THE ANNIVERSARY OF CREATION
Erev Rosh HaShanah (evening drash)
Shana Tovah, and good evening. As I’ve done for the last few years, my high holiday drashot will be theme-based, and this year I want to share some ideas about something very controversial, even more so than politics. I’m gonna talk about something that some say we shouldn’t talk about, particularly here, in a synagogue, on the high holidays. I want to talk about that three letter word that get’s some up in arms. Let’s talk about: God.
Less than year ago, while I was visiting a member of the congregation who was facing a fatal diagnose, I was asked about God. I answered, in Jewish fashion, with a number of different ideas, and also some more questions to ask, and I’ll share with you some of the things that I told this member. But I first want to say that the question that I usually get about God is more of a statement, and I’ve heard some variety of this question at least three times from Bar Mitzvah students: “But Rabbi, I don’t even believe in God, why do I need to study for this Bar Mitzvah?!”. The 12 year old boys who have asked me this question, I think, always expect me to respond in shock. They believe their question might offend me, and at least one adolescence that I knew, seemed to have said this with the hope that he was offending me. My answer is that I’m not shocked, not even surprised, and not even disturbed by their revelation, which I have to tell you is often used like a “get out of jail free” card. “The God you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either” I usually say. There is no old man in the sky with a beard who sends down lightning bolts when we misbehave. I have flown on planes many times, and looked all around and never seen this scary god. I then often ask the pre-teens what they do believe in, and after they give me that pouty, confused pre-teen look, and I offer some suggestions, it becomes pretty clear that they do value family, acts of loving kindness, community and a sense that life has meaning.That is the God that I believe in. When people say “God”, what comes to my mind is the infinite universe, and the connections that I feel to other people, other living creatures, this physical planet and its beautiful infinite surroundings. God, to me, is connection. God is the the infinite universe and the meaning, the intention behind it, between it, above it, beyond it, and most importantly, in it.
One of the best things about being a rabbi, as compared to spiritual leaders of other faiths, is that I don’t believe that my group is only a religion. Jews are an ethnicity, a culture, a tribe, a philosophy and a family. The example that I have given dozens of times over my 6+ years here, is as follows: Imagine that it’s Easter Day and I walk next door to Our Lady of Fatima as their main mass is letting out, and I call to the exiting people and say: “Excuse me, I’m looking for an atheist?” How well with this be received there? And now imagine that it’s 1/2 an hour from now, and we are all leaving this building, and someone comes up and says: “Wow, look at all these devout Jews leaving their prayers on their high holidays!”. Many of us would probably say: “devout Jews?! I’m an atheist!” or, “I’m agnostic”. And when the follow-up question is asked, “If you don’t believe in God, why are you here at a synagogue?!” Our answer is clear: It’s Rosh HaShana! It’s Yom Kippur! I’m Jewish; where else would I be?!”. This is what it so interesting, so challenging, and such a blessing to be a rabbi: you don’t have to believe in God to be a proud, active Jew. I’m not even sure that God cares if you believe or not. It seems to me that the message of God in the Torah is: ‘this is what happened long ago, life has meaning, if you’re going to pray to me don’t use idols because I’m infinite Oneness and beyond all form, and most importantly: don’t be a jerk. It’s fine if you don’t believe in Me; do the mitzvot anyway, be a good person, and leave the world better than you found it.’
As Jews, we love questions, and one of the most important is what do Jews believe about God? So in these high holiday drashot, we’ll look at 5 different approaches, 5 relationships / 5 connections, that help us think about the divine, and how these relationships, connections, and beliefs can manifest in our lives. Since these are the Days of Awe, I want to also explore how spiritual cleansing and forgiveness factor in to these relationships and connections. And I want to give some examples that are personally meaningful to me and relevant and timely for us as a new years beckons and we looks back at one that has just passed.
One more explanation before we begin a deep but speedy dive into the Jewish spiritual paths. I am not bothered at all if you don’t believe in God. I am not trying to convince you of anything and I’m certainly not selling anything to you including a used car. I am trying to be provocative in the most user-friendly Jewish way. I invite your questions and comments, and if you have no personal interest in spiritual topics, I still want to assure you of two more things: 1. The holidays work on many levels and feeling cleansed on the high holidays, celebrating on Sukkot and Simchat Torah, and gathering with community, is of great use even if you are 100% right and there is no God. Secondly, consider seeing all this and my drashot as an anthropologist: it’s an insight into one person’s view of a 3,500 year old belief system called being Jewish.
So where do we find God? When do we sense that life has purpose? Where were you when you were last feeling inspired? What is a path, a relationship, a connection to meaning where Jews and others have found the Divine? Nature. Tonight let me speak about God as Creator.
Even the most fervent atheist, even the most clear minded agnostic, admits that the world is a place of beauty. If we are experiencing the grandeur of a national park, or the color and shapes of the distant cosmos, or the details of the tiny molecules that make up all of our physical universe, it is a place of amazing awe. In Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, this is called the world of Assiyah: the place and dimension of physical creation.
