It’s a hot day–there’s a traveling salesman passing through a small town in Texas when he sees a little old man sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of a house. So he stops and says to the little old man, “You look as if you don’t have a care in the world! What’s your formula for a long and happy life?”
And the little old man says, “Well, I smoke six packs of cigarettes a day, I drink a quart of bourbon every four hours and six cases of beer a week. I never wash and I go out every night; I don’t get to bed until four in the morning.”
And the guy says, “Wow, that’s just great. How old are you?”
And the little man says, “Twenty-two.”
Having made it to an age where birthdays are equally the occasion for reflection as for celebration, and because my birthday happens to fall in Elul, come Rosh Hashanah birthdays are on my mind.
Please know that I always remember Nomi’s birthday. It’s the day after she reminds me; every single year.
And while I have your attention…
What did George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Christopher Columbus all have in common? They were all born on holidays.
Today, of course is a great holiday – no less than a High Holy Day – and it is also the universe’s birthday – Hayom harat ‘olam says the Mahzor – today is the birthday of the world, our annual celebration of Creation.
Over the course of this summer we’ve had ample opportunity to consider our universe and to dwell on its origins. I hope you had the chance to witness last month’s solar eclipse; some in this room, I know, travelled some distance in order to be in the totality belt. It must have been quite a sight. Our family took in the eclipse in NYC’s Central Park, taking the opportunity to view the sky through telescopes, and benefitting from the generosity of many strangers who circulated around sharing their eclipse glasses with all around them. The universe was truly beautiful that day, both up above and on the ground.
Just a few weeks later, our universe let loose, bringing to our country and neighbors a series of monster storms, record breaking hurricanes that destroyed too many homes, lives and communities. And in the aftermath of Harvey and Irma, and now Jose and Maria, not to mention a massive earthquake in Mexico, we also saw and participated in a truly beautiful coming together of people reaching across every conceivable barrier and boundary to help, serve, and comfort one another. That’s our universe. Beauty and terror all rolled into one. Hayom harat ‘olam. Today is that universe’s birthday.
The branch of Jewish thought known as Kabbalah tells a remarkable story about the origins of the universe. In the beginning there was nothing but God, divinity without end, literally Ein Sof. One great kabbalistic thinker, Isaac Luria recognized the following problem – “If Ein Sof pervaded all space, how was there room for anything other than God to come into being.” To make room for creation, God had to withdraw or contract, an act known as tzimtzum. That withdrawal left behind a vacuum, an unoccupied space into which Ein Sof directed a ray or point of light, channeled through vessels or emanations of Divinity. Some of those vessels couldn’t handle the intensity and power of that original Divine light and they shattered. That part of the process Luria called shevirah. Much of that light went back to its original source, but some fell, along with the shards of the shattered vessels, in the form of sparks that fill the material world. Our job is to raise up those sparks, to restore them to holiness, an activity known as tikkun, literally repair. How? By aspiring to live lives of holiness.
Tzimtzum, or contraction, leads to shevirah, or shattering, which opens the path to tikkun, or restoration.
Shevirah – shattering or breaking – is the key to the whole story. Without it we, and the world as we know it, simply wouldn’t exist. Think of that idea as the equivalent of modern science’s description of the Big Bang. Without its violent and destructive force, our world and all that it contains would never have come into being. Kabbalah tells a similar story but in a more personal way. Here’s Dov Baer, an early Hasidic master, on the necessity of shevirah: “If every object and aspect were still united with the root and as nothingness to itself, none of the worlds would be. If the material world were continually united with the Creator…all that exists would be nullified, united with the root, with ayin…As a result human beings can initiate action . Through Torah and prayer, we join the root, ayin, thereby raising the sparks of the material world, and delighting God.”
No shattering, no world; no breaking, no us. Built into Creation itself is a profound act of brokenness. That’s where we, and our universe, begin. With brokenness.
In the kabbalistic story shevirah is one piece of a dynamic process; it shifts and evolves, and, ultimately, it can be restored or repaired. Sometimes, however, that feeling of brokenness overwhelms and takes over, leaving in its wake the sense that everything is broken. Personally, I have been feeling that sense of brokenness this year in a way that I’ve never felt it before. An old Bob Dylan lyric catches it for me.
Broken lines, broken strings/ Broken threads, broken springs/ Broken idols, broken heads/ People sleeping in broken beds/ Ain’t no use jiving/ Ain’t no use joking/ Everything is broken
Broken bottles, broken plates / Broken switches, broken gates / Broken dishes, broken parts / Streets are filled with broken hearts / Broken words never meant to be spoken / Everything is broken
Seem like every time you stop and turn around / Something else just hit the ground
There are so many stories of brokenness, our politics serving as only the most obvious. Let’s start there; we’re a painfully divided country and society. This summer’s events in Charlottesville stand as a token of that division and the ongoing discussion/screaming match on the topic of Confederate monuments provides an apt lens in. We tell dramatically different stories about who we are, about the nature of America, about our history and heritage. After reading far too many online articles about Confederate monuments I decided to check in with my college roommate, a proud son of the South. Here are some of his words:
“First, as a southerner, I’m quite content for these to be removed from places of honor and celebration. However, I don’t think it can be done without communities having a conversation about them. When were they erected, by whom and for what purpose? … People need to hear the history of these men, bad and good. For example the Georgian on display in the capital, Alexander Stevens, was a complicated figure. He resisted secession and argued for reconciliation after the war. But he served the confederacy as VP and wrote deeply racist, paternalistic opinions. In any case, it’s unseemly to me that the VP of the confederacy should stand, representing Georgia in the 21st century, in the capitol building of the country he opposed in war.
