Erev Rosh Hashanah: “The Story of Us” and God’s Creation:

Illness. Isolation. Fear. Separation. Conspiracy theories. Lockdowns. Death.

For many people, at least some of these plagues have defined life under the Coronavirus pandemic for the past six months. Here at Temple, we, certainly, did not anticipate this. When we were forced to cancel our Purim celebration at the last minute back in early March, we thought – well, by mid-summer, everything will be okay. We’ll be back together. This, too, shall pass.

But it didn’t. There are a lot of reasons why we are meeting on Zoom tonight, and for the rest of our holy days and fall festivals. Some of them are out of our control. Some of them could have been controlled but weren’t. But the consensus of our Temple family at our annual meeting was to prioritize everyone’s safety, and that’s what we’re doing.

As a congregation, we actually have held up pretty well, all things considered. We have used all the technology available to us, to bring our congregational family and friends together almost every Friday night since March, with prayers, Torah, and just sharing how we’re doing.

We were privileged to call Isaac Rubinstein to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah just a few weeks ago. And despite the challenges of speaking to empty pews in the sanctuary, Isaac did as beautiful and mature a job as I’ve ever seen in one of my students.

We have marked each other’s happy moments, mourned each other’s losses, and celebrated the little triumphs that make every day a little bit easier and happier than it otherwise might have been. We’ve reminded each other to just breathe.

We’ve done it because we are a strong community. And we’ve been able to do it, I think, at least in part, because we are Jews.

Let’s face it: Throughout the ages and within our lifetimes, Jews have persevered where others have disappeared. We have faced exile, pogroms, anti-Jewish laws, and ingrained antisemitism. We have wandered the world, settling where we can, when we can, figuring out how to make a living however we can.

Isolation? Been there. Conspiracy theories – well, they seem to have been invented to persecute Jews. Ghettos? Death? Try the pogroms in central Europe generations before there was a Holocaust.

And we are still here. Not Amalek. Not Haman. Not any of the Hamans that have arisen in every generation since then. We’re still here. Though not in the numbers we ought to be.

Some people say it’s a miracle. I say: it’s because of who we are. We are Jews. We have learned to persevere. To survive and to thrive.

Of course, we’re not the only ones who have found strength and survival mechanisms during the pandemic. But I think ours are somewhat unique, because they are ingrained in our history and in the very existence of our communities.

And that’s what I’m going to be talking about throughout these Days of Awe.

I call this: “The Story of Us.” And I was inspired by a remarkable, and very under-reported, speech that was made back in January by the Jewish author and ardent Zionist, Bari Weiss. She gave the speech in front of 25-thousand people at a “No Hate, No Fear” solidarity march in New York.

She based it on Edmund Fleg’s famous essay, “I am a Jew…because.”

And through these High Holy Days I am drawing from her speech to inspire us all with who we are, and what we can become. Which after all — is what the High Holy Days are all about.

Tonight: “The Story of Us” and God’s creation:

Bari Weiss declared:

“Today, as in so many times in history, there are many forces in the world insisting that Jews must disappear or die. Some say it bluntly. Some cloak it in the language of progress.

“But I am a Jew because I know that there is force far greater than that. And that is the force of who we are and the force of our world-changing ideas.”[1]

Tonight, at the dawn of our New Year, we celebrate one of these world-changing ideas: the Jewish story of Creation.

Now, it’s true, that every people of the ancient Near East had a version of the Creation myth. And the one that appears in the Jewish Bible is just one version. But ours comes with something extra: the idea of a mission. The notion that we were put on this earth for a purpose that is grounded in the Torah’s concepts of morality and goodness.

And nobody outlined this idea better than the 16th-century Kabbalist, Isaac Luria. Luria’s idea is based on three concepts:

  •  
  • Tzimtzum, or contraction
  • Shevirat ha-kelim, the breaking of the vessels
  • And Tikkun, restoration.

Luria referred to God as the Infinite – in Hebrew, Ein Sof, that which is without end. The Torah describes how God brought the material world into being from nothingness with words: Let there be light. But what’s important, according to Luria, is what happened before that. After all, God being God – infinite and without end – there wasn’t room for a material world.

So God did something remarkably humble for, you know, God. God withdrew into Godself to make room for Creation. God restricted God’s own presence through tzimtzum so that the universe and all that fills it could live.

And then, when there was room outside of God, God sent that beam of Divine light into the space that was void and without form. The Divine light allowed the universe to be organized – day and night, air and water and land. And God, as Torah tells us, saw that it was good.

But it wasn’t all good – not God-good. The Divine light was so powerful that we couldn’t have survived it. So it was enclosed in Kelim, vessels. But the vessels weren’t strong enough, and they shattered into tiny shards. Sparks of that beam of Divine light went everywhere. The shards of the vessels embedded themselves into everything, shredding things as they went. And God’s constriction allowed disharmony and aggression and evil and death to come into the material world. By its very nature, the world became imperfect and inconstant.

This world of chaos and illness and confusion – this is the world that we Jews were born into. And this is the world that gives us purpose.

As Howard Schwartz writes in the book Tree of Souls,

“This is why we were created – to gather the sparks no matter where we are hidden. God created the world so that the descendants of Jacob could raise up the holy sparks. That is why there have been so many exiles – to release the holy sparks from the servitude of captivity. In this way, the Jewish people will sift all the holy sparks from the four corners of the earth.

“And when enough holy sparks have been gathered, the broken vessels will be restored, and tikkun olam, the repair of the world, awaited so long, will finally be complete.”[2]

Tikkun olam: We use this phrase most often to describe social justice projects. But its cosmic significance is most important, especially on the day that we celebrate God’s creation. Tikkun olam literally means the repair of God’s world.

