Pope’s Visit on Yom Kipur and High Holiday Sermon Ideas

Pope Francis will be visiting the White House on the day of Yom Kippur, he’ll be addressing a joint session of Congress the following day (live on most broadcast networks) and then speaking to the UN in New York the day after that.

It is therefore the case that during the week of Yom Kippur, there will be wall-to-wall coverage of the Pope and his extraordinary efforts to raise awareness about climate change. Members of the Jewish community will be reading about and watching the Pope in the period between RH and YK. (And after speaking in DC and NY, he heads to Philadelphia for what is expected to be an enormous outdoor Mass – 2 million+ people expected.)

Given this, we wanted to give you some background which we hope will be of use if you choose to address the topic during the high holidays.


  1. Background on the Pope’s visit, Encyclical, climate talks
  2. Sermon ideas/Jewish framing
  3. Action steps for communities and individuals
  4. Appendix: Calendar of events


  1. Background on the Pope’s visit, the Encyclical, and the climate talks

Pope Francis released a groundbreaking encyclical on June 18, in which he offered a sweeping response to humanity’s complex relationship to the planet, linking climate change to poverty and inequality. It’s totally worth reading. Here’s the Vatican’s full version. But the document is slightly unwieldy in its online and pdf forms. If you want to print it, we’ve formatted it into a shorter and tidier 42 pages. Click here for that version.


On Yom Kippur, the Pope will be meeting with President Obama, and addressing Congress and the UN in the days following the holiday. He will be speaking not just for the world’s billion Catholics, but to some extent for all people of good faith. Who can doubt that, in a sense, and in our language, he will be calling us to teshuva – to strive to return to being our best selves?

Specifically, Pope Francis is expected to direct the world’s attention to the urgency of the upcoming November/December climate summit in Paris. As I write this, governments are drafting emissions reductions goals for the coming years, which we hope will be ratified at the Paris summit. These talks are overseen by the United Nations Framework on Climate Change, a diplomatic body charged with keeping global warming from reaching or exceeding a dangerous 2 degree Celsius temperature increase. The summit represents the latest stop in a decades-long quest, which has its beginnings in the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

To understand what’s at stake at the Paris talks, I strongly recommend Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent New Yorker articlewhich is the clearest piece I’ve read that sets out what the talks are about, and how and why different groups around the world can and should be involved in speaking up on this topic.

  1. Sermon Ideas / Jewish Framing

These diplomatic developments, playing out on the global stage, coupled with the enormity of climate change itself, may leave us feeling humbled and powerless.


But though the task is great, we are not powerless. Both the shmita year, and the high holiday season, reminds us that radical change, teshuva really, is possible. As Pope Francis wrote in his encyclical, “[A]ll is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.” Jewish tradition, too, gives us frameworks for communal soul-searching, communal responsibility, and communal action.


I recently spoke at a high-end interfaith gathering in Paris (hosted by the French government, as the hosts of the COP talks) on the topic of the climate talks and the Pope’s encyclical, and I copy here  the speech I gave at that gathering. Feel free to quote, copy or use any of that (including the jokes) if that would be of use.


The single greatest frame that we want to suggest is the shmita time cycle itself. This Rosh Hashanah marks the start of a new 7-year cycle in Jewish life. So some time over the chagim is a great moment to say to your community:
What sort of Jewish community do we envision by the end of the next seven year cycle in Jewish life in 2022? What could our synagogue or temple look like by then? How will we be stronger, more vibrant, more multi-generational? How will we involve and inspire the best of our young people? And – linked to all of these questions – how will we live more sustainably? What food will we serve? Will we have bike racks out front? What about interfaith? Will we connect to the Israeli environmental movement? And so on…. The seven-year frame – and a seven-year vision – is a superb opportunity to start to inspire and challenge your community.


  • Teshuva: On Yom Kippur, we read about the communal sin offering that was sacrificed by the Kohen Gadol. The American Jewish community is a powerful community, residing in a country with the highest cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases; Yom Kippur offers us an opportunity to take responsibility for our continuing role in creating the climate crisis. The words “U’teshuva U’tefilah U’tzedakah ma’avirin et roah hagzeirah” give us an ancient roadmap for addressing this very contemporary challenge: taking action in our own lives and institutions to reduce our waste and carbon footprint (teshuva), praying for courage, for people impacted, etc – and speaking out (tefilah), using our money and our voting power to push for change (tzedakah).


  • Climate refugees: On Rosh Hashanah, we read of Yishmael and Hagar – refugees expelled from their home, sent into a desert, dying for lack of water. Yet God hears their cries and answers them. We need to hear those who are crying from the pain of a harsh environment, and the millions of climate refugees that are being forced from their land today and in coming years.


