Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Creation vs Evolution -- REALLY?

Thirty years ago, Dr. Frings, my zoology professor was notorious for his introduction to evolution. He brought his Bible to class, thumped it loudly, and proclaimed: “I am not an atheist!”

Yes, he accepted the theory of evolution, but felt it necessary to proclaim that he still believed in God. Yes, we could learn about evolution and still believe in God the Creator.
And yes, how sad that he needed to make such a proclamation before he started teaching an important subject.

Worst of all, Divine Creation is seen as pitted against evolutionary theory. AS IF the holiest writings in existence should be treated as a mere science textbook. AS IF God would be pleased at the rancor that surrounds His greatest achievement…

AS IF one could look at Creation as anything but divine – yet ignore the deep secrets embedded in that story.

This brings me to a question by one of our Hebrew students: If God created the sun and moon on the fourth day, how could they tell time for the first three days?

The text itself is pretty clear. We first have to understand the meaning of the Hebrew word “yom,” usually translated as “day.”
In psalm 90, we read

כִּי אֶלֶף שָׁנִים בְּעֵינֶיךָ כְּיוֹם אֶתְמוֹל כִּי יַעֲבֹר וְאַשְׁמוּרָה בַלָּיְלָה:

“A thousand years in Your eyes are as a passing day, it passes in a watch in the night.”

The word “yom” – Hebrew for day – also means an indeterminate amount of time. It could mean a year, a thousand years, a million years. The Bible itself tells us that.

We understand time in our own terms: 24 hours = a day, seven days in a week, 365 days in a year.

The Master of the World is Eternal! Why would we expect Him to work in 24 hour increments of time?

Further, why would He was time in the Creation story to even bother informing us that on the fourth “day,” He made it possible to tell time. But that’s exactly what He does:

Here’s the first day: 1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And a wind from God moved upon the face of the waters.
3. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light. 4. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. 5. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.

We have light, we even have evening and morning, but we have no hint of the ability to tell time.

When Hashem actually began creating, it was so deep, so embedded in Divine mystery, it actually takes a lot of chutzpah to think we could understand this process easily and simply!

Also note, the Torah does not call “day one” the “first” day. The Hebrew is “yom echad.” “Echad” does not simply translate as one, and definitely not as first – there literally was not a “first” day. It was: A day -- a unique day, one that stands alone – a day in which all things are united.

We see that day one isn’t numbered like the rest of the days; it could be 24 hours or a million years. We also see that light is created – but this is a spiritual light. We still have no clue about telling time at all.

Now, let’s look at the fourth day: 1 God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years; 15. And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth; and it was so. 16. And God made two great lights; the large light to rule the day, and the small light to rule the night; and he made the stars.

This is our FIRST hint of time as we know it.

The text itself lets us know that Creation is much deeper … mysterious … than we see from a superficial reading that merely takes the days in order.

Do I believe that God COULD HAVE done this in 6 days and then rested?

I believe that God can do anything He wants!

However, our tradition has much to say about the mysteries of Creation.

There are midrashim that God created and destroyed worlds before He got around to the one that we know.

It sounds fantastic, but then we wonder: Ice age? Age of dinosaurs? Worlds we only see in museums, science books, and tv documentaries?

The Talmud itself (Chagigah 12a) says “the first man extended from one end of the world to the other.”

Now, we usually picture Adam as a normal person. The sages of the Talmud did not. They looked at Creation as the ultimate mystery – and not something everyone was well-equipped to learn.

The Talmudic descriptions of Creation make it clear that they don’t see it as a mere retelling of: He did this on the first day, that on the second …. The rabbis saw Creation as complex and mysterious.

The mystical text, the Zohar, describes Creation as the expansion of an infinitesimal point. They practically describe the Big Bang! Just as the Talmud takes the Creation story to mysterious depths we cannot conceive, so does the mystical view of Creation.

Here’s another example of what the Creation story doe not teach … Exactly what kind of animals did He make in the early stages of Creation?

The text doesn’t give us a clue.

I do feel secure in saying that Boston terriers weren’t included in the animals created on the sixth day! But then, almost all modern dog breeds result from years of evolutionary changes – some natural, some induced by man… definitely a form of evolution.

