Rabbi Michael Wasserman of The New Shul in Scottsdale delivered this compelling sermon on Rosh Hashanah and has been gracious enough to share it with us. We are grateful for his generosity, and it is published in its entirety:
There is a paradox at the heart of Rosh Hashanah. On the one hand, Rosh Hashanah is a day that – maybe more than any other – calls on us to step back from the general culture in which we live most of our lives and to remember that being Jews means being different. All over the world, on this day, Jews who rarely think about what makes them different from everyone else are taking time to be different, to do something that makes them different, to follow a different calendar, to reconnect with a tradition that sets them apart from everyone else.
But once we get to shul and start to reconnect with that which makes us different, once we start thinking about what Rosh Hashanah is really about, it turns out that Rosh Hashanah has surprisingly little to say to us as Jews in particular. It is a day that speaks to us more as human beings in general than as Jews. In the central, defining blessing of the Amidah for the Days of Awe, we speak of God – in language that is unique to these days – as Melekh al kol ha-aretz – the King of All the World, not just of the Jews in particular but of all humanity.
That is the paradox of this holiday. This day on which we feel the greatest obligation to honor that which makes us different, is not ultimately about what makes us different at all, but about that which we have in common with all people.
Every Jewish holiday has a story that it teaches. Pesah is about the story of the exodus from Egypt. Sukkot is about the story of our wandering in the desert. Shavuot is about the story of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Hanukah is about the Maccabees. Purim is about Mordecai and Esther. They are all stories about the Jewish people in particular.
But the story of Rosh Hashanah is different. It is a story, not about the Jewish people specifically, but about humanity in general. According to the ancient rabbis, Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of the world. Or more specifically, according to one opinion in the Talmud, Rosh Hashanah commemorates the sixth day of the creation of the world, the day on which human beings were created. The story of Rosh Hashanah is a story about who we were before there were any differences between us, before there were different kinds of people at all. It is a story, not about what it means to be Jewish in particular, but about what it means to be human. Rosh Hashanah challenges us to look at the human condition, to ask: What is our place in this world as human beings, what is our relationship to God, and to the earth, and to each other?
So what I want to do with you this morning is to look back at the story of creation, as the Torah tells it in the first chapters of the book of Genesis, and see what it has to teach us about what it means to be a human being.
As you might expect it, the Torah – as it does in so many other places – gives us mixed messages on this subject. That is because there is not just one but two very different stories in the book of Genesis about how human beings came to be. The stories are so different that Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik, in his great essay “The Lonely Man of Faith,” said that the two stories are intended to contrast with one another. Their purpose, he said, is to give us two alternative visions of what it means to be a human being, both of which we need to keep in mind. The first of the two stories is in the first chapter of Genesis, on the sixth day of creation. Here is what it says
God said, “Let us make humanity in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” And God created humanity in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”
But then, just a few sentences later, in the second chapter of the book of Genesis, the Torah tells a very different story about how we human beings came to be. Here is what Genesis chapter 2 says (it’s a longer story, so I am editing out the parts that don’t directly touch on our subject):
When the Lord God made earth and heaven – when no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because the Lord God had not sent rain upon the earth, there being no man to till the soil. . . the Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being. The Lord God planted a garden in Eden. . . The Lord God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to till and to tend it. And the Lord God commanded the man: “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat, but as for the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you must not eat of it, for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.” The Lord God said, “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a fitting helper for him.” And the Lord God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name. But for Adam no fitting helper was found. So the Lord God cast a deep sleep upon the man, and, while he slept, He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that spot. And the Lord God fashioned the rib that He had taken from the man into a woman, and He brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. For from man was she taken.” Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh.
This second story differs from the first one in a lot of ways. First of all, it differs in its basic chronology. According to the first story, God created humanity – both male and female – last, after all the plants and other animals. But according to the second story, God created man – man as in male – first. Then God created plants, then animals, and finally God created woman last.
The different chronologies of the two stories point to two very different visions of what it means to be human in God’s world. It is not just the details of the story that are different. The two stories – by way of their different chronologies – paint radically different pictures of who we are, and what our purpose in this world is.
