5771 Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon
by Rabbi Tom Heyn
I once heard about a rabbi who was traveling on a plane and opened up a whole brief case of commentaries and Jewish books he had brought to study. As he sat reading one of his books, the person sitting next to him decided to strike up a conversation.
“I noticed your collection of books and was curious to know if you're a rabbi.”
“Well,” he replied, “As a matter of fact, I am.”
The man seemed pleased and excited to have the opportunity to share his own thoughts about Judaism. “You know, I was born Jewish and even though I'm not practicing, I find everything about it fascinating. There's all that ancient history and culture. There are the biblical laws and the rabbinic laws, and en entire tradition of interpretation. There's the incredible story of a people that survived against all odds, and a whole system of theology and philosophy and ritual. I admit, I've never studied it in much depth, but isn't it true that it all boils down to one thing: that you should love your neighbor as yourself and, basically, be a good person?”
The rabbi then asked the man sitting next to him, “I notice you've been reading a journal about astronomy and I was curious to know if you're a scientist.”
“Well,” the man replied, “As a matter of fact, I am.”
The rabbi continued, “You know, I once took an astronomy course in college and found it fascinating. There are all the solar systems and galaxies, not to mention neutron stars and black holes. There's the Big Bang theory and now I'm hearing new theories about the evolution of the universe. I admit, I've never studied any of this in much depth, but isn't it true that it all boils down to one thing: Twinkle, twinkle, little star?”
OK, so maybe the rabbi's reply was a bit condescending, but he did have a good point: the practice of religion cannot be reduced to a general principle or set of ideas to be accepted or rejected.
On Rosh Hashanah when we hear the blast of the shofar, we call out, ‘Hayom Harat Olam! – today is the birthday of the world; Today the world is born!” The idea, according to our tradition, is that the biblical account of Creation took place 5771 years ago on this day, the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. But we all know that didn't literally happen. Instead, what we know through science is that an even more incredible creation story took place around 15 billion years ago, and that primitive life forms emerged about four billion years ago. Does such information render our ancient scriptures and traditions obsolete? Can we rightfully say that Judaism is a pre-scientific worldview and way of life that has little relevance in our world today?
Throughout tonight's service, and throughout much of the year, we recite liturgical passages that describe God as a king, a father, and a judge; arcane metaphors that no longer resonate with most Jews today. Do such metaphors render our reflection on such images a waste of time?
There are many who think so. Here in the Brattleboro area we have what we might call 'Jews-in-the-woods.' Most of them are not here today and it's not likely we'll ever see them in our synagogue over on Greenleaf St. That's because they've probably had unfortunate experiences that cause them to be repelled by the archaic ideas and images that remain in our tradition. There are probably thousands if not millions, not just here in Vermont but all over the world, who could easily say, “who needs this rubbish?” Some even make a good living at it, like authors such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris. Their best-selling books bear titles like “God is Not Great,” “The God Delusion,” and “The End of Faith.”
These men are brilliant. I could not hold a candle to their intellectual prowess. But as friend, journalist and gay-rights activist Jay Michaelson puts it, these neo-atheists “construct a straw-man fundamentalism, identify it with all religion in general, and then set the effigy aflame.” They do make an easy and compelling case, especially when we look around and find ourselves in a world in which fundamentalisms of all varieties – Islamic, Christian and Jewish – are more virulent than ever before. But we must be careful not to lose sight of the fact that 'religion-done-well' can play an important role in our lives and in our world. Yes, there is bad art and bad music, but does that mean we should dispense with art or music altogether?
If you think about it, you could probably survive and carry on just fine without music or art. Would you know what depth and richness was missing from your life? Maybe. But then again, maybe not. Think of an example of some really bad music and take a moment to share your example with the person sitting next to you or near you. (pause) Now, what if that was the only music you ever listened to. Wouldn't that be a shame? Yet how you would know there was anything better?
The same goes for religion. If you've only known 'religion-done-poorly' all your life, how would you know that 'religion-done-well' has the power to elevate and transform? How would you know that 'religion-done-well' could, in fact, be an indispensable aid in critical areas of human development, if not the evolution of our species?
We all know extraordinary people who don't practice any form of religion, just as we all know healthy people who never exercise. (Don't you hate them?) Of course there are people who exercise and are not healthy, or who exercise in such a way that is actually detrimental to their health. But most experts agree that 'exercise-done-well' is beneficial. Is that a controversial statement? Does this mean that exercise is only for those who need it the most? I don't think so. I know some pretty healthy people who still exercise regularly in one way or another. (You know who you are.)
I'm not suggesting that you, or the person next to you, start making New Years resolutions about going to the gym, starting tomorrow. My analogies about 'music-done-well' or 'exercise-done-well' are only to illustrate the simple point that 'religion-done-well' can also be beneficial. We all know, sadly enough, that 'religion-done-poorly' is, and has always been, a disaster. Not only from our own lives and childhood experiences do we know this to be true; the tragic suffering inflicted on so many people in our world today, and has been throughout history, could all be related, directly or indirectly, to 'religion-done-poorly.'
Should the religious enterprise be abandoned all together? Could art por music ever cease? I don't think that would be possible. Religion can only be redeemed and it is us – we, who must help to redeem it.
