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.

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