Sermons, essays, articles, arguments and thought pieces from a Liberal Jewish perspective.
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My sisters and I were messy children. On the whole, we were well behaved and kind, but our shared bedroom and playroom always looked like a bomb had hit. What a Tohuwabohu! – my parents would exclaim regularly.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I realised that this wasn’t just a German word for the uncontrollable mess that was ever present in our rooms but that the phrase tohu va’vohu is actually Hebrew and found in the Biblical creation story. It is the phrase used to describe what the world looked like before God begun the act of creation. Rabbi Oren J. Hay describes it this way: “Before God’s first utterance, the cosmos was all murky shadows and jagged edges; all color was muddled into an unseen, violent blur.”
This is how the story of our people begins. Our liturgy for today reminds us: Hayom harat olam – Today the world was created.
Witnessing tohu va’vohu, God arrives on the scene creating order out of formless chaos: a world of light and dark, above and below, land and sea, inhabited by plants, animals and eventually human beings. And God exclaims that it is good.. And what happens next? Human beings, we, are put in charge.
The liturgy for the chagim includes an additional section in the third blessing of the amidah – three short paragraphs beginning with the word u’vchen:
And so, inspire all Your works to be in awe before You…
And so, grant honour to Your people…
And then the just shall see and rejoice…
You will notice that the editors of Machzor Ruach Chadashah chose to translate the u’vchen phrases as affirmations. But we can also read each of the u’vchen’s as questions: U’vchen? And then?
Hayom harat olam – Today the world was created. Yes, and then— then what?
The Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, which begin with Rosh Hashanah today, are a time period that calls on us to examine ourselves about whether we are living up to the responsibility that God placed upon us when God’s work of creation was completed.
A rabbinic midrash, found in a collection from about the 7th century CE known as Kohelet Rabbah, imagines God taking Adam, the first human being through the Garden of Eden.
God warns Adam: “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 My world: for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”
It is rather eery to think that our ancestors more than thirteen hundred years ago already foresaw the dangers that loom for us when we allow the world to be spoilt. The IPPC Climate Report published just a few weeks ago makes it absolutely clear that we are spoiling God’s world. Thousands of scientists have spent decades pouring over every measurement and research report known. The findings are clearer than ever: It is “virtually certain” that the increases in extreme temperatures and droughts are caused by human activity. The economic and human toll from climate change is here.
It is not just Extinction Rebellion but even the UK Parliament that has declared a climate change emergency. U’vchen? Yes, and then— then what? What should we be doing to prevent the world from returning to tohu va’vohu?
Does it really make a difference if we personally update our heating systems, opt for modes of transport that minimise carbon emissions, reduce the amount of waste that we produce and eat less meat and dairy? Is what I do really going to make a difference?
The sociologist Dr Chandni Singh encourages us to recognise the true value of individual actions. She writes:
“The efficacy of individual actions as measured in CO2 emissions reduced, can seem miniscule, laughably modest. Yes, individual action alone will not push the needle on climate change and the scientific evidence converges to highlight that unprecedented, cross-sectoral systemic change is imperative to meet a 1.5C target. But when we measure the true value of individual actions – how they can help us make sense of grave long-term challenges, how they can make the distant and intangible personal, how they make us feel part of a collective whole, and how they can help provide meaning in the face of seemingly unsurmountable targets, their importance becomes clearer.
Making sense of the grand challenges we face in highly personal, individualised ways; and believing that our actions, minute though they may be, will accrue in ways we may not always be able to quantify is critical. For problems like climate change that require collective action, hope acts as a “distinct motivator to support goal-consistent action, particularly when the odds of success are low”. And individual actions, modest as they might be, can become precursors of wider change; critical levers to incentivise climate action.”
When I look at the world today, I see little cause for optimism: as a collective, we, human beings, abuse the world and each other. The climate emergency is not the only challenge that we face. In the past year, Rabbi Aaron and I have spoken of the urgent need for us to address endemic violence against women, the continued institutionalised discrimination of LGBTQ+ individuals, the heartless attitudes expressed toward refugees, the lack of appropriate provisions to ensure good mental health and the worrying increase in food insecurity and poverty. And these are just the things that are happening right here in the UK.
So, I am not entering the new year optimistically. But, standing here at the threshold of a new year, I am nonetheless filled with hope – with the type of hope, which the Czech playwright, revolutionary, and ex-president Václav Havel, not Jewish but a great friend of the Jews, so beautifully described. Reflecting on a near-death experience of falling into a sewer in 1989 just weeks before the success of the Velvet Revolution, he says :
“The kind of hope I often think about (especially in hopeless situations like prison or the sewer) is, I believe, a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t.
Hope is not a prognostication — it’s an orientation of the spirit. Each of us must find real, fundamental hope within himself. You can’t delegate that to anyone else.
Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy when things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something to succeed. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
This is what Judaism teaches us especially at this most auspicious time of the year: that we are part of the community of human beings but that each of us is individually responsible. Each of us is Adam walking alongside God, being warned that if we spoil God’s world, there will be no one else to repair it. The central message of this season is God’s promise that, if only we accept our personal responsibility, if only we do Teshuva, if only we change our way, there is still hope for us.
And I am full of hope, knowing that our actions, as individuals and as a community, minute though they may be, will accrue in ways we may not always be able to quantify but that will nonetheless make a significant difference.
We might not be able to single-handedly prevent climate change, end violence against women, eradicate LGBTQ+ discrimination, provide shelter for refugees, preserve people’s mental health, lift everyone out of poverty or solve all the other problems of the world that persist but we can create a community that gives us the strength to continue fighting.
Hayom harat olam – today and every day, we can create our own world, which gives us certainty that it makes sense to keep fighting for what is right, to keep doing the right things even when their impact might seem miniscule and regardless of how it will turn out. We can find hope for ourselves.
For, as Vaclav Havel says in the final section of his essay:
“It is this hope, above all, that gives us strength to live and to continually try new things … life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.”
U’vchen – and so, let us enter the new Jewish year by embracing our responsibility for the world in which we live. Let us enter the year 5782 by embracing hope! U’vchen – for then, the just shall see and rejoice…
 I am grateful to Rabbi Dean Shapiro whose sermon gave me the idea of connecting a sermon on climate change to the creation story.
 “Cosmic Disorder,” Seven Days, Many Voices, p. 3 CCAR Press, 2017
 Kohelet Rabbah on Ecclesiastes 7:13,
 C. Singh, Individual action versus systemic change: lessons from COVID19 for climate change, Behavioural and Social Sciences at Nature Research, published 22 Apr 2020 at https://go.nature.com/2XS4XR9
 I am grateful to my colleague Rabbi Briget Wynne who pointed me to Havel’s story: Never Hope Against Hope, Esquire, October 1993.