Rabbi David Bockman
Beth Meyer Synagogue
Raleigh, North Carolina
Hayom Haras Olam:
A Rosh Hashana Response to September 11, 2001
Since our son was born, things have changed for us. Oh, I know that people warned us, but we used to eat meals in restaurants: no more. We used to go to clubs to listen to music: it ain't happening. We used to keep up with current movies: we haven't set foot in a theater since July 20. We used to keep up with important events: now our newspapers pile up, unopened, at the kitchen table. And sleep? Fuggedaboudit! The world that we used to cherish, as a young married couple, is now so changed that I know it will never return.
That's not to say that there's no upside. After all, I love my baby Theo. When he's not screaming or fussing, he's the cutest kid on the planet. And he's so... well, since he was born...okay, since he was born and Vicki is staying home from work on maternity leave, we finally took the plunge and ordered cable for our television. We now can watch Emeril Lagasse cook wonderful food... for other people. We can listen to the top 100 pop songs of all times on VH1 or MTV. We can watch gripping legal dramas "ripped," we are told, "from today's headlines" nearly 24 hours a day on the "all-Law-and-Order-network" (and did you know that Vicki's family is related to Sam Waterston?). We can sit through the same "news" story with the same ridiculous pun told by the same insincere anchor person every twelve minutes on CNN Headline News. Vicki's even become hooked on a show called Trading Spaces, where two couples redecorate a room in each others' houses in only two days with a budget of one thousand bucks and the use of a slightly meshugena interior decorator who insists, for instance, that ceiling mirrors and peat moss walls would "work together" to create that "colonial" feel the owners love. And, of course, we try never to miss "Iron Chef," a hilarious Japanese cooking program of gladiatorial cooking grudge matches, in which each chef is given one hour to prepare and serve a gourmet meal featuring a special ingredient, such as gourmet truffles, peaches, or (drum roll) "chipmunk, delicacy of mountain people!"
Not only do we have a chance to see these new shows, though. At three AM feedings, we've been privileged to watch shows we thought were long gone, such as the Match Game with Gene Rayburn (you have just won two hundred and seventy five dollars!), the Brady Bunch and even Quantum Leap, playing on the sci-fi channel. You may remember the premise: a scientist, played by Scott Bakula, gets stuck in a time-travel experiment gone terribly awry, so he keeps bouncing back and forth to moments in his own life-span, each episode "leaping" into a new and unexpected person. Thus, he and his friendly holograph, Al, are the only characters seen consistently throughout the series. On one occasion, he may be a college football quarterback, whereas in the next hour, he might "leap" into the body of Miss Rosa Parks, all the while maintaining his own experiences, intelligence and empathy. The uniting factor in all this disunity is the problematic of each show: Sam needs to discover, before he can "leap" out of his current situation, a way to interfere in some specific way so that a person he meets will do something humane, heroic or famous. Exactly opposite to Star Trek, Quantum Leap's prime directive might be stated as "mix in and change some crucial element of these people's lives so that a good outcome will be assured." Only then, when he's accomplished his good turn, can Sam face his next challenge, always hoping that his next leap "will be the leap that takes him home."
I can only vaguely imagine what that must be like, to be a wanderer and a sojourner, constantly and relentlessly giving of myself in interaction with worlds that appear before my eyes, yet hoping against infinite hope that I will someday find my home in one of these worlds. How lonely he must be! How cruel the gods of television must have been to knit a skein of coaxial cable into tableaus of near-misses that eternally tantalize this decent man; a fellow who regularly and repeatedly lays his life on the line, opening his heart to shore-pounding waves of disappointment even as he leaves behind a trail of marked improvement.
Imagine it, if you can: every single day a test of your ability to learn from your mistakes, every waking moment a Rosh Hashana. We, too, are called periodically to face a new challenge, a new set of situations and circumstances, a new universe. Indeed, we will say three times in the musaf prayer today, after each time the shofar is blown: Hayom Harat Olam - today, the world is pregnant. Although we translate this as the much simpler "Today is the birthday of the world" for our young children, we ought to at least - for ourselves - think through the implications of what such a newly growing world might be.
