Rosh haShanah 2022: Overcoming the Mindset

Our spiritual self conception is as important to address as our actions when considering how to avert climate disaster. Join me for my Rosh haShanah sermon on climate change, the evil inclination, and how we can rethink our approach to the world around us.

Since I was a young child, I’ve been hearing that climate change is the greatest risk to human longevity on this planet. There was different language for it - fighting global warming, or pollution, being an environmentalist, saving the ozone layer - but it was the same idea. Growing up there were endless campaigns for recycling, for saving electricity, for cutting up the little rings that cans come connected in so as not to choke animals, to get rid of styrofoam. Some of these campaigns were effective, as the hole in the ozone we heard about so much for so long finally closed last year, but climate change still looms. 

I think that most people are a bit burned out on the patchwork system of actions that don’t feel like they’re helping; some may have even felt like giving up entirely. This is in part because the causes of climate change aren’t merely tangible. They are rooted in human psychology; in the story we tell about ourselves in relation to the world we live in. What we should do to respond to climate change is, in fact, as much a spiritual question as it is a scientific one.  

Rosh haShanah has a handful of meanings attributed to it, but the one that is most important to me is the commemoration of the birth of humanity; of God creating the first human being. This is why we call it “yom harat olam” - the day the world was created. For before there was a human being to witness and participate in the world, there was no world as-such. After, though, things changed. Our rabbis tell us that when God created the first human, and said “They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth,” that this truly meant that the human, and us as inheritors of this mitzvah, were being given a warning. If we merit to rule by living in God’s image, we will rule. But if we do not merit to rule by living in God’s image, we will be ruled in turn by the rest of God’s creation.

The idea of humanity ruling over the world, particularly since Modernity and the industrial revolution, has been core to the way our contemporary civilization has envisioned itself in relation to nature. When I first read that an unmeriting humanity would be “ruled by Creation” in this ancient rabbinic commentary, it sent shivers down my spine. It brought me back to the bus trips I took from Brooklyn through a darkened lower Manhattan in the wake of hurricane Sandy, when there was no electricity, when the national guard was deployed. It made me think of my friends and family who have had to flee wildfires in the American West; it brought to mind the drying rivers and the flooding in Pakistan which has displaced 33 million people. This rabbinic interpretation created a different relationship between humanity and the rest of Creation, and one we must reflect on. 

A story. One of my favorite thinkers, Douglas Rushkoff, recently released a book in which he tells the story of being paid to consult with a room full of very wealthy and powerful businessmen about how to survive the coming “Event.” These individuals believe that under the pressures we are all now feeling daily, particularly climate change, that in the near future a civilizational collapse will occur, and that they need to create their own ticket out of dodge. Rushkoff was brought in to help them think through the details - if they need a security force, how will they keep them loyal? Should they design collars for them? Should they just opt for robot security? If this line of questioning is disturbing to you, you’re not alone, and the thinking behind it is, itself, the spiritual malady we must wrestle with. 

Along with the idea of humanity needing to merit ruling over earth, our rabbis found another detail about humanity in the story of God’s Creation. Throughout the Creation story, God says that each step is “good,” and then, once all of the pieces are created, God says that the whole is “very good.” This shift has two layers of meaning. God is saying, on one level, that the complex interweaving of life, in which every piece is dependent on each other, and the whole is a beautiful, and dynamic system, is God’s ultimate source of pride. But the ancient rabbis found a completely different concept within - that prior to humanity, everything was simply “good,” and that the entrance of humanity led to a new, important complicating factor, which was “very good.” They referred to this factor as the “yetzer haRa,” often translated as the evil inclination. It is, in short, the inclination towards self interest and self enrichment, and self propagation.

In Douglas Rushkoff’s story, the Yetzer haRa taken over these wealthy and powerful individuals. They not only were knowingly contributing to creating “The Event,” or the civilizational collapse they foresaw and feared, but they were also responding to it with the same behavior that was leading to the Event in the first place. Rushkoff, too, sees this in their reaction, and he refers to the set of beliefs and impulses that are driving them, and much of America today, as “The Mindset.” The Mindset, he writes, “means earning enough money to insulate themselves from the damage they are creating by earning money in that way. It’s as if they want to build a car that goes fast enough to escape from its own exhaust.”

