Rosh HaShanah Morning 5773

Temple Sinai, Reno, NV

As many of you heard last night, or read in the synagogue e-bulletin, the focus of my sermons, this High Holidays, is upon the opening prayers of our worship service — that is, the Shema and its surrounding blessings. For these sermons, I’m leaning very heavily upon the work of Rabbi/Dr. Lawrence A. Hoffman. If this is a topic of particular interest to you, I recommend Hoffman’s multi-volume series titled My People’s Prayerbook. This series brings together commentaries from all perspectives of the Jewish world – commentaries that illuminate the traditional Jewish prayer book as the spiritual resource it can best be.

Hoffman calls our liturgy the “spiritual tel” of the Jewish people. A tel is an archaeological term for a mound of earth, under which are successive layers of a civilization. As a kind of spiritual tel, our prayer book and its prayers capture who we Jews are. And so, as we turn the calendar on a new Jewish year, we’ve begun exploring the meaning and relevance of these opening prayers of our worship service. And as we do so, we’ll try to find special meaning within them for the tasks and challenges of this sacred season.

Last night, we began at the beginning with the Barchu. This morning we turn to the first of three blessings that follow the Barchu and surround the Shema. This prayer, in the morning, is call the Yotzeir, which means “who forms.” Because it is morning, the prayer begins by affirming God as the One who forms the morning light. There is a similar prayer in our evening liturgy – called the Ma’ariv Aravim – which, logically, speaks of God as the one who brings on the evening. In both cases, this first post-Barchu benediction affirms God’s formative role in all existence and especially as manifest in the natural world.

It has been my experience that even the most God-doubtful among us are moved to some manner of divine awe in the face of a dazzling natural display. It’s pretty hard – not impossible, mind you, but hard – to be an atheist atop an awesome mountain . . . or at the shore of a majestic ocean . . . or agape in the midst of a stunning landscape. And so back before we had written prayer books, the worship leader – who had to be an artist of the oral word – such a worship leader no doubt rendered this theme of nature and creation in many, varied ways. Hence, our Yotzeir prayer is sewn together from fragments of many different prayers. Only eventually did some unknown editor combine bits and pieces of some of them into the form of the prayer that we have now. In our worship this morning, we spoke a somewhat abbreviated version of that final editing of this prayer on pages 99 and 100. And you received, with your prayer books this morning, a copy of the more literal and fuller translation of this prayer as well.

The already-mentioned liturgy scholar, Lawrence Hoffman, maintains that each of the Shema’s blessings responds to a specific philosophic topic that exercised thinkers in late antiquity. And in so doing, each of these blessings comment implicitly on how Jewish belief differed from that of others at the time. Our Yotzeir prayer emphasizes light, in particular, because the ancients saw the universe divided into light and darkness. Those two realms were further identified with good and bad or, sometimes, with spirit and matter. An extreme form of this dualism led to the notion that there must be two gods – one of light and the other of darkness. And if not two gods, then at least one all-powerful god and a lesser power, a demiurge, who was the source of darkness and evil. Jews, of course, stopped short of any such dualism, for our tradition is unwaveringly committed to the principle of monotheism. So we had to attribute not just light but also darkness to God. And therein is the complexity of this Yotzeir prayer.

In fact, in our more literal translation of the opening paragraph of the Yotzeir, we read about God who “makes peace and creates everything.” Except for its last word, this is a quotation from Isaiah 45.7. However, in Isaiah, instead of “makes peace and creates everything” (in Hebrew hakol), the verse reads, “makes peace and creates hara,” which is “evil,” or here perhaps better translated as “trouble.” In its original Isaiah form, then, this verse is problematic, to say the least. It articulates the troubling truth of a monotheistic faith which is that if there is just a single deity then God must be responsible for both light and darkness, both peace and trouble. It is precisely because such a notion is so challenging that the liturgy changed the Isaiah verse, replacing the word trouble with the word everything. So instead of a God who “makes peace and creates trouble,” we read of a God who “makes peace and creates everything.” “Everything” includes good and evil, to be sure; but this liturgical revision meant that we weren’t hit in the face with this problem of evil and God’s responsibility for it.

