Yom Kippur 5777/2016: Marei Kohen & The Tipping Point

Niggun for “Marei Khohen

[Note: The link takes you to a recording and the lyrics.]

This niggun, this melody, is for the piyyut Marei Kohen, describing the appearance of the High Priest emerging from the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, which we will sing again as part of the Avodah service. The location of this piyyut is at the end of the Avodah service, which is the tipping point of Yom Kippur, the point at which today is transformed from day of solemnity and trepidation into a day of joy and celebration. This tipping point reveals the true nature of Yom Kippur, which is often misunderstood.

When I was a child, I had a certain perspective on what Yom Kippur was all about. I remember the day feeling long, sitting in services for a long time, or playing outside during the day. What I don’t recall clearly at a young age why anyone explaining to me why we went to Yom Kippur services. I remember one particular year when I was in middle school helping to prepare for the break fast, and my mom went off to the Yizkor service, which she did every year since her father passed away when she was fourteen years old. [Our synagogue did Yizkor right before Neilah to ensure a Neilah crowd.] This was the first reason that I recall anyone stating out loud about going to a Yom Kippur service – to remember the dead. Naturally, from then onward, I associated this day with sadness and death.

I could not have been more wrong. That is not what this day is about. The festival of Rosh Hashanah is a day of introspection, trembling before God who sits in judgment on our every deed. That day is the beginning of the Ten Days of Awe, of cheshbon ha-nefesh, soul accounting. It is on Rosh Hashanah that we begin to ask ourselves the hard questions that we need to ask of ourselves at least once a year:

    • Where have I fallen short in the past year?
    • What could I have done better?
    • How will I do better in the coming year?

If we have been digging deeply into these questions over the past several days, and come away with a vision of who we can become in the coming year, of ways in which we can begin to re-make ourselves, to improve our behaviors and actions in the world, that is all well and good.

And one could encounter during this process moments of despair, of throwing one’s proverbial hands into the air, and simply giving up on trying to do any better, as if to say, “This is who I am, and I am not going to change.” Or worse – if someone would come to the notion that they simply do not deserve another year of life. That would be tragic. We all deserve one more year, one more chance, one more opportunity to change, to grow, to become the people that we have the capacity to become.

This is why we have Yom Kippur.

The Apter Rebbe, the grandfather of Abraham Joshua Heschel, described our two major fast days in the following way. On Tisha B’Av, with all of the heartache, tragedy and destruction in our collective past, who could eat on such a day! But on Yom Kippur, a day on which we come before God, articulating our misdeeds together as a community, and confident in God’s love and forgiveness, on such a joyous day, who needs to eat!

Yom Kippur day is a day of optimism. A day to turn away from despair. On this day, we come together to lift each other up. To remind each other that we are all in this long project of life together. This is why we rise and confess our shortcomings together. The nature of Yom Kippur is to move from the trepidation and fear of Rosh Hashanah into the joy and loving compassion of Yom Kippur and into the pure joy of Sukkot. On this day, we finish looking back over the past year, and we forgive ourselves for our shortcomings. We don’t forget them. That would be foolish. But we accept ourselves as flawed, imperfect, as works in progress, and forgive ourselves for the past year. And we hang on to those memories so that we can learn from the past year, to transform those misses into lessons that we can learn from, so that we can move forward in wholeness and acceptance. We move forward.

We began Yom Kippur last night, though, still in the mood of trembling and trepidation, in that Rosh Hashanah mode. Over the course of this day of Yom Kippur, we shift from that mode into the joyous mode of loving compassion and forgiveness. And this is the moment in the day, the fulcrum, the tipping point, where we begin that shift.

On Rosh Hashanah, we connect back to that first day when humanity emerges into Creation. Ha-adam, the human, stepped into the world, and in those first few hours of life, encountered God, heard one divine imperative (“Don’t eat from that tree.”), violated that one, simple imperative, and immediately experienced a sense of exile, of disconnect, of distance between themselves and God. God called out to them “Ayekah? / Where are you?” And God has been calling that out to us every since.