The rabbis did not think we needed to, or even could, do away with our Yetzer HaRah, our inclination towards selfishness, but that, instead, we needed to maintain control over it and balance it. For them, the Yetzer HaRa was the underlying force leading humanity to marry and procreate, to build houses, and to do business. This means that all of these things are necessary and should not be avoided, but they must be done with consideration of our actions’ impacts upon the world. That is our responsibility; that is how we merit ruling rather than being ruled - not by becoming more powerful and by hoarding individual resources, but by broadening our horizons to include not only our own short-term goals and individual desires, but the long term health of the whole of God’s complex creation.

The Mindset, then, is a distilled version of the Yetzer haRa. It is the impulse to turn all other things in the world into objects that can be used to maintain individual enrichment and survival, at the expense of everything and everyone else. It is a mode of separating humanity from the intermeshing of the Divine Creation, and then the individual human entirely from the human collective itself. Their escape plans display this directly. For instance, rather than investing their large amounts of resources into working to help humanity, and the rest of our habitat, adjust to the changing climate and perhaps slow it down, they would prefer to invest in figuring out how to colonize Mars using industry that worsens climate change on Earth in order to escape the planet from the effects of climate change altogether. 

A midrash, an ancient rabbinic story, teaches us that when God created the first human, God took Adam and led Adam around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And all that I have created, it was for you that I created it. Pay attention that you do not corrupt and destroy My world: if you corrupt it, there is no one to repair it after you.”

We stand at a crossroads in our civilization. It is clear that The Mindset, or the Yetzer haRa, has taken hold over the levers of power, and that without a rapid and purposeful push to change direction, we will be driven off a cliff while those running the train attempt to escape before it crashes. But there is no escape. There is no one else that can repair it after us- it is up to us. 

So, what then? Although there are many small, symbolic steps we can take to disengage from the Mindset, we need to consider a more systemic response, and preferably one that engages those people driving this train. In the initial meeting that spurred Rushkoff’s book, he did give an answer as to how these escapees would be able to keep their security staff loyal after the Event. He told them, “Don’t just invest in ammo and electric fences, invest in people and relationships…the way to make sure your head of security doesn’t [turn on you] tomorrow is to pay for his daughter’s bat mitzvah today.” 

This pithy statement has a lot to it. It, in fact, undermines the whole question he was being asked. Rather than figuring out how to simply protect themselves, as if they are all that matter, or even capable of fully separating from the rest of humanity and the planet, they needed to more deeply connect with those around them, and to see how they are inextricably tied to others. We are all part of the network of life, and each of us has an important role to play in the ongoing unfolding of the cosmos. If we can integrate that thinking into a new mindset, we may find a way to move forward into the future without plummeting off the cliff together. Because wherever we’re going we’re going together.

We, in this community, have a particular responsibility to fight The Mindset. We exist in a seat of power and privilege, simply via location, that is rare in this world. We have influence and power, and if we are able to root out the most extreme versions of the mindset within ourselves, to broaden the scope of care, to teach ourselves and each other what it means to merit ruling, we can influence others to do the same as well.

In this new year of 5783, let us remember that our place in this diverse, beautiful system is not one of conquering emperors. If we continue on as we have, and put individual advancement above all else, we will be reigned over by that which we try to suppress. This is true of our engagement with other humans, and other cultures, as much as it is of our engagement with the non-human ecosystem around us. 

In 5783, let us look towards a way of living that reigns in the toxic extremes of the Mindset, of the Yetzer HaRa, and instead help ourselves, each other, and all the rest of humanity see that each year, we have a chance to reset, to return to the moment of humanity’s creation, and attempt, once again, to see the beautiful, complex interweaving of our world as Very Good. Shanah tovah.