Have you heard of ‘Earth Overshoot Day’? I only found out about it through Twitter. I then went to the Overshoot Day website, which states – and I quote:[1]Earth Overshoot Day is the date when humanity’s annual demand on nature exceeds what Earth can regenerate over the entire year.’ This year, Earth Overshoot Day fell on August 2nd, which, as the website informs us, is ‘the earliest date yet’. The web page then goes on to explain ‘the costs of this global overspending’, which ‘include deforestation, drought, fresh-water scarcity, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, and the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.’

On the same web page where you will find this challenging information, you can also read about the release of a ‘new Footprint Calculator’ that ‘allows users to measure their own demand on nature (Ecological Footprint) and assess their personal Earth Overshoot Day’, explaining that ‘A user’s personal Earth Overshoot day is the date Earth Overshoot Day would be if all people had their Footprint. A personal Earth Overshoot Day earlier than August 2 means your demand on nature is higher than the world average. If it is earlier than April 24, it is higher than Germany’s average; if it is earlier than March 14, it is higher than the US average.’

If the notion of calculating what looks like becoming a doomsday scenario feels rather depressing, the website also makes it clear that the point is to take action before it’s too late. We read further: ‘For Earth Overshoot Day this year, Global Footprint Network, along with 30+ partners, is highlighting solutions and individual pledges to #movethedate. If we moved Earth Overshoot Day back 4.5 days every year, we would return to living within the means of one Earth before 2050; we are currently using 1.7 Earths. Reducing the carbon component of the global Ecological Footprint by 50% would move Overshoot Day by 89 days.’

Today is the birthday of the world – in Hebrew: harat olam. Happy Birthday world! But is there any reason to celebrate? As I ask this question, I’m aware that at that at this very moment, Hurricane Maria, the third ferocious hurricane in the region of the past month, is pounding the Caribbean. Aren’t we all aware that the impact of global warming on the temperature of the oceans means that unless we begin to take responsibility for the planet, hurricanes and floods will only get increasingly more frequent and devastating?

Today is also known as Yom Ha-Din, ‘The Day of Judgement’ and Yom Ha-Zikaron, ‘Day of Remembrance’. Surely, there is a connection between these names. In terms of an individual’s life, a birthday is an annual opportunity to reflect on the past year and assess what we have and have not done, and think about what adjustments we would like to make in the year ahead. Of course, the world is not 5778 years old today – a number derived from adding up the chronologies in the Torah. Nevertheless, the birthday of the world is an appropriate time for individuals and communities to reflect on our impact on the planet and resolve to take steps to do something about it. In the Torah, the first day of the seventh month, which later acquired the Babylonian name of Tishri, is referred to simply as Yom T’ru’ah, ‘Day of Blasting’[2] – that is, the day for blowing the shofar. The first rabbis who reconstructed Jewish life after the destruction of the last Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, designated the first day of the seventh month as Rosh Ha-Shanah, literally, ‘The Head of the Year’. But the blowing of the shofar remained at the heart of the day. In the multiple blasts, we hear the call to remembrance and cannot escape the sense of being in the presence of a judgement on our lives.

Ha-yom harat olam – ‘Today is the birthday of the world’. In the musaf – additional – service, which centres around the shofar blastings, we will sing a passage that is common to the various Jewish prayer rites, and which is traditionally recited after the blowing of the shofar at the end of each of the three sections of blastings. The passage first appeared in the very first siddur, Seder Rav Amram, published circa 860 CE[3] – with its origins in the Babylonian Talmud, edited around the year 500 CE.[4] The text opens with these words:

Ha-yom harat olam. Ha-yom ya’amid ba-mishpat, kol-y’tzurei olamim, im k’vanim, im ka’avadim.

Today is the birthday of the world. Today, all the creatures of the world stand in the presence of judgement, whether as children, or as slaves.

Of course, children and slaves, because they are subject to the authority of others, are not held responsible for their actions. But although this liturgical passage presents us as subjects of the absolute sovereign God, we are, in fact neither children nor slaves. We must take responsibility for this planet that is our only home – the home of all of us – humans and all the other forms of life – together.

