September 16, 2012

Rabbi Jason Holtz, Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, AZ

A couple of months ago, my wife Jodi and I were traveling to visit our families.   We are still at that stage where we don’t know each other’s more distant relatives very well.  So, I decided to share a few old family stories in preparation of the get together.   She immediately interrupted and said, “Jason, before you tell me any stories, just assume that you’ve already told me.  At least fifteen times.” 

I think I may have already shared that story with some of you.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, rabbis all over the country are going to try and say something new to their congregations.  They will try to share fresh ideas and insights or to craft some new story.   I often do that myself, not just on the High Holy Days, but weekly on Shabbat.  Tonight, though, I do not have a new story for you.  I do not have a new teaching or a new idea that nobody has ever thought of before.  Rather, I am going to talk about something that has been talked about for millennia.  I am going to talk about Creation.  After all, this is Rosh Hashanah and we are here to mark the creation of the world. 

Tonight marks the year 5773, traditionally understood as 5773 since the creation of the world as described in the Hebrew Bible.  Now, I must say.  I do not believe that the world came into existence almost 6,000 years ago in six days.  All of the scientific evidence we have points to a much older earth and universe.  I think Rabbi Cohon has one of the better ways of explaining the number for the Jewish year.  Now I hope I don’t misquote him, being that he’s my boss and sitting right behind me, but he said that a few thousand years ago the best Jewish minds got together and looking at all of the evidence they had available to them at the time and this is the number they came up with.  Now that we have more evidence that leads to a different conclusion, there is nothing wrong with modifying our estimates by a few billion years or so.  As the great economist Alan Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind.”

That said, the world whose creation we are celebrating is not just physical.  Love, meaning, purpose, faith, repentance, forgiveness, friendship, kindness, justice, compassion, honesty, wonder, excitement, and so much more – these are not easily quantified.  None of them can be touched with our hands or seen with our eyes, but all of them are real; all of them are very much a part of creation.   They are as real as the earth beneath our feet, the air all around us, and the starry heavens above.

It is not just planes, buildings, or the new iPhone 5 that people can construct.  All of the non-physical things reside within each of us, and it is through us that they are brought into the world.  We bring love into the world when we act with love.  We bring compassion into the world when we act with compassion.  We bring friendship into the world when we introduce ourselves to someone else and build a relationship.  All of these things are real and in that way, we are partnering with God in continuing to create the world.  Reality is not just something that happens – it is not something that we have no say over.  In so many ways, we shape what happens.  We shape the nature of the world.  We are participants in creating the world.

While in that sense we are co-creators of the world, we are also its inheritors.  Through no doing of our own, the world we live in is full of things that are both good and bad.  Just as the world has room for us to be creative, others live alongside us and they too create—or destroy.  And then there are things that just happen—sometimes for the good and sometimes not.   Because of that, we are called upon not just to create but also to repair.  It is possible and it is a cornerstone of Jewish belief.  It is called tikkun olam, repairing the world.

Tikkun Olam literally means repairing the world.  Oftentimes when the phrase is used, it is referring to acts of social responsibility such as feeding the hungry or housing the homeless.   While it is all of these things, tikkun olam, repairing the world, is more encompassing than social action.  Tikkun Olam is a way of looking at everything that we do because they are the right thing to do and because they are the Jewish thing to do. 

The term tikkun olam, repair of the world, originated close to two thousand years ago.  The ancient rabbis used it in reference to legislation meant to provide special protections and assistance for people who are disadvantaged. 

Centuries later, tikkun olam becomes a more encompassing term.  In the early part of the last millennium, Spain was a major center of Jewish life.  Some of our finest scholars, poets, and statesmen come from this Golden Age of Spanish Jewry.  Like all things though, it too passed.  Under pressure from the Catholic Church, Jews were either converted or exiled from Spain.  It devastated the community and much of the Jewish world.  Some of those people who were exiled made their way east, to the Ottoman Empire, and eventually the Land of Israel.  There was an already small but established community in northern Israel, a town called Safed.  Some exiles went and joined that town.  In time, that town flourished and became a major center of kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. 

One of the best-known teachers in Safed was Rabbi Isaac Luria. Luria spoke of God, creation and the path towards redemption, a better future.  He said that when God was preparing to create the world, God contracted, God withdrew in order to make space.  In the cleared out space, God crafted ten vessels meant to hold the Divine light.  The purpose of these vessels was to separate goodness from evil.  Many of the vessels were incapable of doing so, however, and shattered.  Sparks of the divine light mixed together with shards from broken vessels.   As a result, evil was no longer separate from good and entered into the world.  Tikkun olam, repairing the world, was seen as mending the defect in creation. 

The rational side of me pauses any time kabbalah and mysticism are brought up.  However, I can see the appeal in Luria’s world-view.  The reason that he was so popular and still talked about all these centuries later is because of how his teachings spoke to a people still traumatized by the Spanish exile.  Where was God, many of them asked.  Not there, Luria responded.  God contracted, God withdrew as part of creation to make space for everything else.  Why do we suffer?  Why is there evil, they ask?  Evil is an imperfection in creation itself, Luria responded, but there is something we can do about—tikkun olam, repair the world, repair creation.   

In this sense, Jewish mysticism is both realistic and optimistic.  It is realistic because it does not ignore calamity and catastrophe, sadness and sorrow, or distress and difficulty.  Yet Jewish mysticism is also optimistic because the possibility of a return to wholeness is ever-present.  This is also a lesson of blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. 

