Rabbi Barry Leff

The following sermon was delivered during the 2001 Jewish High Holiday season following the tragic events of September 11, 2001. It has been included on the Torah From Terror website as a resource and retains the copyright of its author. Please cite the source accordingly.

Rosh Hashana 5762

Erev Rosh Hashana

Dr. Barry Leff

Free Will

Tonight we celebrate Rosh Hashana, the New Year. On Rosh Hashana, the anniversary of the creation of the world, we stand before our maker and we are judged, by God and by ourselves.

Most people would assume that Rosh Hashana would mark the beginning of the process of Creation: the first day. “B’reishit bara Elohim,” in a beginning God created the world. Interestingly, Rosh Hashana does NOT mark the first day of creation. According to the sages, creation actually began on the 25th of Elul; today, Rosh Hashana, the first of Tishrei, instead marks the anniversary of the creation of mankind.

We normally think the very beginning is the important thing. We celebrate birthdays, not the anniversary of the bris, the circumcision 8 days later. We mark the wedding day, not the end of the honeymoon when the real work begins. We celebrate the 4th of July, the Declaration of Independence, not the actual achieving of independence.

So what makes the creation of people so important? Why doesn’t Rosh Hashana mark the beginning of creation, or perhaps the first Shabbat, the completion of the creation process?

In the Torah it is written that we are created “b’tzelem elohim,” in the image of God. What’s that mean? Does God have a head, eyes, hands, feet? God is anthropomorphized at great length in the Torah and in rabbinic literature. We’re all familiar with the concept from the Talmud which says that God has three books before Him on Rosh Hashana: one for the totally righteous, one for the totally wicked, and one for all the rest of us. Are we supposed to picture this literally, that God is sitting at some sort of supernal desk with impossibly large volumes in front of Him?

This anthropomorphism in a way is a great disservice—it contributed to my lack of interest in Judaism for 25 year. I thought the God of Judaism was jealous, vengeful, an old white man with a long beard sitting on a throne in Heaven. God has thrones, footstools, hands, His anger flares, God has all of these very human sounding characteristics in the Torah. I simply could not relate to that kind of God, and I couldn’t picture the universe working that way. I have always felt there is a great connectedness in the universe, that everything is somehow connected to everything else. A God with all these anthopormorphic characteristics, separate from the rest of the universe, did not match my view of things. It turns out that despite what you might read in the Bible, this view of God as a human-like other, except on a grander scale, is NOT the Jewish view of God.

It was a great eye opener for me when I read what Rambam, Maimonides, wrote on the subject 1,000 years ago: anyone who thinks God is an old man with a beard sitting on a throne in Heaven is a fool! Rambam emphasizes over and over again the incorporeality of God. According to Rambam, God is not only incorporeal, God is indescribable. If we try and describe God, or characteristics of God, we are putting human concepts and limitations on God, and God is beyond all such limitations. When we say God is compassionate we mean God does things that we call compassionate, or that look compassionate to us, but this in no way reflects on the inner workings of God. When scripture speaks of the “hand of God,” it is speaking in the language of men—you shouldn’t think, God forbid, that God literally has a hand.

So what does it mean that we are created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God?

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, one of the greatest of the Chasidic rebbes, describes man as the “ba’al bechira,” the master of choice. The greatest gift God gave us, the thing that makes us b’tzelem elohim, is free choice. Free will makes us higher than angels who have no choice but to do God’s will. Angels are so close to God, their free will is obliterated in the light of God’s will. They have no choice but to do God’s will. If you knew with perfect clarity and no doubts whatsoever what it was that God wanted you to do you simply couldn’t do anything else. A metaphor used by the Chasidim is that it is like the rays of the sun inside the sun itself—they are not discernible because the sun itself overwhelms everything else.

In order for us to have free will, God had to conceal Himself. This is the tzimtzum, the contraction spoken of in kabbalistic literature. For there to be a place for beings to do other than God’s will, God’s will has to be hidden. Once God concealed Himself, and gave us free will, for the first time there was something around that could do something OTHER than God’s will!

In the scheme of creation, before people were created, there was no free will. Animals, as much as they may seem to have a mind of their own, are considered “programmed” to do what they do…they operate on instinctual responses, not reasoned choices. Therefore, prior to the creation of people, EVERYTHING was God! There was nothing separate from God, everything in the world simply functioned according to God’s will, until God created people with free will. So the creation of mankind represents the first creation of something that could really be defined as separate from Gd, that is capable of doing other than what God wants.

