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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775: Let Us Create a Human Being.......Now What Do We Do? ( Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Evening)

This sermon being delivered tonight at my congregation, The Jewish Fellowship of Hemlock Farms (www.jfhf.org) in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.
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This evening is the start of Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of a new Jewish Year. However, the day is not called Rosh Hashanah in the Torah, it was the rabbis who later assigned that name. In the Torah the day is referred to as Yom ha'Zikaron, the Day of Remembrance. But what is it that we are remembering on this day? According to the rabbinic tradition, Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the world. To be more exact, it celebrates the creation of the Adam, the first human being.

In the Biblical and Rabbinic tradition, the human being was seen as the pinnacle of creation. Yet, knowing what we do about human beings and human nature today, do we believe we are the pinnacle of creation? Do we believe that the world was created for our sake? Does the universe exist merely to be at our beck and call? And, if so, have we done a good job not only beckoning and calling, but tilling, tending and caring for our earth, and for all of its creatures, as the Torah commands?

This is something over which philosophers and theologians, pundits and politicians, men and women, boys and girls have long debated: are we indeed the masters of our world? Should we be proud of the way we have treated the world, as well as all the creatures living in it? If God knew then what God knows now, would God have created human beings? Or, since Judaism teaches that God is omniscient, and would therefore have known what we were to become, why did God create us anyway?

Even the rabbis two millenia ago asked similar questions. In Midrash Bereshit Rabbah , a collection of rabbinical stories meant to help people understand the Torah, believed that the same argument took place between God and the ministering angels on the eve of the creation of the first human. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, which according to tradition took place 5755 years ago on this very night the following transpired:

God said to the ministering angels: Let us make Adam, the human being, in our likeness, and let there be a creature not only the product of earth, but also gifted with heavenly, spiritual elements, which will bestow on him reason, intellect, and understanding."

Truth then appeared, falling before God's throne, and in all humility exclaimed: "Do not create this human. For the human will only lie. They will tread truth under their feet and trample me into the ground."

Then the angel of Peace spoke in support of the pleas of Truth: God, why would you desire a creature such as this to exist. For the human being will be so full of strife and contention, filled with a desire to bring war and destruction, so as to disturb the peace and harmony which is the essence of your creation in his endless quest for gain and conquest?”

As Truth and Peace pleaded with God not to create Adam, the human, a soft, small voice spoke above the arguing. It was the voice of the angel Tzedek, Righteousness and Charity. Recognizing that in her humility Tzedek was attempting to speak, God quieted the other angels so as to listen carefully, as she deserved the same attention as the other two angels so loudly and passionately arguing their case.

Tzedek spoke, exclaiming in its mild, but no less passionate voice: "Sovereign of the universe." it is your responsibility to your world to create a being in your likeness. A being unlike any of the other animals of the earth, the fish of the seas or the birds of the sky. For this creation, Adam, will be a noble creature striving to imitate your attributes by its actions. Knowing that your Spirit, your breath is within its soul, the human being will do its best to to perform great deeds, to act in your image and to make your world a better place. Infused with your spirit, he will be humble as he seeks to allow your spirit to animate his actions.

This noble creature will seek to comfort all those who are distressed, just as you would do, they will dry the tears of the afflicted and downtrodden, as they will learn from you, they will raise up those whose spirit is bent over and bowed down and they will reach out a helping hand to those who in need of help, they will speak peace to the heart of the widow and give comfort and shelter to the orphan. They will do all this, for they be emulating you. How could such a magnificent creature not be a glory to its Maker?"

The Creator was moved and determined to create the human being, as planned. And so, as the angels pleaded and argued with the Creator, God cast Truth to the ground, startling all of the angels. In that moment, God created Adam, the first human being. God then declared: "Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven.”(Psalm 85:11)

This midrash was written to address the question, “with whom is God speaking in Genesis 1:26 when God says naaseh Adam b'tzalmeinu ki'dmuteinu... let US make Adam/the human being in OUR image according to OUR likeness.”

As many times as I have heard this midrash in its various forms it never ceases to amaze me. For in it the rabbis were not only acknowledging the complexity of human nature, but questioning whether or not we should even exist! After all were any of the claims made by angels erroneous? Let us look: Do human beings lie? Yes. And No. Do we make wars and act violently, trying to conquer the world? Yes. And No. But do we also t bring charity, justice, compassion and mercy into the world? Do we attempt to care for others and to make the world a better place? Yes. And No.

The message of this midrash is timeless. For the rabbis knew, just as do we, that all of these dichotomies exist within humanity. And it's not simply that some people are truthful and others tell lies, or that same do acts of righteousness and others do not. Each individual contains within them each dichotomy. We each have within us, as the rabbis taught, a yetzer ha'ra, inclination to evil, and a yetzer ha'tov, inclination to do good. We each try to make peace at times and create strife, struggle at other times, some taking this to the extreme of creating violence and war. We all have the capacity to act at either extreme of the spectrum or somewhere in the middle. That is what it means to be human. It is an essential, universal part of human nature, though it is manifest in a unique and particular way for each of us.

Yes, there are those who are primarily evil and those who are primarily good. This is reflected in another midrash on the creation of the world out of tohu v'vohu, formless void chaotic matter. The rabbis taught that this represents the evil-doers in the world. However, they also taught that God's command, “let there be light” refers to the creation of those who are good and righteous, shining the light of God on the world.

