Rosh Hashanah 2018 Evening Sermon

Giving the Stars their Names
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson go on a camping trip, set up their tent, and fall asleep. Some hours later, Holmes wakes his faithful friend. “Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.” Watson replies, “I see millions of stars.” Watson ponders for a minute, and then continues. “Astronomically speaking, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, it tells me that Saturn is in Leo. Chronologically, it appears to be approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, it’s evident the Lord is all-powerful and we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, it seems we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. Holmes, what does it tell you?” Holmes is silent for a moment, and then speaks. “Watson, you idiot, it tells me that someone has stolen our tent.”

The story is told of a scientist by the name of William Beebe and his good friend, President Theodore Roosevelt. Once, Beebe was visiting Roosevelt at his home at Sagamore Hill, on Long Island. Before retiring to bed, Roosevelt and Beebe went out to look at the night sky, searching for a tiny patch of light near the constellation of Pegasus. “That is the Spiral Galaxy in Andromeda,” explained Beebe. “It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It consists of one hundred billion suns, each larger than our sun.” The Roosevelt turned to his companion and said, “Now I think we are small enough. Let’s go to bed.”

Who has not felt small and insignificant when looking at the stars in the heavens?  When King David looked up into the heavens one night three thousand years ago from his palace in Jerusalem, he was moved to praise G-d as “the One who heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds/ G-d, Who counts the stars, giving each one its name.” This challenges us — Could God, who created all of those stars in the far heavens, and who names each one, no less, possibly be concerned about my fate here on earth?.  Does G-d really care about my welfare? Is G-d truly aware of my behavior? Is G-d cognizant of every detail of my life, does G-d know things about me that are even hidden from me, does G-d hear my prayers, let alone answer them?

These are no idle questions. The whole point of the High Holidays is that G-d watches us and cares about us, that every deed is known, that all must give an account, that we pass under G-d’s staff one by one, and G-d counts us too, like a shepherd counts his sheep.

“G-d is the One who heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds/ G-d counts the stars, giving each star a name.” When King David wrote that verse, he was making a bold theological statement. Other ancient peoples believed that their gods had created the universe. They probably believed that their gods gave names to all of the stars as well. But none of those ancient civilizations believed that their gods cared much about the well-being of people. None of them believed that their gods cared for the brokenhearted or helped the people recover from illness or catastrophe. For example, In the “Enuma Elish”, an Akkadian creation story from the early second millennium, BCE, the god, Marduk — the chief of the gods in the Akkadian pantheon — reveals his plans to create human beings:

“I will establish a savage, “man shall be his name”./ Surely, savage man I will create./ He shall be charged with the service of the gods/that they might be at ease.”

In this ancient Akkadian creation story, the gods care not a whit about the welfare of humankind. In fact, the gods have created humans to look after their well being! People will do all of the work on earth so that the gods can take it easy.  We will be responsible for feeding the gods and stroking their egos by praising them.

I have described two opposing ideas of divinity’s relationship to humanity. King David asserts that that despite G-d’s busy life in creating and running the universe, G-d always finds the time to care about us humans — to heal us when we are brokenhearted, to be mindful of us when we are wounded. The Akkadian creation story, in contrast, maintains that it is man’s job to care for the needs of the gods.

A thousand years after King David the rabbis of the Talmud would reaffirm his understanding that G-d cares for us.  In a stunning statement, the Talmud teaches that when a person attends Rosh Hashanah services every year, and then does not show up to pray one year, G-d makes inquiries into where that person is. One unexcused absence and G-d goes looking for us — not to give us detention, but because G-d is genuinely worried about us!
This statement also implies something more about the relationship between human beings and G-d, something that we don’t often think about. The statement suggests that G-d misses us when we absent ourselves from G-d’s presence. How many of us here this evening have ever thought about what G-d’s needs? We assume that G-d is self-sufficient, and therefore that G-d doesn’t need anything from us. But the Talmud proposes that our relationship with G-d is one of mutual dependence. G-d counts on us in the same way that we count on G-d.

The idea that G-d needs man is expressed in this classic Chassidic story. Rebbe Barukh’s grandson, Yechiel, comes running into his study, in tears. “Yechiel, Yechiel, why are you crying,” asked his grandfather. His sobbing grandson explains,“I was playing hide and seek with my friend, but he stopped looking for me and left me alone.” Rebbe Barukh caresses Yechiel’s face, and with tears welling up in his eyes, he whispers softly, “God too Yechiel, God too is weeping. For, He too has been hiding with no one looking for Him.”

Yes, G-d wants us, G-d needs us, to search for Him! However, a lot of us are uncomfortable with this idea that G-d both watches us and needs us. Most of all, it anthropomorphizes G-d, as though our Creator was looking down on us through some vast celestial telescope. Rabbi Abraham Twerski tells the story of a man who rejected this idea of G-d, and in the process discovered something important about himself.

Rabbi Twerski writes:

“At a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, the speaker, who was seven years sober, related that on his initial exposure to AA, he rejected the program.  “It’s all about God,” he said, “and I am an atheist.” He returned a year later, saying that he realized he needed the program in order to stop drinking—but was there any way he could do so without invoking God?  He was told that all he had to do was choose a Higher Power; in fact, he could see the Twelve Step program as his Higher Power. That suited him just fine. Subsequently, he was told that he must find a sponsor to serve as his mentor in sobriety, and he did.  The sponsor told him that he must pray every day.
“Wait a minute,” he said.  “ I was told that I did not have to pray to God.  I don’t believe in God.”
The sponsor said, “That’s okay.  Don’t pray to God. Just pray.”

“What kind of nonsense is that?  How can I pray if I don’t believe in God?”

The sponsor said, “Look here…….  Do you want to get sober or do you want to stay drunk?  If you want to stay sober, then you pray every day.”
“I didn’t have much choice,” the man said, “so I pray every day.  I don’t believe in God. But when I pray, that reminds me that I’m not God.” 
By praying every day this man had a revelation. Through prayer he discovered  qualities attributed to G-d that he could aspire to — being patient and slow to anger, being compassionate, being generous, being forgiving, being loyal, being kind, being honest and fair, to name a few.This man found that the G-d who he did not believe in wanted him to live his life in ways that he COULD believe in!

The sages say that there are seventy facets of the Torah. By this they mean that there are many valid ways to understand each part of the Torah. What one person may miss, another person may see. We may laugh at the story of Watson and Holmes that I told at the beginning of this sermon,  but in fact the story is very true to life — often there are things right in front of us that we fail to understand if we do not have someone to help us to find the right perspective to see it.

Following a recent meeting of my book club, one member said, “Had we not talked about this book in the group, I would never have fully understood what we just read. By sharing ideas with one another, we all came to a fuller understanding of the author’s intention.” As we at Congregation Beth Shalom enter this New Year together, may we help one another to see. May we share perspectives with each other that help us to better understand our Author’s intention.

Shana Tovah!