Rosh HaShannah Eve

Take Off Our Shoes
Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic, wrote a book a number of years ago called Kaddish. It is a meditation on the year that he spent attending synagogue reciting Mourners Kaddish for his father.  He writes, “It occurred to me today that I might spend a whole year in shul, morning prayers, afternoon prayers and evening prayers, and never have a religious experience. A discouraging notion. Yet, I must not ask for what cannot be given. Shul was not invented for a religious experience. In shul, a religious experience is an experience of religion. The rest is up to me.”               
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called “Yamim Noraim” in Hebrew, the “Days of Awe”. The word “Noraim” in Hebrew has multiple meanings – fear and trembling and wonder and amazement – all of these are contained in the word “Noraim”.  My niece Esty, back home after spending a year in Israel, reminded me that in Modern Hebrew the word “Noraim” can also refer to the notion of “terrible”.  Will we allow ourselves to be moved these High Holidays? Will our worship bring us into contact with feelings of gratitude, wonder, and amazement?  Will we find it meaningful? Will we have a religious experience, or merely an experience of religion?  Will we leave uplifted or discouraged? Will these Holidays be awesome or terrible? Our services can provide the experience of religion. The rest is up to us.
In English we call these days the “High Holidays”. Ever wonder why they are called “High Holidays”? Perhaps it is because they stand out from all our other holy days of the year. According to one poet these days are “like lighthouses on the shores of eternity, flashing their messages of holiness”. Perhaps “High Holidays” refers to the exalted character or style of our worship – a choir, musical instruments, special melodies and chants that stir ours souls.  Or, perhaps it is we who are summoned to work harder, to raise ourselves to loftier heights, to pray more intensely, more fervently. These holidays may also find us in high spirits, as we gather together with friends and family to eat and celebrate and worship together.  By doing Teshuvah – repentance — we certainly hope to cleanse ourselves of our misdeeds of the past year. We hope to do better this year, to raise ourselves to a higher moral level in the next. We seek to grow, to overcome, to change, to move closer to our best selves. Thomas Henry Huxley, the 19th century English biologist wrote, “The rung of the ladder was never meant to rest upon, but only to hold a person’s foot long enough to enable him to put the other somewhat higher.”    Did you know that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the only major Jewish holidays that are not connected to a historical event? Did you know that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the only major Jewish holidays not connected to an agricultural festival? The Torah simply says to celebrate them. Only later on in the development of the Jewish religion did both Holidays become associated with events in history. Yom Kippur became associated with Moses bringing down the second set of Ten Commandments. Rosh Hashanah became associated with the Birthday of the World – Creation itself.
It is Creation itself that I want to explore with you this evening.  I received a thought provoking question from a young congregant several months ago. Eleven year old Brooke Covas was studying the Book of Genesis with her grandmother.  “God made everything,” Brooke asked me, “But before God created everything there was nothing. What does nothing refer to?  In other words what does nothing look like and what would it look like if there was nothing?”
My immediate thought was – Ask your grandfather, he’s a physicist!  If anyone knows what “nothing” looks like, surely a physicist would!  When I did my kind of research into Brooke’s question, I discovered that the rabbis of ancient times had much to offer in terms of an answer.
The Torah says that in the beginning the earth was unformed and void  — "tohu vah-vohu" in the Hebrew. That seems to be saying that G-d did not create the world out of "nothing", but rather, something — "tohu vah-vohu". Early rabbis spoke of "treasuries of snow beneath G-d's throne of glory" to describe this “tohu vah-vohu”, this primordial “stuff”. Other rabbis worried that this image might give people the wrong idea. They might compare G-d's creation of the universe out of “tohu-va-vohu” to a king who built a palace out of material in a garbage dump. If it was thought that the King had built his palace out of rubies and sapphires and gold and diamonds, his subjects would be duly impressed.  They would think the palace had great value, and the King would be esteemed in their eyes.  But if it were thought that the King built his palace out of garbage then they would be much less impressed. They might not value the world, and the King, and his creatures, as they should. So the Rabbis searched for another metaphor to describe the creation of the world.
Other rabbis concluded, therefore, that G-d must have created the world out of nothing.  Just by G-d speaking, that is, through words alone, the entire universe came into being.
Returning to Brooke’s question, if the world was created out of "nothing" then what does "nothing" look like? The Kabbalists — Jewish mystics– called the "nothingness" out of which G-d created the world "ayin".  Ayin is “no-thing”. They claim that this "no-thingness" was in fact G-d's own soul. They claim that the “no-thing” that G-d created the world out of was in fact G-d’s very essence, G-d’s core being, G-d’s innermost self. The rabbis wanted to communicate to us that the world and everything in it was of infinite value — that everything that came from this no-thing partakes of divinity itself and is intrinsically holy.
How should we relate to a world where everything has in it the spark of holiness? Our grandson Lian, who is three and a half, showed me how on an outing we took this summer.  Middy and I took him and his older brother Danny to the Connecticut Science Center in Hartford.  We pulled into a non-descript parking garage and walked across the dark concrete parking deck to the elevators that would take us to the main building. When we got off the elevator we found ourselves in a brand new, shiny, resplendent, six story atrium. Our three and a half year old Lian took a few steps, took in this gleaming structure filled with light, looked around, looked up, spread his arms wide and with his raspy voice proclaimed aloud to no one in particular, “THIS IS AWESOME”.  Now THAT’s a religious experience!                                                                                                                                                                            “Affn /lung/iz /affn/ tzung,” we say in Yiddish. What’s inside comes flying out! Wouldn’t it be something if we could re-capture that boundless sense of wonderment of a three year old when viewing our world — if each day we opened our eyes in the morning and looked out the window at our world and would say, because we couldn’t contain ourselves, “This is AWESOME”!?                                                           
There are many different definitions of what it means to be religious. Lian’s reaction reminds me of one of my favorites: “To be religious means to live your life with open eyes.”  The English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes:
Earth’s crammed with heaven/and every common bush afire with G-d/ But only he who sees/ takes off his shoes/ The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.  To be religious means that you take the time to notice the miracles of life, large and small, that occur daily. To be religious means that you give thanks to God for the privilege of being alive to witness life in all its splendor and glory. To be religious means to appreciate life in all of its holiness. Judaism teaches that we have within us the breath of G-d, that we were created through G-d speaking.  Therefore we must aspire to more than just a good university education, a prestigious job, membership in the right club. Our ambitions must take us beyond money, status, and appearance. That is not enough for creatures that contain, as the rabbis say, the spark of the divine. Our reach must extend beyond the mundane, the material, and the worldly. Rather, let us take off our shoes and see and hear.  Let’s reach for the stars – even though we may not grasp them – and cultivate the religious ideals of kindness, compassion, awe, appreciation which our religious thought and practice seek to instill in us.
In the eyes of a three year old, in the questions of an eleven year old, we address the most profound questions of our existence. The psalmist writes: When I see Your Heavens/ The work of Your fingers/the moon and the stars You fixed firm/ “What is man that you should note him/the human creature, that You pay him heed? You make him little less than the angels/with glory and grandeur You crown him.”
We are human beings. We are all subject to temptations, to jealousy, to passions, to anger, to frustrations.  We stumble, we fall. Yet, we are noble creatures, little lower than the angels. We can overcome. We can rise again. We can elevate ourselves!  This High Holidays, let us commit to climbing higher, to raising ourselves, to reaching beyond our grasp, and to expanding the breath of the divine that is within each and every one of us. Shana Tova