I want to complete our look at Creation with the last “day”?

What was the last day” (Shabbat)

What did God do on that day? (rested)

But why did He rest? Isaiah said that God doesn’t grow tired or weary. Therefore the midrash (mechilta, bachodesh 7) asked: If he is not subject to tiredness, why does Torah say He rested on the seventh day? … To teach US that if He, who doesn’t need rest, did so on the seventh day, surely human beings … who do grow tired … need to rest on the seventh day!

We need rest. God doesn’t!

Really, it’s a scary thought, God Himself resting! We need Him 24/7!

This is all to say that it doesn’t matter whether we take the Creation story literally as a seven day saga – or a process that took place over billions of years …

The Creation story has so much to teach … especially that the Kadosh Baruch Hu IS the source of all life and everything that has ever come into being.

OF COURSE we don’t know the exact mechanisms behind Creation. However, no matter how we read the story – literally or through the eyes of evolution – we still come to God as Creator.

And THAT is the point of the Creation story. Whether you take it literally or expand it to include evolution, the main point remains the same: the Holy One is the Creator … the world is His …

We have just come from an intense – and exhausting – holiday cycle. If we learned ANYTHING, this should be it: It is our job to acknowledge His role and our duty to help Him make the world even better.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Dead Town -- a Yom Kippur sermon

The great Yiddish writer, I.L. Peretz, wrote a story called “The Dead Town.” As the title implies, it’s about a town in Poland where everyone really … is … dead…

I warn you, at first this story will seem preposterous … then tragic … then all too real.

In this story, our narrator meets a ragged, gaunt traveler and innocently asks: “where are you from?”

The traveler replies: “from a dead town.”

You can imagine, the narrator was … taken aback … and assumed the man was joking!

The traveler insisted, this was no joke … this was a real place, a town that was 100% Jewish. He then went on to explain that it was like any other place … really. They had a learned rabbi who corresponded with other rabbis across the world. They had businessmen, poor and rich people, and that they all lived respectfully, like everyone else.

The man from the dead town went on to describe their beautiful synagogue. Well, it used to be beautiful. There was little left of its former grandeur.

The whole town used to pray together there. As they grew and prospered, their unity faded.

• The tailors soon worshipped elsewhere.
• The rabbis and Talmud scholars stayed in the study hall for prayer.
• Soon other groups formed their own minyanim and found their own places to pray.

The town didn’t start in such disarray! It began with a group of ten men –who didn’t even have permission to build a town. Still, more and more people came. And they thrived … until the people decided it was time to stop bribing authorities and become established for real. They designated the richest and most well-connected man there to go and register everything in his name. Once that was settled, the rich man would sign everything back over to the town.

Wonderful, right? It was, until one of the group absconded with the money and papers and set in motion a dire sequence of events.

Even when the people learned that the town still had no official status -- no problem. They’d ask another one of their rich machers to go to the authorities.

That’s when things got bad. Now they had lots of rich men, and they feuded and fought over who’d get the honor of handling this.

The arguing got so bad, lawsuits abounded, and it looked as if they’d have to sell the cemetery.

Because of the legal ramifications, the bailiff went to check out the cemetery. When the dead heard he was there … and that their cemetery would be sold .. gravestones started to shake violently. Soon corpses were crawling all over the place.

The narrator expressed disbelief. Surely the soul departs from the body at death … corpses have no souls to give them life. They’re dead, how could they get out of their graves?

Here’s how the man from the dead town answered: (lower voice) “But what would you say about the man who has slept away his life, so that he was never really a man, his life was not a life… No one in our town ever really died because no one in our town ever lived …”

No one in our town ever lived…

And so, the dead all went back to their homes as if nothing had happened!

The narrator wondered: No one noticed that dead people had gone back home?

The answer: They were too busy arguing to notice, that’s all they had room in their heads for …

“Before long the dead took over… Who leads the prayers in our synagogue? A corpse! He’s perfectly well-versed though he looks dead and sounds dead …Our most prominent citizens are dead men, every one of them … And me? I’m only half-dead, he said before disappearing into the trees.”

The Dead Town… quite a story..