In recent years, a global consciousness has been dawning. Nowadays, recycling is taken for granted in every area of our lives – domestic and public. But still, we remain rampant consumers, litter the seas with plastic bottles – because we’ve bought into the ‘spring water is best’ sales-pitch – and very few products are made to last; indeed, their built-in obsolescence and the need to constantly replace and update them is essential to the engine of global capitalism that demands that we keep on spending.

A global consciousness that encompasses concern for the restoration of planet Earth, including reversal of climate change, and the care of all its endangered species, and also for global justice and human rights seems at odds with globalisation, which the Oxford Dictionary online defines as ‘the process by which businesses or other organizations develop international influence or start operating on an international scale.’ The Wikipedia entry, which is, fittingly, vast, opens with a more detailed definition that reveals the full reach of globalisation’s domination of the planet:[5]

Globalization (or globalisation) refers to the free movement of goods, capital, services, people, technology and information. It is the action or procedure of international integration of countries arising from the convergence of world views, products, ideas, and other aspects of culture. Advances in the means of transport (such as the steam locomotive, steamship, jet engine, and container ships) and in telecommunications infrastructure (including the rise of the telegraph and its modern offspring, the Internet and mobile phones) have been major factors in globalization, generating further interdependence of economic and cultural activities.

So, globalisation is not all bad. It has brought the world closer together and fostered a sense of interdependence. But it has also enabled the economically powerful nations to dominate more fragile economies, in particular those dependent on single crops. Further, globalisation, has resulted in a global cultural homogenisation, reinforced by tourism – that is, by the phenomenon of inhabitants of the richer nations, with more disposable income to spend on leisure pursuits, taking holidays in increasingly exotic locations, often in the poorer regions of the world, which are becoming less exotic by the day, as traditional cultural activities and artefacts are squeezed out by the ubiquitous products of the global consumer economy – not least, by those exemplars of healthy soft-drinks, Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola, still vying for world domination.

Clearly, globalisation is a complex phenomenon. Perhaps, the time has come to rediscover and reinvigorate an older and simpler concept: internationalism. Internationalism fosters mutual cooperation between nations. In the aftermath of the unprecedented scale of death and destruction unleashed by the First World War, the new spirit of internationalism gave rise to the establishment of the League of Nations in 1920.[6] And then in October 1945, following the horror of the Sho’ah, and the yet more devastating and catastrophic Second World War, the United Nations was established.[7] Although for some, internationalism implies that nation states are superseded, more accurately, internationalism enables individual nations to thrive in the nexus of cooperative relationships with other states. Above all, it promotes a life-affirming global consciousness rooted in recognition of a shared responsibility for the planet, and the need for individuals, families and communities to thrive in every place.

It is useful to reflect on internationalism in the aftermath of the European Union referendum of June 2016, when the UK voted by a very small majority for Brexit. The binary contest involved – should the UK remain or leave – which had the Conservative Party divided as usual between ‘Eurosceptics’ and ‘Europhiles’[8] – obscured a much more significant discussion concerning internationalism, which is probably why the Labour Party was so divided on the issue.[9] From an internationalist perspective, the prospect of ever-greater European integration conjures up the spectre of ever-widening economic inequalities as long as the free movement of capital dominates the global economic agenda. An internationalist perspective invites us to ask, not what’s best for the UK, but rather how can this nation, in cooperation with other nations, ensure that poverty is eradicated and that everyone, wherever they live, enjoys a decent standard of living. At the same time, assessing the European Union from an internationalist perspective also helps us to see how individual nations and their citizens benefit from belonging to a pan-national entity, as the European Court of Human Rights based at The Hague in the Netherlands, has clearly demonstrated.

So, today on the birthday of the world, I hereby make a plea for internationalism in the global arena! And: for intercommunity engagement on the local level. During the past year, the synagogue hosted the annual Brighton and Hove Interfaith Service[10] that brought together people of different faith traditions to share our sacred texts and practices for the benefit of all. I will never forget the sight of the imam of the Medina mosque chanting the Muslim call to prayer in front of our Ark. And then there was the wonderful Brighton Festival Open House exhibition, ‘Reflections of the Divine’, which brought over 600 people from across Brighton and Hove into the synagogue on four consecutive Sundays in May to see beautiful artworks reflecting the Jewish, Christian, Islamic and Daoist traditions.[11] Just last Saturday evening, I was honoured to share the pre-S’lichot service study session with my dear friend and colleague, Imam Muhammad al-Hussaini on the theme of Jewish and Muslim texts on forgiveness.

