The New Shul

Rabbi Kanter’s Rosh Hashanah Drashah – Sept. 11 2018

The challenge of Rosh Hashana is beautifully articulated in a poem by Mary Oliver called “The Summer Day.”  She writes:

“Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

On the one hand, she gives us this amazing description of the grasshopper which is an expression of gratitude for a miraculous creation and a song of praise to its creator.   But she also reminds us that even the most miraculous beings and blessings are time-limited, when she says, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”

And because of those two realities, the wondrous nature of our world and the fact that we are finite beings, we need to consider her question, the same one our tradition asks us albeit in different words:   Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

The high holidays come around each year and invite us to ask:  how are we to live in God’s world, and what should we do with the time we are given on this earth?

One of the reasons we ask that question specifically on Rosh Hashana is because as the machzor tells us – Hayom Harat Olam.  Today the world is born, today is the birthday of the world.  According to the rabbis, Rosh Hashana commemorates the creation of the world.  And so it’s fitting that we consider the question of how we are to live, and in that sense, take the opportunity on the anniversary of creation, to recreate our own lives each year.

The backdrop of Rosh Hashanah is the story of creation from Bereisheet chapter one.  The torah tells us that each day God created something different.  Light and darkness are created on the first day, and the heavens on the second day, vegetation on the 3rd day, the sun moon and stars of the 4th day, bird and fish life of the fifth day, large animals and humanity on the sixth day.

Referring to what was created, the torah tells us six times, “Vayar Elohim ki tov, and God saw that it was good.”  And the sixth time, God sees all that has been created, v’hinei tov m’eod, that it is very good.

We know that if the torah repeats something six times it’s not just an invitation to notice something. If the torah repeats something even twice it is noteworthy – but six times –that’s a bullhorn to command our attention. Why is the torah telling us over and over that God saw what had been created, that it was good?

First, I think it’s because, often, it’s harder to see goodness in the world than it is to see evil, imperfection and sorrow. We are barraged by the bad news of the world, that includes corruption and cruelty of every kind.  All we need to do is look around and we find evidence for the idea that the world is full of wrongs and very few rights.  Finding the good is not as easy as seeing the bad.

So our torah begins by telling us that, contrary to the naysayers, our world is good and that goodness began when the world itself began.  The core of God’s creation, the world we live in and the living creatures that populate it, are good.  Goodness is not a fantasy. It is not about seeing the world through rose-colored glasses; it is simply part of reality.

This is not to say that the torah closes its eyes to evil.  The Psalmist describes his own experience of evil in the world, in the Psalm for the Sabbath day.  Bifroach reshaim k’mo esev, when evildoers sprout up like grass; v’yatzizu kol poalei aven, those who wish to destroy keep rearing their heads.

This verse from Psalms is thousands of years old, and yet could easily describe today’s world too.  Evil doers seem to be everywhere, and just when a few evil weeds get plucked, a few more have sprouted somewhere else.  It is so easy to see bad things where ever we look.

But what we learn from the story of creation is that goodness in the world is about how we see:  “God saw that it was good”.  God’s world, our world, has been imperfect, a combination of goodness and flaws, from the moment it was born.  And God could have thought about the tsunamis and the cancers and the hurricanes and lamented the broken parts of creation.  But instead the Torah tells us, Vayar Elohim ki Tov, God saw that it was good.  How we see is a choice, and we need to try to look at the world in the way God does and choose to see the good.  And when we do, we find that brokenness is a reality, yes, but so is wholeness and goodness and love.  And while not ignoring the brokenness, when we focus on the good, we strengthen it and we strengthen those who are trying to increase it in the world.  What God models for us in Breisheet is both a way for human beings to cope with darkness, and a way for human beings to increase the light.   Look for, find and focus on the good, even while knowing that the brokenness is there too.

In our time, actively choosing to see the good in the world can be an important act of protest against those who would have us believe that the world is entirely bleak and dark.  Those who believe only the worst about human beings- that our opponents are our enemies, that in every situation, it’s important to win at any cost – have begun, somewhat successfully, to define the discourse in our country and around the world.  And there are two problems with allowing our discourse to be based on that assumption.

First, assuming the worst about people can simply be wrong.  In our haftara yesterday, we read what happens when you do that.  There was Hannah, pouring out her anguish before God as she struggled with infertility, made worse because in ancient times the entire self-worth of a woman depended on her ability to produce children.   But because Eli the Priest didn’t understand what he was seeing and jumped to a conclusion, he added to her pain by accusing her of being drunk.  The rabbis of the Talmud take Eli to task for this, and rightly so.  Because when you wrongly accuse someone of bad faith when – as in Hannah’s case, it was clearly not – you take a world that is sometimes challenging, sometimes dark, and make it much worse.

But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it lets the actual bad actors off the hook.  Because if we allow for the assumption that everyone – your neighbors, your relatives – that everyone is simply looking out for number one, then you are relieving the actual true bad actors of their rightful accountability.  By contending that everyone has only the most cynical of intentions, those who truly are in it for themselves alone get off the hook for their cynical intentions.  This is not the Jewish way, and this is the antithesis of the message of Rosh Hashana and this time of teshuva

One of the things that allows us to do teshuva is that God not only sees the good in the world, God sees the good in us.  And when we actively seek to see it in each other, we strengthen one another in our efforts to become better people and to make the world a spiritually stronger place.  It’s harder to be an optimist than a pessimist and it is harder to find the good than it is to see all of that’s wrong.  But its upon us to do exactly that for the sake of the basic moral accountability of our world.

And the more we look for it, the more we find it, and the more we help to generate and grow it and strengthen it.  And the more we hold accountable those whose aim is to destroy and tear down.

May we see the good, pursue it, be clear about it and its opposite, so that we make our world a home for God’s presence that God yearns for it to be, and that we long for it to be as well.  L’shana tova tikateivu, may we all be inscribed for a good life, good – because we look for it, and good because it is.