Ayeka? Where are you? That questions carries so many nuances within it:

  • Locate yourself.
  • Know where you are in the world.
  • Know where you are in your life.
  • Know where you are in relation to God, or in relation to the Universe, or in relation to everyone else in your life.
  • Know where you are hiding.
  • Know why you are hiding.
  • Know who is seeking you.
  • Know what it will take for you to come out of hiding, and to end the exile, to close the distance, to re-establish the connection.

Where are you? Ayeka?

For Israel, we hid in Egypt for so long, in the place of narrowness and confinement, until we finally cried out when we could take it no longer, when we finally understood for the first time that there was even a distance to fill, hope that could met, a reality that could change. It was only at that moment that we cried out and moved God, the most moved Mover (sorry Aristotle!), to help take us out of Egypt.

And it was not a perfect process, all neat and tidy. It was messy, and had moments both of victory and moments of loss. We created distance when we sinned with the Golden Calf, when we despaired over the report of the Scouts, and so many other moments of frustration, fear, and rebelliousness.

What did we do then?

We and God recreated the Garden of Eden in our midst in the form of the Mishkan, a place where we could go back and mend what was broken. We made a space where the possibility of experiencing God’s love and forgiveness would be palpable, visible, knowable. Where for one moment, we and God could both come out of hiding and affirm our love for each other, even if only for one moment out of each year. That would be enough.

With the genus of artisans and craftspeople, we took our most precious materials and created the Mishkan, our own portable version of the Garden of Eden. And every year, we appoint one of us, the High Priest, to re-walk the path of the first human, to push aside the curtain, past the turning flaming swords, and re-enter the Garden, to a time when it was just one human being and God alone together in the world, and repair the relationship between us and God, to mend the breach, to use all of the words that they can muster to bring God and Israel close again.

And it takes the High Priest so few words, just a few dozen, three short confessions, one for the High Priest and his family, one for their tribe, and one for the entire people. Only a few smatterings of words, but uttered with purity of heart and sincerity of mind.

That portable Garden of Eden moved with us, and it moved us. It was eventually made into a permanent space in Jerusalem, and was destroyed, rebuilt, and in the end destroyed. How insane is that? What confidence and loyalty must it have taken to take the time and resources again and again to recreate that space in which the possibility of God’s love and forgiveness could be felt? And it is gone. But it is just a space. The time still exists. The day is still on the calendar. The idea of the High Priest, the Holy of Holies, of the Garden of Eden still exist. The rest is just window dressing.

Today:

  • We are not standing on the mountain in Jerusalem, but we are all standing at the base of an inward mountain, a mountain of our misdeeds and our sorrows.
  • There is no Temple in Jerusalem, but the memory and this space.
  • There is no High Priest, but there is us.
  • There is the moon, which on the tenth of day a month is in the shape of an oval, which developed identity, of being grown up enough to come face to face with God.
  • Is still today, that space that we carve out of the year to do the same the the first human wishes they could’ve done, to do the same as the High Priest would have done.
  • There is still the possibility that a smattering of words can shape not just today, but our entire year ahead.

For today, I have asked all of you to write down your prayer, your blessing, your hopes and aspirations for the coming year is no more than 18 words. [Note: This was done via email in the days leading up to Yom Kippur.] I hope that many of us did that, and that you wrote them down and brought them with you today. And even if you did not, that’s ok. There is still the time today, still the opportunity, to compose those words in your heart and in your mind.

These words are not for you alone; they are for all of us. They are words that can lift us up, inspire us and give each of us hope for the coming year.

Here is what I would like you to do:

  1. In Private. First, take out the paper that has your 18 words on it, and if you did not do that, take some time now to reflect on what your 18 words would be for the coming year. Take time time to re-read what you wrote, and reflect on those words. Where did they come from? What moved you to choose those words? What do they point to for the coming year? What do they call you to do in the next twelve months?
  2. Share with another. Next, I would like you to offer those words to someone sitting near you. It can be someone next to you, in front of you, or behind you. Feel free to move a little closer to them if you can. Introduce yourselves. Connect with that person in some way. Perhaps it is just by looking into their eyes, maybe by holding their hand or their hands, if appropriate. If you are so inclined, perhaps put a tallit over your heads to make a private space.
    1. Decide who will go first.
    2. Listen to each others words. Take turns.
    3. As you listen to the words of the other person:
      1. How do those words touch you?
      2. How do they lift you up, inspire, or comfort you?
      3. What do those words call on you to do differently in the coming year?
  3. Public Sharing. Next, I would like to invite no more than 18 of us who have written their 18 words to come and share what you have written with all of us. [Note: Several members came to share what they wrote or composed.] What do we do when we hear words of blessing, hope and inspiration? We say Amen! So after each of these 18 words, we will respond as one community: Amen!

