Saturday, September 27, 2014

Rosh Hashanah: Steering clear of the abyss

The King’s Highway goes along the edge of the abyss, on its paths I have reached this place at the end of a passing day. 
At the end of the passing year, Netanella’s “Ship of Memories” sailed up within me as I contemplated “wandering between dark and light, the paths of autumn and everyone who runs and does not return.”
In the ancient world, the King’s Highway was a main road, relatively wide but still dangerous, where you might feel that you are walking along the edge of an abyss, the primordial abyss‏:‏ 
When God began to create heaven and earth the earth was a formless void [tohu vabohu], with darkness over the surface of the abyss and the spirit of God hovering over the water (Genesis 1:1-2). 
Facing the darkness and the abyss, hovers the spirit of God. On Rosh Hashanah, the purported anniversary of creation, we repeatedly approach God as the “King who desires life” and plead to be remembered and written for life. However, divine remembrance and writing will be insufficient if we ourselves do not choose life. The challenge is to remain on the King’s Highway, to continue moving forward despite the abyss at our path’s edge.
Genesis chapter 1 tells about a neat, orderly process in which God creates by speaking. When creation is complete, God declares it “very good.” The gap between that and our world is deep and wide. From whence have all the confusion and pain, evil and suffering come? They have always existed. Genesis chapter 1 is a carefully constructed literary work that not only reveals but also conceals. If we read it slowly and very attentively we will see the Torah does not claim that there was creation ex nihilo of a new world in which evil is a foreign implant. The primordial waters are a symbol of danger lying in wait. God never calls the material world into being but rather creates light and imposes order on the water and formless void, to facilitate “the emergence of a stable community in a benevolent and life-sustaining order… Creation ends, as it were, with the commission of human agents [male and female] to rule the world in the name of the creator God” (Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil).
There is much work to do. Why was such a small team created?
The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) answers:
Therefore, Adam was created alone, to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul, Scripture accounts it as if he had destroyed a full world; and whoever saves one soul, Scripture accounts it as if he had saved a full world. And for the sake of peace among people, that one should not say to another, “My parent is greater than yours” …and to declare the greatness of the Blessed Holy One… who stamped each person with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like another.
Every person “has three fundamental qualities: infinite value… equality… and uniqueness (Rabbi Irving Greenberg, “Fundamental Jewish Values,”). Each individual, from the most honored leader to an abandoned Ebola patient somewhere in Africa, is unique. This is a substantive equality that requires us to always be aware of the Other’s value and understand that even the best social structure is nothing more than a human construct. Our resources are limited, and each of us has enhanced responsibility for ourselves, our families, locales and people but the value of other humans must never be trampled. “The poor of your city first” – yes; but not “the poor of your city only.” Even if we are unable to bring about complete redemption, we are not free to desist from the effort to create moments of redemption.
Moments of redemption can also be created on the inter-personal level. Try to imagine daily life if we were to treat each person we encounter not only as being of equal value but also being an image of God. Not only friends and colleagues but also migrant workers and beggars; every man, woman and child. Rabbi Joshua Ben Levy claims that angels go before each person declaring, “Clear the way for an image of God.” This is a personal, social and even spiritual challenge that is far from simple. Every small success creates a moment of redemption and distances us from the abyss.
We can begin on the road. Rabbi Michael Graetz had good reason to include a quotation from the above Mishnah in the center of his Drivers’ Prayer: “Help my heart understand that every person is created in Your image and one who saves a single life, is as if he saved the entire world.” If we can internalize this one line while driving, perhaps we will truly save lives. (See Siddur Ve’Ani Tefilati, page 228, translation and explanation on
An abyss can also open within us, particularly during days of introspection when we confess our weaknesses and errors. However, on Rosh Hashanah we do not say penitential prayers or confessions, rather we face the future. Our Mishnah continues with a conclusion that might be helpful in overcoming despair: “Therefore each person is required to say, ‘For my sake the world was created.’” Just as we respect others, we must respect and appreciate ourselves. Self-appreciation allows us to fulfill the mission we inherited from Adam, to keep and protect the world.
Each person, at all times, has a mission, large or small, but important.
Each one of us must clarify our mission for ourselves, a genuinely difficult task and I have no guaranteed solution just: look around you, listen within yourself but remember that the standard is not your desire but rather others’ needs. Not every mission is a professional one to which a person devotes a lifetime. Indeed, we have learned that walking in God’s ways means to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, visit the sick, comfort mourners and bury the dead. These acts of giving can relieve pain and be a first step towards containing evil.
On Rosh Hashanah, we stand before God Who Desires Life and are called on to choose life, to approach the world with eyes wide open to the value of every person (including ourselves) and to respond to suffering with acts that have the power to distance us from the abyss, and increase life. Although the principle sounds simple, implementation is not. It is easy for us to give into ourselves and avoid doing what we know is good and right. In order to continue on our way, we need great strength. Therefore, I will conclude with a prayer by Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum:
Grant me the strength not to despair so that I can proclaim:
Behold, I take upon myself the yoke of the kingdom of life,
a language of compassion and peace and love of humanity.   

Shoshana Michael Zucker

I am honored to acknowledge Rabbi Shai Held from Mechon Hadar in New York. His teaching is reflected in this drasha and I learned many of the quoted texts from him and his footnotes. Internet lectures related to these topics may be found on this website. He wrote a highly recommended weekly parasha commentary, click here, now published as The Heart of Torah

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