[Rosh Hashanah Eve teaching for Congregation Ner Shalom.]
Hayom harat olam.
Today the world is born.
This is Rosh Hashanah’s motto, its advertising catch phrase. Rosh Hashanah could have had other marketing slogans: “The World: Just Do It.” Or “The Cosmos: I’m Lovin’ It!” Or “The Universe: Can You Hear Me Now?”
But no: Hayom harat olam.
Today the world is born.
What does it mean to say that today is the birth of something that is old beyond reckoning? How do we hold the idea that this world is ageless because it’s so old, but also ageless because it’s so new?
We are a people and a species who live in constant contradiction. And I think this is a fine place, a beautiful place, to be.
A couple weeks ago, while preparing for the Holy Days, I drove out to Samuel Taylor Park and found a quiet spot up on the Pioneer Tree Trail to sit and write. It was a high spot with a backless bench. I’d brought a cushion and I sat on the ground, turning the bench into my writing desk, and leaning my back against a redwood easily four stories tall.
I could vaguely hear the cars way out on Sir Francis Drake, but they were mostly drowned out by the silence of the woods. Way above my head was a broken ceiling of branches and redwood needles and the light filtered through and hit the green undergrowth in messy splotches. I was reminded of Virginia Woolf, who wrote in her novel The Waves, “Islands of light are swimming on the grass. They have fallen through the trees.”
So much magic. So much majesty. Such deep joy to be part of this world.
Now, about this tree at my back. I haven’t a clue how a tree operates. Somewhere in school I learned something about it. There’s a tube or a fluid or something called xylem. And there’s something else called phloem, which I can’t even spell let alone explain. I learned somewhere that the outside of the tree is alive, and the inside is dead wood. Oh, and photosynthesis. Got something to do with light and sugar.
While I have some appreciation for these subtleties of plant biology, to me, that day, the trees were pillars holding up the heavens. The canopy, as we call it in English, was just that. A chupah. I could have gotten married under those trees and stilled fulfilled the requirements of our tradition. I was out in the open, but I was also within a shelter, a sukkah, that was brought about not through eons of evolution but placed by God in that spot just for me, and for that moment.
Now you might reasonably ask, “Irwin, you don’t really believe that, do you? That God placed trees there just for you?”
For which I have two answers: “Of course I don’t.” And: “Of course I do.” A contradiction? Sure. A problem? I don’t think so.
The same question applies to the creation of the world. In one of our classrooms here at Ner Shalom, we have a timeline up on the wall, a timeline of Jewish history. The year 3761 BCE is marked as Year Zero in the Jewish reckoning, and that hashmark on the timeline is identified as “Creation of the World.” Back in the spring, a member of our community happened to see the timeline, and challenged me about it. “Is that what you actually believe?" this person asked. "Is that what you teach? And if not, why don’t you take it down?” Legitimate questions.
In the moment, I’m sure I gave some stammering and unsatisfying response. But the question stuck with me, and I realized that the problem was that the two of us (and the timeline) were conflating two different worlds.
Is the world only the physical, which we study and try to size up empirically? The one made of matter and energy that burst into existence 14 billion years ago? The one whose secrets will inevitably be unlocked, we trust, by observation and theory and, ultimately, proof?
Or is the world how I experience it, the feelings it invokes and the stories my mind and heart use to explain it all? Or is it our collective dreams, fears and imaginings? Passed on to us, and by us to our children, through ink on animal skin, through murmured lullabies, through salt thrown surreptitiously over a left shoulder. Are those nothing?
Ultimately we, as Jews, as moderns, as humans, are inheritors and holders of multiple cosmologies, and we live in them all, all the time. Is it possible to see the cosmos as occurring naturally through processes that might be governed by Guiding Principles but not by a Guiding Intelligence, and at the same time to feel magic, or feel Divinity, in all things? Yes, of course it is. Many of us do that all the time.
The problem, perhaps, is that we’re guilted into feeling like we ought not feel both. The Empty Universe and the God-filled Universe, like so many ideas and phenomena in our culture, get unnecessarily poised as opposites, and then we are forced to choose one view or the other. As the old Benny Goodman song goes, or sort of goes:
If it ain't wrong, it's right
If it ain't day, it's night
Godless or Yiddishkeit --
It's gotta be this or that!
So we live in the gray area and feel pressured by the imperative of “gotta be this or that.” On one side we feel a need to be modern and scientific which ends up inexplicably meaning secular. And on the other side, despite none of us actually being religious fundamentalists, we’ve somehow unquestioningly adopted from fundamentalism a belief that accepting the literal word of Scripture is the defining trait of a religious person. How many of us think of ourselves as bad Jews because we don’t believe in all of it? How many of us tell people, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual,” because on some level we’ve bought into the idea that we have no right to lay claim to our religion unless we believe specific literal things.
That Judaism is a strictly delineated and guarded territory and we are effectively trespassers.
So here’s the reminder for all of us: our tradition does not now, and has almost never, demanded literalism. Last year, I told a story, and I will tell it again now, because it bears repeating. My teacher, Rabbi Marcia Prager, was once in a panel discussion with a fundamentalist preacher, who wagged his finger at her and asked, “But do you believe that the Bible is true?” And she responded, “Yes, I do. But I don’t think that’s what you’re asking. You want to know if I think the Bible is factual.”
We have so much room, and such good models, for multiplicity in our tradition, for the holding and embracing of multiple understandings, conflicting and sometimes interconnecting narratives of reality!
