v’al kol yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei tevel, v’imru amen…
Did you catch that little change in the text? In our new prayer book, v’al kol yoshvei tevel, “all who dwell on earth,” joins aleinu v’al kol yisra’el, “us, [and] all Israel,” in the prayer for peace. Many Reform Jews have been adding that phrase for some time, editing the written words before them on the fly. With our new machzor, the printed page has at last caught up with what is increasingly our theology, and our practice.
The rationale is well-stated in the note at the bottom of the page: “What threatens our world today is…the burning question of the extent to which individuals throughout the world choose particularistic allegiance to their tribe alone rather than universalistic responsibility to the rest of humankind.” In the face of that threat, how can we let particularistic allegiance have the last, indeed the only, word as we pray for peace? We simply cannot, and I am grateful for this innovation in our prayer book.
Hayom Harat Olam, we say of this day: “today the world is born anew.” Among the many things that Rosh Hashanah is, it is understood by our tradition to be the anniversary of the world’s coming into being. Five thousand, seven hundred seventy-eight years ago today – so the Rabbis say – a six-day period of creativity culminated with the fashioning of humanity, pinnacle of God’s Creation. In splendid solitude, God spoke this world into being, took stock, pronounced it good, and then rested. It’s quite a story!
Lest anyone in the room need reassurance…we are not a band of Young Earth Creationists here. The story of Creation is poetry, not science or history. Jews are not typically drawn to biblical literalism, having always recognized the text as needing interpretation. We are drawn to the text, of course, and year after year we circle through it, finding and making meaning.
On this Rosh Hashanah, another innovation: rather than reading the “Binding of Isaac” at tomorrow morning’s service, we shall hear chanted the account of the sixth and seventh days of Creation. Our focus will be on the verse which announces our appearance on the scene (Gen 1:26):
And God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the heavens, over the cattle, over the whole earth, and over every crawling animal that crawls on the land.”
So many questions arise upon hearing this verse, and first among them is this: to whom is God speaking? Let us make humankind in our image? Huh.
Not surprisingly, this language has drawn the attention of many commentators over the centuries, including a third-century sage named Rabbi Shmu’el bar Nachman, who quoted his teacher, Rabbi Yonatan, as follows:
as Moses took down God’s speech and turned it into the written Torah, he was careful to write exactly what he heard. For each day of Creation, he wrote. And then he came to the sixth day, and to the verse, “God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness.’” At this, Moses stopped writing and addressed God: “Master of the universe, what do you mean by ‘us’ and ‘our,?’ Why are you giving such an obvious gift to the heretics!?” God’s response? “Be quiet, and write. I know what I’m doing. And those who wish to misunderstand Me are free to do so.”
What’s behind this teaching? A number of things. First, it strategically cedes a bit of ground to Judaism’s competition in those days. At a time of religious conflict, when that first-person plural was understood by to be iron-clad evidence of multiple deities (or of a single, but trinitarian, deity), this imagined conversation between Moses and God was a way of saying, “Yeah, we know.”
More importantly, perhaps, this story is really an invitation to delve more deeply into the verse. After all, if it gave even Moses pause, then all the more so should we take some time to consider what it aims to teach. And so consider it we will, through a few different lenses over this holiday season. In each case, we’ll find ourselves coming back to the idea that the first-person plural formulation leads us toward a sense of interdependence. Barring any last-minute crisis of confidence that leaves the rabbi with a newly-blank screen and a stop-watch, here’s how it will go:
- Tomorrow morning, we will consider the possibility that God was speaking to all of Creation – the animals, the plants, the earth, even the celestial bodies – when God said “Let us make humankind.” What might it mean for our understanding of the world, and our place in it, if we thought of ourselves less as apart from Creation, and more a part of Creation?
- On Yom Kippur evening, we will think about the very nature of tzelem ud’mut, “image and likeness.” What does it mean to say we are created “in God’s image,” particularly from within a religious tradition that scrupulously avoids ascribing an image to the divine? How are we and God interdependent? And why isn’t it blasphemy to think about God in terms of dependence?
- Finally, on Yom Kippur morning we’ll turn our attention to this synagogue, and explore a particular form of interdependence: that between our members who are Jewish, and our members who are not. Can we stretch our imaginations – the very part of us that embodies divinity, according to one great teacher – to envision different ways of being a community?
Which leaves tonight. Tonight, we’ll explore the verse through the eyes of Rabbi Shimon, who found a delightful and creative way to read it. In his understanding, “let us make humankind” hints at a conversation that took place between the angels of chesed and emet, tzedek and shalom – lovingkindness and truth, justice and peace.