May all of these words, these beautiful, heartfelt smatterings of words, have the power:

  • to help us feel God’s presence in our lives over the coming year.
  • to help us make God’s presence felt in the coming year.
  • to lift us up.
  • to give us the optimism that this will be a year of goodness and light.
  • to come out of hiding and find each other.
  • to inspire us to seek atonement.
  • to help us cleanse us of all our misdeeds.
  • to help us begin this new year afresh.
  • to renew our lives.

Conclude with the Niggun for “Marei Kohen”

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Rosh Hashanah 5777/2016: Leaning In To Israel

I have a confession: Sometimes, I want to walk away from Israel. For many reasons, I could succumb to this feeling of disconnect, just turn my back on Israel, and never give Israel a second thought, and here are a few reasons why for me:

  1. Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, out of touch with the average Israeli Jew, is openly hostile to any form of Judaism that does not fit within their narrow definitions of Judaism.
  2. Israel, an authority over millions of Palestinians, is at risk of losing its democratic nature.
  3. Israel’s government and many of the Israeli population seem to have a very different set of values than me.
  4. Israel has one of the largest poverty-wealth gaps in the world.
  5. Israel has serious internal divisions, some of which are bitter, hostile and acrimonious: the secular/religious divide, Ashkenazi/Sephardic/Mizrahi ethnic and cultural divisions, a failed political Left Wing and increasingly strong Center and Right, tensions between Jewish citizens and Arab citizens.
  6. Supporting Israel in any way is increasingly met with hostility and anti-semitism in the public sphere, especially on college campuses.
  7. And so on…

But disconnect is the symptom of deeper feelings, of frustration, sadness and anger towards Israel, which are all connected to my underlying deep love for Israel. It’s complicated. The disconnect is one of my emotional survival strategies pulling me, tempting me, saying, “Just disconnect. Become indifferent.” This past summer, the celebrated Jewish author and educator Elie Wiesel passed away, and in recent years, he often spoke to people about this indifference:

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.

The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference.

The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference.

And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

I struggle with my negative feelings about Israel. To ignore them, to choose indifference, would take away the heartache, but it would also take away my connections to the love, the beauty, the faith and the vibrant Jewish life that also exists in Israel.

I choose not to become indifferent towards Israel. And yet, I will not ignore the flaws and issues that Israel faces.

Here is the old narrative, that was what I was raised with, and may or may not work for us any more: since Israel is critical for Jewish survival, one cannot criticize Israel, for fear of being called a self-hating Jew.

Many people, especially younger people, are not sure if they can both support and criticize Israel at the same time. The rose-colored Israel taught about in the U.S. for decades simplifies Israel’s complexities and shortcomings. We need to abandon this outdated narrative, and talk about Israel in a new way.  How can we express anger and criticism, at the same time that we love and support Israel?

I found an answer for myself to this question in Harold Kushner’s “The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person.” During the course of Job’s dialogue with his companions, Job gets angry at God, who as far as Job can see, has not let him know why he is suffering as much as he is.

Kushner asks us: “Are we allowed to be angry at God? Does Job’s anger enhance or lessen our opinion of him?”

Kushner responds: If one cannot be angry at God, how can one whole-heatedly love God? If a relationship with someone cannot be fully expressed, if one cannot offer a criticism for fear of an angry response, then they don’t have a full, healthy relationship with God, or their spouse or anyone. For Kushner, Job’s anger is heroic, honest, has integrity, and an unwillingness to pretend to have a piety he would like to feel but cannot. Honest anger is better than calculated flattery.

