The following is a serman by Rabbi Steven I. Rein given on Rosh Hashanah 5778 - Day Two
You can email Rabbi Rein at email@example.com.
Judaism’s Greatest Gift
In 1947, W.H. Auden published a very long poem that, despite winning a Pulitzer Prize, is now remembered less for its contents than for its title: “The Age of Anxiety.” Something about the idea that an age can be anxious must resonate deep in America’s cultural bones, because the phrase has been used to describe countless moments since, from the vogue for tranquilizers like Miltown and Valium in the ’50s and ’60s to the coronation of today’s young adults as “The Anxious Generation.” At this point, it’s difficult to imagine a slice of time whose resident humans would not agree with the notion that their lives were more hectically modern – more anxiety-inducing – than any before.
Few Americans, at the moment, would assess our national emotional state as anything better than “not great.” We are not in the midst of real disaster, of course: no Civil War, no Great Depression, not even that grim bit of the 1970s that featured near-constant bombings and hijackings, a presidential resignation and two different women trying to kill Gerald Ford in a single month. But when our president referred to the country as a scene of “carnage” in his inaugural address, the objections were relatively muted. There’s a bleakness in the atmosphere, and a consensus on what to call it: “anxiety” (NYT, 18Apr17).
Think about what has happened just in our personal lives since we last gathered on Rosh Hashanah twelve months ago. Some of us lost jobs or are now underemployed. Some of us received a harrowing diagnosis. Some of us look in the mirror and yearn for our youth to return. Some of us still haven’t recovered from the trauma of losing a loved one. Some of us endure stress at work, school, in our relationships, with our finances. For many of us, even opening the newspaper is enough to cause a panic attack. Month after month we have all been slapped with anxiety producing circumstances, carrying with them the uncertainty of what tomorrow will bring.
So…how’s everyone feeling? As Woody Allen once said, “Confidence is what you have before you understand the problem.” Classic Jewish anxiety. Every year on Rosh Hashanah this question of anxiety springs up at me. I wonder what Isaac thought as his father was binding him to the altar. Was he anxious? Surely if anyone had the right to be anxious, it would be him (understatement being another classic Jewish trait). For centuries, Jewish thinkers have debated what was going through Isaac’s mind. This debate will go on. Suffice to say here, if Isaac was feeling more than a hint of anxiety, it would be perfectly understandable. Yet despite this tale being at the very heart of this sacred day, Rosh Hashanah is not a holiday traditionally associated with anxiety. We celebrate, we pray, we hope, we give to charity, but feeling anxious is usually not on most people’s Rosh Hashanah checklist.
Nonetheless, just thinking about what the New Year might bring reminds us that we’re living in the age of anxiety. At this very moment, our country is being transformed by complex forces like changing demographics and technological disruption. Many people live within a bewildering freedom, without institutions to trust, unattached to compelling religions and sources of meaning, uncertain about their own lives. As a society, anxiety is not so much a fear of a specific thing but a fear of everything, an unnamable dread about the future. And people will do anything to escape it.
Fortunately, Judaism has an answer – an answer that begins with this sacred day, the marking of time from one year to the next. Today begins 5778. This moment not only signifies the changing of the calendar it also represents one of the greatest gifts Jews have bestowed upon the world – the gift of time.
Before this great gift, all evidence points to there having been throughout the ancient world a vision of time and the cosmos that was profoundly cyclical. As Henri-Charles Puech said of Greek thought in his seminal Man and Time: “No event is unique, nothing is enacted but once…; every event has been enacted, is enacted, and will be enacted perpetually” (Gift of the Jews, Cahill, 5). In other words, every moment is a recycled moment. The origin of this understanding comes from nature. Our experience of nature is cyclical – day, night, and day again; seasons continue to follow each other as autumn officially begins this afternoon. If you look at the sky – the moon, stars, and sun, everything moves in a cycle. This is the ancient experience of nature.
Given that human beings were considered a part of nature – an extension of nature – our existence was also understood as cyclical. Every moment we experience is not just similar to a previous moment, it actually already occurred. The present only seems new because, as Plato writes, every time we accumulate knowledge and power a great catastrophe comes to erase all our achievements, including the memory of humanity. According to this theory, for example, we have already achieved the internet, we already had the iPhone 10. It only seems fresh and new because the achievement was erased along with its memory. And, by the way, who knows how many times we already invented the internet. To make matters worse. How many times have I given this sermon to you! We’ve been here before. And, think of how many more times you will hear these remarks…good luck…but don’t worry, each time it will feel like the first. That, my friends, is cyclical time.
