imagine a world without us_ a world suddenly silent of the voice by alendar


									Rabbi Yair D. Robinson
Rosh Hashanah 5768
A World Fulfilled

Imagine a world without us, a world suddenly silent of the voice of people,

every man woman and child just--gone.

This is not a rejected John Lennon lyric, or a lost Charlton Heston film

précis. It is the title and premise behind a book. Alan Weisman‟s The World

Without Us asks us that very question: what if this world were utterly

depopulated of humanity? It could be by any means you like: disease,

rapture, space aliens. Regardless, what would become of our world? Our art

and architecture, our pets and engineering accomplishments; what would

become of our stuff?

Weisman sees a world recovering quickly from our influence. Rivers and

verdant forests would once again dominate Manhattan as skyscrapers fell

(though St. Patrick‟s has a chance of lasting longer). Dogs, rats and

cockroaches would fare poorly, missing our companionship, our refuse and

our heat, while cats would do just fine, thank you. Even after the nuclear

reactors cooked off, the power plants caused forest fires, this world would,

in large respects, revert to the wild from which it came, the seas full of fish
as not seen in lifetimes, the air filled with birds, the ground covered in a

carpet of God‟s own hand.

Weisman‟s book is riveting in its eco-eschatology, his vision of a world

„repaired‟ and „restored‟, freed of the bondage of human influence. What‟s

more is how many people seem attracted to the idea; find peace in the idea

of a world without…us. Perhaps that attraction comes from a sense that this

world is better off without us, that we‟re just going to continue trashing the

place like an uninvited teenage party, so we might as well finish the job, get

it over with, so the world can get back to its so-called „natural‟ state. Perhaps

it is something inherent to our cultures; so many civilizations imagine the

creation of people as some kind of afterthought—the result of a god‟s death,

the accidental spilling of blood, a kind of cosmic clerical error.

I have another theory, a theory that suits our self-indulgent age. It‟s not that

we‟re imagining a world free of human influence, a world devoid of people.

It‟s that we‟re imagining a world devoid of everyone else. It isn‟t a “World

without us” we‟re imagining. It‟s a world without you. After all, who‟s to

benefit from the glorious beauties of the earth if we‟re not there to enjoy it?

And by „we‟, we mean „not you‟, whoever the You is that‟s despoiling the
planet. You know, those other people with whom we have to share the

bypass and parking lot. The world would be so much better if it weren‟t for

those people.

Of course, there‟s one little problem with that thesis: who are we defining as

„everyone else‟? Where‟s the cutoff? And what happens when my „everyone

else‟ contradicts your „everyone else‟? Whose priorities win? Do we „rock-

paper-scissors‟ to determine who gets kicked off the planet?

This is the point we‟ve reached as a society—the old saw about going from

“Life” to “us” to “Me” in a few short magazine titles has happened; indeed,

Time Magazine recently named you, yes you, as the person of the year. This

is the world we find ourselves in: a world where one 2006 study showed this

generation—a generation raised to expect success, a generation raised on

songs with lyrics like “I‟m special”—is more narcissistic than previous

generations. This is a world where volunteerism is another requirement,

another item on the checklist, a means to an end. A world in which our

convictions are completely substituted by convenience and comfort, to the

point where there are multiple movements to eliminate even the brit milah

ritual from Judaism. We‟re beyond the question of the wicked son of the
Seder: it doesn‟t matter what it means to you; only what it means—or

doesn‟t—to me.

This is how the environmentalists have it all wrong: the problem is not our

consumer habits; it‟s that we don‟t want to change our consumer habits. We

like them. They make us feel good, whether we‟re indulging in the earth

destroying SUV or the blood diamond or the triple-cheeseburger or we‟re

buying „carbon offsets‟ to assuage our guilt, but avoid making real

adjustments in our lives. Someone else can be good for us; I want what‟s

mine, what I deserve. Don‟t ask me about sacrifice, tell me what I get;

what‟s my take.