In Deuteronomy, Moses also expresses his anger at God for not letting him enter the land of Israel. Prior to this, Moses speaks about revering and serving God, and following God’s commandments, and but a few short chapters later, after expressing his anger, Moses speaks about loving God: “You shall love the Eternal Your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” You cannot love anyone wholeheartedly unless you can express anger towards that person when circumstances warrant. Being angry at someone who matters to us need not shatter a relationship.

Israel is important enough to engage with fully. If we are frustrated at Israel for the way it behaves as a state, but we feel we cannot speak out, we are emotionally compromised. If we shut down the loving critique of others, we keep others from expressing their wholehearted love of Israel. We need to express that love, praise and critique. It is not easy. For me, the story that we have been telling about Israel no longer works. We need to tell Israel’s story in a new way, and it needs to be complete, with eyes wide open.

I recently heard the American-Israel journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, and he talked about “talking about Israel”:  We each need to find our own way to talk about Israel – as Jews who are not citizens of the state of Israel, and yet who are linked to Israel, the land, the people, the state, by a shared history and a shared destiny. We Americans are part of the most powerful Jewish community in the world, and, yet, we are one of the most ignorant. Only ten percent of American Jews claim to be able to hold a conversation in Hebrew. We don’t know enough about Israel, its past or its present, myself included. We must remember how to tell our story as a people. We need to relearn this.

We know Israel is not perfect, nor is it evil. We cannot simply replace one simplistic narrative with another one. We need to tell our children, our grandchildren about Israel in a comprehensive holistic way. Israel can handle it. They are tough.

Here are some of the primary reasons why Israel matters to me:

  1. Israel is the our ancestral homeland. Almost the entire Torah is about the journey back home to the land of Israel.
  2. Israel is the our spiritual center. During prayer, we turn towards Jerusalem. Jerusalem has been on our minds and lips every single day for two thousand years. During the Festivals, we say: “Next year in Jerusalem.” Israel is where Judaism emerged, survived, evolved again and again.
  3. Israel matters to me because it is Jewish, the place where the fullness of Judaism can be lived out. Writer and thinker Rabbi Danny Gordis, with whom I often disagree, wrote that “ethnic and national diversity should be encouraged and promoted. People thrive and flourish most when they live in societies in which their language, culture, history and sense of purpose are at the center of public life.”
  4. Israel has been and still is a haven for Jews escaping persecution. Israel’s existence continues to be critical for  the physical survival of the Jewish people.
  5. Israel is where majority of Jewish life is and will take place. Seventy years ago, only 700,000 Jews lived in Israel, while 6 million lived in the U.S. Today, Israel is where half of the roughly twelve million Jews in the world currently reside, and each and every one of those lives matters to me, even the ones with whom I profoundly disagree. In only a few years, Israel will be the place where an increasingly significant majority of Jews will live, and where the majority of Jewish life and creativity will be taking place.
  6. Israel is amazing and inspiring because it is an example of the power of a people to infuse 4,000 years of history and tradition into the building of a modern state that embodies the highest aspirations toward which humanity can reach.
  7. Israel matters to me because it is a nation where democracy has flourished, intellect is celebrated, there is an abundance of artistic genius and technological innovation, and economic success.

As I go over each of these reasons, I can hear in my heart a little voice saying, “Yes, but…Yes, but…” Each of these points has many “Yes, buts…” We must include them in how we talk about Israel. Today, I will touch upon two of them.

I am deeply concerned for the lives of every single Palestinian, first and foremost because they are human beings and have inalienable human rights. [I am aware of the acts of injustice in Israel’s past towards the Palestinians, and of some Palestinian’s glorification of violence.] I am troubled by path Israel’s current administration has taken towards its occupation of the Palestinian people, and of the injustices that they live under on a daily basis. Also, I am terrified of what a continued occupation would mean for the heart and soul of the democratic state of Israel. I hold out the hope, however slim, for a two-state solution. I hold out the hope that there can be truth and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, where Israelis and Palestinians will one day become the closest of friends and partners in the region. I do not see how to get there today, but that does not extinguish my hope for that future. In the words of Shimon Perez, z’’l, “Despair is not an option.”

