Echad: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5780

Chaim Yankl needed a new pair of pants. So he bought some of the finest material he could find and brought it to a tailor. He came back after a week, and the pants weren’t ready yet. After two weeks, still not ready. Three weeks, four weeks, five. Chaim Yankl was starting to get impatient. Finally after six weeks his new pants were ready. He tried them on, and they were perfect. They fit perfectly; they felt amazing; every seam and every cuff was impeccable.

Chaim Yankl thanked the tailor and paid, but as he was leaving he had to stop and ask: “You know,” he said, “ it only took God six days to make the whole world. But you it took six weeks to make just one pair of pants.”

The tailor looked at him , shrugged his shoulders, and said, “Yeah, but look at these pants, and look at this world!”
Unfortunately, Chaim Yankl’s tailor has a point. Unlike a pair of pants that can be crafted to perfect specifications, our world is a little less than perfect. Hunger. Homelessness. War. The Syrian refugee crisis, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, global warming. There are a few things wrong around here.

On Rosh Hashanah, when we come together to celebrate Harat Olam –the day of the world’s birth we have to acknowledge that this world that we are celebrating can sometimes be a confusing and even painful place to live.

One of Judaism’s central messages about the world is that it is broken. We talk all the time about Tikkun Olam – the mitzvah of repairing the world.  That idea has crept into our Jewish consciousness. And that’s a good thing: Tikkun Olam is a very empowering concept, because it teaches us that we CAN make a difference with little things that we do.

But the downside to all of our talk about Tikkun Olam, about repair, is the focus on brokenness. If you spend all your time living in a broken world, then it becomes easy to turn that thinking on yourself. To feel like the problems are too big, too insurmountable. There’s just too much to do. And so we worry a lot. We worry about sickness; we worry about loss. We worry about our world’s wellbeing and about our own health. We worry about our day-to-day responsibilities – about work and career and money. We worry about our future, and about our children’s future. It’s enough to make any resident of this old, broken world feel a little broken themselves.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, the famous Hasidic Rebbe, is said to have spent portions of his life in deep sadness and overwhelm. He would withdraw from his students and his loved ones. He would perseverate on all that was wrong around him and all that was wrong within him. It may have been what prompted one of his most famous quotes:

כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאוד
All the world is a very narrow bridge.
והעיקר לא לפחד כלל
The most important thing is not to be afraid.

Many of us can relate to that experience – of feeling regularly overwhelmed. Of feeling anxious. Feeling like no matter how hard you try, you’re just not getting to enough. You’re just not fixing enough. You yourself are just not enough.

Do you ever wake up in the morning or in the middle of the night with a sense that something is wrong, or there something you’ve forgotten? And then you search your mind trying to figure out what it is, and of course you find 10 things that are wrong. Some little, some big. Some personal, some global.

And that’s how we start so many of our days – with a list of what we have to fix in order to set things right.

But here’s the thing. Something is always going to be wrong, because we live in an imperfect world. If we start our day looking for what’s broken around us and what’s broken inside us, you can rest assured we’ll find it.  And that means we have to find a different way to start our day.

As much as we value Tikkun Olam, we can’t fix our sense of brokenness by trying to fix everything around us. We just can’t wait for the world to feel whole in order to feel whole inside. We need to look elsewhere.

Judaism has understood for a very long time the sense of brokenness that people sometimes carry through the world. And it offers us another idea to carry with us. An idea that is built around wholeness:

Shema Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad.
Hear, O Israel, the Eternal our God is one.

The Shema is not a prayer. It comes from the Torah, from a moment of deep uncertainty. Our people are about to cross over into the Promised Land after 40 years of wandering. They are also about to lose their leader, since Moses is dying.  They must have been excited, but they must have also been worried, and afraid of what they would encounter there. So Moses says to them: Shema Yisrael – listen up, people of Israel, don’t forget that Adonai echad. Don’t forget that God is one.

This is Judaism’s most central teaching. Through it all – through all the pain and anxiety and brokenness in our world, our tradition continues to insist that there is a oneness, a unity, that underlies all things. A oneness in our universe; a oneness in humanity; and a oneness even within ourselves. Learning to recognize that oneness may just be one of the most important and transformational things we can do for ourselves and for our world.


Part 1: Oneness in the universe.

Tomorrow morning we will read from the Torah’s account of creation. It says:
וַיִּיצֶר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה
The Eternal God formed the first human being out of the dust of the earth.

This is one of the first things Judaism tells us about being human – that we come from the earth. But mostly we don’t listen to it. In fact, it has been our tendency as humans to separate ourselves from the world. To divide between natural and artificial, between indoors and outdoors. It is human nature to want to explore, conquer, and problem solve. So naturally we have looked upon our world as something to be explored, and conquered, and problem solved. With our smartphones, our electric lights, our rapid transit and our air conditioned homes, we have built an artificial world and cordoned ourselves off from the natural one.

