Erev Rosh Hashana 2006: The Song of Creation
Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro
It happened twice this summer. Two pleasant BBQ evenings at friends' homes. Relaxed conversation. Twice, I found myself in conversations with people who were wondering how and why things have come to be so bad in our time.
In one of the conversations, someone, who had grown up in the New York City area, said this, “When I was young, my parents would give me some change and I could get on the subway, go straight into Times Square, walk around, buy myself something to eat, and then come home at just about any hour I wished. It never occurred to them or me that I was doing something dangerous.”
“You're so right,” someone added. “Times have changed. New York, Boston, or Springfield. You don't go anywhere without thinking twice and looking over your shoulder.”
There is danger outside our homes, and there is danger too at the airport, in tunnels, in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and North Korea. From the Cold War against the communists, we've apparently tumbled into a cultural war with an angry Moslem world. And, by the way, the icebergs are melting.
In a recent Newsweek article, Anna Quindlen added to the description of our situation in these words: “In May, as part of a program to prepare them for college, the seniors at my daughter's high school heard from a nationally recognized expert on date rape. In August, as part of their introduction to life on campus, the students at my daughter's college heard from a nationally recognized expert on date rape, It was the same expert, offering the same warnings about the perils of sexual assault.”
“These perils are real,” Quindlen continued, “So are the dangers of binge drinking, drug use, unsafe sex, Internet predators, bicycling without a helmet, riding in a car without a seat belt, and smoking cigarettes.”
Times have certainly changed from whatever they used to be. To sum it up, here is what I heard Wolf Blitzer say on CNN earlier this week. As he was signing off before a commercial, Blitzer announced, “We'll be right back in The Situation Room where we keep you up-to-date on your security.”
I'm reminded of a conversation I had years ago on the eve of the 1984 presidential election. Two friends were discussing the contest between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. One said, “I'm not going to vote because the outcome is unimportant. We'll probably annihilate ourselves either way before the century ends.”
Over all these years, I never forgot that stark declaration of pessimism because it expressed a worldview that runs against everything I believe. For the same reason, hearing people this summer lament our sorry predicament touched a chord in me too. When CNN matter-of-factly promises to alert me about the next threat to my safety, I also stand back.
For me, something feels wrong when people ring the bell of fear or ring the bell of doom. When people paint life black and do so almost casually, it seems to me the next move is to retreat from life, throw up one's hands, and head home to hide away.
But I don't want to do that. I don't want to give up or give in, and I believe Judaism doesn't want us to do that either - especially not on Rosh Hashanah.
That is why I was so touched only a few weeks ago when our adult Bat Mitzvah class studied what looked like an unexceptional comment on a verse from the story of Joseph. They were reading the text from the Book of Genesis in anticipation of becoming Bat Mitzvah this December, and the comment came from the classic medieval commentator, Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac, otherwise known as Rashi. He lived from around 1040 to 1105 in southern France.
Here is the context for Rashi's comment: Remember from the Book of Genesis that Isaac had two sons, Jacob and Esau, and that the two of them had a terrible falling out. Jacob more or less swindled Esau out of his birthright, Jacob ran away, and, then, finally after many years Jacob returned to Canaan to reconnect with Esau.
A partial reconciliation did take place, after which the Book of Genesis relaxes the narrative declaring in Chapter 36 “this is the line of Esau” and in Chapter 37 “this is the line of Jacob.”
But here is what catches Rashi's eye. Genesis 36 gives “the line of Esau” about five verses and drops it. Genesis 37 gives “the line of Jacob” the rest of the whole Book of Genesis plus the rest of the Torah. Why the disproportion? Rashi answers, “The Torah may begin with the same phrasing for both Esau and Jacob's lineage, but the Torah leaves Esau's story unfinished because God's focus will henceforth be on God's chosen people, the descendants of Jacob, the Jewish people.”
On the face of it, there is nothing too remarkable here - unless you join me in imagining when Rashi might have written this little affirmation about Jewish history.
Remember Rashi's dates? 1040 to 1105.
Do you remember when the Crusades began and when the Crusaders first looted and murdered their way across France - not more than a few hundred miles from Rashi's home? It was the summer of 1096. Rashi would have been in his mid-50's, a well-known and respected teacher throughout the Franco-German Jewish community when this happened.
Imagine with me, then, what he and other Jews must have felt in 1096 when hundreds of Jews were slaughtered by the Crusaders that summer. Things would have looked very bleak as autumn 1096 arrived. By the time winter set in and the Torah readings reached the story of Jacob and Esau, how could the mood among Rashi's community have been anything but somber? Many Jews must have said, “Times have changed terribly; it's not the way it used to be; we are in grave danger.”
So what does Rashi do? That fall, when he looks at the verses I mentioned (the ones about “the lines” of Jacob and Esau), he fights back. In a year when any observer would have to say Esau's descendants have won the day and the Jews are lost, Rashi insists that Jews are the ones still connected to God. The Jewish people will outlast their oppressors.
Of course, Rashi may have only been indulging in wishful thinking. (My God, if he only knew how much worse life for European Jews was going to become.)