I am deeply troubled by the lack of religious pluralism in Israel, by the attitude of most Israelis towards rabbis, by the polarization between the secular community and the religious community, by the politicization of religion in Israel, and the increasingly fundamentalist actions and views of the Chief Rabbinate, who wields power but commands little respect. I hold out hope that there will be a dissolution of this institution, a clean separation between religion and state, and a wider appreciation for the full range of ways that Jews around the world freely express their Judaism.

Headlines and news about Israel focus on the intense political, security, and military issues that Israel faces, and, yes, they are distressing. At the same time, they can not and should not tell the entire story, no more than can the story of U.S. be reduced to its headlines.

I call upon all of us to deepen our relationship with Israel; to read voraciously about Israel and its history, to better understand Zionism past and present, the chaotic Middle East, and Israel’s present day situation; to talk about Israel with people who agree and, more importantly, disagree with you; to develop relationships with people who live there, and with some of the many organizations doing remarkable work there to make Israel the nation that Judaism insist that it can become.

I call upon us all to learn more about Israeli culture, its musicians, its poets, authors, painters, sculptors, its scientists, technology innovators, economic movers and shakers, its athletes, its comedians, and more.

To conclude, I want to share a story from the Talmud that can provide a new narrative framework for how we think about Israel, and the story centers on the relationship between two sages: Rabbi Yochanan, a master of Torah learning, and Resh Lakish, who formerly was a master thief and brigand. They met while swimming on day, and formed an immediate connection. Rabbi Yochanan even arranged for his sister to marry Resh Lakish.

One day they were debating in the Beit Midrash, and when Resh Lakish offered an answer to a questions about the manufacture of weapons, Rabbi Yochanan snidely brought up Resh Lakish’s unsavory background, which led to a major falling out between them. During this time, Resh Lakish died, and the other Rabbis tried to make Rabbi Yochanan feel better and sent a bright young student to him as a measure of comfort. Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat, the young sage, sat before Rabbi Yochanan, and to every statement that Rabbi Yochanan would say, Rabbi Elazar would say to him, “There is a source that supports you.”

“He said, “Are you like [Resh Lakish? Resh Lakish] – when I would speak of a matter, he would challenge me with twenty-four objections, and I would answer him with twenty-four answers, which led to a fuller understanding of the law. And you say, ‘there is a source that supports you?!’ Do I not already know that I have spoken well?!”  [Rabbi Yochanan] went out and tore his clothes and he cried and said, “Where are you [Resh Lakish]? Where are you  [Resh Lakish]?” And he wailed until his mind left him. The Rabbis asked for mercy for him, and he died.”

Just as these two sages comes very different backgrounds, share a common Torah, and engage in serious debate about it, Jews in Israel and the U.S. and Diaspora come from very different places, and yet share a common heritage, and should engage together in what it means to live out the Torah’s ideals.

When these two sages had their no-holds barred debates for the sake of Heaven, something new was created, something that neither of them could have imagined before. Not just decisions on matters of law, but a fuller understanding of the law, and of each other. Israel and we don’t need yes-men. Israel and the worldwide Jewish community need each other: to debate the issues, the way in which the state makes decisions, the way in which the diaspora relates to the state. Support is not saying, “You’re right.” Support is saying how they might be wrong twenty-four different ways, and then to be willing to hear twenty-four ways in which they still might be right.We need to sharpen each other.

What emerged from these sagely debates was a profound friendship, a relationship so strong that neither could live without the other. We need to engage with Israel at this level: deeply, and profoundly, so that each of us knows that we have the other’s back, and at the same time, each one can say to the other: not like that. We must show Israel other ways of being Jewish. Israel must show us what it means to be Israeli.

We need to see Israel as it is, warts and all, and love Israel and be angry at Israel, and debate, with all of our heart, with all of our soul, and with all of our might. We cannot turn away. We cannot become indifferent.

  • The opposite of indifference is life.
  • The opposite of indifference is faith.
  • The opposite of indifference is art.
  • The opposite of indifference is love.

Rosh Hashanah 5777/2016: Taking Our Stand in the World

Hayom – Today has many names: Rosh Hashanah / The Start of the Year, Yom Ha-Din / Judgment Day, Yom Ha-Zikaron / Remembrance Day, and finally Yom Harat Olam / The Day of Birthing the World.

