Picture God. Bearded, longish hair, white robe, standing on a cloud. In other words, picture God exactly as I’ve always taught that we shouldn’t. In this picture, He (yes, for these purposes He’s a “He”) is looking off at earth in the distance. There is a thought bubble over His head: “What…was I thinking?” Below, in large capital letters, these words: “CREATOR’S REMORSE.”
You’ll find that very image on page seventy-five of this week’s New Yorker magazine. It is a pretty perfect cartoon to usher in the New Year, and I would like to think that the timing is no accident. After all, the cartoon editor is a guy named Bob Mankoff who might well be in synagogue himself today. Here on this yom harat olam, this birthday of the world, a cleverly-drawn cartoon depicts God regretting Creation. It’s good to laugh. Because looking back on the year that was….if you can’t laugh, you’re gonna cry.
This was, after all, a year that saw brutal violence in so many hot spots around the world. Islamist extremists terrorizing populations in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Ugly antisemitism, much of it in Europe, some much closer to home. A summer of rockets and missiles in Israel and Gaza. Here in America, tension around race, gender, class, immigration status, tension that was all too often accompanied by violence. I could go on, but you get the point. Looking at the world over this past year, some pessimism is understandable.
In depicting God’s “Creator’s Remorse,” cartoonist Danny Shanahan stands in a long line of biblical commentators. The God of this week’s New Yorker magazine is hardly the first to express remorse at the very fact of Creation. Our own Jewish Tradition contains a few striking examples of a version of the argument playing itself out, as the question is asked: would it have been better had humanity never come into existence?
Perhaps the most famous instance is from the Talmud, in tractate Eiruvin, where we read about some of the disputes between the students of two famous teachers, Hillel and Shammai. Here’s the text:
For two and a half years the students of Shammai and the students of Hillel were in dispute, the former asserting that it were better for humanity not to have been created than to have been created, and the latter maintaining that it is better for humanity to have been created than not to have been created. They finally took a vote, and decided that it were better for humanity not to have been created than to have been created, but now that we have been created, let us investigate our past deeds. Others say, let us examine our future actions (BT Eiruvin 13b).
Can you imagine? Two and half years spent debating the premise, Should we even be here? And in the end, a vote? Teachers who have explored this passage in the centuries since it was written have seen the result as a sort of compromise. Shammai’s position might be true in the abstract, given the amount of suffering we humans experience and cause. But, says Hillel, Here we are. And so, our obligation is to look backwards, and ahead, seeking to create a better version of ourselves, one that would lead to a different outcome when the votes are tallied.
Another textual moment from our Tradition puts the conversation not in the mouths of Torah students, but of angels. Riffing on the odd use of the plural in the verse from this morning’s Torah reading, “Let us make humanity in our image, after our likeness,” the Midrash wonders, “just who is God talking to?” The imaginative and playful answer is, a group of angels. Their names appear in a Psalm which is understood (again, playfully and imaginatively) as a sort of dialogue from the moments just before we were created. Here’s the Midrash:
Rabbi Shimon said: When God was about to create the first human beings, the angels were divided. Some said, “Let God create them;” while others said, “Let God not create them.” The verse, Psalm 85:11, records their debate, telling us that “Chesed and Emet, Kindness and Truth, butted heads; Tzedek and Shalom, Justice and Peace, took up arms” (Ps 85:11). Chesed, Kindness said: “Let God create them, for they will perform acts of chesed.” Emet, Truth said, “Let God not create them, for they will be full of lies.” Tzedek, Justice said, “Let God create them, for they will perform tzedekah;” Shalom, Peace said, “Let God not create them, for they will do nothing but fight” (GenR 8).
Four angels, representing four big and important ideals: kindness, truth, justice and peace. Each one is an argument for or against the existence of humanity. And it is two against two. What will happen?
A little bit of divine voter suppression, that’s what. The very next verse in the Psalm says that Emet, Truth, will sprout up from the earth. Well? How did he get down there? Wasn’t he just up in heaven, arguing with Kindness? The Midrash imagines that it is God who casts Truth to the ground in order to get him out of the room for the vote. And now it is two to one. And here we are.
