Rabbi Reisner - Rosh Hashana Eve 2012
Hayom Harat Olam – RH 5773 – Eve
A] 5773. Twenty three years ago, when it was just 5750, I stood before my then congregation and told them of an old midrash / a speculative or fanciful, rather than a factual, tale / that imagined that the universe was on a Shabbat-like cycle, and just as God worked for six days in creating the world, we also work six days then experience the day of rest / or the day of fulfillment / a day of appreciation and so too the universe was on a 6000 year cycle, to be followed by God’s own Shabbat of 1000 years -- the messianic era.
This midrash was clearly riffing on a well-known verse in Psalms (90:4) “a thousand years are, in Your eyes, as the day just past.”
We can choose to appreciate the inventiveness of this midrash or dismiss the science – doesn’t much matter.
But what I flagged for my congregants is that if you consider the cycle of the universe 6000 years, and see that as God’s day, and if, then, you divide that day into 24 hours, for that is how we parse a day’s time, each hour is of 250 years, and, by that calculation, we were then entering the last hour /24th hour of the universe’s day.
250 years is still a long time, and 23 years later is but five minutes in that final hour – so its only 11:05, but it remains a creepy thought.
B] But the reason I bring this up tonight is not to warn that global warming is a sign of the end – but rather, simply to note that the rabbis were imagining the life of the universe as part of a cycle – unlike Aristotle who thought of the universe as an eternal fabric of existence.
This is not really surprising, because the Torah speaks of a beginning – Breishit – and things that have beginnings typically have ends, or at least you can see how one might conclude that.
And there were other cycles of nature readily observable. There was the sun’s rotation about the earth (as it was observed and understood at that time) – in our parlance a day. There was the moon’s waxing and waning every month. And the annual cycle of the sun and stars in the sky – that which we call a year.
These cycles are the definition of time – without them there would be no way to break up eternity. As the first chapter of Genesis so clearly says (1:14) “Let there be orbs in the heavens to be signs of the times – of days and of years.”
And so we say “hayom harat olam” – today is the birthday of the world – and by that we mean that we can map the heavenly sign of the year on the unbroken life of the universe. But it is artificial, for the life of the universe may indeed be a cycle in God’s awareness of time, but that cycle is beyond our reach, and for all our intuition and observation the life of the universe is as good as eternal. It is unbroken. It does not fail. And the world has no birthday, for it has no repetitive frame save one we impose upon it.
C] The same is true of our lives – birthdays are an artificial, social expedient by which to stop and look about us / to stop and smell the roses – for we are not significantly different any one day from the next.
Generations are the cycles of life – but we, as individuals, cannot wait to mark their turning. We know about them from our reading – “A generation comes and a generation goes,” says Ecclesiastes, “but the world continues forever.”
The generations are staggered, so we see one pass that we did not see begin and another begin that we will not see pass. But one life, our life, has a beginning and it has an end, but we cannot see it in its fullness. While we can make faith statements about an afterlife, we cannot know the cycle of the soul.
D] Rosh Hashanah is much the same as any birthday. There is no reason to consider our lives, to reassess, to undertake changes on this day any more than on any other, save that we in fact do so today more so than on any other. We do. Or, I hope we do.
We stop to smell the roses, to look about us, to pause and ponder our existence, to reckon with what we have and what we are – what we have, what we are and what we yet hope to be. And it is the stopping that matters – that makes Rosh Hashanah what it is. If we did not mark Rosh Hashanah, it is not clear that it would continue to exist. In Rosh Hashanah we have found a way, forced a way, to halt the inexorable march of undifferentiated time and steal a moment to see ourselves.
E] The unbroken eternity of time is matched by an unbroken continuum of the universe. Psalm 19, which we say each Shabbat and Festival morning reflects on the immensity of the world –
השמים מספרים כבוד אל ומעשה ידיו מגיד הרקיע
The heavens tell of the glory of God; the sky speaks of the divine handiwork
Not surprisingly, this is an altogether earthbound view. The Psalmist knew only what he could see. But we are no less awed by the larger universe that we see than the Psalmist in his day.
In the 17th century, the physicist Blaise Pascal cast his gaze as far and farther than he could see and asked, like the Psalmist, that you share his awe.
“Let [one] contemplate the whole of nature… let him see the earth as a mere speck compared to the vast orbit described by [the sun]… let him marvel at finding this vast orbit no more than the tiniest point compared to … the firmament. But if our eyes stop there, let our imagination proceed further… The whole visible universe is only an imperceptible dot in nature’s ample bosom…
What is a man in the infinite?”