Interfaith engagement in no way diminishes the integrity of the individual faiths that participate – on the contrary, it provides a context for us to appreciate what is unique about each tradition, and, what we share as human beings engaged, all of us in our different ways, in journeys of meaning and meaning-making.

As the example of interfaith activities demonstrates, we need so much more of the ‘inter’ in our lives and the life of the world: more mutually beneficial interrelationships; more interfaith, more interaction, more intercommunication, more interconnection, more interlinking, more interdependence. We also need to acknowledge intersectionality – that is, the intersection between different identities within individuals, like being, both, black and Jewish – and give much more attention and commitment to the interface between diverse groups and communities. Going back to that new ‘ecological footprint calculator’, we also need to take more individual responsibility for the communities, countries, and world in which we live. Let me close with a poem by the Jewish poet Marge Piercy on the theme of our individual responsibility for the planet, which will be included in the new Liberal Judaism siddur that will, hopefully, be published in five or so years’ time. As co-editor with my colleague Rabbi Lea Muehlstein of Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue, I can certainly guarantee that the first draft of the Shabbat morning service will be circulated to congregations in January 2018. The title of the poem is ‘The task never completed’. [12]

No task is ever completed,
only abandoned or pressed into use.
Tinkering can be a form of prayer.

Twenty-six botched worlds preceded
Genesis we are told in ancient commentary,
and ha-Shem said not only,

of this particular attempt,
It is good, but muttered,
if only it will hold.

Incomplete, becoming, the world
was given us to fix, to complete
and we’ve almost worn it out.

My house was hastily built,
on the cheap. Leaks, rotting
sills, the floor a relief map of Idaho.

Whenever I get some money, I stove
up, repair, add on, replace.
This improvisation permits me to squat

here on the land that owns me.
We evolve through mistakes, wrong
genes, imitation gone wild.

Each night sleep unravels me into wool,
then into sheep and wolf. Walls and fire
pass through me. I birth stones.

Every dawn I stumble from the roaring
vat of dreams and make myself up
remembering and forgetting by halves.

Every Dawn, I choose to take a knife
to the world’s flank or a sewing kit,
rough improvisation, but a start.

Marge Piercy’s poem is inspired by a passage in Pirkei Avot, the ‘Chapters of the Sages’, included in the Mishnah, edited around the year 200 CE, which teaches: ‘It is not for you to complete the work, but neither may you desist from it.’ [13] Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Marge Piercy’s honest and modest ruminations on the unending task of tikkun olam, repairing the world, might encourage each one of us ‘to take a knife to the world’s flank or a sewing kit’. Today, on the birthday of the world, may we all resolve to make a start. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom V’rei’ut

Rosh Ha-Shanah Shacharit 5778 – 21st September 2017

  1. http://www.overshootday.org/newsroom/press-release-english-2017-calculator/
  2. See Pinchas, Numbers 29:1 and also the biblical festivals calendar in Emor, Leviticus 23:23 and
  3. The work of Amram ben Sheshna. See the text in SRA, II, 114, in the edition edited by Daniel Goldschmidt, Jerusalem, 1971.
  4. In tractate Rosh Ha-Shanah 10b
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Globalization
  6. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/league-of-nations-instituted
  7. http://www.un.org/en/sections/history/history-united-nations/
  8. http://ukandeu.ac.uk/the-conservative-party-and-brexit/
  9. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jan/20/labour-eurosceptics-accuse-corbyn-reversing-position-eu-referendum For the statistics on the divisions within the two parties see: https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/03/07/tories-more-divided-labour/
  10. On 20 November 2016. Organised by the Brighton and Hove Interfaith Contact Group.
  11. The exhibition was held each Sunday in May 2017.
  12. From The Art of Blessing the Day. Poems on Jewish themes by Marge Piercy. Five Leaves Publications, 1998 pp. 82-83.
  13. Mishnah Avot 2:16. The Mishnah is the first rabbinic code of law.