Rabbi Jodie Gordon
There Are Years That Ask Questions and Years that Answer
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777
October 2, 2016
Hayom Harat Olam.
Today is the day of the world’s birth.
Imagine with me for a moment those moments before Bereshit— before the beginning.
God, a nervous, expectant parent: about to call forth God’s first creation.
A divine birth plan in hand, so to speak- and with that first breath, labor begins:
Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth— and though the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. God said “Let there be light”, and there was light.
Vayehi erev, vayehi voker, yom echad.
There was evening. There was morning- the first day.
Still according to plan. Day after day of creation unfolds, and with each divine utterance, God breathes life into every corner of the universe, before finally, creating human beings.
The hard work, or so God may have imagined, was over.
Labor was complete
Vayishbot b’yom hash’vii mikol m’lachto asher asah.
— time to rest and enjoy the fruits of God’s creation.
As anyone who has ever parented might suspect, the hard work was just beginning.
Hayom Harat Olam— today is the birthday of the world.
And like the parent who celebrates their children’s birthday with the mixed emotions of pride and sentimentality, longing and a touch of sadness— I imagine God looking around at God’s creations— and in this year in particular, feeling a belated sense of post-partum depression.
This is what I created human beings for? For this I breathed pure and sacred breath into you?
On this day meant to celebrate the spectacular beauty of Divine creativity, it’s hard not to look around and feel a bit dejected.
Friends, it’s been a tough year.
We have had our personal tribulations and challenges.
This past year brought it’s fair share of loss and longing, diagnoses and death for us, our loved ones, and the Berkshire community.
We’ve struggled as a local community with acts of carelessness and irresponsibility, as well as desecration and disrespect.
But it would be impossible for me to stand before you tonight on this eve of a new year, without naming what feels like the elephant in the room, no pun intended.
Our country and our world are a mess.
The litany of tragedy has been unrelenting.
A gun epidemic.
A refugee crisis.
The Zika Virus.
He who shall not be named.
I could go on…
An article appeared in Slate magazine this summer posing the question “Is 2016 the worst year in history?” It’s author, Rebecca Onion asks:
Have terrifying events truly piled up on each other in 2016, in a way they didn’t in any other year in human history? Or is it impossible to judge the awfulness of a year while it’s still unfolding? Do we just notice negative happenings more these days because of our high levels of connectivity? And what does “worst year” even mean—“worst year” for Americans, for humanity, for the planet?
Is 2016 the worst year in history?
Also in the running, according to this particular article is 1348, which was the height of the Black Death. Or 1919, which saw the seeds for WWII planted on top of an influenza epidemic that killed 50 million people. 1943, is also a contender, a year during which the height of human evil played out in concentration camps across Europe even as fascism tightened it’s grip on Russia. The truth is, we can’t really know, nor do I hope for any further catastrophe to help us answer in the affirmative.
As Edgar in Shakespeares’ King Lear puts it, “And worse I may be yet. The worst is not, so long as we can say ‘This is the worst.'”
The thing is that, that after those superlatively terrible years, another year— a new season, did come. 1349, 1920, 1944—- the calendar pages did eventually turn.
This is precisely when I find great comfort and hope in living my life between two calendars.
5777 is here.
We have the chance to decide to start anew. We can get a leg up on changing the tide of civil discourse. We get a head start on closing the book on this season of vitriol and violence, and can literally, turn.
A year, after all, is a finite amount of time.
One of my favorite writers, Zora Neale Hurston, famously wrote in “Their Eyes Were Watching God”,
There are years that ask questions, and years that answer.
How will we answer the questions raised by the past year?
How can we work together towards answers that unite and fortify, rather than divide and denigrate?
These questions and their answers could easily overwhelm us.
The noise and clatter of our broken and breaking world is enough to make us want to cover our ears and close our eyes. But we can’t. The stakes are too high, and the world needs us. The world needs people of conscience to speak and to act. The world needs me, and the world needs you.
As we turn to 5777, with desperate hope— I know that it feels hard to imagine “answers” to the questions posed by our complicated world.
The year has raised questions that shake the firmament of our most dearly held beliefs—- is this a country where the truths held to be self-evident are true? When evil emerges in our midst, is love enough to save and heal?
This is a year that has juxtaposed certainty with utter uncertainty— and many of us feel paralyzed, sitting in that tension.
Humankind has struggled with these same fears and worries throughout history. The struggle to respond to a broken world resonates throughout our HHD liturgy, and echoes particularly in the awe-filled words of the Unataneh tokef.
The structure of the prayer itself is one of questions and answers, and the stakes are as high as they come:
Who will live and who will die?
Who will be tranquil and who will be troubled?
Who will be calm and who tormented?
Who will be humbled? Who exalted?