We are frozen -- awed and insignificant.
But Pascal continues: “to offer another prodigy equally astounding. Let [a man] look into the tiniest things he knows. Let him divide these things still further until he has exhausted his powers of imagination.”
A few years ago a pair of High School students, Cary and Michael Huang, produced an Internet phenomenon called the Scale of the Universe, which depicts the size of known objects from the very largest (the presumed size of the observable universe – can’t really hazard any guess beyond that) to a string (currently the smallest subatomic particle that has been proposed) all on a gently sliding panoramic scale. After Yom Tov you might want to look it up. The Scale of the Universe. Absolutely riveting.
And Pascal makes a point of our middlingness.
“After all, what is man in nature?”
“Who will not marvel that our body, a moment ago imperceptible in [the] universe, should now be a colossus… compared to the nothingness beyond our reach? … Infinitely remote from on understanding of the extremes… Equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed…
“What else can [one] do, then, but perceive some semblance of the middle of things”
F] The Hasidic Master Rabbi Bunim of Pshiskha was reflecting on this problem when he suggested that we should each carry two notes in our two pockets. One would say, I am but dust and ashes – that note to be consulted when we are overly vain and self-important.
But when the sense of our own insignificance and mediocrity has us despairing, then we should reach into the other pocket and bring out the note that says, “The world was created for me.”
Yet how do we ever convince ourselves, in the immensity of the universal continuum from the very tiny to the very great, of that -- That the world was created for me? That, withal, I matter.
It is Rosh Hashanah that does that trick.
We stop, to sense, to watch, to wonder – to appreciate our surroundings – that is why we were given senses, after all. In the immensity of the universe, in the chatter of our lives, we stop and sense the grandeur of what is – and to appreciate our appreciation.
This is the problem of the tree that falls in the forest – if we did not sense this world, would it really exist? A materialist might say yes, it would, but its existence and non-existence would be altogether indistinguishable if there was no one to perceive the one or the other. I AM the heart of existence.
That is the bedrock concept that informs the midrash “Atem Edai” – “You are my witnesses, says the Lord – If you are my witnesses then I am the Lord; if you are not my witnesses, it is as if I am not the Lord.”
Blasphemy? Perhaps, but only when engaged as a materialist might engage it. The fact is that the meaning we infuse in existence only inheres because we are able to perceive it. Absent existence, it too would not exist.
Viewed against the perspective of eternity any one of us is insignificant. But each of us, in our awareness, in taking notice, in stopping to smell the roses, gives meaning to God’s creation that without us it would lack. I may be insignificant, but
בשבילי נברא העולם
Insofar as the world that I perceive exists only in my perception – the world really WAS created exclusively for me.
G] We don’t control our life and our death – we don’t choose our place in the cosmos. But we do make our Rosh Hashanah moments
Our stop and smell moments / Our pause and ponder moments / Our watch in wonder moments / Our awe and appreciation moments / Our breathe in deeply moments / Our too precious for words moments
And those moments, in turn, keep our lives as a whole full of vibrant colors and insuperable worth -- clear, focused, intense, alive.
Call Rosh Hashanah, then, preventive maintenance. We all need it lest we grow encrusted and lose our sharpness, our edge.
H] An odd story of an electric shaver.
I bought a new shaver about a year ago – one that was water resistant and allowed you to clean it by running it under the faucet.
Unlike my previous shavers, it’s cutter assembly did not seem to come apart – so I brushed it and washed it and went about my shaving business, until it grew dull and wasn’t cutting well.
Increasingly frustrated, I prepared for its demise.
Then, in a moment of frustration and clairvoyance, I attacked its cutting head one more time, and found that I’d been able to (and clearly was supposed to) take it apart all along. I was greeted by a year’s worth of crud that was easily cleaned out, renewing the edge I had been missing.
So it is with Rosh Hashanah.
Let us use Rosh Hashanah to eliminate the crud and enter the New Year in fighting trim – ready to breathe deeply and smell the roses, to appreciate those around us every minute and sing God’s praises as we are meant to do.
So that life does not pass us by and that we not drift into eternity without getting out of it, or putting into it, all the meaning, the wonder, the joy that we can.
אשירה לד' בחיי, אזמרה לא-להי בעודי
יערב עליו שיחי, אנכי אשמח בד'
My song to the Lord is my life
I praise God by just being
My words are sweet to Him
I rejoice with Him [every moment] (Ps. 104)
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These speeches have been written by our members and delivered during the d'var torah portion of the service.