I don‟t know about you, but I‟m not interested in raising my child in this

kind of world. There is something wrong with our expectations; where we

are right, others are wrong, and should get out of our way or feed our self-

righteousness. I see it when Orthodox Jews insist that the prepackaged meal

isn‟t „kosher enough‟, I see it when the liberal Jew insists that all Judaism

teaches is „to go with your heart‟. I see it in the way political parties

„debate‟—which is to say, they hurl invectives at each other or otherwise

hope to make their opponents look foolish. I see it in the ways we give to
charity: we give when it‟s convenient. We give locally but ignore a plight

like Darfur .We give when there is a crisis—a tsunami, a Katrina—but not

out of habit. We find ways to make our children‟s mitzvah projects as quick

and painless and small as possible—even sometimes going so far as to do

the projects ourselves. I see it in the commoditization of our synagogue life:

as congregant sees the synagogue through the lens of the consumer, as a

series of products to be purchased or discarded, and we in leadership

encourage that practice, forgetting that membership and revenue are not, in

fact, the same thing.

I saw it most strikingly this past year, when I co-taught a class in 9th grade

about Jewish sexual ethics. At one point we had an intense session on date-

rape, which included a video that provided a scenario. In one class, many of

the young men insisted that it couldn‟t have been rape, because the girl

depicted didn‟t fight back hard enough, didn‟t resist. In that moment, the girl

character was no longer a human being—someone‟s daughter or sister or

friend, but a resource, a product, a tool.

Perhaps it is too late to resist. Perhaps we have all gone too far down the

rabbit hole to ever get out; we are like the Israelites in the time of the Judges,
when Tanakh says “everyone did as they pleased.” But these are not the

values I want to share with my child. Certainly I want Elishai‟s world to be

fulfilled, as the Talmudic blessing hopes, but not at the cost of others. I don‟t

want him to grow up thinking of the people around him as utensils, or as

obstacles. I don‟t want him to aspire to our world of celebrity, with

sycophants and unearned wealth and disregard for the law. I wish for him a

world—his world—fulfilled, but not that one.

I won‟t pretend that there was ever a time when we valued human dignity

more or better, that never in our history did we savage another because of

station, or sex, color or creed. We know better. But there was a time not so

long ago when we made more of an effort. Not just as a movement, but as

individuals. Not out of political correctness, but because the human spirit,

the human person, demanded esteem. In our old Union Prayerbook there

appears a prayer for coalminers, for those who toil in darkness that we might

have light. Not a prayer for Jewish coalminers. Not a prayer for coalminers

on the occasion of calamity, but for every Shabbat. A prayer reminding the

congregant that there were those who toiled for our benefit in the shadows.

Do we pray for the coalminer? Do we pray for the sweatshop worker, the

kitchen worker in the restaurant, the caretakers in our assisted living and
rehab facilities? Better yet, do we remember these people in our work and

our tzedakah, remember the working poor, the abused immigrant; those

many underpaid who keep our costs down, allowing us to buy our wide-

screen TVs and lead-painted toys? Do we teach our children, when they

offer again the plaint „I want‟, that there but for the grace of God go we? Do

we think of our citizen soldiers, other than hoping our children won‟t

become them, or to shake our heads at policy gone awry, or to wonder what

would make someone serve?

We rally in a crisis—we send clothes and food and money. We fill trucks for

New Orleans and coffers for Indonesia. We do. In a crisis. We, like

Abraham tomorrow, hear the call and answer, “Hineini” Here I am! But we

forget the dignity of the person in front of us, the Grace of God in the person

we so often would choose to forget, or ignore. I want my son to say

“Hineini” in another way. To be willing to give of himself to the other not as

an act of convenience, or resume-padding, or goodwill, or guilt, but as an act

of justice, of righteousness, because that is what a person—a Jew—does. I

want him to say “hineini: I am here, not merely as an individual, not singing

a song of myself only, but standing here with arms open, with heart open,

with mind open, with no thought of what I‟m getting out of this. Hineini:
here I am, ready to fulfill the mitzvah our encounter presents, requires.

Hineini: here I am, what can I do for you?” I want my son to stand in radical

amazement—to use Abraham Joshua Heschel‟s words—to the world around

him, to the people around him, and to live his life raising them up rather than

pushing them out of the way, or down, on his way to whatever success

awaits him.

Perhaps it is too late to resist. Perhaps it is easier wishing for a world

emptied of us and our foolishness. But resist I will. I will teach my son that

there is more to this world—more to the people he will meet. For someday

there will be a world without me, and even a world without him, and I want

this world left better for our sojourn here.

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