So many of us, I’m sure, feel better, more alive, more connected when they are out in nature. If it’s golfing, jogging, hiking, biking, or even just looking out the window, we all feel a sense of wonder and joy when we see the seasons turning, the clouds moving across the sky, trees, animals, the very landscape that is the background and the ground itself at almost all moments. We look to the world and its beauty for inspiration, and for reminders about what is important.
Rosh HaShana, as a date on the Hebrew calendar represents the anniversary of creation. All of our holidays have both a spiritual message based on Jewish history, and a message that is related to the natural world and the agricultural cycles. We are at the time of the turning of the seasons, and before we celebrate the harvest, we pause and consider our lives as hanging in the balance. It is no coincidence to me that Rosh HaShana is always near the fall equinox when day and night are equally matched. We are to see our lives as they are, and weigh what we have accomplished, and consider where we have fallen short, and who have we hurt, and what do we need to let go of. As we move into fall and winter, we are to feel the Autumn, the chill of oncoming darkness and uncertainty, and embrace the challenge that comes with this moment. In fact, we are to ritualize this season of ancient uncertainty when our ancestors wondered if they would have enough until spring and new life returns. We are to self-reflect, pause before moving forward, and look inward. This pausing, this day of sounding the shofar 100 times tomorrow and on Tuesday morning, is to re-connect us with ourselves, our own inner nature.
As we recite during Musaf tomorrow, Rosh HaShana is the “birthday of the world”, it is the anniversary of our physical creation culminating in the origin of our human species. Tonight is the 5,780th anniversary of the beginning of that first Erev Shabbat, what the Torah describes as the 6th “day” of creation. After six divine periods of time that may have each lasted 24 hours, or 24 millennia, or 24 seconds, [we don’t really know!], God looked at what had been created, which included the last to be formed / evolved humans, and said it was “very good”. Creation, the living planet, and the greater universe of existence is a good place, a place of light, of life, of love, of goodness and kindness and vast human divine potential.
Our Jewish wisdom is that we are to respond to life and the passing of seasons with appreciation, and with a desire to learn and grow from what we have observed and experienced. I try to spend time outside every season, every week, every day, and I find that when I prepare for the high holidays, both the Services and writing these drashot, and my own internal process of teshuvah, spiritual renewal, I do my best thinking outside. It’s good to read a holy book about this season of forgiveness and spiritual cleansing, but for me, where I will personally learn the most is probably on a long hike with the trees, the hills, and the animals as company for my inner thoughts.
Nature is a beautiful thing to enjoy. As Jews we are to always show appreciation, and there are many brachot, blessings, that are recited on beautiful views, scents, the sound of thunder, the appearance of a rainbow, a unique creature or a beautiful plant, seeing the ocean, witnessing the new blooms of spring. It’s also certainly key to our mission statement as Jewish to protect the world, to heal it, to engage in Tikun Olam with the knowledge that our lives and our planet are fragile entities that we have been entrusted with. And nature can often be a most powerful teacher.
This past summer, while waiting for an outdoor concert to begin out of town, there was an amazing bright rainbow as the sun was setting, and then thunder as well. It turns out that a few people attending the show actually caught a photograph of the lighting in front of the sunlit rainbow. The next night, when I saw on-line photos that had been posted of the lightning rainbow, I suddenly realized that I had not recited either of the blessings the previous day for seeing a rainbow, “God who remembers the covenant and is faithful to the promise to not flood the world” or the blessing for hearing the thunder, “God who’s strength and and might fill the world”. For a moment I felt bad. Then I realized while I might have missed the opportunity as it was happening, to thank God and connect with my Jewish traditions, it didn’t make the experience itself any less beautiful or powerful. The same source of life, the same force that Yoda describes flowing through all living things, is what makes for the rainbow, and the lightning, and me. I am part of nature, capable of experiencing the storm and the sun, and able to forget to say a blessing, and also capable of remembering, able to learn from, and also able to do better the next time. The same loving God, [I’ll call it God], that makes the universe, and is the energy of a summer thunderstorm, and is the beauty of the rainbow, is the divine presence that I want to thank, and is the same loving force that forgives. Certainly if there is a sentient God who wants me to be loving, appreciative, humble and growing each day, that God also forgives me when I forget to say thanks, but remember the next day. It is so important to forgive oneself. What else can one do? Not saying the blessing didn’t make the natural event go away, and certainly some appreciation, even later, is better than none. We’re not perfect, we’re not even close. But when we take stock and appreciate what we have, we can better go into what is new. Yes, there is forgiveness in the world of nature. How do we know for sure? Because “God don't make no junk”. We are part of of the natural world, to err is to be alive; to learn from it and grow is to be Jewish.
There are so many ways that one can experience the divine, God, the good in life. I bless us that we should deepen our relationship to our Creator, through our connections to the natural world around is, and the physical reality that is us, it is our bodies, our lives. May this anniversary of creation be a time of really noticing the world outside, feeling a part of it, and becoming better through that process, because that is our nature. Shana Tovah - a good year for us all!
Rabbi Shalom Bochner
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