Sukkot and Saving the World, One Light Bulb at a Time
Special thanks to Rabbi David Greenspoon
Sukkot Sermon 5767
By Rabbi Mark B Greenspan
Tell me do you know how many Jews does it take to replace a light bulb?
The answer to that
question depends on what type of Jew you’re talking about. Actually
there’s a whole genre of Jewish light bulbs jokes. It all began
with the one about Jewish mothers (“How many Jewish mothers does
it take to change a light bulb? None –it’s Ok; I’ll
sit in the dark”). Pretty soon, there were lots and lots of others
being told. For instance:
Recently, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel issued his opinion forbidding the use of decorations designed for Christmas in the Sukkah. In answer to a question posed by Arutz Sheva, Rabbi Eliyahu said that "if the decorations were manufactured for Christmas, it is forbidden to use them.
For those who go out on December 26th like I do and buy Christmas lights for their Sukkah as I have good news! Apparently Rabbi Ya’akov Ariel, the chief rabbi of Ramat Gan, disagrees with his senior colleague. He has said that that the use of the questionable decorations is not forbidden since the motivation for making the decorations is strictly financial, not religious, as in the Far East, where most of the decorations are made, the populace doesn't generally even celebrate Christmas.
So apparently even light bulbs are a serious Jewish issue! There is even such a thing as a kosher light bulb.
I was a little surprised to learn that one of my colleagues, Rabbi David Greenspoon, (no relation, by the way), spoke about changing light bulbs on Rosh Hashanah. At first glance I thought this was a little strange. After all – Rosh Hashanah is Rosh Hashanah! Why, of all the topics he could have chosen, did he talk about light bulbs? And what do light bulbs have to do with Judaism?
As I read through his sermon, which was entitled Unetaneh Tokef and the Climate Change Crisis, I realized there was a method to his madness. Rabbi Greenspoon is deeply worried about our environment. With all of the other things that we have to worry about in today’s world, it’s easy to overlook the fact that we are destroying our planet. But Rabbi Greenspoon said what scientists have been saying for a long time – that we are heading for a serious environmental global disaster.
We often forget that Judaism is deeply concerned with how we treat our natural world. Consider, for instance, the well known statement in Kohelet Rabbah: “When God created the first human being, God led him around the Garden of Eden and said: ‘Look at my works! See how beautiful they are and how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy my world, for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.’”
As we look at the rise in green house emissions, the number of toxic chemicals in our environment and the diminution in the number of species in our planet the words of the sages sound frighteningly prescient.
There is also a strong argument to be made concerning our responsibility for our environment in the Jewish tradition. From the mitzvah of Bal Tashchit, not wasting our resources, to the treatment of animals, to the mitzvah of Shemita, of allowing the earth to lie fallow so it can replenish itself, it doesn’t take much to argue that as Jews we have a responsibility to take care of the material blessings of this world. The Bible and Jewish literature draw heavily on the natural world to inspire a deep sense of wonder and faith in God.
Environmentalism has become a Jewish issue. Today there are jewishly aware and Jewishly committed environmental activists who are pursuing these issues and trying to help the Jewish community recognize that it’s not enough to keep kosher, daven and study Torah. We need to take care of our planet as well. There is even an organization called COEJL – the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life which represents 29 Jewish organizations across the Jewish spectrum that are concerned about these issues.
There are a lot of things that we Jews can’t agree about – but our concern for the environment is one about which we are all on the same page!
So what does all of this have to do with light bulbs? And what do light bulbs have to do with Sukkot? If there is one time of year when we are deeply aware of our environment and the blessings of nature it is Sukkot. For eight days we leave the comfort of our homes and dwell in temporary dwellings called Sukkot that are covered with natural materials. When we sit in the Sukkah we must be able to look up and see the stars through the skhakh that covers our Sukkah.
But what happens if the pollution that fills our air is so thick that we can’t see the stars? And what happens if the noise is so loud that we can’t even here our own brachah when we sit in the Sukkah? When we remove the walls that encompass us all year round, we are reminded just how vulnerable and dependent we are on our environment.
The small things that we do in our day to day life can have a major effect on our environment. How much waste do we create? How careful are we in the way we use energy? How often do we recycle and reuse the resources in our home? Do we advocate for the creation of green zones and the protection of animals?
And how often do we change the light bulbs in our homes? That’s right -- even light bulbs can be kosher.
COEJL is sponsoring a campaign to encourage people to change their incandescent light bulbs with energy efficient, cost-effective compact fluorescent lights bulbs this coming year. These fluorescent bulbs use 75% less energy than standard light bulbs. This means less production of greenhouse gases, air pollution and toxic waste. I was amazed to learn from my colleague that if every US household replaced just one bulb in their home with a compact florescent light bulb it would have the same impact as removing one million cars from the road!
Sukkot is a great time to think about environmental issues. This holiday reminds us how little we really need to enjoy life, and that our wants are much greater than our needs. The Torah commands us to rejoice in our festival. And yet all it takes is a roof over our head the presence of family and friends to be able to enjoy life.
We need to think about other ways through which we can make a difference in our environment. Imagine, for instance, if everyone did what traditional Jews have been doing for generations. One day a week we become part of our physical environment rather than trying to dominate and change it.
Imagine if all of us gave up driving one day a week. Would it be an inconvenience? Maybe. But let’s consider what we would gain. We would be forced to stay close to home, spend time with our families and to slow down for a while. What’s more we would cut down the gas admissions in our environment. We would save money and protect the environment at the same time.
So yes, even light bulbs can be Kosher. And before you argue that it is not practical to think we can convince everyone to change their light bulbs, let’s consider the old story about the little boy who was walking along the shore throwing star fish back into the sea. A man approached the boy and asked him what he was doing. “I trying to save the star fish that have washed up on the sand,” the boy said. “But don’t you realize there are millions of star fish and thousands of miles of shore line?” the man said, “Your actions can’t really make a difference.”
The boy reached down, picked up another star fish and threw one more star fish into the sea, and then he said, “It made a difference to that one!”
Each of us makes a difference. If each of us makes a commitment to do only one more thing, we can make a difference in our world. If each of us changes one bulb, uses one less piece of paper, walks up a set of stairs rather than taking the elevator we will change the environment. And as we gather in the Sukkah, let us consider what it would be like to live in a world where we could not enjoy the blessings of the out doors.
How many Jews does it take to replace a light bulb? It only takes one.
And that one is you.
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