‘Hayom Harat Olam!' – today is a new day; the beginning of a new year. Today the world is born. Some of you know that our tradition offers yet another creation story: that of the Jewish mystics, the kabbalists. In the sixteenth-century, in the small, picturesque town of Safed in northern Israel, one of the most influential mystics to ever live, Rabbi Isaac Luria, envisioned creation as a process by which God cleared a small space in what had been an undifferentiated field of Divine energy. God then caused a flow of the Divine energy to enter into that space through a series of vessels known to the kabbalists as the ten sefirot. The vessels proved too weak to contain this Divine energy, however, and consequently shattered into countless shards of light whose surfaces then cooled to form an outer husk, much like a piece of charcoal that looks grey on the outside but contains a glowing ember on the inside. These shards, these discrete, encrusted sparks of Divine light, are what we see all around us as the creatures and objects that constitute Creation. Though we see only their outer forms, we can imagine each and every being and object as containing a glowing spark of that original Divine light.
Lurianic Kabbalah (the kabbalah of Rabbi Isaac Luria) tells us that Adam, the first human being, could have redeemed the world and restored the Divine light to its proper place, allowing each and every spark to return to its Source. Through his sin, however, Adam lost the chance to achieve this repair, and the responsibility for restoring Divine perfection fell to later generations. Our efforts to free the light from its outer husks is known as tikkun (repair), as in 'tikkun olam,' and the kabbalists believed this was to be achieved primarily through the performance of mitzvot (religious commandments),as well as through contemplation and study.
What was so radical about this new creation story was, first of all, the idea that human actions can have an effect on the cosmos; that even the smallest act has the most profound implications. The other radical idea was this: that there is a purpose, a direction that subtly influences all of creation. Things that appear to be random may, in fact, be a manifestation of the Divine energy within us as it seeks to be reunited with the Divine energy that surrounds us.
About 100 years ago, French philosopher, scientist and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, spoke out against the traditional Catholic interpretation of the book of Genesis and consequently, his work was denied publication by the Roman Holy Office during his lifetime. After his death in 1955, however, his book, Le Phénomène Humain (The Human Phenomenon), brought to the world's attention, particularly in scientific and academic circles, the idea that evolution occurs in a directional, goal driven way, and that this process includes not only the evolution of physical organisms but the evolution of culture and human consciousness.
Teilhard's idea is far from the age-old 'teological' arguments that attempt to prove the existence of God based on perceived evidence of order, purpose, or direction in nature. And his idea is far from what we know today as “Intelligent Design,” whose advocates seek to redefine science to include supernatural explanations. On the contrary, Teilhard's theories do not involve any supernatural elements but instead suggest what he called an 'Omega Point,' which he understood as “the maximum level of complexity and consciousness towards which the universe appears to be evolving.” We can't know what or where that is, but we do know that we're evolving in that direction.
Think about any great discovery, like Albert Einstein's famous formula, E=mc2 or Marshall Nirenberg's cracking of the genetic code. The truths they discovered already existed; they were just waiting for us to discover them. I'm not saying that everything is predetermined, nor am I saying that such discoveries are inevitable. Yet it does make me wonder what other truths about the world and ourselves are waiting to be discovered. And what potential, what degree of peace and wholeness might still be achieved? You know, shalom means both peace and wholeness.
‘Hayom Harat Olam!' – today is a new day; the beginning of a new year. Today the world is born. Today we have the chance to begin again, a process known in our tradition as 'teshuvah.' Teshuvah is typically translated as 'repentance,' but it more precisely means a 'turning' or a 'returning.' A turning from what? A returning to what? Is it possible that the peace and wholeness we seek is waiting to be restored? Our tradition is filled with words, images and stories that seem to be saying – 'Yes, it's waiting for us.'
George Vaillant,a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has spent the past 37 years as Director of the Study of Adult Development at the Harvard University Health Service, which has charted the lives of hundreds of men and women over seven decades of their lives. In his most recent book, Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith, Vaillant shares some of the conclusions he's made so far from his studies and lays out a brilliant defense not of organized religion but of mankind's inherent spirituality. Our spirituality, he writes, resides in our innate capacity for emotions such as forgiveness and compassion that are selected for by evolution and located in a different part of the brain than dogmatic religious belief. He makes the scientific case for spirituality as a positive force in human evolution. Other emotions he includes on his list are faith, love, hope, joy, awe and mystical illumination. (Story about a Palestinian youth as an example of forgiveness)
George Vaillant suggests that 'religion-done-well' can help us cultivate the capacity for the emotions, experiences and behaviors that will enable us to evolve, as individuals and as a species. Whether we interpret this process in scientific or in religious terms, we can begin to see that 'religion-done-well' is beneficial and has an important role to play in our lives and in the world. Whether we see ourselves as by-products of a distant past or as beings evolving toward an 'Omega Point,' we are moving forward in some unseen direction with some unseen purpose. Whether we see our good deeds as acts of loving-kindness or as a means of effecting tikkun, the liberating and lifting of hidden sparks that exist within and around us, we are all being called into service.
‘Hayom Harat Olam!' Today is not really the birthday of the world. In fact, if we take a closer look at the Hebrew, we see that the word 'harah' doesn't even mean birth but rather pregnancy, conception, gestation. And ‘olam’ may be better translated as 'eternity' since it's linguistic root means both 'eternity' and 'hidden,' referring to the infinite that is hidden, beyond our limited perception.
And so ‘Hayom Harat Olam’ means very literally, “Today is pregnant with eternity.” What better description could one choose for this day of repentance and forgiveness, a time when we focus on tikkun, repair, and teshuvah – on turning and returning? What better description could one choose for a day when we have come together to see what 'religion-done-well' might have to offer? And what better description could one choose for this first day of a New Year, a day when we look forward to the discovery of new potential and the realization of new possibilities.
Eternal One, may our hopes and prayers become visible and attainable in Your light, Yo whom some of us choose to call Avinu Malkeinu: our Father, our King. And if life were a book whose final chapter we have yet to read, may we and our loved ones be inscribed and sealed in that book for life and for blessing.