These questions get us right in the kishkes. There are no questions more pressing than these— (who lives? Who dies? Who gets to continue telling their story?)
How do we answer these life and death questions? Not by denying their impact, but by acknowledging how we might be able to face them.
The rabbis offer this response:
Teshuvah, Tefillah, Tzedakah ma’avirin et roa hag’zeira.
Three things we can do, to disrupt the patterns of negativity that have gained momentum in this past year.
First, Teshuvah— turning and seeking to become one’s truest self. More than ever, the world needs each of us to give a little more. Our world needs us to be more honest, and more brave than we have ever been before. Teshuvah is not simply about repentance. Teshuvah is the fundamental belief that we are capable of fixing what is broken.
Tefillah— understood simply as prayer, tefillah is also about being alive and open to the Divine presence in our lives.
In a year where the first instinct many people have after the latest tragedy is to go on social media and offer their “thoughts and prayers”, I have been thinking a lot about the power and place of prayer. How can we make our prayer subversive— a force for change? I believe that Tefillah, or prayer, is what gives us the emotional, moral and spiritual sustenance we need in order to do the external work of healing our world.
Lastly, Tzedakah. Out of the foundational belief that the community of Israel is intended to be rodfei tzedek—pursuers of justice, it seems clear that our world needs us more than ever to answer that call. Tzedakah means knowing that we are all in this together, flesh and blood- with our fates intertwined. Tzedakah requires us to engage in the work of repair— getting our hands and our hearts dirty with the hard work of breaking down systems of inequality, protecting the stranger- the orphan and the widow.
U’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah: these acts will “ma’avirin et ro’a ha’gezerah”— change the Divine decree.
The answers are not simple salves— prescriptions to cure all that ails us as individuals and as a society. Changing the divine decree won’t reverse the effects of years of institutionalized racism, or stem the tide of the refugee crisis, or guarantee that our country elects a capable president. But it can help us move through that uncertainty. Remembering that litany of trouble and tragedy that we have seen unfold in this past year, it does seem that the world could teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah, now more than ever.
I want to invite you back to my original image— of God, like a parent on their childrens’ birthday, except instead of celebration and sweetness, God is worried. God is worried for her children and the state of the world. And yet, rather than wringing her hands and shreiing gevalt, God is looking hopefully to humanity— to all of us. Perhaps this birthday is just the jolt we need to remember our potential.
There is a rabbinic tradition, which relates that Rosh Hashanah is not really the birth of the world— but rather, the beginning of humanity. On Rosh Hashanah, the first human being lived out the entire span of existence in just one day. There is a beautiful midrash which imagines that day, hour by hour.
In the first hour, God decided to create humanity; in the second, God consulted with the angels concerning the creation of human beings; and in the third hour, God gathered earth from which humanity was fashioned. In the fourth and fifth hours “God kneaded the dust and jointed the parts” and in the sixth, seventh and eighth hours God stood the first human beings up, breathed life into them, and placed them in the garden. What happened in the final hours of that first day? God commanded them not to eat from the tree of life, watched as they did anyway, and then passed judgment on them in the eleventh hour. Finally in the twelfth hour, the Midrash says, God forgave their trespass and Adam and Even went “forth from the Holy One’s presence free.”
In other words, birth, formation, rebellion, judgment, repentance and redemption, all of life’s transformational moments, took place on Rosh Hashanah. Imagine if we thought about our lives in this way— seeing the infinite potential in each hour, each day, each year. It’s all a part of the package— the highest highs, the lowest lows, and everything in between. God doesn’t give us the capacity for perfection, God gives us the capacity to change—to go from rebellion and judgment, to repentance and redemption. Teshuvah, in this light, is not a “once and for all!” kind of accomplishment. It’s an ability to evolve, to constantly become.
There are, indeed, years that ask questions and years that answer. Zora Neale Hurston was right. This quote has always been a personal favorite of mine— and I think it’s all because of that innocent little comma that separates the two halves of the sentence. It has framed some of the most important times in my life. It has felt relevant when I made decisions that I was 110% sure of *(marrying Josh, becoming a rabbi), and it has felt resonant when I felt most lost— most unsure of my next steps.
There are years that ask questions. Those are years of uncertainty.
There are years that answer. Those are the years of certainty and surety, which at their best, lead to new and energizing questions.
We are living in that comma right now— that punctuation mark between questions and answers. That comma is sacred space, not unlike the Days of Awe themselves— an interruption, a note that reminds us to pause in that space between the questions and answers. In the days ahead, I pray that each of us will find our way into that sacred space, finding certainty where we can, and breathing holiness into the uncertain places
 Rabbi Mark Greenspan, Rosh Hashanah Readings: Inspiration, Information, Contemplation. ed. by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins