On Rosh Hashanah morning, I brought a text from the very first chapter of the Bible: “God saw all that God had made, and look! It was very good.” I told you then that we’d see the verse three different ways before the holidays were through.
We’ve already looked at it through the eyes of Rabbis Chaninah and Pinchas, Talmudic Sages who saw in the word “very,” m’od in Hebrew, an anagram for the Hebrew word adam, “human being.” For Chaninah and Pinchas, God’s assessment of Creation is positive, and we human beings are the reason why. In last week’s sermon on optimism, I suggested that we could read the verse as a reminder that the essential goodness of humanity — hineh tov “adam” — shines.
Tomorrow afternoon, we will see how Rabbi Meir, a contemporary of Chanina and Pinchas, plays with the sound of the word m’od, offering us a lesson fit for our Yizkor Service: that the “urgency of time” (to borrow a phrase from the prayer book) is a gift, and that immortality, if it existed, wouldn’t be much of a blessing.
Tonight, our lesson comes to us by way of sixteenth-century Italy, home to the brilliant biblical scholar Ovadiah ben Ya’akov Seforno.
Seforno hears the verse — “God saw all that God had made, and look: it was very good” — in light of the six previous times in the same chapter that God had said “God saw…and it was good.” And his question is this: if God has been evaluating everything as “good,” all along, then what is the reason for adding the word “very?” How did the same things that were merely “good” in God’s estimation suddenly become “very Good?”
In answering his own question, he takes a mathematical approach. The original statement, six times, was “and God saw…” followed by the particular things which had been created, “…and it was good,” The word “very” is added to the second half of the statement. To balance the equation, as it were, we need to see what was added to the first part of the statement. And there it is: “God saw all that God had made.”
Here’s is his answer:
את כל אשר עשה והנה טוב מאד. תכלית המציאות בכללו טוב מאד יותר מן התכליתיות הפרטיות המכוונות אליו.
The totality of all Creation, all Reality, is very good. It is better than the sum of its parts, the components which contribute to its existence.
In other words, while God has been evaluating every bit of Creation as “good” all along, it is only when the whole is put together that God can say, “Look at this! How very good it all is!”
What Seforno is teaching us through his observation about the word “very” is that holistic systems have some value added through the simple fact of their diversity. The contents of the world, on their own, are good; the world, all put together, is very good.
What is true of a great big system like the Universe is true of smaller systems, as well. Nations. Faith Communities. Synagogues. Even the tightly integrated systems called “people” are actually pretty complex, multi-faceted things, and the sum of their parts doesn’t begin to compare to the whole. That is what I am going to explore tonight. We’ll do it through another text, one of my all-time favorites.
Its author, Rabbi Abraham Kook – mystic, activist, politician, poet, writer – served as the Rabbi of several communities in Europe and Eretz Yisra’el before becoming the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine in 1921. Until his death in 1935, he worked tirelessly at bringing together diverse groups of people in the service of a larger good. The Old Yishuv traditionalists in their black hats and coats, the New Yishuv kibbutznikim with their modern ideas and morals…Kook was the figure who bridged the gap, the man who could sit with both sides. He is a giant in Jewish intellectual history, and deserves to be better known today. The story is told: When Albert Einstein visited Palestine in 1923, he accepted an invitation to visit the Rav. When the time came to leave, Einstein pushed back against his traveling companions: “I am not ready to end this conversation with one of the few people I’ve ever met who really understands my Theory of Relativity.”
Rav Kook’s shir m’ruba, or “fourfold song,” speaks about four “people” who sing four different songs. They are the song of the Self, the song of the Nation, the song of Humanity, and the song of Existence. Song, here, is of course a metaphor. The Rav is writing about concentric circles of concern and passion. And we need to know that he didn’t mean to suggest for a moment that a person is for ever and always one or another of these types. There are times when we sing the song of the Self, of Nation, of Humanity, or of Existence. Most of us will sing more than one of those songs over the course of our lifetimes, and we’ll sometimes find that we are singing two or more songs at the same time, harmonizing with ourselves, as it were.