I realized this last summer at Camp George when I lay on the dock at night and looked up at the stars. I was blown away by the sheer enormity and beauty of it all. I thought to myself: I’d like to see the stars every night. Which is when I realized that most of my ancestors throughout history did see the stars every night. It’s just me, as a 21st century city dweller, who rarely gets the chance.

There is something we’ve lost or forgotten – something about who we are and where we come from. And it’s bad for our planet, as we can see around us. And it’s bad for us also. It can’t possibly be good for us never to see the stars. It can’t possibly be good for us to spend our lives surrounded by air-conditioning and plastic Tupperware rather than by trees and birds and soil. We are like a child who has forgotten its origins.. No wonder we feel disconnected. No wonder we feel a little broken.

If we want to begin to repair that sense of disconnect, it won’t be by fixing everything in the world. It will be by developing a sense of awe for the world.

Dr. Daniel Matt writes in his book God and the Big Bang, that we human beings are “literally made of stardust.” Using good Biblical language, he says: “In the beginning was the big bang. The primordial vacuum… was pregnant with potential, teeming with virtual particles…. [As it expanded and cooled,] stable atoms of hydrogen and helium [began to form], which billions of years later would grow into galaxies and stars….. [When a star dies,] it explodes, forging heavier elements: copper, silver, tin, mercury, lead… which recycle themselves into new stellar systems” – stars, planets, the life that may form on those planets. We are made of stardust.

Judaism teaches something similar when it says that human beings are made from afar min ha-adamah – from the dust of the earth. It is a reminder, that the world isn’t just someplace we live, someplace to fix – it is something that we are part of.  A vast oneness that is the ground of our very existence.

So maybe that’s what we mean when we declare Adonai Echad – when we declare that God is one. Maybe we mean that everything that exists is part of an unfathomably enormous and beautiful and Godly oneness, and that despite the very real problems that surround us, we stand in awe – in sheer, inexplicable awe – of this thing that we are part of.  Call it God; call it the multiverse; call it the mystery of creation.

Shema Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad.
Hear O Israel: this holiness that surround us, this universe is One.

This gives us a whole different way to understand the world. If everything is one, it means recognizing the interconnectedness of all things – that my actions here can have an effect on a neighbour across town or an ecosystem across the globe.

If everything is one, it means recognizing our own smallness. Knowing that we are only one incarnation of existence in a tiny corner of a universe that we barely understand.

If everything is one, it means affirming that there is a spark of the divine in everything and everyone. That all things have holiness, that all people are a part of God.


Part 2: Oneness in humanity

When the Rabbis of the Talmud read about Creation, they have a question: Why did God begin the world by creating only one human being, only Adam? And they answer: God created only one human being, so that no one might say to anyone else, “My ancestors were better than yours.”

The message of Torah is that we human beings share a common ancestry and a common destiny. Not unlike the universe, whose elements are intimately connected to one another, so is the wellbeing of a single human tied to the wellbeing of humanity.

And to illustrate that deep, important philosophical concept, here’s another joke:

Doctor Jacobs finished his examination and informed Herman that he was in perfect health. Herman moaned, “But doctor, what about the headaches I’ve been having?”
Dr Jacobs brushed it off, “Herman, I’m not at all worried about your headaches.”
To which Herman said, “Doctor, if you had my headaches, I wouldn’t worry about them either.”

The lesson of echad – the lesson of oneness – is that there is no such thing as “somebody else’s headaches.” We are all responsible for each other. And what’s more, our lives are infinitely richer when we build relationships with one another.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner expresses this idea most beautifully in his book. Honey from the Rock.  He writes:

There must have been a time when you entered a room and met someone and after a while you understood that there was a reason you had met. You had changed the other and he [or she] had changed you. And [then] it was over.

Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Souls going this way and that.
Trying to assemble the myriad parts.

But no one has within themselves
All the pieces to their puzzle.
Everyone carries with them at least one and probably
Many pieces to someone else’s puzzle.
Sometimes they know it.
Sometimes they don’t.

And when you present your piece
To another, whether you know it or not,
Whether they know it or not,
You are a messenger from the Most High.

(Kushner 1977, 69-70).

Part of being human is that we need each other. We are meant to live in relationship. And when our world feels broken, and when we feel exhausted, we can remember that we are stronger and healthier when we build holy communities around ourselves. When we learn from each other, despite our differences. When we recognize the oneness of us all.

Shema Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad.
Hear O Israel: this mass of humanity, this global community is One.