New life, new possibilities, an uncharted future. Wow! Like the moment of the Big Bang, the empty space tingles with energy, bristles with probability, expectant of its own becoming. Emptiness gives way to fullness, darkness to light, nothingness to Being. In such moments, symmetries are born before they are broken, elementary particles snap into being in pairs, the wave function swells toward existence. All the universe is a black body, radiating perfectly, maximally, supernally. Today, the universe grunts and pushes itself into the now, and the rest - as they say - is commentary. Hayom Harat Olam! Today, a world is born!
A world is the perfect cocoon for the metamorphosis of potential into actuality. That which is conceived is born. That which is born is taken note of. That which is noted becomes somehow ingrained in a future pattern of becoming. And already, at the beginning of a world, Neitzsche's character Zarathustra will announce the fulfillment and completion of that world, and furthermore its obsolescence, its overcoming. Each path of divergence chosen leads to a unique world that plays itself out inexorably to its logical end. Given a universe brimming with possibilities, a single creation can lead to a multiverse of linked, yet unreachable, parallel universes whose parameters differ only slightly. Hayom Harat Olam. Each day, a slew of worlds is born.
But I can tell you, having been there when Theo emerged two months ago, that the process of birth is not an easy one, nor is it particularly pretty. I'd always heard people talk of the "miracle" of birth. They were, of course, correct. But they rarely, if ever, talked about the blinding intensity of the contractions before the epidural can kick in, the profusion of blood and screams, the rebuff to a quietly offered massage that manifests in hurled profanities and emasculting insinuation. And when the baby emerges, when the baby emerges... They don't exactly tell you how alien this newborn will be, how inhuman it will look. Like a waterlogged creature from another planet that communicates solely via squawks and unholy, blood-curdling screams, the newborn metamorphoses slowly over a span of months into a wizened old man, a young girl, a disfigured gargoyle, and someday (we expect) into a ...baby.
People don't exactly explain to you how the priorities you've spent a lifetime arranging will suddenly become worthless, how your survival, health, accomplishments and personal sense of style will no longer mean much in the scheme of things. Birth may in fact be a Nietzschean transvaluation of values, but it surely seems like a signal glimpse into the awful truth that the so-called "normal" moral universe we inhabit is just the thinnest of veneers designed to protect our delicate minds from the seething chaos that everywhere abounds, just below life's surface.
I don't think I ever understood before Theo’s arrival what the "birthpangs of the messiah" might really mean. All I can tell you now is that the rabbis who dreamed up that phrase were either much more aware of women's issues than we generally give them credit for, or else they were a bunch of sick-minded individuals. Because, if anyone who has gone through a birth actually thinks that a global-sized version of that travail will sieze the world before things can get better, who would ever allow it to happen?
So, last week I was awakened by the squeal of my new master, whom I resent so terribly at moments like these. I picked up my bleary-eyed carcass from the not-yet- slept-in-sheets and changed his poopy diaper, trying to excite him with the prospect of "new pants!" Vicki took him in bed to feed him, and turned on the TV to one of those inane morning shows, drifting off into a sleep-deprived feeding-induced daze. As I was resting my bones leaning against a pillow before I got up and showered to go to the shul, they announced that there was some breaking news, that there seemed to be some kind of fire in New York's World Trade Center. I shook Vicki, said "hey, look at this, maybe it will be some actual news on this news show." A few minutes later, of course, we saw another plane fly directly into the building, vomiting forth billows of flame and debris. We watched, stunned and shocked, as did so many others on that Tuesday morning. We watched the burning smoke across the Pentagon, the collapses and implosions, people fleeing and dying. And what was happening in my house right then? Vicki was crying, worrying about the baby; specifically, about what kind of world we were bringing him into. Thousands of lives were snuffed out before our eyes, and we could think of nothing more pressing than to worry about a little bossy alien creature who does nothing more substantive than urinate in his pants or in our bed, multiple times each day.
