When Rabbi Noah Chertkoff gave a Rosh Hashanah sermon on climate change at Congregation Shalom two years ago, he felt, regretfully, that he could have given it years earlier. He even said so during the sermon.
Year after year, it didn’t happen, because there always seemed to be a more pressing issue. “But it’s that way of thinking that is actually a part of the problem here,” he said, in a recent interview with the Chronicle. “And I don’t know what it’s going to take for us to start thinking that this is the most existential threat to our safety and our existence, and quite frankly, our humanity, that exists today.”
He says he could give that same sermon today, or in any year, or every year. The spiritual leader of Congregation Shalom, Fox Point, noted hurricanes and tornadoes are becoming more frequent, heat is becoming oppressive and summer smoke from forest fires “choked” us.
In that sermon from two years ago, Chertkoff quoted a great Hasidic Rabbi, Simcha Bunim. He said: “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and there, find the words: ‘Bishvili nivra ha-olam’ – ‘The world was created for me.’ (BT Sanhedrin 37B) But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket and find the words: ‘V’anochi afar v’efer’ – ‘I am but dust and ashes.’ (Gen. 18:27)
“We need both pockets to live a life of balance. Reaching into one and not the other can lead us to destruction,” Chertkoff said.
Though the world was created just for us, “we are discovering it has its limits,” he said. We need both pockets.
In that 5782 sermon, he also spoke on the Torah’s garden of Adam and Eve:
“We left the garden to spread out over the earth. . . .
“All of this. All of it was created for us . . . .
“This mythic story is not what we find in the books of scientific inquiry …. But this expression of deep wisdom that we are reminded of as we turn the page into a new year and celebrate that this is the birthday of the world, calls us to remember that this is our Jewish Earth Day.”
The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle focused on climate change for the season of the world’s birthday, Rosh Hashanah. This article is part of that series for 2023/5784.