According to the first story, we were created last – male and female together – because we were – and are – the capstone of creation. We are the crowning glory of God’s world, the final touch. We differ from the rest of creation in that we were created in God’s image, after God’s likeness. We were put here to be God’s viceroys on earth. God gave us the mandate to rule over everything else that God had already created, in an almost God-like way. We were created whole and complete, male and female unified from the beginning. That is to say, we were never lonely. We never had to search for our other half. In that way too, there was something God-like about us.
But according to the second story, in the second chapter of Genesis, our origin and our status were much humbler, and our struggles were more difficult. The second story does not say that we were made in God’s image. Instead it says that we were made from the dust of the earth. Far from being put here to rule the world, the second story says that we were put here to till and to tend it – l’ovdah u-l’shomrah. Man was created first because his role would be to till the soil, to care for everything that would be created afterwards. He was like a building superintendent who needed to be hired before the rest of the tenants could move in.
And far from being created whole and complete, the story says that man was created lonely and incomplete, searching for his other half. Man was created vulnerable and alone, without a mate. God created man that way because man’s needs were really not God’s priority. Our role was to serve. God only noticed later that “it is not good for man to be alone.”
So Eve came into the world only after everything else had been created. And in order for Eve to come into existence, Adam had to sacrifice a rib. In other words, he could escape his loneliness only by giving up part of himself, by becoming even more incomplete than he already was. According to the second story, we are far from God-like creatures. In fact, God warns us that, if we try to be like God, if we eat from the tree of knowledge, we will die. In other words, we are not the boss. We just work here.
So the two stories offer very different visions of who we are as human beings, in relation to God, in relation to the rest of the world, and in relation to each other. According to the first story, we stand above creation, whole and complete, and rule it with a God-like mandate. According to the second story, we stand very much within creation. We come from the soil, just like the crops that we will till. We are vulnerable and fragile and lonely beings. We are here to care for God’s earth, not to rule it.
So the question is: Which story is true? And the answer, of course – in good Jewish fashion – is: both of them. I don’t mean that they are literally, historically true, but that they both say something true about who we are, and who we are meant to be, in this world.
That said, we should be clear that, for most of human history, the second story was truer than the first, in that it painted a more accurate picture of what being human was actually like. The first story – the story about how we were created in God’s image and were put here to rule – was a story more about what we aspired to be than what we actually were.
Human beings like us – with the same bodies and brains that we have – evolved on this planet about 200,000 years ago. And for most of those 200,000 years of human history, life was a struggle. All that we had was what we were able to gather or kill with our own hands, or scratch out of the soil. Life was short and hard. We were vulnerable to disease and to violence. We were not God-like beings at all, but very much part of the natural world. That remained true even after the rise of civilizations with recorded histories about 5000 years ago, and even after the rise of our own particular civilization, Jewish civilization, a few thousand years later. For most people – except maybe for a tiny elite – life was still short and difficult and anonymous. Far from ruling nature, we struggled to survive within it.
It is only in the last few centuries – an incredibly brief amount of time in the larger scheme of things – that we actually did begin to rule God’s world, to assert real control over it. Beginning with the scientific revolution of the 17th century, and then the industrial revolution of the 18th century, human beings began to realize the promise of that first creation story. We began to truly rule nature, to tame the world around us. We unlocked nature’s secrets, we cured diseases, we explored the planet and the solar system, we built modern cities, with modern water and sanitation systems and energy grids, and communication networks. We extended human life. We became God-like beings. The dream of Genesis chapter 1, the dream of ruling God’s earth, in God’s place, became something close to a reality.
For the most part, realizing that dream has been an incredible blessing. Life is so much better than it was. We should be grateful that we live in a world where the vision of Genesis chapter 1 has largely come true.
But there is a downside to that progress as well. With the same God-like gifts that we used to make our lives better, we also built weapons with the power to destroy lives by the millions. And in our passion to control the natural world, we have damaged and degraded nature, in ways that threaten the survival of other species, and even perhaps our own. In taking control of our environment, we have set in motion an environmental crisis that threatens the very civilization that gave us that control.
In other words, as we have made the dream of Genesis chapter 1 a reality, we have often forgotten the message of Genesis chapter 2. We have forgotten that our job is also to be caretakers – l’ovdah u-l’shomrah, to till and to tend God’s world. In celebrating our triumphs over nature, we have forgotten that we are still part of nature. We do not own this world. Though we are images of God, we are not God. We have forgotten the warning that God gave to Adam in the second creation story – that, if we try to be God, if we act as if we are God, we will not survive.