A shiver went up my spine, because I had quite a disturbing sense of deja vu. When I was younger, many Jews read Hebrew with the "Ashkenazzis" pronunciation, the "s"es rather than the "t"s. Hayom Harat Olam used to bother me, because the old guys pronounced it "Hayom Haras Oilam," which means "today he destroyed a world." Could any of us doubt, can any of us doubt that that was exactly what we saw occuring, the destruction of our world through a rain of fire and hurricane gales of glass shards scouring the streets of New York's financial district, Chinatown, Greenwich Village, drifting off in the clear Autumn sunshine to blanket Brooklyn and Staten Island? Today a world is destroyed, just like that, in a bizarre and sadistic snuff film, without any more fuss than squashing a cockroach. With a carboard box cutter and not even enough training to land, with sufficient jet fuel to reach California and a really well thought out television programming angle, a world is destroyed. Gone. Just like that. Hayom Haras Olam.
Of course, ours is not the first generation to see its Temples burning. In the Midrashic collection Breishit Rabba, we get a chilling fantasy brought in the name of Rabbi Abahu: "God set about creating worlds and destroying them, creating worlds and destroying them, until it came to this one, and, as the Torah says, 'God saw that it was very good.'" At first blush, you would be tempted to read this midrash as describing sequential occurences, one after the other. But it is also quite in line with this text to understand that, in effect, R' Abbahu chooses to read the destruction and creation of subsequent worlds as identical events. In the very destruction of one world is the germination of another. The two events are alternate views of the selfsame process.
When the world we knew exploded into rubble exactly one week ago, we all suddenly saw the horizon of a different sort of place, one in which Americans care about helping each other and commit heroic acts without a second thought. We could look towards a future where good and evil are much more plainly drawn than they had been for quite some time. We could see a new day dawning where blood banks have to turn away donors and where wearing red, white and blue ribbons does not brand you a Yankee Doodle Dandy. A new world is appearing where we learn to be careful, where we learn who our friends and supporters really are, where - perhaps - the president of the United States of America gives up on a missile defense shield and drilling in an arctic wildlife preserve, instead making our country safer by instituting more common sense security measures and lessening our dependence on petroleum. A new world makes it possible for us to step beyond the divisive questions of race, religion and political party affiliation. Hayom Haras Olam; Today a world is destroyed, and today a world is born. I've spoken in the past week about the Tower of Babel and the mitzvah of the preservation of life, previously so difficult to accomplish, but now as available to each of us as Microsoft Windows. I've spoken about the need for tzedaka and the blessing you recite when you hear bad news, the helpful things each of us can do and more. Because this is a time of sorrow and pain, it is also a time of resolve. Because this is a time of destruction, it is a time of indeterminacy and open-ended possibility. Because this is a time when we stand poised in a delicate balance between what was and what will be, it is chance to look forward to not falling into the same habits, but resolving to activate mitzvot in each of our lives - those powerful tools that teach behavior and attitudes and give us, and the universe we inhabit, a frisson of kedusha, of Holiness.
In the Torah this morning, we read of Abraham's personal struggle as his wife Sarah demanded that Haggar and Ishmael be sent away because Ishmael was making fun of her son Isaac. And, contrary to what we might predict, God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah! He sends Haggar and her son into the desert where they are distraught but ultimately safe, and free to become what they will become. It is certainly possible to read this story in a number of different ways. We can see God telling Abraham that, in essence, he should jettison his old son, world, family, because their time is now past and the new son must be given his own chance to soar. Hayom Haras Olam, today a world is detroyed, so that today a world may come into its own.
