“Gut Yontif, Pontiff” – Kol Nidre Sermon

My father’s first language is Yiddish.  He was the first member of his family born in this country and he didn’t learn English until he went to kindergarten.  My mother is also a Yiddish speaker – it was the language they used when they didn’t want us kids to understand what they were saying.  As a result, it was the language that my siblings and I wanted to learn the most!

But even though they tried to keep Yiddish as their secret code, the truth is that conversation in our home was always liberally sprinkled with Yiddish words and phrases.  For example, there was no such thing as “meat” or “dairy” when it came to keeping kosher, there was only “fleischigs” or “milchigs.”  Nobody ever spread cream cheese on a bagel – we “shmeared” it.  There were no rags in on house – only “shmattas.”  And I could go on and on.

However, as I think back to all the Yiddish expressions that I heard in my home growing up, one stands out as more curious than all the others put together.  Inevitably, on just about any given holiday, my father would ask:  “How do you greet the leader of the Catholic church on a festival?”  The answer – of course! – is: “Gut Yontif, Pontiff!”

And since Pope Francis arrived today for his first ever visit to the US, it seems an appropriate moment to say, “Gut Yontif, Pontiff!

All joking aside, Pope Francis has chosen an interesting time for his first visit to the United States.  I say that NOT because of the presidential campaigning, NOT because of the international migrant/refugee crisis and certainly NOT because it’s yontif.  It’s an interesting timing because October will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate – the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions which included a document called Decretum de Iudaeis (“Decree on the Jews”).

In short, in October 1965, Pope Paul VI changed the nature of the 1,900-year-old relationship between Christians and Jews by saying formally that Jews were not responsible for the death of Jesus and that acts of violence or harmful words against Jews were not condoned or permitted by the Church.  As they say in sports, it was a game-changer.

Nostra Aetate opened the door for the kind of interfaith work and dialogue that we take for granted today among Christians and Jews.  And while there will always be areas of disagreement between Catholics and Jews – after all, we Jews can’t agree on most things amongst ourselves! – it ushered in an age of amicable partnership on many important issues.

So, here we are, fifty years after Nostra Aetate and another Pope has come to the US shortly after issuing his own papal document – an encyclical letter called Laudato Si’.

While I am not much of a Latin scholar, the name of this document alone caught my attention.

The words Laudato Si’mean “Praise be to you.” They correspond directly to the Hebrew words “Baruch Atah.”  And so you can see how this might be spark a rabbi’s curiosity.  It turns out that the words Laudato Si’ come from a prayer written by St. Francis of Assisi – in whose honor the Pope Francis chose his papal name.

Here is the full prayer: “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our sister mother earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs.”  With all due respect, I think St. Francis must have had some Jewish friends.  That is clearly based on Jewish prayers that predate him.

You can hear a hint of the “Shehechyanu” – Praised are You Adonai, ruler of the universe, who has given us life, sustained us and brought us to this moment.”  You can hear a hint of the blessings over fruits and vegetables – “Praised are Adonai, Ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the tree OR the fruit of the earth.”  And I don’t say this to diminish the prayer of St. Francis or the encyclical of Pope Francis.  I say this to point out how our approach to the Earth – this great gift that God has given us – is so similar.

The Pope’s encyclical is six chapters long – my version has 98 pages.  I certainly did not come here today on Yom Kippur to simply read the document to you.  However, in the course of this incredible text, he made three points that resonated with me as a Jew, as a fellow child of God and as a fellow citizen of the Earth.

One of the first points that the Pope makes is that we humans are unique in our ability to modify the natural world.  And while we like to focus on the benefit and power of that ability, we are abdicating our responsibilities as stewards of God’s earth when we ignore the negative consequences of this incredible ability that we have.

Similarly, our tradition has always understood that there must be a balance between our ability – and desire! – to change the natural world and our responsibility to preserve the natural world.

We can see this clearly by comparing two of the 613 commandments put forth in the Torah.  On the one hand, we have:  “Rapo Yirapeh” (Exodus 21:19) – when someone is injured, the Torah tells us: “heal him and he shall be healed.”  We don’t just pray – though I am certainly not opposed to prayer in addition to action!  We don’t just wait to see what happens.  We intervene!  We treat!  We cure and heal when possible.  We use all of our talents, skills and abilities to try to save someone.

Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but we always try to modify the natural world when it comes injury and disease.

On the other hand, we have another commandment “Bal Taschit” (Deuteronomy 20:19-20) – in the middle of a war, when besieging a city, the soldiers are not permitted to cut down fruit-bearing trees.  Even if the soldiers need more wood for their war effort — siege works or fire wood – they can only cut down trees that they know are NOT fruit-bearing.  In the middle of a life-or-death situation – like war – we are still supposed to pause and consider the impact of our decisions on the environment.  AMAZING!

It’s quite a rebuke to those of us who say that recycling is inconvenient, don’t you think?  We must always balance between modifying the natural world and preserving the natural world – without going too far in either direction.

Secondly, Pope Francis points out that when we fail to protect the environment, the effects are felt by the poor and powerless much more than they are felt by the wealthy and powerful.

