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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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