But, guess what? God cannot do this. Only we can do this. Only we have the power to search the world for those sparks of Divine light and bring them together to create order, harmony and peace.

These sparks of light could be anywhere and everywhere. In plants and trees; in animals of the land, the sea and the air. In rocks. In water. But I believe we find them most often in other people.

Sometimes they are hard to spot. Because when those vessels shattered and threw the world into chaos – the nature of humanity also changed. Remember Adam and Eve: they chose to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Their action assured that all human beings would now have free will, freedom to choose how to behave.

When Samuel Goldman wrote about this last month in The New York Times, he was promoting the fusion of two concepts that are often seen as incompatible: freedom and virtue:

“People need constraint to develop moral habits,” Goldman wrote, “but also freedom to make mistakes, change their ways and assume responsibility for both failures and achievements.”[3]

Goldman attributed the idea to the likes of Aristotle and Greek philosophy. But we know that it is the foundation of Torah.

In our High Holy Day readings, Torah lays out the choices for us and urges us to lead lives of ethical behavior, kindness to those most vulnerable in our society, honesty in our business dealings, and humility before God. But in doing so, Torah acknowledges we have the right and the power to do otherwise: to cheat, to steal, to lie. To threaten, to discriminate, to persecute. To be selfish.

And, let’s face it, a lot of people do make those choices. We all know them. In a chaotic and sometimes dangerous world, they choose to perpetuate chaos, fear and bigotry. In a world that is already hard to navigate, they put icebergs in the sea routes and nails on the road.

In these days of pandemic, they refuse to mask or social distance, cause scenes at Wal-Mart, and promote wild conspiracy theories and unproven (or even dangerous) quack remedies.

The selfish people often suck up all the oxygen in the room, because everything is always about them. So they make it hard to adjust our focus, and pay attention to those who often do not draw attention to themselves. The selfless and the sensitive. The compassionate and the caring. The people whose divine spark glows brightly, if we choose to open our eyes and see. Behind a mask, from six feet away, you watch, and you know.

Those are the people whose nature we must cultivate and whose work we must support. They are the ones who will freely share their sparks and unite them with others who are like them. They are not afraid that sharing means they lose something precious. On the contrary, they see what the great Torah sage known as Rashi saw in the kindling of the Shabbat lights: When one flame lights another, neither one is diminished, and their shared light burns more brightly – lighting the way for us all.

The selfish people are often the loudest voices in the room, but they don’t necessarily represent the majority. Back in March and April – when the pandemic was sweeping across our country, The New York Times commissioned a study about what Americans thought about the crisis. They wanted to know: Are you focusing more on your personal problems, or on those of society – the people around you? Overall, the share of responders who emphasized society’s interests at least as much as their own increased by 3.3 percent, from 37.6 percent to 40.9 percent. And that’s a very significant jump in this kind of survey.

And the survey results were the same regardless of political affiliation, gender, age or geography.

We may be obsessed by the mask-less guy standing six inches behind us in the checkout line at Martin’s. But he represents a smaller proportion of the population than he’d like to think.

Then again, maybe he might not always be so selfish. After all, the whole point of these Days of Awe is that they offer us an opening to acknowledge the mistakes we’ve made in our attitudes and our behavior, and to change them. Maybe that guy will literally see the lights in others and follow those lights to a more caring and responsible life. It’s clearly happened for other people, as the Times article reported on that survey:

“The past weeks have put a spotlight on community engagement and, in particular, on the personal risks nurses and doctors are taking to treat their communities. The increase may also reflect growing recognition of our mutual dependence and the fact that we sacrifice our own desires, such as going outside, in the spirit of keeping one another healthy.”[4]

We have called these people heroes – these people on the front lines. The doctors and nurses and custodians in hospitals and nursing homes. The stackers and check-out clerks in pharmacies and grocery stores. The people who donate food to foodbanks, and the people who distribute that food. I call them sparks.

Sparks of divine light, shining most brightly when our world is most dark, lighting the way for us and making the world brighter with the power of their combined radiance.

This pandemic has been a microcosm of the stages of creation: Tzimtzum, the contraction of the world that has brought humanity together as we have not seen in our lifetimes. Shevirat ha-keilim, as the vessels of community, faith, and trust in one another are broken. And Tikkun, as people around the world – and within our own communities – actually become the sparks of Divine light that bring us back together in the common cause of healing and unity.

The celebration of this ongoing work of tikkun is the celebration of the world itself – the world that God created for us. The world that is as imperfect as we are. The world that can only sustain itself from generation to generation if we bring our sparks together as one. 

We Jews have taught this to the world. As Bari Weiss declared in concluding her speech in January:  

“We were put on Earth to be Jews.

“We are the people whose God never slumbers or sleeps, and so neither can we.

“We are the lamp-lighters.

“We are the ever-dying people that refuses to die.

“The people of Israel lives now and forever.

“Am Yisrael Chai.”

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our ongoing mission. And let us say together: Amen.

######

©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] Bari Weiss, “No Hate, No Fear,” published in the “Opinion” page of the Jewish Journal on January 16, 2020 and accessed at https://jewishjournal.org/2020/01/16/no-hate-no-fear/

[2] Howard Schwartz, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 122.

[3] Samuel Goldman, “Republicans Have Another Option. It’s Not Trumpism,” The New York Times, August 31, 2020. Accessed at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/31/opinion/trump-conservatives.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage

[4] Alexander W. Cappelen, Ranveig Falch, Erik O. Sorensen, Bertil Tungodden and Gus Wezerek, “What Do You Owe Your Neighbor? The Pandemic Might Change Your Answer,” The New York Times, April 16, 2020. Accessed at https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/04/16/opinion/coronavirus-inequality-solidarity-poll.html

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