You see, there is a major difference between mere physical life and a life that is enriched by the soul. How do we know this?

From Creation! That’s the basis of everything. Genesis 2:7: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”

We breathe simply because God gave us His own breath. He implanted a soul within each of us.

That soul is what makes us human … with it, we are fully alive.

To ignore that great gift is to diminish our humanity …

The people in the dead town let their anger – their yetzer harah – impulse to selfishness and evil … overtake their good natures and diminish … destroy … their souls.

Yet, we see from the Creation story, our souls are the very reason for our existence…

Note that when the traveler spoke about all the feuding in town, he didn’t give reasons. That’s just what they did … they forgot there were other ways to live.
As we know, habits – good ones or dangerous -- can become ingrained and … eventually … become a way of life.

Such was the case with the dead town.

At first, I didn’t think about the town’s name … or rather, it’s lack. It didn’t even gave a specific location. When asked, the traveler merely said: “You won’t find the place I’m speaking of listed anywhere… Why bother with geography when any coachman can take you there?”
Yes, it’s puzzling … is it a real place or not? If it’s not on a map, how can coachmen get people there? Are the coachmen real or is their job to ferry malach ha’mavet, the angel of death?

… The answer, of course, is simple. Peretz described the human condition as he saw it.

For Peretz, the dead town could be any town.

Now for the most jarring thought … could it be .. us?

Of course … at worst … this doesn’t describe us to the extent that Peretz described “the dead town.”

On the other hand … aren’t there times when all of us sleep through life?

The answer depends on what we consider to be real living.

Dr. Abraham Twerski, in his book Happiness and the Human Spirit, opines that many of us suffer from a disorder that does prevent us from living fully.

The name of the disorder? Spiritual Defiency Syndrome. Twerski states that we often lack the essential nutrients needed to live fully … to be happy.
Twerski warns us that contentment is not the same as happiness, nor is the pursuit of fun the same as the pursuit of happiness.

Contentment and fun-seeking can both lead to a superficial outlook and emotional and spiritual dead-ends. You see, to overcome Spiritual Defiency Syndrome, we must do our best to live up to our full potential.

A cartoon strip, “Close to Home,” illustrates the pitfalls of doing all the “right” things, but giving little thought to how we prioritize our time –
• how we spend it,
• with whom we spend it,
• and finally, do we share with others, or are we locked into narcissism?

In the cartoon, a long line of people are waiting to get into heaven. They’re met by a man garbed in white checking his computer.

The entrance guard says to the first man in line: “ … Commuting to work, 22,321 days of your life; shaving, 979 days; mowing the lawn, 11,271 days; waiting for your wife to get ready to go out, 9,644 days; standing in line, 13,101 days …”

This is NOT and indictment of shaving, mowing the lawn, or waiting for your wife.

However, when the man was shown the sum total of his life, there was a lot of time spent on meaningless activity. There was no joy, no time spent in relationship, nothing to even indicate whether he was a good person or bad or something in between.
In short, our man waiting at the heavenly gate sounded like a citizen of the dead city – and like a man suffering Spiritual Defiency Syndrome.

In Torah, the Kadosh Baruch Hu admonishes us to choose life, not death. This isn’t a choice between physical life and death.

God doesn’t want us to live in the dead town.

He doesn’t want us to deaden our souls.

Hashem wants us to understand that we always have room to grow. Once we stop growing, we are liable to become spiritually dead.

Mind you, this is no easy task.

For instance, Rabbi –Dr.--Twerski described a visit to a young woman suffering from a debilitating form of multiple sclerosis. She had rapidly lost all motor function and was blind. She needed assistance for the simplest of tasks. She asked Twerski: “Rabbi, why am I alive? What purpose is there in my existence?”
The woman in her misery was surely tempted to give up and live in the dead town.

The rabbi told her a Talmudic story about Rabbi Eliezer: Rabbi Eliezer became seriously ill. Naturally, his students visited him. Each one of them thanked the rabbi for his glorious teaching and praised him highly. Yet Rabbi Eliezer didn’t respond to any of them.

Then Rabbi Akiva walked in and said: suffering, too, can be precious.