And here we are, proving all four of those angels right, day after day. We are capable of incredible acts of lovingkindness…and also of devious deception. Sometimes we fight for justice and right…and sometimes we fight, so it seems, just to fight. This past year we’ve seen the brutality of beheadings in the Middle East, and the beauty of a sleepy head resting on a fellow commuter’s shoulder on the Q train to Brooklyn. Yes, we are all these things, Kindness and Truth, Justice and Peace, mixed up together. As another verse (Ps 8:5) has it, we are “little less than angels, crowned with glory and honor.” Except when we’re not. Because we are also capable of being rather beastly creatures. Actually, in light of some of the behaviors of which we’ve shown ourselves capable, that’s not really fair to the beasts.
The angels have cast their votes, the students of Hillel and Shammai have cast theirs…. and still, I think it must be said, the jury is still out on us.
But here we are, together, at the start of a New Year. Yes, it is a time for looking backward, and to look back on a year like the one that is now ending is to invite pessimism. But Rosh Hashanah is also a time for looking ahead, and for Jews, it is really understood to be very nearly a mitzvah to maintain a sense of optimism and hope for the future.
Our recent visitor to El Paso, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his Jewish Humor, illustrates this imperative by telling us the story of
An American [who] moved to Israel and immediately applied to have a telephone installed. Three weeks later, he still had not heard from the phone company, so he returned to its office. He was sent to a high official in the company. “When did you apply for the phone?” the official asked.
The American gave the precise date.
“But that’s only a few weeks ago.” The official picked up a much older stack of applications, which had still not been filled. “There are so many people ahead of you.”
“Does that mean I have no hope?”
The Israeli looked up sternly. “It is forbidden for a Jew ever to say ‘I have no hope.’ No chance, maybe.”
In a more serious vein, consider Aaron Zeitlin’s Yiddish poem, Zayn a Yid, “To Be a Jew.”
Being a Jew means forever running to God
even if you are God’s betrayer.
means expecting to hear any day,
even if you are a nay sayer,
the blare of Messiah’s shofar;
means, even if you wish to,
you cannot escape God’s snares,
you cannot cease to pray –
even after all the prayers, even after all the “evens.”
Afile noch aleh tfiles
Afile noch aleh afiles.
When all the “evens,” the “buts,” the “on the other hands” have been spoken, I simply must maintain my optimism. I come by it honestly. I am a Jew, and it is Rosh Hashanah. I suppose that being a Jew at Rosh Hashanah is a bit like being a Mets fan, or a Cubs fan, on Opening Day, when anything is possible.
To be a Jew at the turning of the year is to open the Torah to that very first chapter and read (v. 31), as we will in just a few moments, vayar elohim et kol asher asah, vehineh tov m’od — God saw all that God had made, and look! It was very good. This is not the world-weary God of our cartoon, experiencing “Creator’s Remorse.” The God of that majestic first chapter of Genesis looks upon Creation and sees unqualified goodness, unlimited potential.
We are going to come back to those words — “God saw all that God had made, and look! It was very good” — again and again through these High Holidays, looking at three different ways they’ve been understood by our Tradition. This morning, I will leave you with just one. It is the way of Rabbis Chaninah and Pinchas (GenR 9:13), who playfully make an anagram of the word “very,” rearranging the letters of the Hebrew m’od to form the word adam. The result? “God saw all that God had made, and look! Humanity is good.”
On Kol Nidrei night, hineh tov m’od will be our gateway to some thoughts about how we can best realize that possibility, as individuals and as a community. And at Yizkor time on Yom Kippur Afternoon, the verse will open up a conversation about embracing our mortality and using our years in the best way possible. But on this morning, this “first dawning of the year,” I just want to stand with the students of Rabbi Hillel, with the angels named Kindness and Justice, with Aaron Zeitlin, with the guy from the phone company, and yes, with the Holy Blessed One.
I greet this New Year eager to roll up my sleeves and make it better than the one which has just ended. I hear the words of Torah urging us on to goodness and greatness, the sound of the shofar calling us to be the very best we can be, the voices of this synagogue community, members and friends joined together in song and prayer. The words with which we began this service echo in my ears: My heart rises up in hope; my spirit reaches for new beginnings; my voice, too, lifts up a melody that celebrates today.
Cubs and the Mets fans: we’re out of the hunt, mathematically eliminated, and the cries of “just wait ‘til next year” are on our lips. But for the Jews, and our fans, today is Opening Day. Play Ball!
May this New Year, 5775, bring great things for each of us, for all of us, for this community, our People, our nation, and our world.
Shanah Tovah Umetukah!