  • Tashlich: Tashlich offers an excellent opportunity to actually enter the natural world and reflect on our relationship with it; to consider the pollution our society produces; what we are dumping in the water; and the scarcity of water in the American west, in Israel, and across the world in an age of climate change.
  • Fasting: “Is this the fast that I desire?” (Isaiah 58:6). The Yom Kippur haftarah calls upon us to not merely make pronouncements, not to merely deny ourselves food, but instead to change our actions and our society’s approach towards the oppressed.
  • Unetaneh Tokef the poignancy of this prayer has only increased in a world in which whole communities are under threat: Where will the next typhoon hit? The next drought?
  • Shmita:  Shmita teaches us that caring for the earth and caring for people are inseparable. It requires moderation and planning for the future. And it shows us that we must share our abundance with those living in poverty; in order for all to participate in shmita, the poor cannot be indebted to the wealthy. In all these ways, it can guide us towards building a healthier climate and society. Today, we who have benefited the most from a fossil fuel-driven economy must take the largest responsibility for addressing one of the chief side effects of that economy: a changing climate.
  • Bal Tashchit: Jewish tradition forbids needlessly wasting resources. In our time, wasting energy is directly contributing to the destruction of a healthy climate. But it’s also easier than ever to take small steps to cut our energy use, both as individuals and institutions, from undertaking energy audits to installing “smart” programmable thermostats to putting solar panels on our roofs. Reducing food waste and water waste is also in our power.
  • Love the stranger / love your neighbor as yourself: The Pope’s Encyclical emphasizes the undue burden climate change will place on the poor and the vulnerable – people who played little role in creating the climate problem to begin with. In Judaism, as in Catholicism, we are commanded to protect the needy and the stranger. Furthermore, climate change is already causing a wave of refugees forced from their homes by drought and extreme weather. Others should not suffer for our sake. And those uprooted by famine or by storm must be cared for by our community.
  • Shema: Last month, we read the Torah portions containing the Shema. The first line is an affirmation of the unity and interconnectedness of all things (Deuteronomy 6:4). The second paragraph is a statement that if we live well in relation to our natural environment, our surroundings will treat us well, and vice versa. (Deuteronomy 11:13-17). Although these passages have particular Jewish significance, in an era of climate change, they clearly have universal ecological lessons to teach as well. These aspects need to be re-emphasized and taught.
  1. Steps we can take as a community and as individuals

At the People’s Climate March in September 2014, religious groups played a leading role. The Jewish community showed up in force; one in 10 of the cosponsoring organizations was Jewish, far out of proportion to our numbers. But Pope Francis’ encyclical should inspire us to join with religious leaders and continue to redouble our efforts in both greening and advocacy, providing a needed religious voice in the climate movement. While there is no single leader of the Jewish community who can speak on our behalf, how can we follow Pope Francis’ lead and publicly demonstrate the importance of this issue to our community and the world?

Hazon is deeply committed to helping Jewish organizations set and achieve such sustainability goals. To that end, we’re excited to let you know that we’ve begun work on a Hazon Seal of Sustainability, a good housekeeping seal of approval that will make it easier to become more sustainable in multiple ways – and to significantly strengthen your community in the proces. (Email becca.linden@hazon.org if you’re interested in being updated on the pilot phase of this program.)

Below we offer further suggestions for action:

  • Start a green team at your synagogue or try hosting a green kiddush. See the Jewish Greening Fellowship website. Invite your members to sign up at Hazon’s website for information on the widest range of resources and programs in the Jewish community related to food, the outdoors and environmental sustainability.
  • Read and organize a discussion of the encyclical.


  • Invite your congregants to support the United States’ in its commitment to achieve emissions reductions. The primary component of this reduction is the EPA’s recently announced Clean Power Plan. But the plan is threatened in Congress. Contact your representative this high holiday season to tell them that you want the US to follow through on the Clean Power Plan.
  • For Rabbis: Sign the Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis. Arthur Waskow is both a rabbi and an indefatigable prophet, and you can hear his distinctive voice in the recently published rabbinic call for climate action, which has been signed by a growing number of rabbis. You can join them here.
  • Our Voices is organizing a series of “Light the Way” interfaith vigils on the eve of Pope Francis’ speech to the United Nations. In NYC, there will be an interfaith vigil, followed by a larger rally onSeptember 24th at Dag Hammarskjold plaza next to the United Nations.
  • Convene a study session on climate change during the Yom Kippur break
  • Announce the Light the Way vigil during services. See this guide for a climate-themed kavanah that can be offered before Rosh Hashanah shofar blowing
  • PARK(ing) Day is an annual open-source event, open to anyone, that temporarily transforms metered parking spaces into “PARK(ing)” spaces: temporary public places. This year, it’s on Friday, September 18 – just after Rosh Hashanah 5776. Perfect timing as we’ll have just completed the current year of Shmita – rest for the land – and it’s time to start building and creating again.


Appendix: Calendar of events

There are a range of climate gatherings and demonstrations happening in tandem with the Pope’s visit and the Paris talks, including interfaith vigils happening in Washington, D.C., and New York City.

  • September 22-23:

o   Yom Kippur service for planetary forgiveness at Lincoln Memorial; sponsors include the Shalom Center & Interfaith Moral Action on Climate.

o   Pope meets with Obama at White House.

  • September 24

o   Pope addresses a joint session of Congress

o   Interfaith march in support of the Pope, sponsored by IMAC, Hazon, etc.

o   Light the Way Vigil near UN headquarters in New York City

  • September 25: Pope addresses UN
  • September 26 to 27: Pope visits Philadelphia (on the eve of Sukkot)
  • October 14: People’s Climate Movement National Day of Action
  • Weekend after Thanksgiving: Demonstrations/marches before the Paris talks
  • November 30: Paris talks begin