But changing the liturgy doesn’t change the reality. In fancy language, this problem of evil is called theodicy. In less fancy form, it’s the question, “How can a benevolent God allow horror and tragedy to exist?” “Why is there suffering . . . and, especially, why do the righteous suffer . . . sometimes unimaginably?” This – if you’ll allow me to date myself – is the “$64,000 Question” of faith.

As we struggle with this question – perhaps some of us as we reflect on this year just ended – let’s go back to our Yotzeir prayer which declares that God forms light and creates darkness. In the Genesis account of creation, we read that God created the sun and moon and all the heavenly lights on the fourth day. But on the first day, we read that God created light and dark. So the Talmud quite reasonably asks, “Where did the light that God created on the first day come from? And why the additional creation of sun, moon and stars on Day 4?” The Talmud addresses this apparent discrepancy between Day 1 and Day 4 as follows:

Rabbi Eleazar said: In the light that the Holy One created on the first day, one could see from one end of the world to the other; but as soon as the Holy One beheld the generation of the flood and the generation of the tower of Babel, and saw that their actions were corrupt, God arose and hid it [the light] from them. [If so] then for whom did God reserve it? For the righteous in the time to come.”

In other words, there was at the beginning – on Day One — an uncorrupted light . . . a light that would have overcome any and all darkness. Only when human beings behaved badly – or God prophetically perceived that they would – only then did God hide that light away. After that, darkness was able to prevail, and it became necessary to create sun, moon, and stars for illumination. But the righteous can find the hidden light and restore it. Indeed, our Yotzeir prayer, later commentators explain, is written not in the past, but in the present tense – about God Who forms (present tense) light . . .” – to tell us that God is continually creating light. The creation of light was not a one-time, in-the-past event. For the righteous, the hidden light of creation – ultimate goodness without alloy – is revealed, continuously and anew, each and every day.

Now this does not offer a cure to the problem of evil in the world. I don’t know that this faith problematic will ever have an answer . . . But I do know that there is only one viable response to this problem of evil. For who are these righteous for whom the hidden light of goodness is stored away? I believe that those righteous simply have to be each and every one of us. While I have no illusion that all of us acting well and rightly together will totally free the world of evil, I do maintain that we have to behave as if we believe that could be so. Our work of atonement and self-transformation, our work of these High Holy Days – isn’t just about putting our personal houses in order. It is, I would suggest, much more far-reaching – maybe even cosmically far-reaching. In a world of inevitable duality between light and darkness and good and evil, our only humane choice is to commit to the work of light and goodness.

I began by suggesting that the Yotzeir prayer presented an almost simple picture of God in creation. But now it turns out that creation presents us with a much more challenging concept – the notion of a Creator somehow responsible for light and darkness, good and evil. The complexity of creation as articulated in our Yotzeir prayer is, for me, the liturgical reminder of our awesome responsibility to rise up toward the light, doing everything we can to eradicate the darkness of evil. This prayer, then, becomes a kind of protest piece. It reminds us of the bad that the universe can contain and makes urgent our obligation to struggle against that evil, whatever its unfathomable origins.

In our machzor, this Yotzeir prayer is – as I’ve already indicated — rather poetically paraphrased. On page 100, we read this morning lines that said, “Praised be the Power that brings renewal to the soul, the vital song that makes creation dance.” And then “O give thanks for life’s renewal, the radiant return of the sun!” None of those lines is a literal translation of the Yotzeir prayer. But I believe they have gotten its most important – and yes, challenging – message correct. For as we devote ourselves, at this time of year, to personal and communal renewal, let us do so with the awesome sense that, in some small way, our High Holiday turning and returning is nothing less than a renewal of the complicated work of creation. Work that is ongoing. Work that is sometimes flawed. Work that we simply can not relinquish.

And with that I have put an astounding responsibility upon all our High Holiday plates. For the sake of ourselves, our loved ones, our community, and even our planet – may our High Holiday labors be for blessing and for light. May we sustain ourselves in community as we take on this gigantic, sacred task.

And together let us say, Amen.