“Monuments don’t have to be forever. Removing them should not erase the people they represent from history. We should tell the history as thoroughly as we can and think of ways to tell the history of people who were forgotten in the era these monuments were erected. I’d like to see new monuments to people we want to remember and celebrate today, white and black. These provide new opportunities to keep telling and re-telling history.”
There’s more than one story, my roommate teaches us. And there’s more than one way to tell one’s story. How we tell our stories may matter as much as their content; maybe more. If we can hear and honor multiple stories, if we can listen and connect across the divide, then we can engage in acts of tikkun that respond to and begin to repair the shevirah – the brokenness of our time and place.
Let’s turn to Jewish life and the Jewish community circa 2017. We’re a contentious and seemingly divided Jewish people – the ongoing kotel dispute and conversion controversy are an apt token of that division. Here too, the stories we tell and how we tell them really matter. Why is the kotel important? It’s been a place of prayer for a few hundred years, but only for a few hundred years. Is its significance religious, or is about peoplehood? How one tells the story of the Western Wall determines a lot about one’s views of who should be able to gather and pray there and how. The same is true of the Zionist/Israel anniversaries of this year: First Zionist Congress of 1897, Balfour Declaration of 1917, Partition Plan of 1947, Six Day War of 1967 – how we remember those events and occasions and how we tell those stories also matter profoundly. And our willingness to hear the versions of those tales told by others matters even more. They’re monuments of another sort; think of them as statues in time.
And there are more personal monuments too. Our pasts are deeply fragmented and fractured; parts of my own family’s story illustrate the point. One piece of my family – the Cook clan – came to America in the early 20th century from a small town in the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, today’s Ukraine, quite near the city of Lviv. A century ago the city was called Lvov, a cosmopolitan, cultured, and diverse place. Lvov’s Jewish community called their hometown Lemberg and in Jewish terms too it was a place of learning and culture. Lviv, Lvov, Lemberg is one of those places in Eastern Europe where one could stay in the same place one’s whole life and have lived in four or five different countries! That fact alone is a token of the brokenness of my family’s story. Like so many other Eastern European Jews the Cook branch of my family chose to leave and to seek out a new life in America. I’ve found my great grandparents’ names, Isaac and Leika Kook, in a tax collection ledger from their town in 1906. By 1911, their youngest child, my zaydeh, was born in New York. Dislocation is an essential part of our story and all of us have similar stories. How do we tell them? And toward what end? And how open are we to hearing stories of brokenness and dislocation from others? That’s where tikkun is to be found.
Earlier this year, our sons traveled to Romania together. One came from Israel where he lives, one from Ireland where he spent the semester; Romania was mid way, and besides it’s where another part of our family came from. Together they took a side trip to Iasi, their great-great grandfather’s hometown. Like Lvov, Iasi was a seat of Jewish culture and life. The Yiddish Theater was born in Iasi, the words to Hatikvah were penned there, and my great grandfather, a man named Nathan Mendelsohn left Iasi not once but twice for America. There is still a small and quite elderly Jewish community in Iasi but the major Jewish sites are a large Holocaust memorial – Iasi was the scene of a murderous, government sponsored pogrom in 1942 that cost 13,000 Jews their lives – and the sprawling Jewish cemetery. Our sons visited both and reported that the cemetery is garbage strewn and in a state of disrepair. Talk about brokenness.
Out of that brokenness we built two of the most significant Jewish communities in our people’s history, one here in America and one in our ancient homeland in the State of Israel. The way in which we tell those stories of brokenness makes all the difference.
The ritual centerpiece of Rosh Hashanah is the blowing of the Shofar, and as you know, there’s a very specific order and manner in which the shofar’s blasts are sounded. Tekiah, Shevarim, Teruah, Tekiah – whole to broken to even more broken back to whole. The Shofar means to tell us, to remind us of, the story of the creation of the universe, and the stories of light and brokenness and repair that are our life stories. As with the Creation story, the key sounds in the cycle of the shofar blasts are the broken ones – shevarim and teruah. Shevarim actually means broken and its slurred triplet, combined with the staccato teruah blasts, are meant to sound like tears and cries. One Midrash from the Middle Ages connects those sounds, and this holiday’s name – Yom Teruah – to Sarah’s tears upon hearing about the binding of her son Isaac. We blow the shofar, says this Midrash, so that God will remember Sarah’s wailing and bestow forgiveness upon us. The Shofar charts the path from wholeness to brokenness to deeper brokenness and back again to wholeness.
Leonard Cohen, another of my ‘go to’ sources, and the other great Jewish poet and songwriter of this past year, gets the last word.
The birds they sang
At the break of day
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be
Yeah the wars they will
Be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold
And bought again
The dove is never free
Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in
So this Rosh Hashanah, let’s Ring the bells that still can ring and let’s absolutely Forget our perfect offerings. Today, here, now, it’s time to remember that There is a crack, a crack in everything, and to notice, along with one of the great poets of our time (whose birthday was yesterday, by the way, and whose first yahrzeit is just weeks away), that That’s how the light gets in. That’s always how the light has gotten in. Ever since the beginning of our universe whose birthday we celebrate today. Hayom harat ‘olam – This is the Universe’s birthday. Happy Birthday to us all. And Shanah Tovah u’Metukah.