For most of human history, Genesis chapter 2 was our reality, and Genesis chapter 1 was what we aspired to. Now that Genesis chapter 1 is increasingly our reality, there is an urgent, pressing need for us to recover some of the spirit of humility of Genesis chapter 2.
My teacher, Rabbi Arthur Green, has said that the environmental crisis that humanity faces today is at is, heart, a spiritual crisis. It is a crisis of the human heart and soul. And I think that is true. We often think of the problem as a technical one. We ask: can we come up with new public policies and new technologies that will enable us to limit the damage that we are doing to this world? That is the right question, as far as it goes. But there is a deeper question that goes with it, and that can’t really be separated from it. That is: Can we recover some of the humility that goes with being caretakers? Can we remember that this planet is not ours? Amidst the policy work and the technological work that we have to do, we also have spiritual work to do. We have to learn to take the second story of our creation, the story that teaches us about our limits, much more seriously. Without that change of heart, without the recognition that we do not have unlimited rights to use this world for our own ends, we will not be able to make the practical changes that we have to make. And without those changes, we risk terrible consequences down the line, for ourselves and countless other species as well.
The Torah offers models of how we can cultivate that awareness of our limits in our religious lives. It is a striking thing that, even thousands of years ago, at a time when we had much less power over nature and it was much more obvious that we did not own the world, the Torah made it a priority to teach that lesson anyway – not just in stories like the stories of creation, but through the practical patterns of religious life. It is almost as if the Torah was looking toward the day, centuries in the future, when that message – that we do not own this world – would become a matter of life or death. Or maybe it’s just that arrogance has always been a human pitfall, even back when we had much less to be arrogant about. The temptation to believe that we own the world was a spiritual problem that the Torah felt the need to address, long before it was a practical problem that threatened human civilization.
In any case, we have powerful models in our tradition of religious practices that were designed to cultivate and reinforce that spiritual insight – that the world is ultimately God’s, not ours.
One example was the law of the land-sabbath, which the Torah teaches in several places. Every seventh year, the Torah teaches, farmers were to let their land lie fallow. We were not plant or to harvest. Whatever grew by itself, from seeds left behind from the previous crop, was free for anyone to take.
What was the purpose of the land-sabbath? Rashi explained that to let the land lie fallow was to act as if we did not own it. The point of the land-sabbath was that, every seventh year, we were to act as if we had no right to work the land because it was not ours. The purpose of the land-sabbath was – and is – to cultivate the awareness that the land, in fact, does not belong to us. It belongs to God, and we just live there. By commanding us to renounce our ownership every seventh year, the Torah took that theological insight and made it very real, very tangible.
The law of the Yovel, the Jubilee year, taught the same thing in an even more powerful way. According to the law of the Yovel, every fiftieth year – after seven cycles of seven years – all land-sales that had taken place during the previous forty-nine years were cancelled, and the land reverted back to its original owners or their heirs. Here the Torah itself explains the reason. It says: “the land shall not be sold in perpetuity, because the land is mine,” God says, “and you are sojourners in my world.” We were not permitted to sell land permanently, because, ultimately, it was not ours to sell. That was the message of the Yovel.
Today we need to cultivate that wisdom with an urgency greater than that ancient Israelite farmers ever faced. At a time when we have so much power to control the natural world that it is easy to believe that we do in fact own it, that message – that this world belongs to God, not us – has life-and-death importance. The most pressing mitzvah of our age, I believe, is to relearn that insight in our own way. We have to find new ways to build that insight into our religious lives, the lives of urban people living in a post-modern world, just as the Torah built that insight into the lives of ancient Jewish farmers. We have to create our own religious disciplines that do for us what those old laws did for ancient farmers in the land of Israel – weave the wisdom of the second creation story, the awareness that this world does not belong to us, into the fabric of our lives.
