This year, Richard Branson saw the planet from a completely different angle. The owner of Virgin was on board a rocket and saw the Earth as it appears from space.
It must have been incredible. The globe with its big blue oceans and grey-green continents, set against the great dark expanse of our solar system.
I have always associated that image with Rosh Hashanah. I remember being in cheder as a child, drawing out the world like this in crayon.
“This festival is the birthday of the world,” I learned.
We celebrate the world’s creation and another trip around the sun. According to rabbinic tradition, the Earth is now approaching the ripe old age of 5782. Mazal tov!
Our ancestors may not have known that the world was, in fact, billions of years old. They probably did not even realise that it is, as Branson would have seen, spherical and rotating on its own axis.
But they understood something deeply important. This planet is a gift from God. It is a sacred place, existing in an improbable balance that allows the perfect conditions for life. It is filled with more animals and plants than we will ever be able to name. As the Psalmist declared: “How manifold are your works, Eternal One!”
At the Jewish New Year, we celebrate creation and our place within it. We thank God for the bees that made us honey and the trees that bore us apples. We count another year when God placed human beings in a perfect garden and charged us with caring for it.
What Richard Branson might not have seen from all the way up there was how delicate this planet really is. Once again, we experienced our hottest summer on record, where wildfires spread across the western coast of North America. Some congregants at my synagogue in Essex lost their homes to flooding, as sudden thunderstorms struck.
Our climate is rapidly changing. We have witnessed snowstorms in Texas and flash floods in China and Germany. Whole swathes of the Amazon rainforest have been destroyed. Parts of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia have died from sun bleaching, leaving ocean graveyards behind.
Experts warn that melting polar ice caps and close contact with cattle will mean even more deadly pandemics.
The midrash on Genesis teaches that God took Adam and Eve around Eden, showing them every living thing . “Look after this world and care for it,” said the Holy One. “For if you destroy this world, there will be nobody after you to repair it.”
Now look at this world. Are we not in danger of ruining it? As it stands, the planet is being consumed by a few, while the many are exploited, in a way that could destroy us all.
We cannot separate Richard Branson’s trip into space from the unfolding ecological disaster. Every rocket launch emits one hundred times more greenhouse gases than a single flight on an aeroplane.
Right now, Branson is engaged in a battle with other billionaires for who can most colonise the atmosphere. Other heads of corporations, including Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are engaged in a space race. They want to project themselves furthest away from this planet and create an entire industry charging others for the same privilege.
I do not want to see the world from space if I cannot live in it. I certainly do not want only a covetous few to explore space if it means they leave a burning planet behind for the rest of us.
This earth cannot have been given by God only so that a wealthy few could enjoy seeing it, but that every one of us could live in it and marvel at its wonders.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The last year has shown us how fragile the planet is. But it has also shown us how adaptable human beings are.
We know how caring and supportive people have been to each other throughout the last year’s difficulties. The Jewish community has shown the very best of itself in its mutual aid and compassion for our most vulnerable members.
Incredibly, we have also seen a vaccine developed, approved, and distributed in record time. Everyone across the community has rallied to take up the offer of protecting themselves and others.
We have the power to send people into space and cure diseases. Through hard work, cooperation, and creativity, humanity has already shown it can face off its greatest challenges.
As Progressive Jews, we talk often about the importance of “tikkun olam”: healing the world. We have a sacred duty to preserve and perfect the planet.
The energy and investment that has gone into space programmes could support the development of new green technologies and a just transition to a sustainable future.
Across the country and the world, campaigners are pushing us to rethink our entire economy. They urge governments of the world to invest in jobs, resources and renewable energy. It is not too late to defeat climate change, even as it arrives on our own doorstep.
We can have clean air and clean waters; a flourishing planet for our children to grow up.
If it is possible to see the world from space, it must also be possible to save it.
This year, let us rise to the challenge.