The Rabbis debate about this final name. For some, this day is the anniversary on which the entire universe was created, evoking a time before creation, when all that filled the universe was God, and that God contracted to make room for the world. God said, Let there be light! And there was light. And the rest unfolded from there.

For others, this day was not the primordial Day One, but rather this day connects us to the sixth day of Creation, the day on which humanity entered the world, the day on which Ha-adam, the first human, steps from nothingness into being. Or perhaps today connects us to the moment when humanity first began to see itself as a being with a unique relationship to the world – to its land, sky and oceans, to all that crawls, walks, flies and swims on it, and to its Creator – unlike that of any other creature on the planet.

Today, I want to explore the relationship that was formed when human consciousness emerged and said for the first time: “I,” and then said, “To What Purpose?” Because saying “I” is not enough. One must relate to that which is encountered in a specific way, with a certain attitude.

On the edge of this new year, we reflect on the past year: to ourselves, the people in our lives, our communities, and to God. Today, I ask: how have we related, acted and connected towards our world? How shall we relate to our world in the coming year and beyond?

This may be the most important question of our entire generation, the answer to which our great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren deserve to know our answer.

What is our stance in the world?

In his book I and Thou, the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber writes about the two possible stances (or attitudes) a human being can take in the world, which he terms an I-It stance and an I-Thou stance.

When a human stands in the world with the attitude of I-It, every thing is perceived, felt, acted upon as a object. That object has boundaries, edges, beginnings and endings. If I encounter another – be it an It, or a He, or a She – I relate to that other being as a bounded, finite object.

When a human stands in the world with the attitude of I-Thou, there are no bounds. There is no possession, no having, no acting upon, no objectification. What matters is the relationship between the I and the other, as Thou, the infinite subject, the one with whom I stand in relation.

Do we relate to people with the attitude of I-It, as subjects acting upon objects, or with the attitude of I-Thou, as a subject meeting another subject, as a genuine act of meeting and encounter?

And then what of the natural world? Buber views humanity’s potential relationship to nature in similar ways:

“I consider a tree. I can look on it as a picture…I can perceive it as movement… I can classify it in a species and study it…I can subdue its actual presence and form so sternly that I recognize it as an expression of law…I can dissipate it and perpetuate it in number. In all this the tree remains my object, occupies space and time, and has its nature and constitution… I encounter no soul or dryad of the tree, but the tree itself.”

For Buber, when someone encounters an animal, it comes close to approaching the I-Thou level of experience, but not quite. When it comes to encountering a non-creaturely part of Creation, such an encounter can be experienced in a number of ways, but, for Buber, the encounter with a tree is never a meeting with another soul, with a Thou.

In this instance for me, Buber falls short. Though he is a scholar of the Hassidic movement in Europe, which draws much of its spiritual nourishment from the Jewish mystical tradition, Buber shies away from that kind of experience when it comes to the tree in particular and the natural world in general.

For the Jewish mystic, the world is also divided into two. On the one hand, we have the world of separation, olam ha-peirud, the world as we normally perceive it: where all things have edges, beginnings and ending, space between them, creating a complex web of relationships and separations.

On the other hand, we have the world of unity, olam ha-achdut. For the Jewish mystics, the true nature of the world is radically different from how we normally perceive it. God is not a Being  – out there, over there, or up there – but rather God is Being itself, the very fabric of the universe, the underlying flow of energy that suffuses, fills and animates all of Creation. We normally see the world as a world of separateness, but deep down, beneath the external, physical shells, everything is God.

So when we encounter a tree, there may not be a specific tree soul, but that meeting does have the potential to become an encounter with the divine, with God. The tree is a garment, an external form, for the divine, an emanation of God in our world. Any encounter with any aspect of Creation not only has the potential to evoke in us a sense of wonder, beauty, and awe, but every encounter with an aspect of Creation has the potential to be an encounter with God, a meeting between an I and the Ultimate Thou.

If we take our stance towards Creation in solely the mode of I-It, we relate to the world as a collection of objects, as a means towards an end, resources to be consumed for our personal needs. How then would we live our lives?