To start with the basic one: tomorrow morning we will read in Torah the first chapter of Breishit, of Genesis, telling the 6-day creation story we all know practically by heart. But Torah itself provides alternative creation narratives as well. The second chapter of Genesis tells the story differently. The Book of Psalms hints that the world began with great battles, in which God subdued other deities, and forced the Sea to submit to His will and subside to form land.
Jews who came later held the 6-day story as something holy, yet articulated other beliefs as well. Maimonides, our great rationalist of the Middle Ages, believed that the world was arranged and functioned in the way that Aristotle described. But he simultaneously would have upheld the truth of Torah’s creation story.
The mystics similarly held more than one worldview, not limited by a long shot to the first chapter of Genesis. They saw creation as having a prologue – God retracting from complete fullness in order to provide the quasi-physical space in which the world would be created. The Zohar, our most famous book of mysticism, describes the creation and ongoing operation of the world as the interaction of the processes of Ten Spheres, called Sefirot.
I imagine to myself that for those Kabbalists, the 6-day creation story might have been what they thought factual, but the story of the spheres might have felt true. Or maybe the other way around. But in any event, they would have believed both, on different levels, and both would have been Torah to them. Contradiction? Yes. Problem? No.
Our mystical tradition offers us a particularly lovely and deep way of understanding the multiplicity of cosmologies in which we sit: the Four Worlds. These are four layers of reality that exist everywhere simultaneously.
Asiyah, Yetzirah, B’riah, and Atzilut. These are described as stacked tiers, like a layer cake. Our physical world is at the bottom, dominated by Asiyah – the world of action and thought. Next up is Yetzirah, an angelic realm, where angels are used to describe what we might call our emotions, our motivations, our impulses. Moving up is B’riah, a realm of visionary experience, where we can sometimes make contact with something that feels Divine through prophetic or ecstatic experience. And on top, although even the bottom-to-top is just a metaphor, is Atzilut, the divine inner realm, hidden from us, beyond our ability to know. Mystery.
- Atziliut – divine
- Beriah – visionary
- Yetzirah – emotional
- Asiyah – physical
In the Kabbalistic view, the same ten sefirot are mapped through all four of the worlds. All experience, all action, all processes, occur in all the worlds at once.
Every moment is a bite clean through the layer cake.
The idea that there are multiple levels of reality captures something that we sense but have a hard time putting into words. The notion that what happens in one world happens in all is poetic and stimulating and not unique to Judaism. Especially appealing is the idea that what happens in the physical world has effect upon the internality of God, and not just the other way around. For instance, the belief that engaging in a mitzvah not only produces effect in this world, but also causes a spiritual shift in the other dimensions of reality. It is a profound idea. And isn’t it in fact what we mean when we loosely talk about karma?
That our deeds have not only physical effect but spiritual ripples as well? Of course, it’s often easier and safer to say it in Buddhist than in Jewish, since our experience as trespassers in the terrain of Judaism has made us into dispossessed wanderers as well.
So back to the timeline. How old is the universe?
Fourteen billion years sounds like a good answer in the world of Asiyah. The world of action and thought and radio telescopes.
And maybe 5770 years is the right answer in the world of Yetzirah – it captures an emotional truth about a world that seems ancient compared to our own lives, but also feels very young, intimate, not so much older than us as to make our lives seem irrelevant. Or perhaps it captures a collective emotional truth about our peoplehood. The Universe might be billions of years old, but for us it started when we, collectively, woke up. Sort of the difference between measuring your own life from your birth versus from your first memory.
And maybe the answer in Beriah – the place of vision – is hayom harat olam. The world is only coming into existence at this very moment. The world is only now. The future is a speculation and the past a supposition. The world recreates itself at every moment, and we are recreated with it.
Isn’t that what the Yamim HaNora’im are about? The possibility of transformation, of change, of rebirth, no matter how old we are? An infinite abundance of newness and potential. Sure, the dust that makes up our bodies is as ancient as the Universe. But it doesn’t feel that way. We are not bound by our clay. Our bodies may be made of earth but our breath is pure possibility.
So, was the world created 5,770 years ago? Two answers: “Of course it wasn’t.” And: “Of course it was.” A contradiction? Yes. A problem. No.
And who or where is God in all of this? The trigger? The overseer? The baker of the layer cake or just a fancy name for the layer cake itself? Maybe it doesn’t strictly matter. It is all true. It is all true. The Godlessness of the Universe, and the Godfulness of it as well. And so, to the underlying question, “Is there a God?” Two answers: “Of course there isn’t.” And: “Of course there is.” A contradiction? Maybe. A problem? I hope not.
I have a new favorite term for God, a traditional one, that we sing in our waking-up blessings. It is
Chey Ha-olamim. Life of the Worlds. Not life of the singular world, but life of the plural worlds. If God is anything, God is the totality of all the realms of existence we could ever touch or dream of.
Baruch Atah YHWH, chey ha-olamim.
Blessed are You, the great IS, the breath of life in all the worlds.
And so, friends. People. Jews. Do not be afraid of contradiction. Do not be afraid of complexity, or multiplicity, or subtlety. Reject enforced oppositions. Black and white. Right and wrong. Man and woman. Science and religion. Gray area is what gives our lives true richness.
Hayom harat olam.
Today is – everyday is - the birthday, the birthing day – of the world. Of all the worlds. In celebration we have a layer cake.