Rabbi Eliezer asked for help sitting up so that he could better hear Rabbi Akiva.

What did Rabbi Akiva do that merited such a response?

He knew that his revered teacher had no desire to rest on past achievements. Rabbi Twerski explained that: “self-fulfillment is dependent on our capacities at any given point in time. If we can do little, but we can do it wholly, we have a better chance at happiness than the person who can do much, but instead, does little.”

That’s important and so very wise. Let me repeat it: “self-fulfillment is dependent on our capacities at any given point in time. If we can do little, but we can do it wholly, we have a better chance at happiness than the person who can do much, but instead, does little.”

When Dr. Twerski told the story to the young woman with multiple sclerosis, she was still disabled and suffering, but realized she could still do something, add meaning to her life.

We can all add meaning to our lives. Growth is a constant process. It should happen during our good times, and by the same token, this should happen even when we suffer.

It comes down to our choices … and the attitudes we choose.

It also means we don’t seek perfection. Growth is attainable, perfection is not. Such a pursuit is bound to fail and leave us more at a loss than ever.

We must work to overcome Spiritual Defiency Syndrome. After all, God commands in Deuteronomy 30: 16For I command you this day, to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His laws, and His rules, that you may live… 19…: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—”
Choose life! Don’t let yourself become a citizen of the dead town…

Gmar chatimah tovah … may you be written and sealed for good in the book of life.

Who by Fire? A Yom Kippur sermon

Who by Fire?

One of our most beautiful, important – and troubling – prayers comes during Musaf: Unataneh Tokef.

Why do I say it’s troubling?

In this prayer, we admit to the Holy One that TODAY WE STAND BEFORE HIM FOR JUDGMENT.

I ask you, is ANYONE comfortable being judged … ever? Let alone when it’s by the One who
• sees our hearts,
• hears our every word
• sees our every deed?

Unatanah Tokef declares that on THIS DAY … on Yom Kippur … God seals our fate for the year … When God decides, who shall live … and who shall die.

How can we read this and NOT tremble?

The singer Leonard Cohen has a modern midrash on Unatanah Tokef in his haunting song, “Who by Fire”:
“And who by fire, who by water,
who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
who in your merry merry month of may,
who by very slow decay,
and who shall I say is calling?
And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
and who by avalanche, who by powder,
who for his greed, who for his hunger,
and who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent, who by accident,
who in solitude, who in this mirror,
who by his lady's command, who by his own hand,
who in mortal chains, who in power,
and who shall I say is calling?”

Let’s examine some of the questions Cohen raises:

• “Who by very slow decay” … who of us sat by as our own lives gradually lost meaning … Last night, I talked about Peretz’s dead town … Have we been slipping into such a numbing world because we stopped paying attention to our lives?

• “Who by greed” … when simple desires and needs pass into the realm of greed and avarice, we set in motion a chain that cannot lead to real happiness or inner peace. If we don’t see that we’re operating from greed, we just want more and more … we’re never satisfied. Where does that bring us? Probably not to death. But it will numb our souls.

• “Who by accident” – despite God’s omnipotence, there are random forces at work in the universe. Sometimes it’s nature – germs, virus, disease in general. Sometimes it’s because God gave humanity free choice, and some people chose evil. And sometimes, accidents happen because for just one split second … someone stopped paying attention.

Leonard Cohen’s song is an insightful midrash on one of our most solemn prayers.

Cohen ends his song with the question: “Who shall I say is calling?”

In Unatanah Tokef, we must ask ourselves the same question!

Who IS calling?

What is Hashem really telling us? If He finds too much fault with us today, DOES HE decree that will die in an earthquake on such and such a day?
Of course not.

IF that’s how the Almighty operates, Yom Kippur would be totally pointless. The Kadosh Baruch Hu would not steal our hope like that … nor would he take away our motives for teshuvah … for turning to Him…
Rather, Hashem in His infinite mercy gives us a way to find deeper meaning in our lives, to transcend our misfortunes, and to fully appreciate the blessings around us.

The Master of the World wants us to understand how much of our future we hold in our own hands.

On one hand, I firmly believe that the mysterious realms of life and death and birth are in God’s hands. Yes, there are mysteries we cannot penetrate, let alone control.

