Last year I had an argument with a congregant in the middle of a sermon. It’s OK. Jews argue. We talk about two Jews and three opinions. A lot. It was Passover and I was talking about the prayers Geshem and Tal for rain and dew. It was also Earth Day. I was explaining that as Jews we have an obligation to take care of the Earth and that the mandate is sprinkled (Pun intended) throughout our literature.
He argued that climate change isn’t real. I was dumbfounded. So now on Earth Day this year I want to reply. I come by this very naturally (again pun intended). My father was an ecologist. He helped organize the original Earth Day in 1970. He spent countless hours arguing for good science. With the Field Museum, with the Evanston School System, with East Grand Rapids High School. He spent countless hours fighting for our environment before it was cool. He spent countless hours renewing himself in the woods on Northern Michigan.
So this year, on Earth Day, I want to tell the story of Honi the Circle Maker, in memory of my father, in hopes for the future.
You know about Honi. We tell this story almost every Tu B’shevat. Honi lived in the 1st Century BCE, in the Second Temple Period. One day, Honi was journeying on the road in Northern Israel and he saw a old man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the old man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” The man replied: “Seventy years.” Honi was amazed and asked, “Are you sure that you will live another seventy years?” The man replied: “I have already found carob trees growing in the world; as my ancestors planted for me so I shall plant for my children.”
That is the story for Earth Day. We are the generation caught between our ancestors who planted for us, who were caretakers of the earth for us and our children and our children’s children. This is Earth Day, and on this Earth Day we read the story of Aaron when his sons were killed. Aaron’s response is silence.
But I cannot be silent when the future of our children is at stake. Psalm 30, the Psalm for the Dedication of the Temple asks,
“What profit is there if I am silenced. What benefit if I go to my grave. Will the dust praise You?”
When I was a kid, we didn’t use any aerosol sprays because my father was concerned about the ozone layer. We didn’t buy anything made by Dow Chemical because we were worried about Agent Orange. My father, as a scientist argued passionately for science, taking on the East Grand Rapids Schools who at least one biology teacher wanted to teach creationism along side evolution. “Evolution is a fact,” he argued. I never won an argument with him about religion. Not quoting Albert Einstein who apparently believed in G-d. Not Lewis Thomas who wrote a beautiful elegy, “The Lives of Cells.” Nonetheless, he knew that everything he did was within Jewish values and ethics.
So I cannot be silent. Too much is at stake. The very future of our planet maybe at stake. I believe it is about balance. I believe there is no conflict between Judaism and science. I believe that there is no conflict between Genesis and science. And I believe we have a responsibility to take care of this earth. To be partners with G-d in this glorious creation.
The Talmud in Ta’anit 19a teaches us another story about Honi. It is the story he gets his name from. Once there was a terrible drought in the land of Israel. It was already Adar, that usually marks the end of the rainy season, but much like this winter in Chicagoland with very little snow, there had been no rain all winter long.
The people begged Honi the Circle Maker to pray. He prayed, but still no rain fell. He drew a circle in the dust and stood in the middle of it. Raising his hands to the heavens, he vowed, “G-d, I will not move from this circle until You send rain!” It began to sprinkle, just a few drops. The drops hissed on the hot stones. The people were not satisfied and complained, “This is only enough rain to release you from your vow.”
So Honi prayed again, “I asked for more than this trifling drizzle. I was asking For enough rain to fill wells, cisterns, ditches!” The heavens opened up and poured down rain in buckets. The parched earth began to flood. The cisterns overflowed. There was too much rain! The people of Jerusalem ran to the Temple Mount for safety. “Honi! Save us! We will all be destroyed like the generation of the Flood. Stop the rains!”
Honi again prayed. This time for the rains to stop. They did and he told the people to bring a thanksgiving offering to the Temple. Then Honi again prayed, and said to G-d, “This people that You brought out of Egypt can take neither too much evil or too much good. Please give them what they want.” This is the Goldilocks moment. Not too little. Not too much. Just right.
Then G-d sent a strong wind that blew away the fierce rains and the storm calmed. Shimon ben Shetakh, the head of the Sanhedrin wanted to put Honi in cherem, to excommunicate him, for his audacity, but decided against it.
Honi is a little like Nachson Ben Aminidav. Nachson is the one who put his toe into the Sea of Reeds. He waded into up to his nostrils, the midrash says. Then the sea parted. He had faith and by his actions he demanded that G-d rescue the Israelites. He had audacity. He had courage.
This story would not be one my father would have loved—although he loved a good story and relished reading Zlateh the Goat, a collection of IB Singer stories out loud as the Chanukah candles burned down.
No, this story about the power of prayer, would not have been rational enough for his scientific brain. On the other hand—and this is Judaism, so there is always another hand—he might have. Not only is this about the power of prayer. It is also about the power of action. Only when Honi was in the circle he had drawn was his prayer effective.
The power of prayer. That’s what Friday nights, Kabbalat Shabbat are all about.
That’s what the Barchu, the formal call to worship, is about. As my students taught me this year, it is not just about calling us together for prayer, it is about demanding that G-d be present. Come, here, right now, G-d. It’s about Sh’ma Kolenu, G-d, hear our voice, demanding G-d to listen to us. Audacious.
Recently I had my own story of the power of prayer. My cell phone died. It wouldn’t reboot. The wireless company said I would have to wipe it clean and start over. The second store said the same thing—but maybe if I went to Apple they could do something. Getting increasingly anxious, I was on call as a police chaplain, I drove to the mall to the Apple Store. I pleaded that I needed my phone. That I was a rabbi. That I was on call. I was not leaving that store unless my phone was restored. (Politely, of course).
They were not optimistic. I followed them back to the genius bar. I stood there silently while the genius plugged in my phone. I put my legs together and stood straight up like I was davenning the silent Amidah. I held my breath. He said he would have to wipe it clean, was that OK. No, I wanted to scream but what choice did I have. He told me to say whatever prayer I had—that he had seen miraculous things happen. I wasn’t sure what the words were for a cell phone. I continued to hold my silence. He hit the button. In seconds, the phone was restored. All of the data was there. All of the contacts. All of the photos. All of the text messages. All of the applications worked. Perhaps all my silent supplications worked.
I can’t explain how my phone “resurrected”. It seems to be at that intersection between science and prayer. I can say that I have seen very powerful things happen that don’t make rational sense. I stood in awe with an ICU nurse as the blood pressure of a patient dropped when I sang Adon Olam. I stood in silence with my daughter’s pediatrician as his mother lay dying. Medical science had nothing else to offer, perhaps prayer would. She died on her own husband’s yahrzeit.
It is clear from our tradition, that we are commanded to be caretakers of this earth. To be partners with G-d in G-d’s glorious creation. That we are to fulfill the mitzvah of bal taschit, to not destroy.
So on this Earth Day I say. Don’t be silent. Our children and children’s children deserve no less. Stand in that circle and pray. Don’t just pray. Demand action. Be bold. Be audacious. Be courageous. That is the message of Honi.