Rosh Hashanah 5773: Only Human

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, Cotati, CA]

There’s a story about a group of ants that stumble upon the remains of a picnic. If we want we can make it a Rosh Hashanah picnic – with apples, honey, teyglach, honey cake. Delighted, they start dismantling it and loading it up to carry back to the colony. Each ant hoists some 100 times its own body weight in crumbs on its back and starts trudging toward home. They notice that Moishe the ant is carrying only 70 times his own weight. They say, “Hey, Moishe, what’s the matter with you, carrying only 70 times your weight?” Moishe looks up and says, “Nu, what do you want? I’m only human.” 

“I’m only human.” Our perennial apology. It is our ultimate statement of limitation – of weakness, of lack of will, of failure! I am only human.

Today is a day we are invited to take up the issue of what it means to be human. On Rosh Hashanah we say hayom harat olam: “Today is the birth of the world.” But the tradition is more specific. It’s not the anniversary of the first day of Creation, of “let there be light,” but rather of the sixth day, the day that this creature of clay, this earthling we call adam, that we call human; was created; the day when we, who are “only human” made our debut.

This idea that the world is not worth celebration until we appear in it, is not surprising. After all, the traditional Jewish view is that the world was created for us, and that is also the dominant view in our culture. It is a catchy and convenient idea that is alive and well and continues to motivate the actions of many members of our species, especially but not exclusively the ones who gravitate toward positions of power.  

But I’d venture that most of us do not feel like masters of the earth. Most of us feel not like masters at all but like subjects; subject to the age-old limitations of being human: our bodies, our circumstances, our times. 

Being “only human” is undeniably a frustrating thing. It is so limiting, this clay of ours. We are trapped inside our skins. We know the world through peepholes and each other largely through guesswork. For all of our vaunted human intelligence, it seems that the Fruit of Knowledge that we gobbled down in the garden gave us less actual knowledge than just a painful awareness of how much we don’t know.

We are clay. And DNA. And saltwater and surging chemicals. But we want so much more, we want to be so much more. We want to reach beyond our skin. Like Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. We want to touch the greatness that is outside of us. We are clay with aspirations.

This paradox is captured in our Sixth Day Creation story itself. In it, God says:

Na’aseh adam b’tzalmenu kid’mutenu.

Let us make adam – the human – in our image and our likeness.

This is a paradox because adam means earth. We are the Earth-Being. God forms us of clay like a potter at the wheel, we say. Our birth is of earth. But the text also says we are made b’tzelem Elohim: in God’s image. So we are matter, somehow formed in imitation of the immaterial.

Godlike mud. So what is the godlike part of us? We don’t know! And that’s a terrible taunt. God tells us we’re godlike, then leaves us to work it out. How are we godlike? We can’t fly. We can’t shape-shift. We can’t live forever. We can’t tell the future or know the secrets of the past. We can’t look into each other’s hearts. We can’t do any of the cool superhero things we dream up for ourselves in comic books. No. On the contrary. Our lives are short. We are earthbound. We break, we hurt, we die, we grieve. We are only human. How sad for us, then; what a curse, to be able to imagine something better.

But isn’t our imagination a blessing as well?

I had a conversation not long ago with a childhood friend who, as an adult, suffers from bipolar disorder. It’s made her life difficult both personally and professionally. As she charged through our conversation at lightning speed, I finally interrupted to ask if it’s okay for me to jump in and pull her back to topic. She said yes, and added, “Irwin, understand that this is me on a good day. Now imagine me on a bad day, and talking to people who don’t happen to have a fond childhood memory of me.” 

I was struck by that, picturing the people who look at her without pity. I thought of the people who challenge or anger me. The ones I look at without pity. And, for the first time, it hit me: there are people who have loving childhood memories of them. What if I were one of them? How would my view of them be different?

Let’s all find out right now. Think of someone who bugs you, or who challenges you in some way. Conjure up the thought of that person, and give me a nod when you see them in your mind. Now imagine the child that they once were. Imagine how loved they were or, perhaps, how loved they wanted to be. Go ahead. I dare you to do it right now, even if you feel resistance – especially if you feel resistance. Think of that person and, for a moment, fondly hold in your arms the child they were. 

Did you feel something? For a moment were you open to believing in their best intentions? That they might be doing their best in the limited clay that they’ve been given? That even now, though they rub you the wrong way, they're trying their best? With this friendlier eye, can you imagine what motivates them? The desire to learn, to love, to be loved, to create, to connect, to be noticed, to be appreciated. How much more alike do you feel now? Does some of the wall you’ve erected against them wear away? Do you see that like you they’re only human?

Mazeltov. You have used your imagination and you have chosen to do so with chesed, with compassion. You have engaged in an act of empathy. No, it is not the same as God’s putative ability to look deep into each person’s heart. But it is godlike. And it is only human.

In difficult political times like these, I wonder sometimes where my empathy has gone. I look at people whose views I oppose and who oppose mine. I make sweeping judgments about them. I’m not incapable of empathy toward them. I just choose not to exercise any. After all, I’m only human.

But how bad would it be if I did? For instance, let’s take some big opponent of same-sex marriage. If I could set aside my hurt at seeing the bumper stickers on their car, couldn’t I pretty easily imagine the emotions that underlie their position? How difficult is it really to appreciate their very human fear of change, the fear of a world moving faster than one can cope, loyalty to tradition, a fear of letting go of what you know. Easy to imagine, because I feel those things too. And if they were inclined to try, how difficult would it be for them to perceive my very human hunger to belong, to have what others have, my desire not to be left behind, my hope not to have to beg for it.

I may not change anyone’s mind by engaging in random acts of empathy. I am not so naïve. But by doing so I will have kept myself from the temptation of dehumanizing others. Yes, they might dehumanize me. I know it. I don’t like it. But I don’t have to do it back. 