And yes, there are certainly forces … and people … in the world itself that we cannot control.

What we can control … is our attitude.

That’s why our own prayer ends by saying that repentance, prayer, tzedakah can alter the severity of the decree.

Surely these things – done with a full heart – will help the Almighty understand that WE want to do the right thing.

However, IF we see how much is in our hands, IF we don’t accept the theology of Divine reward and Punishment, this would SEEM to make God as Judge an unnecessary part of the process.

The exact opposite is true.

The Kadosh Baruch Hu does watch us. And He can see our lives … our hearts … our thoughts … more clearly than we can see them ourselves.

Hashem sees us directly.

We see ourselves through cloudy mirrors.

Our brains are wonderful; we can rationalize almost any behavior we want! We can even convince ourselves that we don’t … really … have to face … Him.

What DO we think of ourselves?

Looking at the extreme, do evil people think of themselves as evil?

Why would they? Even the most vile among us find ways to justify their actions. Timothy McVeigh, Osama Bin Laden, Adolf Hitler? They convinced themselves that they were doing the right thing! These are extreme examples, but they show that we cannot rely on ourselves to determine our merits.

Rather, we turn to God.

How do we know what He thinks of us?

We can’t … not for sure. All we can know is that He loves us and reaches to us with His infinite mercy.

OUR JOB is to do our best to follow His teachings. At the same time, we have to periodically ask ourselves hard questions about our own motives and behaviors.
WILL we always succeed?

Of course not. We’re human. Rabbi Abraham Twerski, in his book Happiness and the Human Condition, used the game of baseball to illustrate this aspect of the human condition by saying: “errors are part of the game!”

He quoted a former baseball commissioner, Francis Vincent, Jr., to make his point. Vincent said: “Baseball teaches us, or has taught most of us, to deal with failure…. We learn at a very early age that failure is the norm in baseball, and precisely because we have failed, we hold in high regard those who fail less often – those who hit safely in only one out of three chances and become star players. I also find it fascinating that baseball, alone in sport, considers errors to be part of the game, part of its rigorous growth.”

Think about this – a great baseball slugger hits the ball only a third of the time he’s at bat.

A pitcher might throw the ball a hundred or more times in a game. Do you think ever pitch is a strike?

Baseball players certainly try very hard not to make mistakes. They spend countless hours training to get it right.
But no one – not even the greatest baseball stars … gets it right all the time.

We WILL make mistakes.

We cannot let fear of mistakes prevent us from making decisions and living fully.
Therefore, we must cultivate humility … and understand that we’re not better than other people …

Once we acknowledge that yes … we do make mistakes … we can better empathize and reach out to others.

However, we’re now liable to fall into another trap. We can’t get so comfortable with error that we don’t try hard to improve!

That’s what today is about.

We know that we can’t help but make mistakes. But we also know that we must acknowledge them to ourselves and to our Creator.

We want so badly for Him to approve of us … to love us … to help us learn to love Him …

He is our Creator and is so awesome; as we recognize our human-ness – we realize that today … WE HAVE AN OPPORTUNITY TO DRAW CLOSER TO HIM THAN EVER.

Therefore, in great humility, we ask God: Who by fire? Who by water?
And we ask ourselves: who shall I say is calling?

Hashem is calling … He wants us to be close to Him … yes, He does judge us … as He should … because He wants us to grow in love toward Him.

How can we not tremble before Him … how can we pass up this opportunity … this day … to not partake of the mundane world but rather to proclaim, as did the ancient Psalmist (96):
“Declare his glory among the nations, his wonders among all the peoples... Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary… Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the people, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength…. O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth... Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea roar, and all that is in it… Let the field be joyful, and everything in it; then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy… Before the Lord; for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth; he shall judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with his faithfulness.”

Yes, He does come to judge … and not even with just equity but with righteousness, love, and compassion.

How can we not tremble before a Creator that treats us with love and compassion – One who guides us.

As the psalmist said: “O give thanks to the Lord; for he is good; for his loving kindness endures forever.”

May we take these words into our hearts and souls as we ask the Holy One to seal us for blessing in the Book of Life.