The essay (Orot 2:144) begins…
There is a person who sings the song of the Self. He finds everything, his complete spiritual satisfaction, within himself.
The great Sage Hillel used to say, “if I am not for myself, who will be for me?” We do not belittle self-care, a healthy ego, a properly located sense of self-worth. Some of us, sometimes, sing that song of the Self, because it is what we are capable, and because it is what we need. A person who lives only in service to others is liable to burn out, or grow resentful of the neverending tasks. And so, “if I am not for myself, who will be for me?” There is a person who sings the song of the Self.
But Hillel doesn’t end with Self. As you may know, he continues, “if I am only for myself, what am I?” Rav Kook, too, goes on to describe the ones who sing the songs of the Nation (by which he means the Jewish People, our Tribe), of Humanity, and of all Existence. Kook’s flowery prose tells the story of this journey from self to ever-expanding circles of concern. He writes:
And there is a person who sings the song of the Nation. He steps forward from his private self, which he finds narrow and insufficiently developed. He yearns for the heights. He clings with a sensitive love to the entirety of the Jewish nation and sings with it its song. He shares in its pains, is joyful in its hopes, speaks with exalted and pure thoughts regarding its past and its future, investigates its inner spiritual nature with love and a wise heart.
When I’m in Israel, this is the song I sing. There is nothing that matters more than Am Yisrael. I feel so blessed to have visited Israel with many of you, to have had the chance to see the Land and the People, time and again, through the eyes of first-time visitors. Standing on the promenade beneath Mount Scopus, looking out over “Jerusalem of Gold,” praying shehecheyanu, the song of the Nation is the only song I need. And it is that song that animates me to leap to Israel’s defense when she is under attack.
Back to the song…
There is a person whose soul is so broad that it expands beyond the border of Israel. It sings the song of humanity. This soul constantly grows broader with the exalted totality of humanity and its glorious image. He yearns for humanity’s general enlightenment. He looks forward to its supernal perfection. From this source of life, he draws all of his thoughts and insights, his ideals and visions.
Sometimes the song of the Nation feels quite sufficient….and sometimes it doesn’t. There are times when we come face-to-face with the other, with our neighbors, and we just know that we have to stand with them. Interfaith learning which brings interfaith understanding. Solidarity with the underdogs in our world, who are not always “members of the tribe.” A belief that in the fullness of time, the “general enlightenment” of which Rav Kook writes is not only possible, but inevitable. All of these are what animate us as we sing the song of Humanity.
But why stop there? Because…
there is a person who rises even higher until he unites with all existence, with all creatures, and with all worlds. And with all of them, he sings. This is the person who, engaged in the Chapter of Song every day, is assured that he is a child of the World-to-Come.
When I began learning with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality five years ago, I did so in order to cultivate the part of me that sings this song. I’m still learning the melody, but when I lock it in, it feels great. Praying with fervor, feeling the deep connection to everyone and everything. This song is the one that many of us sing when we experience the natural beauty of our desert, or the calming presence of the ocean. It brings tremendous peace to sing the song of all Existence.
Now, one way of hearing this text is as describing a hierarchy of concerns, each one better than the last. The song of the Self is at the bottom, the person who cares about the Jews is less elevated than the person who cares about all people, the environmentally-conscious mystic trumps them all. But such a reading ignores the paragraphs which follow:
And there is a person who rises with all these songs together in one ensemble so that they all give forth their voices, they all sing their songs sweetly, each supplies its fellow with fullness and life: the voice of happiness and joy, the voice of rejoicing and tunefulness, the voice of merriment and the voice of holiness.
The song of the soul, the song of the nation, the song of humanity, the song of the world-they all mix together with this person at every moment and at all times.