This is a particularly important teaching for us at this moment in our congregational life, because we are working toward being one. Over the course of this past year, we have begun the project of uniting our two communities. We have brought together two leadership groups, united two Hebrew schools. We have combined two sets of High Holy Day services into one.

It’s been a very exciting time, and a time of a lot of change and some anxiety. Some of us in this room are facing a new day of the week for Hebrew school; others an unfamiliar location for High Holy Day services; new leadership, new melodies, new faces in the room when we gather.

It’s natural to be anxious when there are big changes in something as important as our synagogue. And here again the lesson of Echad – the lesson of oneness – is that we are better equipped to solve our problems and to manage our anxieties when we focus on knowing one another, on the connections between us.

Rabbi Ron Wolfson writes that that’s what it means to be a synagogue:

The goal of Jewish institutions is not self-preservation; it is to engage Jews with Judaism. It’s about people. It’s about deep relationships.

(Wolfson, Ron. Relational Judaism. Jewish Lights. Woodstock, Vermont; 2013. p. 22.)

Things like days of the week, melodies and locations, are important, because we find comfort in the familiar. But we are really here to engage with one another. We are here to offer of ourselves to each other, and to form connections that will strengthen and nurture us. I want to encourage us, whenever we are together in a space like this, to reach out to people we don’t know. To welcome one another – whether you’ve been a member here for 25 years or 25 minutes. To think of ourselves has builders of the community.

This community needs every one of us. Just as we are, with our strengths and our weaknesses, our talents and our flaws. We don’t have to be perfect to lend our wholeness to this wholeness. That’s actually one of the most important messages of the High Holy Days.


Which brings me to part 3: Oneness within the self.

The Hasidim tell that the great Rebbe Zusya once came before his followers trembling, with tears in his eyes.  And he told them that he had had a vision. He said, “I have learned the question – the terrible question – that the angels will ask me when I enter the next world.”
“What is it?” his students wanted to know. “What could make our Rebbe tremble so?”
Zusya sighed. He said, “When I enter the next world, the angels will not ask me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you more like Moses?’ They will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you more like Maimonides or Rabbi Akiba. Rather, they will ask me: ‘Zusya, why weren’t you more like Zusya?'”
This is the project of the High Holy Days: to ask ourselves hard questions about what we believe, what we value, and how we live. And to begin to attune our actions to our values – to make them one.

But there is a step that we often miss in there, when we’re so busy criticizing ourselves and pushing ourselves to do better. The step that we miss is to recognize the deep goodness of the selves that we already are. The deep goodness of our values, of our intentions, of our efforts.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlavm who struggled so deeply with sadness, said: “You should make every effort to pray with sincerity. But if you cannot, even the effort is precious in God’s eyes.”

Even the effort is precious. First you have to know that. Before you can fix the world. Before you can repair what’s broken. Before you can go out love your neighbour as yourself, first – first and foremost – you have to love yourself.

That’s the challenge, and that’s task of these days.  To see ourselves through God’s eyes. To see our own goodness. And even as we recognize our own imperfections, to recognize the holiness, the wholeness of the selves that we already are.

Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad.
Hear O Israel: this struggling self, this broken, imperfect person is one.

These words are from Dan Nichols, based on the morning service:

I thank you for my life, body and soul.
Help me to realize I am beautiful and whole.
I’m perfect the way I am, and a little broken too.
And I will live each day as a gift I give to you.

Our awareness of oneness doesn’t mean that we don’t still feel broken sometimes. Rather, it is a prerequisite for Tikkun – for the process of repair.

When we recognize the oneness of all things, we will be called to protect the world and everything living in it.

When we recognize the oneness of all things, we will be called to see the invisible lines of connection between people who are different from one another.

When we recognize the oneness of all things, we will be called to love our family and friends with a love so deep and so fierce that it can only reflect the knowledge that they are a part of us.

When we recognize the oneness of all things, we will be called to think and act in ways that reflect our whole selves. To find that both the goodness and the brokenness are part of the whole, part of the holy.

Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad.

May we remember, even in those moments when we feel most broken, that are whole, that we are extraordinary, that we are a part of God’s oneness.

And may that knowledge help us enter the new year with a sense of optimism, a sense of empowerment, a sense that we can accomplish anything we put our minds to.


4 thoughts on “Echad: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5780

  1. Now it feels like Rosh Hashana! Thank you, Rabbi Micah for your words of wisdom and kindness. May it be  a sweet year of love and light and laughter for you and your family .Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

  2. Thank you for continuing to share your sermons with me. I shared this one with Eli, all four kids and a colleague from work. A wonderful post with many important thoughts, affirmations and messages. Chag Sameach. Be well, and Shannah Tova, Love Miriam


  3. Thank you Rabbi. This message’s touched and moved me. Your reflections seem to be always so profound and transformational. You’re a true teacher. Shana Tova U’metuka

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