One of my goals for this year is to make environmental sensitivity a greater part of our religious life here in The New Shul – to take it seriously not only as a moral issue but as a spiritual issue as well. It is not that we have been indifferent to those issues up to now, because we haven’t been. But it’s time for us to do more, and to do so consciously and reflectively. I think it’s time for us to think seriously about how we can be more efficient in our use of energy, how we can minimize waste and deal more responsibly with the waste that we do generate – and to do so in a way that helps to shape the spiritual life of our community. Just as ancient laws concerning land use and land ownership were also spiritual teaching tools, our policies on how to manage resources here in our shul can be as well.
To those who ask: Why focus on the shul in particular, when the problem is society in general, and when what we do here in this small institution will make so little difference in the larger scheme of things? – I would say that shul is exactly the place where we should begin. The purpose of a shul is to train our souls. When we come to shul, we come in search of a more open heart. We come in search of deeper wisdom. And so the shul is the natural place to do this work of deepening our consciousness of what it means – and ought to mean – to be a human being in God’s world.
So in the coming year, I would like us to think about how we can make environmental responsibility a more prominent feature of our spiritual community, so that the wisdom of Genesis chapter 2 will be part of what we learn and relearn week to week, just by being here.
I believe that cultivating the awareness that this world is not ultimately ours will help us in the other spiritual work that we do here as well. Structuring more environmental sensitivity in our shul will help us to pray better. It will help us to hear the voice of Sinai more deeply in the sacred texts that we study. It will help to bring more of God’s presence into our shul.
Let me explain why. It is not a coincidence that the modern world is faced with an environmental crisis at the same time it is struggling with a spiritual crisis. It is not coincidence that this era, when the future of our life on this planet is in crisis is also a time when life seems spiritually empty for more and more people. The environmental and the spiritual are two sides of the same coin. The same spiritual arrogance that threatens our environment today has always been the greatest obstacle to an authentic relationship with God. When we can’t find God in our lives, it is usually because we are taking up all the space, because our own sense of entitlement leaves no room for God in our hearts – in other words, because we think we own the world.
And so I believe that structuring into our shul a greater recognition that this world is God’s world, not ours, will help us to make more room for the sh’khinah, for God’s presence in our prayer life as well. Limiting our sense of entitlement, remembering that our rights on this planet go only so far, will help us to be a more sacred community in all respects.
If you would like to be part of an environmental working group in our shul, that will look at the products that we buy and how we dispose of those products, at the ways in which we use resources in general – and will help us to put new procedures into place that will be visible to all of us and will help to shape the spiritual life of this community week to week – then I would like to hear from you. So please let me know.
It’s easy to say that, at a time when we have so many other things on our plate – when the world seems to be spinning out of control in much more immediate ways, when violence and extremism are on the rise, when our politics are in crisis, when the Jewish community itself is increasingly split between factions that can barely speak to one another – that focusing on this issue seems to be an indulgence. Shouldn’t we take care of more immediate things first?
But the truth is that there is nothing more important than this. To remember that this world does not belong to us – that we are not God – is in fact the most pressing challenge that we face today. In part, that is because the environmental crisis, in the larger scheme of things, dwarfs all other crises. It is the defining crisis of the 21st century. But it is also because we won’t solve any of the other challenges that we face unless we re-learn some of that same humility. If we are to make any progress on repairing the rest of what is broken in our world – in politics, in religion – then we have to start, also, by making ourselves smaller. We have to start with the awareness that we are temporary residents in God’s world, that we are here l’ovda u-l’shomra, to till and to tend. That is certainly true of the bitter conflicts in our own particular world, the Jewish world. Don’t all those conflicts start with arrogance, with an exaggerated sense by either side that they have all the answers? In all of those areas, challenging our own sense of entitlement is the beginning of wisdom.
I began by pointing out that Rosh Hashanah is much more about what makes us human than about what makes us Jews in particular. But maybe the larger point is that the two are not really that different. We build sacred communities like this one – we teach ourselves to speak the particular language of the Jewish tradition – because we want to be better people, with more open hearts. We believe that being better Jews helps us to live more meaningfully as human beings. And on the other hand, challenging ourselves to think more deeply about what it means to be a human being in God’s world, what our work on this planet really is, makes us better Jews. It brings new energy into the life of our religious communities.
May the new year be a time of sweetness and blessings, a time of growth and insight, for all of us.
Rabbi Michael Wasserman
The New Shul
7825 E Paradise Ln.
Scottsdale, AZ 85260