Think about it, when a country like the US outlaws a manufacturing process, for example, because of its effect on air or water quality, companies move their production to another country with less restrictive laws.  When there is some sort of environmental hazard in this country, the wealthy have the means to influence change in their community or to simply move.  The poor often can do neither.  When there are shortages and prices go up, obviously, the wealthy can tolerate it and survive it better than the poor.

Already this evening, we have recited the best known Jewish prayer – the “Sh’ma.” A traditional Jew recites it three times a day.  We always sing the first line out loud.  We usually chant the rest of the first paragraph and we sometimes chant the third paragraph.  We never say the middle paragraph (Deuteronomy 11) out loud, mostly because we don’t like the theology of Divine reward and punishment expressed in that passage.

However, I’ve never really read it that way.

In the paragraph that begins with the words “V’hayah im shamo’a,” God says:  If you listen to me, good things will happen – enough rain to grow your crops, enough plants to feed your animals.  I’ve never understood this to be reward for obedience.  I’ve always understood it to be the natural consequences of doing things the right way.

Similarly, if we ignore God’s good advice, we should be prepared for negative consequences.  Not because we’re bad, but because we’ve made poor decisions.  And that would be fine if those consequences were limited to the people who make those poor decisions.  But, unfortunately, as Pope Francis points out, that is usually not the case.

Therefore, those of us with a little bit more have an obligation to look out for those who have a little bit less.  We call that tzedakah or justice.

Thirdly, Pope Francis asks: “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” In response to this rhetorical question, he calls for “intergenerational solidarity,”  which is absolutely in line with Jewish values.

There’s a very old story preserved by our tradition:  (Vayikra Rabbah 25:5).  A Roman Emperor was inspecting the conquered land of Israel when he saw an old man planting a fig tree.  He said to the old man, “It will take twenty years for those trees to bear fruit and you will surely be gone before then.  Tell me, why are you planting those trees?”

The old man replied, “When I was a child, I could eat fruit because those who came before me planted trees.  Am I not obligated to do the same for the next generation?”

Although I knew it before reading Laudato Si’, I was definitely convinced afterwards, that if we take our responsibility as stewards of the earth seriously, we must partner with like-minded individuals of other faiths.  After all, we Jews represent less that one quarter of 1% of the world population.  Even if every Jew started recycling, re-using, conserving and reducing our impact on the environment, how much difference would it make without the other 99.75% of the world population joining us?

That is why we have gotten involved in an organization called GreenFaith.  GreenFaith was established in 1992 with the mission to inspire, educate and mobilize people of diverse religious backgrounds for environmental leadership.  It is based on beliefs shared by the world’s great religions: that protecting the earth is a religious value, and that environmental stewardship is a moral responsibility.

We have taken a two-pronged approach to our participation in GreenFaith.  First, we have pursued “GreenFaith Certification” – which is a two year program in which we hope to improve our environmental practices in-house and educate ourselves about what our tradition has to say on this important issue.

You may have noticed little things like more recycling bins around the building, better thermostat management, environmental tips in our weekly email and the planting of a butterfly garden on our grounds.

These are just a few of the things that our GreenFaith Committee has been doing.  We are now entering our second year of participation and there’s much more exciting stuff to come.

The second prong of our participation in GreenFaith is that we have helped establish the Summit GreenFaith Circle.  The Circle is a partnership of five local congregations to work together on environmental issues.  We share ideas for programs and best practices.  And we have planned programs together including an Earth Day clean up last year.

At the time we formed, we were one of only two such community wide interfaith environmental organizations in the country.  We know that we can do more together than any one institution can do on its own.  We hope to expand in our second year to include more local congregations.

The Talmud teaches us “Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh baZeh – All of Israel is responsible for one another (BT Shevuot 39a).”  Clearly, in the year 2015, we must amend it to say “Kol Ha-Olam” – The whole world is responsible for one another.

We have a small but dedicated group of people who have been working really hard on this issue, but they can only do so much – they can only take us so far.  Just as the Pope has realized that Catholics cannot do this alone and just as we Jews have realized that we cannot do this alone, a small committee cannot do this alone.

We all have to work on the balance between improving the world and preserving it.  We all need to think about how damage to the environment and scarcity of resources affect the neediest among us.  We all need to consider the world that was handed down to us by the previous generation and what kind of world we want to pass down to the next.

GreenFaith can guide us, but we must have the desire to act.

So, the Pope will arrive in the New York area on Thursday and it will certainly be bad news for commuters as horrible traffic will get even worse.  And on Friday, the Pope will participate in a multi-faith service with clergy from many different religions to honor the victims of 9/11 at Ground Zero.

The juxtaposition of those two things – horrible traffic as a result of his visit and a powerful gesture of interfaith cooperation – really symbolizes the way I feel about his visit.  I know that I will never agree with everything that the Pope has to say and I might even get frustrated by some of the things he says, but I recognize his power to bring many people of faith together on an issue that is an important part the Jewish tradition.

So, I listen carefully to what he has to say and I read carefully what he has written about our shared obligation to be good stewards of God’s Earth.  And, if I get within shouting distance of him right before Sukkot, I’ll be sure to yell out “Gut Yontif, Pontiff!” loud enough for my Dad to hear.



Rabbi Avi Friedman


About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
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