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 Le Grand K – An Interfaith Thanksgiving Sermon on Stewardship of the Earth

November 15, 2018 – 8 Kislev 5779

The Greek Orthodox Church of our Savior, Rye, New York

Rabbi Howard J. Goldsmith


Did you hear that they are going to recreate the kilogram? Apparently, for the last 120 years or so it has been based on a hunk of metal kept in a vault outside of Paris. That hunk of metal is called, of course, Le Grand K. Every nation who signed on to the General Conference of Weights and Measures treaty gets a copy of the hunk of metal to use as the standard and, every so often, each nation sends its hunk of metal to France to make sure that it is exactly identical to Le Grand K. Well, the scientists who study weights and measures have decided that enough is enough, that this archaic system is a bit too contrived. Not only that, Le Grand K is endangered by atoms that it may absorb or shed thus adding and subtracting to its weight. And so, after an imminent vote, Le Grand K will be retired and the kilogram will instead be based on things such as the speed of light, time and Planck’s constant – whatever that is. What does that mean? It means that the certification of the scale in your grocery store will no longer be based on a copy of a hunk of metal from France, instead it will be based on… the speed of light? Ok.


I love this. I love the knots that we tie ourselves into to try to understand our world. I love that we create things like weight and measurement – human contrivances that allow us, perhaps, some better understanding. And then, we change the basis of the measurements so that they are somehow more objective, more true, more enduring, perhaps, more eternal. But listen, my friends, we best take heed or we may soon have less to measure, less of a world to weigh, less of a place which we can call home. As we count and measure our many blessings on Thanksgiving, we cannot help but pause to see the many challenges that we face, as well. Some social or societal, some economic or familial. But I’m talking about more basic challenges, challenges to the vessel that contains our societies, the cradle of our communities, I’m talking about our earth.


Thanksgiving calls us to consider our earth. This most American of harvest festivals gives us the pause we need to think about our land, our skies, the rains and the seasons. Should any one of them change too much, we would surely perish, our other problems suddenly small by comparison when we can no long drink the water – or the water dries up and is no more. Between the football games and the Thanksgiving feast, we see decorations that call to mind horns of plenty, cornucopias overflowing with the earth’s bounty. And still, so often we take the earth from which the bounty comes for granted. Whether we weigh our harvest with Le Grand K or some kilogram based on the speed of light, we best take care of our planet or we’ll have no food left to weigh.


In this beautiful house of worship, it is worth remembering what our sacred texts tell us about stewardship, about our obligation to care for this world. Right from the beginning, God commands Adam and Eve “לְעָבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשָׁמְרָֽהּ to till and to tend” the earth, yes, to work it and use it, but also and equally to protect it. The Psalmist goes on “לַֽ֭יהוָה הָאָ֣רֶץ וּמְלוֹאָ֑הּ תֵּ֝בֵ֗ל וְיֹ֣שְׁבֵי בָֽהּ The earth is God’s and the fullness thereof, the world and they that dwell therein.” This land is not ours to do with as we please. The earth belongs to a higher power, to a divine and a holy force that we can barely fathom. For years we’ve acted with without thought, for years we’ve acted as if we can take what we want from the earth with no consequences. But now we’re seeing the results of our arrogance, the penalties for our impunity. God tells the ancient Israelites in Deuteronomy that if they do not follow God’s ways that God “וְעָצַ֤ר אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֙יִם֙ will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon be ejected from the good land that the LORD is assigning to you.” Is this not what we see today? The bounty of the rainforest in ash for a few years of grazing? Rains of acid turning forest brown? Once fertile lands now turned to desert as the very climate changes? I am far from a biblical literalist, but whether by cause and effect or Divine edict, we see the very earth, the “good land”, the canvass for all we do, slipping away due to our arrogant behavior, our failure to heed God’s command to care for our earth.


And yet, we have hope. The same Bible that warns of our ejection from the land, also promises its bounty should we follow God’s ways. Leviticus says, “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and your vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land.” This is not only about the ritual laws, not only about the ways that we demonstrate our faith, it is about our stewardship of God’s earth: Do we “tend” while we “till”? Do we give the land the rest it needs? Do we plant and harvest in sustainable ways? Do we protect our trees? The specific biblical commands about caring for the earth set the tone, examples of how we can follow that first command, the command “to till and to tend” the earth. With our science today, we can find hundreds, thousands of other ways to tend this one and only planet of ours – even as we till it to enjoy God’s blessings. And what will happen when we do? We will find the words of Jeremiah made true, we will be able to come back to the land from which we have been ejected and we will find it good and we will gather large quantities of wine and figs and enjoy all of the land’s bounty when we live in harmony with the land.


While we can replace Le Grand K, we cannot replace our earth. And while we can use the speed of light and Planck’s constant to measure a kilogram, we cannot eat the speed of light nor can we hike in Planck’s constant. A kilogram is a human creation and we can recreate it as we like. But the earth will not be recreated, it is the only one we have, a gift from God for which we are solely responsible. As we celebrate our bounty this year on Thanksgiving, let us also recommit to stewardship of our earth. Motivated by our faith traditions or motivated by science, let us raise up the divinity inherent in the world around us and let us help that holiness to shine in clear skies and clean water, in protected forests and blue oceans. When we do, we too shall be welcomed back to a Land once bereft but then yielding its bounty, we too will celebrate God’s glory, God’s “earth and the fullness thereof.”


Sat, July 11 2020 19 Tammuz 5780