Along comes the Bible and suddenly everything changes. Thomas Cahill, in his book The Gifts of the Jews, writes that linear time was a Biblical invention – one of the great gifts Jews gave to the world. When people believed that human beings were an organic part of nature,
resulting in our cyclical reality, this belief was rooted in a deification of nature. Nature is divine. The Bible changes that. “בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ – when God began to create heaven and earth” (Gen. 1:1). If God created heaven and earth then God is not heaven and earth. God is separate from nature. This is the essence of monotheism – not only is there one God but God is unique, other, transcendent. Why is this revolutionary? If God is separate from nature, and human beings are created in the image of God, then humanity is also separate from nature. Nature can be cyclical but humanity is not trapped in nature’s cycles. As Abraham Joshua Heschel once taught, “no moment is similar to another moment. Every moment is completely and radically unique.” That means that if tomorrow you all come back to shul (which I know you will) and you sit in the same place, wear the same clothes, and I deliver the same sermon (including the same jokes), our attempt to replicate this moment would fail because it would be a completely different moment. Such is the gift of linear time.
This gift was quite radical because when you operate in cyclical time there is no future. A move towards the future is actually a move towards the past. To draw a metaphor from air travel: if you get on an airplane at Dulles and you start traveling west, imagining you have enough fuel, and you keep flying and flying and flying. Where will you eventually end up? Back at Dulles. It’s a flight to nowhere. When time is seen as cyclical there is no future. The gift of the Jews, then, is also the gift of the future. We invented the future! That’s more impressive than all the other Jewish inventions! But, this future is also terrifying. If the future is not a repetition of the past, what’s going to happen in this future? We don’t know! We have no idea. This past year has shown, as does every year, that anything can happen. The condition of humanity is to be constantly shocked and surprised by the uniqueness of the moment. The past does not predict the future. It’s like walking backwards – we can see where we were but we can't see where we are going. This Biblical gift changed the future with the idea that there is a future.
If our independence from nature, the creation of linear time, and making room for a future are Judaism’s great contributions to society, are these contributions still relevant? Judaism, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “was radical then,” but is it still radical now? (Radical Then, Radical Now). Today, our relationship with nature has changed. In the ancient world we knew that nature was extremely powerful, and we knew that we couldn’t control those powers. And then civilization developed. Science attempts to understand nature. Technology attempts to control nature. Suddenly our relationship has changed. It used to be that there was day and night. Now, night is no longer. When the day ends, we turn on the lights. We used to move from spring to summer, from fall to winter. Not anymore. It always feels like spring inside. Nature is no longer something we experience; it’s something we observe…out there. It’s beautiful. Sure, sometimes when you have to go from your office to your car, and you forgot your umbrella, you get a little wet. Granted we just witnessed the power of nature in Mexico, Houston, Florida, and throughout the Caribbean, but even still, our technologies saved countless lives, prevented even further damage, and will enable us to rebuild. While in the ancient world nature controlled us, in modernity we control, if not nature, our experience of nature. So, do we really need Judaism to liberate us from nature? Technology does that for us. It was radical then, but is it radical now?
I would like to paint another picture that perhaps many of you are familiar with. You go to a park and you see lots of children. They’re alive. Their eyes are open. They’re curious. They’re running and climbing and everything is exciting. Meanwhile, all the parents are sitting on a bench…with their head in a phone. Their brain is three-quarters dead. Now these parents feel extremely guilty. They know that kids need their parents to look at them. So every few minutes they look up and say “Great jump! That was beautiful darling.” What happens to us, not just the parents on the bench, but all of us when we are addicted to our smartphones? What happens when we feel compelled to capture every great moment on our phone and share it? What do we do with the anxiety created by sharing those moments? What will the feedback be? Will people send me hearts? How many likes will it get? So, we have a new philosophical question. A moment that wasn’t shared on Facebook, twitter, Instagram…did it happen?
I have always believed that true relationships are created when we look at each other, listen to each other, and spend time with each other. When we communicate through texts, what happens to our relationships? Sociologist Sherry Turkle writes that in the past twenty years we’ve seen a 40% decline in the markers for empathy among college students, most of it within the past ten years – a trend researchers link to the presence of digital communication (Reclaiming Conversation). Once upon a time we were controlled by nature. We invented technology and suddenly we felt liberated. But now we realize that we are actually being controlled by technology. What irony. How we see ourselves, our relationships, and how we interact with others is negatively impacted by the very instruments we created to be in control. If Judaism in the ancient world liberated us from nature, perhaps Judaism today is about liberating us from technology. If Shabbat in the ancient world signaled a separation between humanity and nature, maybe Shabbat today signals that there is a separation between humanity and the many devices we have since created. The gift of Shabbat – our liberation from nature and technology – becomes a gift of relationships. Radical then and radical now.