  1. This midrash fascinates me because the rabbis did not contrast light and dark, white and black, as representing good and evil, as we are prone to do. Rather, it was the undifferentiated chaos, the formless, primordial mess which represents evil and the light which represents goodness. Perhaps the message of this text is that those who are so unformed, without moral grounding, without a sense of being connected to anyone or anything, who are filled with hatred and anger, trying to control the world and others which represent evil. For when one lives in the world of tohu va'vohu, the chaos prevents us from seeing and acknowledging God's light. And it is God's light which allows us to see the universe and all within it is connected and which compels us to make the world a better place. But those living in the world of tohu va'vohu, those who promote evil and hatred in our world, need not stay there for their entire life. For the perpetual optimist in me believes that it is possible to to slow down the chaos, to bring stillness to the maelstrom and silence to the cacophony. This can allow almost anyone engaging in evil (I am not so naïve as to say everyone) the opportunity to see the light of goodness in the world and to begin to embrace it. That is a central role of religion, at it's best, of spiritual practice, such as prayer and meditation, and can be found within loving and caring families and communities everywhere. For when we join together with others to see that light, we not only help each other connect to the light and abandon the other path. That is one of our primary tasks as human beings. That is one of the main reasons we exist.

And so, the rabbis made the case that prior to the creation of Adam, God knew that there would be good people and evil people, and that in reality everyone will have both qualities within them. But why did the climactic moment of the first midrash consist of God throwing Truth to the ground in order to create human beings? Were the rabbis trying to teach that truth was inconsequential or unnecessary when it comes to human beings? But how can that be the case? How can we make our lives, our world and everything better if there is not truth? The Kotzker Rebbe, a 19th century Hassidic Torah scholar asked a question which helps bring some clarity to this, at least for me.

The Kotzker Rebbe asks why God cast Truth to the ground instead of Peace. After all, banishing Peace would also allowed for a vote in God's favor. And if, as the Talmud teaches, Emet/Truth is the “Seal of God.” If Truth is God's calling card, as it were, why cast it to the ground? The Kotzker answered that God needed to do this because Truth is such a powerful force it would be override Tzedek (Righteousness and Charity) and perhaps prevent Adam's creation.

But how can humanity exist without truth, one might ask. For without it then human existence, if not all of creation. would be built on lies. But we must remember, God did not destroy or banish truth from the universe. God simply cast Truth to the ground, temporarily incapacitating it, just long enough for the first human being to be created. For after all, as it says in the psalm (attributed to God in the midrash) truth is now planted firmly in the ground and will continue to grow. Truth is not in heaven. Truth is here with us, as Righteousness/Tzedek smiles down on us as we do our best to make peace, speak truth and bring righteousness into the world.

In their comments on this interpretation, contemporary Reform scholars Kerry Olitsky and Rabbi Lawrence Kushner remind us the midrash and the Kotzker Rebbe's interpretation are meant to remind us of the danger of truth with a capital T. For it is the belief that any individual or group possesses the only Truth which is at the root of wars, hatred and evil. As Kushner and Olitsky write, “Without the lightning rod of “the Truth”, there can be peace and much more.”

But I would add that that there is one. God, whose seal is Truth. God, the force in the universe which connects and unites everyone and everything (or however one chooses to understand it), and which makes us truly Ehad – One is the only Truth. I would propose that even the agnostics or atheists among us can believe the essence of this to be true. For there is something in the universe which tries to draw us near to each other and reminds us that we are One. And so this Truth exists, but it is the claim that any of us knows it's essence, that we posses the ONLY perspective, which is the root of hatred, war, violence and evil; for this is what separates us rather than bringing us together. Assuming that we possess knowledge of the Truth prevents us from truly seeking Peace, justice, mercy, righteousness and compassion. At least for anyone other than those who believe as we do.

As human beings created in God's image and possessing the essence of God in our soul we must do whatever we can to bring God's light into the world and to make the world a better place for all.

Tonight is eve of the creation of humanity. As the old year was coming to a close we found ourselves living in a world where lies and war, violence and hatred, power struggles and barbarism seemed to be the seals of humanity. We see the war between Israel and Gaza, we watch the extremists of ISIS try to take over the Middle East. In our own country there are daily reports of violence, hate crimes and intolerance. And even here in the safe and serene Pocono mountains fear, uncertainty, violence, and yes, evil has been creeping into our towns, our schools our neighborhoods and our homes as we continued to wait for an end to the insanity of these past few weeks.

But, as the new year begins, let us remember that this is only part of the story. This is the chaos, the tohu va'vohu which is still part of the universe. But the light of goodness is still here as well. It is within each and every one of us. And it is so much stronger the chaos if we work together. We can show this to those who try to bring chaos into our lives by dedicating each moment to living our lives in the light of goodness, caring for and showing compassion for each another, performing acts of righteousness and charity, working to bring peace into our homes, our communities and our world, all of which reminds us that we are indeed One.

By doing all this, even if we can't do it perfectly, we see to it that the Truth of that oneness continues to flourish, even in the face of uncertainty and tragedy, and we insure that each Rosh Hashanah we will indeed have something to celebrate and rejoice together as one. Amen.


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