Then again, Rashi's interpretation about the dead end for Esau and the positive future for Jacob wasn't only taught in 1096. On the contrary, Rashi's commentary became the most important Jewish commentary on the Torah so that every fall for centuries his words of faith and optimism have been read by Jews everywhere. In good times and in many harsh times (after pogroms, riots, floods, and expulsions) Jews have read Rashi's claim that all is not lost. Life has purpose and meaning.
And why did our ancestors do this? Better still, how did they do this?
It's got to do with the fact that they believed God was somehow directing their affairs.
It's got to do too with the fact that our people developed a collective commitment to reading life (no matter how brutal it was) boldly, positively, hopefully.
As a Jew, that is why I find myself today so reluctant to give in to doomsday readings about the world's situation.
Too many generations of Jews have read life boldly, positively, and hopefully for me now as an American and a human being to read life otherwise.
It is true that life is precarious. You would have to close your eyes and cover your ears to avoid the evidence that life can be dark and violent. But it's also not as if the Torah doesn't know this. Remember, by the time the Book of Genesis reaches Chapter 3, Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden. Verses after that - Cain kills Abel. Later, Esau tries to kill Jacob. The Egyptians enslave our ancestors. And all of this happens in just the first five books of the Bible.
It's not a pretty story because the real world is frequently not pretty. Which is probably why the mythic stories of every other culture do describe a world of mayhem and debauchery. Think of those Greek and Roman myths you read in High School where one god is always trying to unseat the other god and where human beings are regularly abused by the gods.
But here is what amazes me. It's how our ancestors handled the same unpleasant reality that the Greeks and Romans knew. Our ancestors handled it by telling it like it is. (They gave us plenty of history with plenty of blood and guts.) But they also placed the brutality of life inside a larger framework. Egyptian slavery didn't set the tone for Judaism. Jacob's deceit as a young man didn't become our theme song.
Instead of that, our ancestors gave us a very different story that was meant to color all the other stories. At the very beginning of the Torah, they placed a story that was all about harmony and balance, not darkness but light. It's Genesis Chapter One - the story of how the world was created in that perfectly organized span of seven days. Day by day, they claimed in this story that our world was welcomed by God, blessed by God, and that God said over and over, “This is good. This is very good.”
I'm not debating here whether or not there was a Big Bang or whether or not science shouldn't explain the origin of the universe in its own way. I think science should pursue all its investigations of the cosmos.
However, I'm also suggesting that the Torah's story of creation teaches something valuable in and of itself. Genesis Chapter One is like the overture to an opera. Jews know better than most people that the actual drama of life is often troublesome and difficult. Pain often outweighs pleasure. But our overture, our opening theme song, is just not written in a minor key. It's done in a major key in order to set the tone for Judaism's predominant worldview.
Boldly, positively, hopefully, our tradition starts out with the belief that we are not lost.
To take up that musical analogy once more, you might say that even when there seems to be only dissonance around us, Judaism suggests listening for the opening theme, the major key, the positive note.
I know that - as does our tradition. In fact, Rabbi David Ellenson, the president of Hebrew Union College, may have found the perfect teaching that embraces the sorry reality we face.
His text comes from the Talmud where two rabbis debate the question: when was the world created.
One, by the name of Joshua, holds that the world was fashioned during the month of Nisan which is the time of Passover and spring. Joshua reasons that spring is a time of birth - the season when the trees blossom and when the earth awakens from its winter slumber. It is a time when a person can effortlessly recite a blessing that praises God for supplying the world with all its needs. It is easy to believe in rebirth during spring.
Rabbi Eliezer disagrees. He tells Joshua that the world must have been formed in Tishri, the month of Rosh Hashanah, the month when fall arrives. It's a contrary claim. Eliezer says we should celebrate the world's beginning precisely when the days shorten, the darkness increases, and nature prepares to be dormant. With the harshness of winter on the horizon, Eliezer wants to celebrate beginnings.
And many generations later, you and I know which format Judaism prescribes. Even though it would be so easy to celebrate creation in spring (it is, after all, so clearly a time of renewal), Jewish law does not make that choice. The tradition follows Eliezer who favored the fall. For centuries we've called Rosh Hashanah in the fall yom harat ha-olam - the time when the world was given birth.
Why did our ancestors go this route? They did so because they knew how often life can feel dark and hopeless. Forget the spring, they said. That's when life is easy. It's in times like fall when the sun sets earlier and earlier that we better start worrying.
Or better still, in fall or any time when we can easily slide into despair, our ancestors insisted we needed a celebration. Change the Torah mantles to white. Blow the shofar. Call it a New Year. Be bold, positive, and hopeful that somehow, some way a new page, a fresh page, in the Book of Life can always be found.
This is what I actually believe.
I do hear a melody. I do hear a song.
As my teacher the late Eugene Mihaly taught me, it's the song of creation. It pulses under the radar. It beats beneath the news.
It's a song that proclaims, no matter how loud the dissonance, there can be harmony. It is worth the struggle.
There is hope.
There is always tomorrow.
L'shana tova tikatevu.
May each of us hear the melody and sing the song as our New Year arrives.
© 2012/5773 Sinai Temple 1100 Dickinson St. Springfield Massachusetts 01108