This Jewish gift has not only changed our relationship to nature but also our relationship to time and the future. According to Aristotle, time is the number that measures change. Think about it. During periods of our lives when nothing happens, time grinds to a halt – days blend
into each other. The converse is also true. When we are busy, even the morning can feel like yesterday. I am reminded of the story of a 40 year-old business man who finishes a tough day and goes up to his penthouse apartment in DuPont Circle. He takes his off jacket and pours himself a glass of single malt scotch. He’s sipping away when all of the sudden he hears a knock at the door. He opens the door, looks around, no one’s there. So he goes back to his single malt. Again there’s knock at the door. He opens it, looks around, and then hears a little voice, “down here, down here.” He looks down and there’s a snail. By the way, this is based on a true story. This snail then says “Get out of my house. This is my house.” The man takes the snail and throws it down the stairs. The man now goes through the rest of his life. He has a few marriages, his business goes bankrupt. He lives a frenzied life filled with change. Now he’s 75 and after four marriages, after a very intense life, he goes up to his penthouse apartment, still in DuPont Circle, and takes off his jacket. He sits down, pours himself a glass of single malt, and starts sipping away. Suddenly there is a knock at the door. He goes and opens it and no one’s there. He sits down and hears the knock again. He opens the door and hears a voice. He looks down and sees the snail. And the snail says to him: “Hey! What was that for?” While I am usually hesitant to explain a joke, what did the snail experience over the past 35 years? Nothing. For the snail, it was just now. For the man, it was a whole different lifetime.
The British philosopher Gilbert Ryle offers the following explanation. Imagine a human being living in the 9th century. Now imagine that human being closing his/her eyes and imagining the future 400 years from that moment. How does that person imagine the future? It’s actually quite easy. He/she imagines the future as…pretty much the same as the present. That is not to say that before modernity the world didn’t change but it was experienced as static. I won’t even ask you to close your eyes and imagine the world 400 years from now. I don’t think we could even imagine the world 40 years from now. Frankly, not even four years. Think about it. What will the Middle East look like four years from now? What will Europe be four years from now? What will the United States be four years from now? Why can’t we do this? Because the world is changing so quickly. Even change itself is changing. Exponentially. The greatest change of our time is change. We don’t need a class on Genesis to know that this moment is unique and that next year, God knows who we will be, where we will be, or how we will be. So much could happen. So much will happen.
Independence from nature and technology. The future. Unique moments. There is now one final piece to this gift. Judaism also gave us a calendar. In this calendar we have Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Passover, Hanukah, and all the other holidays. While time is linear, our calendar is cyclical. Radical then and radical now. In the ancient world, linear time was an important contribution. Perhaps in our world, we need cyclical time. In a world filled with anxiety and endless changes, we are all sitting here knowing that we don’t know what 5778 will bring. But there is one thing we do know. We will arrive at this same place next year, sound the same shofar, walk to the same creek for tashlikh, and later sit in the same sukkah. We will light the same candles on Hanukah and recite the same blessings on Shabbat. The smell of brisket will once again fill our homes. We will hear the laughter of a dear friend and feel the gentle touch of close family. We will once again revisit the memories of those no longer with us. In some way, our cyclical calendar enables us to return to familiar moments in a world where nothing is familiar anymore.
Judaism was radical then and it continues to be relevant now. Radical then because it offered the notion that moments are different. Relevant now because it creates moments that are familiar. Judaism remains relevant today because we have to liberate ourselves, not from nature, but from our own power. Judaism remains relevant today because it offers us stability in a world full of anxiety. We need Judaism because it helps us build healthier relationships with ourselves, with God, with each other, and with everything we have created. Remember to embrace this gift. Mark each of the holidays in meaningful ways. Embrace their many customs and rituals. Create a weekly practice around Shabbat – it’s a gift we receive every 7th day, 52 weeks a year – since creation. Yes – there is change; yes – there is a future; but within that unknowable future there are familiar moments in time. That is our greatest gift. That is the gift we celebrate this Rosh Hashanah.