Jesus (yes, Jesus) said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.” Our tradition doesn’t explicitly require loving our enemies. But tucked away in Torah is the idea that having empathy for them is important. In Exodus we read that if you see the donkey of someone who hates you collapsed under its burden, and your instinct is to just let them all go to hell, you are instructed nonetheless to help that person get their donkey on its feet. The human-ness of the situation binds you to each other.

Similarly in our very familiar Psalm 23, we read: ta’aroch l’fanay shulchan neged tzor’ray. You, God, set a table for me across from my enemies. This image is not that of a bargaining table, a table of war. A shulchan aruch is a table set for a meal. This is a vision about being able to sit down and break bread with the people we disagree with. Because deeper than our infuriating opinions and frustrating quirks is our very human hunger. When we break bread together, we connect as humans. We are experiencing empathy. My experience on this earth is like yours. You hunger, I hunger. You want, I want. We are both only human.

And maybe that’s a piece of this puzzle. Our human experience is not a barrier to empathy; but a condition precedent to it. Our being human is our only available source of it. Our humanness allows us to break through and reach beyond these human shells. Being human is not a wall, but a bridge. We are earthbound, but our earth-born compassion gives us flight. Body and spirit are not opposites. The spirit is instead the name we give to our human need and human ability to stretch.

The truth is, I believe, that if there is something divine in us, it is solid-state; it is inextricably woven into our humanity. When God acts, it is through us. Or looking at it from a different viewpoint when we act in the best possible ways, the most compassionate ways, we are God. We are tzelem Elohim – not just the image of God but the spitting image of God; not just the image of God, but our imagining of God. 

We who are only human have the ability to act with greatness. So great that we might be confused with angels. On the sixth day Creation story, after we’re referred to as adam, humankind is then referred to as ish, a term that in Torah is intermittently used to mean “angel.” It is this word for human that the sages use when they say uvamakom she’eyn anashim, hishtadel lihyot ish – “in a place where there are no people, try to be a person.” Not a human, as in “I’m only human.” But a person, as in a good person, a compassionate person. A mentsch. A person with the bearing of an angel. 

There is a story of a disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov who dreamed of meeting the prophet Elijah. He begged his master to help him do this. So the Ba’al Shem Tov instructed him that on Rosh Hashanah he should go to a particular house in a particular village, with a satchel full of food and a satchel full of children’s clothes, and knock on the door, and there he would meet Elijah. This Chasid’s family was loath to see him go, but for the chance to meet the prophet Elijah it was not too great a sacrifice. 

So the Chasid went to this house, and as he stood outside he heard the voices of children crying. He knocked, and when the door opened he saw hungry looking children in threadbare clothes. He asked if he might stay with them over the holiday. The children’s mother said, “but we have no food to feed you a holiday meal with.” He replied, “It’s alright, I’ve brought plenty of food – enough for all of us. And clothes for the children too.” He stayed with the family for the duration of the holiday, never sleeping a wink for fear of missing his promised encounter with Elijah the Prophet. But he saw no one.

He returned to the Ba’al Shem Tov and complained that he did not see the prophet. “You didn’t see Elijah the Prophet?” Asked the master. “No, I didn’t.” “And you did everything I told you to?” “Yes I did.” 

“Then go back before Yom Kippur and do the same thing again, with a satchel of food and a satchel of clothes. But this time go a little earlier and stand at the door for a while listening.” This the Chasid did. And once again he heard the children crying. “Mama, we haven’t eaten all day.” And he heard their mother’s voice say, “Children, don’t you remember before Rosh Hashanah? I said ‘Have faith. God will send Elijah the prophet to provide for us.’ And wasn’t I right? Didn’t Elijah come with a satchel of food and a satchel of clothes? And didn’t he stay with us for two days? And now I promise you that Elijah will come again and help us.”

And then the Chasid understood, and he knocked on the door.

When we act with compassion, with generosity; when we set out to relieve suffering, then we are acting b’tzelem Elohim – in our most godlike way. Then we only humans may be confused with prophets or angels. 

We have remarkable gifts, either breathed into our spirits or coded into our cells. We have this terribly limiting, painful human life: short and frequently visited by grief and suffering. But it gives birth to such remarkable compassion, when we let it. It gives birth to empathy, toward friend and enemy alike, when we are brave enough to feel it. It gives birth to such generosity, when we don’t hold ourselves back. 

Maybe as we recite High Holy Day prayers, when we reach out to God in sorrow and regret and hope, we should not be imagining God at all, but should see ourselves calling out to our own potential greatness. Not political or military greatness, but each our own greatness of spirit, greatness of compassion, greatness of imagination. The best we want from ourselves. We can carry so many times our body’s weight! Perhaps we are the right destination for our prayers, and God is kind enough to stand in as  metaphor.

So on this birthday of the world, let us celebrate our humanity and all the potential for greatness that it represents. Let us celebrate our persistent desire to reach beyond our clay. Let us celebrate the fact that being only human is far from a limitation.

“Ben Adam,” says a Sephardic poem for the High Holy Days, “Human being, wake up. Break out of the shell of your humanness. Call out. Reach out. Ask for compassion. Act with generosity.”

Ben adam mah lecha nirdam? Kum k’ra b’tachanunim.
Sh’foch sichah, d’rosh s’lichah me’adon ha’adonim.
Lecha hatz’dakah v’lanu boshet hapanim.

We are clay. And we are just below angels. In this New Year, let us fly like angels on wings of compassion, compassion towards our loved ones, towards the people who challenge us, towards the ones who hurt us, even as best we can, toward the ones who hate us. 

Let us awake and ask for compassion and practice compassion. For on the sixth day, the human, the mentsch, the clay imitating God, was created.