In other words, Rav Kook is not espousing an either-or proposition, but a both-and scenario. Each of those melodies is beautiful in its own right; when they are sung together, in four-part harmony, that is when the magic happens. That is when, as Rav Kook concludes,
…this simplicity in its fullness rises to become a song of holiness, the song of God, the song that is simple, doubled, tripled, quadrupled, the “Song of Songs of Solomon” which is the song of the Ruler whose very name is Peace.
Shalom. Peace. Wholeness. Integrity. Wholeness and integrity do not come from singing any one of those four songs, no matter how beautifully, to the exclusion of the others. Hamelech Shehashalom shelo, the Ruler whose very name is Peace, loves to hear us sing as a choir.
This accords with my own experience. When it comes to those three widest circles of concern, I feel passionate in different ways, at different times. Sometimes my heart leads me to devote special time and energy to social justice or interfaith work, singing the song of Humanity. At other times, I find myself consumed by what’s happening in Israel, and my energy and compassion are directed almost solely to my brothers and sisters in our Jewish homeland. There are days when my connection with individual Jews, individual human beings, is what makes me sing, as I visit the sick, console the bereaved, welcome people into the covenant, and more. I care deeply about all Creation, and try to make personal choices that reflect those cares.
All of those things are true of me…and none of them work if I don’t start with the song of the Self. A bike ride with Alanna on a weekend afternoon, cooking my kids sandwiches on Monday evenings, being restored by a good read or the feeling of the fretboard beneath my fingers, just playing my guitar for fun…all these are essential to my health, my well-being, my shalom.
Maybe this accords with your own experience, too. Maybe you find in Rav Kook’s description of the human striving for wholeness a way to understand your own efforts in any number of areas. What Kook is saying (I think), is that the dichotomies we tend to see in our lives are false ones. Or if not false, at least unhelpful. To speak of the four songs, and their singers, as distinct, is an intellectual exercise. Reality is messier than that.
So we listen to our hearts, singing their song. We take good care of ourselves, we take good care of others. We feel some special connection to our own Tribe, perhaps; maybe we feel called to heal the whole wide world. We sing, adding our voices to all the others in the choir.
We add our voices to all the others in the choir. And now we’ve come full circle. Vayar Elohim et kol asher asa, vehineh tov m’od. God saw all that God had made, and it was very Good. Because it is in the kol, the totality, that we find the fullest expression of this idea. An individual can metaphorically “harmonize” with herself by living a life of balanced concern. A community can actually sing multiple parts at the very same time, which is why community is so beautiful.
With that in mind, I want to speak for a moment – just a moment! – very directly to the transition now getting underway at Temple Mount Sinai. And what I want to say is this: you are an incredibly powerful community, in your totality. You are made up of people who care, very much, about each other. Many of you have expressed that caring by acting on another’s behalf, and many of you – the same people, mind you, at different times in your lives – have felt the love and concern of your Temple Family in times of need. You sing the song of the Self very well, and you strive to sing it even better. The song of the Nation, the Tribe? So many of you engage with the texts and traditions of Judaism, while others of you care most of all about the Jewish People, at home and around the world. Still others love singing the song of Humanity, feeding the hungry, working for justice in our community for all who live here. Others are spiritual seekers who feel most alive, whose song is sung most clearly, when it is sung for all Existence. Most of you sing every part in the choir at one point or another in your lives. On the page facing in the program is a reminder of some of the ways — just some of the ways — that Temple Mount Sinai will be singing in four-part harmony over the coming weeks and months.
All of us, in our less-attuned moments, are prone to thinking that everyone should be singing the same song. And in moments of transition, it’s tempting to say “Temple needs to be about this, or that.” Or, “as Temple enters its next chapter, we should stop doing this, or stop doing that.” My prayer is that Rav Kook will be our teacher, and that we’ll remember that it is the presence of all the voices – the song of the Self, the song of the Tribe, the song of Humanity, the song of Existence – it is the presence of all the voices that is very good. My prayer is that we will positively revel in our multivocality, each of us in our lives, all of us as a community, singing the song of wholeness, the song of integrity, the song of peace.