If we take our stance towards Creation solely in the mode of I-Thou, each encounter with the natural world becomes a sacred event, a moment of coming face to face with eternity, with the Eternal Thou. How then would we live our lives?

Regarding the challenges and issues facing our world, I will not list statistics and data. Anyone can go look up that information in a matter of minutes. I am more interested in the one thing that we truly have control over, which is how we respond to that information.

The Jewish people have grappled with the question of “What should be our stance in the world?” for millennia. Unlike Buber and other Jewish philosophers, who speak in the abstract, the Torah expresses itself in the concrete garb of narrative. This question is at the heart of our two great Creation narratives: Genesis 1 and 2. For some commentators, these two narratives have illustrated two diametrically opposing points of view, however, this view oversimplifies these two narratives.

What is the enduring truth that we learn about our stance in the world from these two narratives?

Genesis 1, the majestic sweeping mytho-poetic Creation narrative, where God, utterly uncontested, creates order through the power of speech. Over the course of six spans of time, primordial chaos is transformed into a world with boundaries, divisions and limits; flora and fauna that self-propagate; all characterized as: Good. Humanity, created in God’s Image, enters as the penultimate act of Creation and is blessed as such:

“God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and conquer it, and hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and every beast that crawls upon the earth.” And God said, “Look, I have given you every seed-bearing plant on the face of all the earth and every tree that has fruit bearing seed, yours they will be for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and to all the fowl of the heavens and to all that crawls on the earth, which has the breath of life within it, the green plants for food.”

Genesis 1 presents humanity as blessed, not only with progeny, but also the imperative to fill the earth, conquer it, and to “hold sway.” Unreservedly hierarchical, Genesis 1 is often interpreted as humanity’s mandate to relate to the world as an It to our I. From this point of view, the world is nothing more than the setting where people live, and exert their dominion and mastery. However, that dominion is limited.

The term for “hold sway” does connotes absolute or fierce exercise of mastery, but the “holding sway” does not apply to the physical environment; it only applies to animals, and, at the same time, those animals are not permitted as food. This vision of humanity is one of controlling the natural world, about doing what it takes to establish human civilization and permitting us to harness the power of animals to help with that project. But not to eat them.

Rather than inflate our human ego, this narrative can help us cultivate our humility. The gnat was created long before us. We are welcomed into the world in the last hour of Creation, into a furnished world with a banquet laid out before us, and we live with the acute awareness that we are nothing but guests in this palace of a world.

Also, the newly created human being enters the scene, but must delay their mastery for one day. Right on the heels of their creation is the capstone of Creation: Shabbat, a day on which our divinely ordained conquest ceases. Instead of rushing to fill, conquer and subdue our world, our first day was spent appreciating the world, inhabiting it without impacting it.

Fullness, conquest and mastery, with strong limits.

Genesis 2 is often interpreted as the counter-narrative balancing out the alleged “carte blanche” divine imperative to conquer the earth, but since that is not the only reading of Genesis 1, it should not surprise anyone that Genesis 2 is also a more complex narrative.

Genesis 2, the earthier of the two narratives, focuses more on relationships. God plants a garden, forms a human from the earth, and then places the human there. God then that it is not good for the human to be alone. First, God creates the animals, bringing them to the human, who names them, creating an intimacy and familiarity. Let us examine the formation of this human being, and it’s mandate:

“The Eternal God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature. And the Eternal God planted a garden in Eden, to the east, and God placed there the human God had fashioned….And the Eternal God took the human and set him down in the garden of Eden to till it and watch it…”

The focus is our purpose. The Hebrew phrase “l’ovdah u-l’shomrah” is sometimes translated as “to serve it and to guard it.” This translation implies that we should see our role as stewards of the world, an understanding that would balance out the limited mastery of Genesis 1. However, this is not the only translation of this phrase, which contains its own internal tension. “L’ovdah” can mean “to serve it” but it can also mean “to cultivate it” or “to work it.” This reading actually gives unlimited license to the human than Genesis 1. There is no limit to what is a food source or to what can be “worked or cultivated.”