But perhaps there is another factor here that we've not yet fully explored. God tells Abraham to LISTEN to Sarah's voice. We might well imagine the ensuing conversation between Abraham and God:
Abe: God, what do I do? Sarah wants Haggar & Ishmael kicked out because my wonderfully sensitive thirteen year old son Ishmael can't be around the baby without mocking him, taunting him, being a bad influence on him.
God: Abraham, listen to her.
Abe: But, but, but...But Ishmael's my son, too! Why should he and his mom get thrown out into the desert?
God: Abraham, listen to her.
Abraham: But I love Ishmael. I care for Haggar, who has been so important to our family. And , God help me, I love Sarah, the old lady, even though having this baby has made her a little bit of a control freak...
God: Hell-OOoo, I said LISTEN to her! Listen to everything she says to you.
Abe: Okay, God, you're the boss.
And, as we all know, Abraham proceeds to ignore what God says! Instead of listening to his wife Sarah, we read that he gets up early in the morning and DOES what she had demanded previously, never stopping - even once - to LISTEN. To listen to her pain, her fears, her hopes and her vision. How can we expect Abraham to perform in tomorrow's subtle test - when God will say take up your son, your only son, your beloved son, your laughing boy Isaac - if he can't even follow simple instructions this morning?
Perhaps, all these thousands of years later, we are still misunderstanding God's expert advice to us about human relationships. In our zeal and eagerness to make things right we run to DO, to fix, to take action, or even to exact retribution before we really even know “what's goin' on.” Perhaps, all these thousands of years later, this model has run its course and shown itself to lead to the destruction of a world, the point where someone - and we don't even know who - trains other someones to ignore every single voice they hear pleading each for its life.
Maybe that is the sound the shofar makes this morning. Torn from an animal who happened to be at the wrong place at just the wrong time, the shofar cries out with the pain of a collapsing skyscraper, with the agony of rescue workers who rushed in to help and became trapped beneath the dying behemoth, with the moaning exhalation of thousands of human beings whose only crime was to come in to the office to do their job or meet an acquaintance and whose ashes choke the air of huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Maybe the shofar is the echo of a world that is itself cracking apart at its seams, falling inward to its own vaporizing death. And maybe, just maybe, if we listen to the shofar with our minds quiet and our hearts open wide for embracing, we will hear the hope-inspiring cry of a new world being born today.
You can do this. It doesn't require lots of money or high tech equipment. It might not even take a significant investment of time. You might even find that you won't lose stature in other people's eyes by not jumping to act or control, but opening your heart to allow others to speak their piece. It will take a bit of personal restraint to quietly and attentively listen a world into existence. Maybe now you will get the chance to do that, since there are so many battered souls needing to cry, needing help, needing sustenance, needing someone to listen. Quite coincidentally, our Wake County Jewish community has been working on a project, co-funded by the STAR grant people, to deepen ties within our community by training a group of volunteers to heal using openhearted listening. This group effort, called B'yachad, meaning "together", is right now accepting registration for volunteers who can commit to meeting for seven weeks to study with rabbis and social work trainers to develop the facility for openhearted Jewish listening. If you are interested in becoming one of these select few within our community, please see me or call the Jewish Federation for an application. We hope this program will help us - in our little corner of the universe - midwife this new world into existence.
Like you, I am aghast at what I witnessed. Like you, my world exploded last Tuesday in a leaping horizontal tongue of orange flame. But I feel not only for myself, or for you, or even for the thousands dead or missing and the hundreds of thousands waiting for word of their loved ones. If my suspicion is correct, God has lost a world too. If I'm right, God creates and destroys those worlds Rabbi Abahu talked about simply by "quantum leaping" into and out of them, for how can a universe be sustained without God's presence? Maybe you can, listening to the shofar in just a few moments, spare some concern for a wandering and sojourning God who leaps into and out of universes, always hoping against hope that someday a world will listen enough to sustain itself without dashing headlong into self-destruction; hoping against hope that the next leap will take God to a world about which it can be said that it is "is very good;" hoping that the next leap will be the leap...home.