This is how he hears it (Gen Rabbah 8:5):
Shimon said: When the Holy Blessed One decided to make the first person, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and parties, some of them saying: “Let him be created!” and others saying, “Do not let him be created!” as it is said: “Lovingkindness and Truth butted heads, Justice and Peace took up arms” (Ps. 85:11). Lovingkindness said: “Let him be created, because he will do acts of love,” and Truth said, “Do not let him be created, because he is all lies.” Justice said, “Let him be created, for he will do acts of justice,” and Peace said, “Do not let him be created, for he is all strife.” What did the Holy Blessed One do? He took Truth and cast it to the ground… The angels said to the Holy Blessed One: Master of the Universe, what are you doing? “Let Truth rise up from the ground (Ps. 85:12)!” … As the ministering angels were arguing and disputing with each other, God created him [Adam], and said to them: “Why are you arguing! Adam has already been created.”
There is a great deal going on there, and we’re not going to unpack every bit of it. But it is important to recognize, again, the playfulness at work here. Rabbi Shimon takes a verse from Psalms, reads it rather creatively, so that the ideals of lovingkindness and truth, justice and peace become personified as angels, and so the verbs nigashu and nishaku, to meet and to kiss, become “to butt heads” and “to take up arms” (trust me, the Hebrew allows for the wordplay). The stage is set for battle, God staying above the fray while the angels argue over the nature of this soon-to-be creation. Kindness-generator. Liar. Justice-maker. Warmonger. As a species, we are certainly all of these things; as individuals, we contain the seeds of each of them.
In Rabbi Shimon’s version of the story, God presides over a split assembly. I suppose God could have cast the tie-breaking vote, but the Psalm suggests a better ending to the story. Emet me’eretz titzmach, Truth shall rise up from the ground, it says. But wasn’t Truth just in heaven, going toe-to-toe with Lovingkindness? Sure…until God cast Truth downward, getting him out of the room and conveniently making it a two-t0-one vote in favor of our creation. By the time the angels had regained their bearings, it was over. Ne’esah adam. The human being is a fait accompli.
The war within us, the war between us. Our better angels doing battle with our fears and doubts. This is our lot in normal times. And now…all the more so.
Now, all the more so. “Is this the part where he starts talking about politics?” It wouldn’t be a difficult pivot. And there are plenty of issues that are on our communal and national plate this year. Hundreds of Reform rabbis have chosen to take an unusual step, and will be sharing a common message this year, speaking in one voice from their many pulpits about this moment, which feels so unprecedented. They will speak about racial justice, denounce white supremacy, and call upon our nation’s leadership to do the same, using these words:
You cannot dehumanize, degrade and stigmatize whole categories of people in this nation. Every Jew, every Muslim, every gay, transgender, disabled, black, brown, white, woman, man and child is beloved of God and precious in the Holy One’s sight. We the people, all the people, are created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of the Divine. All the people are worthy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Much to my own surprise, I am not among those hundreds of rabbis. It’s not because I disagree with them; I do not. It’s not because I don’t think the issues they are raising are important; I do. And it’s not because I think public policy has no place in the pulpit. To the contrary, I think a synagogue that isn’t engaged with the world has abdicated its responsibility, and rabbi who isn’t concerned with justice isn’t worthy of the title.
To that end, I am so proud of the work that Judea Reform Congregation does year-round to create a kinder, fairer, more just world. Refugee resettlement with CWS. Affordable housing with Durham CAN. Advocacy for DREAMers. Delivering meals to homebound seniors with Meals on Wheels. Building homes with Habitat for Humanity. Learning more about transgender justice, so that we may act powerfully in our community and in our schools. And much, much more. And within these walls? Our Caring Community and our commitment to Inclusion are no less matters of social justice. And so it is our calendar of events, month by month, more so than my words tonight, that is the real sermon about public life at Judea Reform. We are engaged, and I have every confidence that we will remain so.
My ambivalence about the “One Voice” social justice statement arises mostly from a sense that there is no one left to convince of anything. My sense is that on these issues people think what they think, and have largely determined for themselves their course of action. That being the case, I think our time together is better spent looking deeply into texts. It’s never been easier to apply them to the headlines. You don’t need me for that. My goal tonight, and throughout these holidays, is a more modest one: to provide some new ways of seeing old texts, ways that will make those texts and the tradition from which they flow feel relevant and alive.
To that end, I invite you to return with me to the prayer books, to page 70. I’d like to let Oseh shalom be the last word on this d’var torah. Bimromav, in the heavens, peace comes easy. Down here, not so much. Love, Truth, and Justice are all elusive, and Peace no less so. For sure, a useful step is to take responsibility for each other. Each of us in this space. Our people, everywhere. All who dwell on earth. Indeed, all that lives and breathes. And let us say, amen.