At the same time, there is the second verb, “u-l’shomrah.” This word could mean “to protect or guard the world,” but protect it from what? One understanding is that we are to protect the world from us, the ones doing the cultivation. From this point of view, we are commanded to both cultivate the world, and to make sure that our cultivation is done carefully within limits. Perhaps the best understanding of this phrase is “to serve and preserve.”

An imperative to work but with limits.

We have before us three narratives, one philosophical, two biblical, each with its own internal thesis, antithesis and synthesis.

We stand in the world in the mode of I-It, of mastery and dominion, of cultivation – sometimes. We have basic needs: food, water, clothing, shelter. And humanity has aspirations far beyond its basic needs. We have dreams, visions, the desire to create, and build, to use the raw materials of creation to help fulfill those visions. Many civilizations, including ours, have exceeded this mandate. We also destroy, poison, pollute, and ruin, sometimes in noble pursuit; more often, not.

We stand in the world in the mode of I-Thou, Shabbat-centered, of careful stewardship – sometimes. Sometimes we carefully consider what our limits should be when working the earth, using its resources and developing increasingly complex and potentially toxic technologies. And other times we step back from Creation, and encounter the world as an expression of God, of God’s radical oneness, of God’s love and compassion, of God’s mystery and awe. Many civilizations, cultures and religions have also sought to teach humanity that this should be its relationship to Creation; more often than not, that voice has been unheeded.

Were we to always take our stance in the mode of I-It, of mastery, or working without limits, surely our world will become uninhabitable for future generations. This attitude could lead to hedonism, or radical consumerism.

Were we to always take our stance in the mode of I-Thou, of Shabbat, of preservation, it would be hard, if not impossible to sustain humanity at nearly any level of what we would call advanced civilization. If one could sustain this level of awareness of the divine as experienced in nature, who would be willing to cut down a tree, let alone take the life of a living creature?

Neither extreme is sustainable, and no one advocates living according to one extreme or another. We seek synthesis. Therefore, we walk a tightrope, balancing each attitude in an effort to both cultivate a sense of awe and wonder for God’s Creation and at the same time to meet humanity’s materials and physical needs.

But humanity has not walked this tightrope well balanced between these two modes. For too long, we have leaned towards the side of mastery, of working, and living in the mode of I-It. Short term, economically focused, without forethought to sustainability or the needs of future generations. We see where this attitude has lead, and we see where we are heading if we don’t change course.

It is time for humanity to lean the other way: to fault on the side of Shabbat, stewardship, of preservation, and of standing in the world more with the mode of I-Thou.

We need to re-read the Torah’s narrative with this perspective in mind. Genesis 1 is close to the truth: we find ourselves in a universe that has been around far longer than we have. Genesis 2 lays out the balancing act we must do: doomed to stewardship. There is no escaping this role. Even Genesis 1 teaches that human dominion can only be stewardship, because we are not autonomous nor sovereign rulers in a world that is not ours. We either accept this or reject role, but we cannot ignore it. We have been entrusted with this world, and we are responsible to the Entruster, which if not God, are our great-great-great-grandchildren.

How are we even capable of managing the world?

How will we ever know enough to perform this task wisely? We have no choice but to try to do so. But to attempt to manage the world is hubris. We don’t need to manage the earth much as we need to manage ourselves, our stance, our attitude in the world.

This will call for our humility, restraint, and choosing different actions than we normally would choose. What can we do? We are just a small handful of people.

The great sage Rabbi Israel Salanter, said that he once thought he could change the entire world, but when that proved too difficult, he sought to change his community. When that proved too difficult, he sought to change his family. When even that proved beyond his capacity, he realized that he could only change himself. And we must begin with ourselves.

Throughout this year, we as a congregation are going to have many opportunities to examine these questions, to consider our attitudes, and to think about the choices that we make on a daily basis.

  • What will we eat?
  • What will we purchase?
  • How will we treat and use our resources?
  • Where will we travel?
  • How will we get there?
  • For what policies will we lobby our government for
  • What technologies and innovations will we embrace and which will we reject?

We always choose how we stand in the world. This year, and every year into the future, let us take our stance in the world and rise to our role as loyal stewards of God’s creation.