create wealth and prosperity both for him or herself and for those around him.
But what this individualistic, consumerist spirit required is space. And that is going to be one of my core points this Rosh Hashana – that we are taking up too much space, economically, socially, environmentally. We are living in a way the extension of ourselves, we are living often a life that is external to the self. And this means, that we find it difficult to get back to our core selves – who we are. Do we spend any time reflecting on who we are and what we have become – or is the world split into those who get by, get on, – and many who find it difficult to get by and get on. Our identity is just one part of this problem – we fear becoming victim, and we also equally fear not being recognised as a victim. I see so much being written now, in paper media and social media – about how we are victims of hate and a lot of that is based on reality. But I also see much less about what we are, who we are, and what our Judaism as a religion means to us. We are flexing our muscles, we are robust, we are often loud – but are we reflecting on our core values.
And my thoughts on space, take me to the fine line that exists in self-awareness between modest reflection of the selves – and arrogance and hubris. An Israeli Rabbi whose writings I love, called Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg talks about the importance of understanding faith as personal. Yes, there are customs and laws which we fulfil as a nation. But for any individual, their faith comes from somewhere much deeper and much more internal to the self. It is hard to really express one’s personal faith. In fact, for a person of faith, faith is tangled up with one’s self identity. But being self-aware can lead to two possibilities – the ability to reflect, or hubris and arrogance. I may think more about my own world, what I can improve, what values I want to live by, how I want to nourish my relationships with others – or I may think that the world outside should be measured according to my world. Either I think about my small portion, my allotment of personality – or I am more interested in covering the space around me and outside me, with my essence. Either I understand that I am not perfect – or I want to influence others to be exactly like me.
Look at these 2 sources from the Talmud which can help us understand our relationship to space.
You may have heard of Hillel and Shammai, 2 Rabbis from the first century before the common era. Contrary to what people often say, they rarely argued – but their respective schools did often – and one of those arguments was not about law or custom – but what we would call ‘ontology’ – or what we would call the nature of being.
‘The House of Hillel and the House of Shammai argued for 2 and a half years – one house said that it would have been better that humans had not been created – and the other said that it was good that humans had been created – they got together as a court and made a decision that it would have been better that humans had not been created – but since they were, one should search his deeds’
This is an incredible piece of Talmud. The two houses are completely split on whether they think creating humanity was a good idea in reality – on the basis of what they see, on the basis of their experience. I don’t think they are challenging God’s wisdom to create – they are simply saying – Look what humanity does, look what has happened. Maybe the world would have been better off without humanity. And I think many of us would probably agree with that statement – and in fact that is the opinion that is agreed upon after 2 and half years arguing about this fundamental point. But the outcome is a person centred one – yes, humanity can do damage, great damage. But now we are here in existence – let us champion reflection on what we do. Let us ensure that we champion the ability to focus on the self, on one’s values, one one’s acts, on one’s character.
Another source could be understood so much differently – and shows you the fine line that I mentioned a moment ago.
‘A person can mint many coins, but they all will be the same. God imprinted all humans with the print of Adam, and yet all humans are different – therefore each individual human is obligated to say ‘It is for me that the world was created’.’
Of course this seems arrogant – I am at the centre of the world – it was created only for me. But maybe it means something different. Maybe it means that each individual is a world in themselves, with a story, a set of values and understandings of the world outside. Each of those mini worlds are equally important – they all derive from the original stamp of humanity that God created. So when we save a human being, we are saving a whole world. I sense this when I stand at a cemetery officiating at a funeral – I have and am hearing about the world that was the person who passed on. Their personal world. What they owned, what space they filled is less important than what they stood for, believed in and what values they passed on.
And what inspired me to think about the problems of space, was a conversation with one of our Synagogue Eco team, Jo Kaye, who spoke about being conscious of one’s carbon footprint in all acts that one undertakes. That we can all reflect on how we personally reduce that footprint. In other words we can reduce the damaging imprint we make on the world around us, on the space around us. We are used to a life of consumption. We are used to a life where economic growth and wealthy production are key. But the environment is suffering. Bio diversity is suffering. We are over fishing. We are seeing critical rainforests burn. We are in danger of cataclysmic rises in the global average temperature that are already beginning to have destructive effects. We are utilising the world around us, the space around us for the demands we place on it. We have larger homes, and are therefore using more power and more electricity. We have more cars meaning more petrol emissions. We fly more and holiday more abroad as air travel and package holidays are more affordable. We eat more, and especially see greater production of meat products. The question is how sustainable is all this, and how will we be able to step back from a space needing life, to one that requires less space and is more local.
According to a BBC Briefing – ‘The next phase will be very different. To get to zero by 2050 will affect what we eat, what we buy, how we travel and how we heat our homes.
This is all space, footprint. But with this comes the stress to maintain our economic aspiration and that of our children. But our children need a world to live in – and they may have to deal with incredibly serious economic crises as a result of the effects of climate change.
And so as some writers are saying, such as George Monbiot, we need to look for ways to change away from our obsession with growth and consumerism. We need to reduce the space that we all need.
The Palm Oil plant is a great example of the conundrum that we are in and thankyou to Mark Sheinfield for showing me this issue. Most of the yield of palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia, and palm oil finds its way into a myriad of everyday items from biscuits to soaps. It finds its way into biofuels and was heralded as a healthy alternative to trans fats. So it is healthy, and it is also poverty reducing for the people of Malaysia and Indonesia who find work in its production chain. And yet large tracts of carbon rich forests are being destroyed and have been destroyed for its production. And this is a good example of importing the problem of un sustainable eco production – we in the west love the palm oil ingredient and it finds its way into so much we buy. But unless we can find a sustainable way to produce palm oil, more forests will release more carbon contributing more to the rising global temperatures and the extreme weather conditions that will and are come in its wake.
Palm oil takes up space – continuous forest destruction, and an important part of our lives. It seems that we cannot do without it, and yet as with other factors at the moment we do not seem able to act quick enough.
We all need to let go of space. Our desire for largeness, for abundance, for big, for strong, for winning. We need also to listen to the young generation too. They are looking at us with astonishment, playing the games of politics and diplomacy when they see clearly what will happen to the world over the next century. They will not always get it right, they will make mistakes in their passion. But we need to treat them with respect.
This is Rosh Hashana. This is a time for reflection on the self. Not time to reflect on who we are fighting against as so many seem to do. Not reflection on economic situation and aspirations. Not reflection on how we extend into the world and look to dominate it and overuse it. But about our self. Because if we concentrate on the self and what many would call the soul, we may become more empowered, abler, more confident to reach out to others, to make alliances of solidarity, and to reduce how much space we are using. Maybe.