Having been given this incredible gift of free will, what’s the first thing we do with our free will? In the story of Adam and Eve, the first thing we do is disobey God. Last week we witnessed another horrific example of people using their free will to decide to perpetrate evil.

The Torah makes clear we have these choices to make. It is written “I set before you life and death; choose life!” It is also written “See, I set before you blessings and curses.” The Torah is making clear that which direction we turn is up to us. Evil exists in the world because people have free will, and some people will use that free will to pursue evil ends. And some people will use their free will to make the world a better place. Some to be a curse, some to be a blessing. Some choose to be suicide bombers; others choose to be paramedics.

At a time like this, we have an instinct to cry out to God, to yell at God, to be mad at God. How could God allow such a thing to happen? Why didn’t God do something to make it a “near-miss” instead of a total disaster? Where was God while this was going on?

Acts such as the horror we saw last week are not acts of God—they are acts of man. Free will would not be free will if God intervened every time things were going bad. For free will to be meaningful we each need to struggle to overcome the evil impulses within us, and as a community we must do battle against the evil in the world around us. I consciously avoided using the term “the forces of evil.” Unlike many other religions, Judaism does not see evil, as personified by Satan, as a force independent of and acting in opposition to God. Belief in one God for us means truly believing there is only one God, who has created both the good things and the bad things. In our prayers every day we refer to God as the creator of light and dark, maker of peace and creator of “everything.” Everything is clearly meant to be a discreet way of acknowledging that God also has created the things we don’t like.

However, even though God has created everything, evil does NOT result from God’s will—it results from human will, acting in opposition to God’s will as revealed through the Torah.

The goal of religious life is to draw close to God. Ironically, the way we do that is by figuring out God’s will and doing it—which sounds like by negating our free will. We use our free will to decide to turn to God and do God’s will instead of our own will. In Pirkei Avot it is written “make your will God’s will, so that God will do your will.” In other words, if what you want is what God wants, God will be doing for you what you want!

The High Holiday season provides us with a time to correct the errors we have made in our lives. If we have used our free wills in ways that have been to the detriment of ourselves and others, if we have used our free will in a way that distances us from the Kadosh Baruch Hu, from God, we now have the opportunity to correct these errors. We can use our free will to turn toward God. We can use our free will to do what we can to right the wrongs we have done toward others.

Not only that, we can use our free will to help ease the wrongs of others. There are horribly evil people in the world who have killed thousands of innocent people. We can use our free will to pray, to give money, to give blood, to provide all the support we can to those innocent victims.

Some people don’t know where to start in this process of turning back to God. People have told me, “I’ve done so many bad things it’s hopeless, I might as well keep doing what I’m doing and take my lumps ‘when the time comes.’” These people, for the most part, aren’t talking about terrible moral failings; more often they are talking about Jewish observance. “I haven’t kept kosher in 50 years, what’s the point in changing now?” It’s as if there is a sense that you have accumulated so many “demerits” through doing the wrong thing there is not enough time remaining to fix things.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Rambam in his Laws of Repentance says that if you do a sincere repentance even on your deathbed, all is forgiven. Sincere repentance means more than simple regret: it also means changing your behavior. God is so delighted when we choose to turn to God that She forgives all those past transgressions, as long as we’re on the right path now.

If you turn and start doing the “right thing,” you immediately feel better. Even if you’re not perfect, by at least being on the path of self-improvement, of striving to be a better person, of striving to connect with God, you’ve taken an important first step.

When you tally up your acts for the last year, you may get depressed by all the bad things you’ve done. Instead of being depressed by all of the things you may have done wrong in the last year, Rebbe Nachman suggests looking at your good points. Surely there is some mitzvah you did: you gave to charity, you studied some Torah, you did an act of kindness for someone. That mitzvah gains you merit, and it provides a starting point. As the management consultant Peter Drucker says, “build on strengths.” You can build on that strength, you can build on the mitzvot you did, and add to them. Even if you weren’t perfect there is some good in each of us. Just as we hope God will focus on our good points when God judges, we should also look at the good points when we judge ourselves or when we judge others.

We cannot eradicate the evil in others. We can however continue to work to improve ourselves and make our contribution to making the world a better place.

As I quoted before, in the Torah it says “I set before you life and death.” In the face of vicious, evil people who choose death, we must make an ever clearer statement that we “choose life.”

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