Rabbi Arthur Green, who will be coming to Temple as our Bilgray Scholar-in-Residence in the spring, writes about exactly this.  He says:

Each series of shofar blasts begins with teki’ah, a whole sound.  It is followed by shevarim, a tripartite broken sound whose very name means “breakings.”  “I started off whole,” the shofar speech says, “and I became broken.”  Then follows teru’ah, a staccato series of blast fragments, saying: “I was entirely smashed to pieces.”  But each series has to end with a new teki’ah, promising wholeness once more.  The shofar cries out a hundred times on Rosh Hashanah: “I was whole, I was broken, even smashed to bits, but I shall be whole again![1]

Luria spoke of a brokenness dating all the way back to creation. The truth is, there are many kinds of brokenness.  There is brokenness that affects the whole world or large parts of it.  The o-zone layer is “holey” and not the sacred kind.  There is unrest and violence in the Middle East, particularly in this past week.  Communities experience their own brokenness, as do families and individuals.  Poverty is widespread and doesn’t just happen to someone else in some other place.  Usually once a week, and many times more than that, I have people in my office telling me that they can no longer afford rent, utilities, groceries, or medical bills.  Losing a job is a breaking in an individual’s life, but it surely is a breaking in the lives of people who count on their income and emotional well-being.  Nothing can disrupt a life like a severe illness.   I know this.  I lived it last year when my brain began to hemorrhage and I eventually had surgery to stop the bleeding.  I was fortunate though.  Three months later, I was back to normal. Life breaks when we lose a loved one.  I could stand up here and offer a litany of everything wrong in the world and in people’s lives, from broken relationships to shattered dreams.  I imagine each and every one of you could contribute something to the list.

Brokenness does not have to be the end of the story, though.  We respond, renew and repair.  First comes teshuvahTeshuvah is often translated as repentance, and it can mean that.  However, I mean teshuvah in its broader and more literal term: to turn, or to orient ourselves.  In order to repair and rebuild, we first re-orient.  It means examining our values, what kind of people we want to be and what kind of world we want to live in.  Ultimately that is what these Ten Days of Teshuvah, from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur are for.  But we can’t end there.  We have to act Rabbi Arthur Green goes on to say:

Our restoration of wholeness is not to be achieved by prayer alone…liturgy brings us only to the edge of the Jordan, but never takes us across into the Promised Land.  For this we need to add the deed to our holy thoughts and words.  Teshuvah, repentance, and tefillah, prayer, need tsedakah, righteous doing, in order to be effective.  We restore the world to wholeness only by doing.  In fact, our entire contemplative effort has been pointed toward realization in the realm of action.  We are the bearers of compassion in this God-filled universe; so too are we “the limbs of the Shekhinah [God’s presence],” the only ones who can make real in this world the sacred vision of wholeness.  Redemption is brought about only by the deed.[2]

Having gone through teshuvah, we are turned to what it means to be committed to tikkun olam, repairing the world.  Let’s talk specifics.  I’ll give two examples as to how we as a community are participating in tikkun olam.  This is a very partial list.  First, we have serious environmental challenges.  The scientific evidence is overwhelming.  One of the most major problems is that our planet is heating up and it seems to be tied with how we currently produce and use energy.  That’s not news, but what is new is Temple Emanu-El’s solar project.  By receiving our energy directly from sunlight, we are doing much to repair the world.     Second, sickness and death are unfortunate but constant parts of every life. There are neither words nor rituals so comforting that they can take the place of a loved one.  While we cannot take away grief, we can help people in their mourning.  Temple Emanu-El’s Caring Community is a group of a few dedicated volunteers and one of their most important tasks is to help make life just a little easier.  They will watch over a home during a funeral and prepare meals of condolence.  Those who do this work are performing a great mitzvah and working hard to help out when a person’s world is broken.  I believe in it so much, I’d like to ask now, with so many of you here tonight, to consider helping out.  You’ll have my support and the support of other volunteers.  You may let me know later if you will consider this.

Tikkun, the work of repair, is not just the responsibility of a community though; it is something for individuals as well.  When I served a congregation in Quincy, Illinois a congregant told me that he saw everything he did as tikkun olam, from how he ran his business, to how he interacted with friends, families and strangers.   What he told me was that he always strove to either build or rebuild. 

I do not know of anything more hopeful than the message of tikkun olam – that through our work and through our actions, we can work to make our world and the world of others a better place.

There is a beautiful Chasidic teaching that says, “every human being is tied to God by a rope.  If the rope breaks, and is later fixed with a knot, that individual is connected ever closer to God than if there never were a break in the rope.  Thus, errors, mistakes, and failures have the potential of drawing us even closer to God.”[3]

We are here to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. I began by saying that I really had nothing new to say.  That works out well because the Hebrew word for year, shanah, comes from the same root as the word “repeat.”  But that same root that means “year” and “repeat” can also mean “change,” shinui.  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur bring a consistent message, year after year, that we are, all of us, capable of changing the world. Let us orient ourselves to a better world and let us work towards achieving it together.

Shanah Tovah



[1] Green, Arthur. Seek My Face: A Jewish Mystical Theology. Woodstock: Jewish Lights, 2003. p169

[2] Green, Arthur. Seek My Face: A Jewish Mystical Theology. Woodstock: Jewish Lights, 2003. p169

[3] Elkins, Dov Peretz, ed. Rosh Hashanah Readings. Woodstock: Jewish Lights, 2006. P5

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