Sample Sermon on the Environment - Rabbi Irwin A. Zeplowitz

"This Was Not Just a Matter of Chance"

by Irwin A. Zeplowitz
written for Union for Reform Judaism's 10 Minutes of Torah

Near the end of the 1999 film Magnolia, there is a frightening scene of a rain of frogs. At first humorous, it suddenly turns horrific, even deadly. The scene prompts you to ask, “Is this just a strange phenomenon, or is it related to all that has taken place?" While the movie has a series of seemingly unrelated incidents, the narrator insists that “this cannot be ‘one of those things'. . . .  This was not just a matter of chance." While the film does not make clear the connection between everything that happens, there is a pervasive sense in the story that human behavior is connected to what happens in the natural world.  

The link between the environment and morality undergirds both the Torah and prophetic portions for this Shabbat. Our parashahBo, speaks of the plagues that God sent againstEgypt in order to motivate Pharaoh to let the Israelites go free from bondage. The world of ancient Egypt was one where people generally felt the beneficence of nature. The NileRiver's annual floods ensured fertile soil and sure, certain food supplies. In our Torah portion, however, nature runs amok. Water turns to blood—as effective a contaminant as any human-made poison. Frogs, locusts, disease—these, and more, show how the world Egyptians took for granted turned against them. For the Torah, however, these are the by-product of a moral failure. The “natural" disasters are the result of Pharaoh's intransigent refusal to hear God's ethical message of freedom. It is his uncaring disregard that leads to the destruction of his land.

In the haftarah, Jeremiah prophesies a destruction of Egypt that would occur in his day (sixth century b.c.e.). The punishment exacted against this mighty land by its enemies is one that also links the environment to survival of the nation. Jeremiah warns, “They shall come against her with axes, like hewers of wood. They shall cut down her forests" (Jeremiah 46:22–23). His reproof is no less commanding today: destroy the world around you at your own peril.

Since the days of Moses and Jeremiah, Jews have continued to say much about the bond between the natural world and ourselves. Indeed, in this month of Sh'vat, when we observe Tu BiSh'vat, “the new year of the trees," the importance of the environment becomes a central theme. There are three key values our traditions teach us about caring for the environment.

One: The World Is Not Ours to Do with as We Wish—It Is God's 
The Psalmist sang that the “the earth is the Eternal's and all that it holds" (Psalm 24:1). As mortals we are reminded by our traditions that we take “possession" of the earth not as its owners, but merely as renters. To take seriously the notion that we lease the land from God means that we are not completely free to do with it as we wish.

In Genesis 2:15 humans are commanded to “work" and to “keep" the earth (l'ovdah ul'shomrah). The Hebrew laavod really means “to serve" and also has the implication of “to pray." Caring for the planet, therefore, is an act of worship of the Divine. And lishmormeans “to guard." Here again, the choice of words is significant. A guard does not own what he or she is watching, but only is entrusted with its care. That is our task—to watch over a world that we bequeath to our children and grandchildren.

Two: We Do Not Control the World, We Are Part of It 
Shabbat is the day of rest, a time set aside to avoid labor, and among the categories of work traditionally avoided on Shabbat are sowing and plowing (Mishnah Shabbat 7:2). In essence, one is not allowed to garden, not even to water plants, on Shabbat. The reason can be explained in its historical context: in the biblical world most Israelites were farmers, so caring for the land was work. But this law has a deeper ethical intent. On this day we are not allowed to alter our environment, to do anything that makes us think we control the world. Rather, on Shabbat we are to humbly appreciate the beauty and majesty of the world around us.

As a Reform Jew, I feel the case can be made that the stricture against sowing or plowing ought not be applied to recreational gardening. In fact, for nonfarm dwellers, which includes the vast majority of us, to get out into the garden and see the miracle of growing things can help us realize that we are part of, not separate from, the world. What is important is the ethical value of Shabbat as a day to connect more deeply with the natural world and its own rhythm.

Judaism's belief in one God, the Creator of the universe, demands a sense of unity to all existence. If we accept the kabbalistic notion that sparks of God's light are scattered in the Creation, then we are forced to the conclusion that we are one with the world around us.

Three: We Must Be Responsible in the Exercise of Our Power 
Every living thing changes its environment. Humans alone, however, have the ability to exert such far-reaching changes on the earth as a whole. But with this power comes responsibility.

Judaism teaches that we are stewards of our planet. Stewardship implies a unique role and place that we humans occupy, but it does not mean we can act at will. In the biblical account of the Creation, after humanity is created God says, “Fill the earth and tame it" (Genesis 1:28). The word v'chivshuha (translated in The Torah: A Modern Commentary as “tame"), generally translated as “master" or “subdue," is often misunderstood as a sanction to do to the environment whatever we wish. The fifteenth-century commentator Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno clarifies what God implies here—that we must use our intelligence to protect the world. Thus, Moses Cordovero, who wrote a Haggadah to be used on Tu BiSh'vat, said that “the principle of wisdom is to extend acts of love toward everything, including plants and animals" (Tomer D'vorah 3). This has particular resonance now, as we will be celebrating Tu BiSh'vat in a little over a week on 15 Sh'vat, February 9.
We are guardians of the earth, God's gift to us. We are intimately connected to all other living beings. And we have the power to destroy or maintain this beautiful sphere we call home—a responsibility we must use wisely. To our peril we ignore the truth that what happens in the natural sphere is not completely “just a matter of chance."

Rabbi Irwin A. Zeplowitz is the senior rabbi at The Community Synagogue in Port WashingtonNew York. He has taught at Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto, JLearn on Long Island, and the URJ Kallah. He is immediate past president of the Alumni Association of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and was chair of the Joint Commission on Sustaining Rabbinic Education. He can be reached at