D'var l'Yom ha'Kippurim 5775
© 2014 S.H. Parker
Gut shabbos. Gut yontiff.
Ben Zoma taught: "Who is rich? He who is happy with what he has." (Avot 4:1)
Torah speaks of six major phases of creation. There are droshim that point out that three of these phases, "days," pertain to the corporeal world. Three pertain to the heavens. To make seven, an ancient symbol of completeness, the final phase of creation is Shabbat, the bridge between the corporeal and the heavenly.
Many Rabbis are quite happy to use this observation to argue that, therefore, Shabbat is the highest good.
But, my thoughts rarely run along traditional lines.
If we look carefully at the things created on each "day," we notice that the order of the things created represents a clear evolution. Starting with the less complex, the less ordered, the less "good," creation progresses in complexity, order and "goodness" from one thing created to the next.
Humankind is the last thing created before Shabbat. Therefore, humankind is, on the Torah's view, the highest expression of creation.
Humankind's special place in the "order of things" is clearly expressed when Torah tells us of the human that God breathed into the human's nostrils and the human became a speaking being. Only of the human are we taught of the Master of the Universe's special interest.
Humans quickly took their special status seriously, developing an over-inflated sense of their centrality in, not simply terrestrial creation, but the entire universe. Not all that much later, mankind again decides it knows best and has to be wiped out in the first major deep tunnel backup.
The human became boundlessly arrogant, starting to build a staircase to allow them to approach heaven itself. The ziggurat of Babel. God has to confound humans' language and disperse them across the world.
But we didn't learn, not really. At least not for long.
Then God is faced with a human who would negotiate with God over the inhospitable folks of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Later still, God calls on a human to be a messenger to Pharaoh in Egypt. And, this ... cheeky fellow responds with "no, no thanks" not once but five times.
Humankind did not start out arrogant. Humankind started out stupid. Perhaps "ignorant" is more accurate. On the literalists' understand of a first man and a first woman, they were created physically adult. They were created speaking. But they had no experience of any kind and therefore no knowledge of any kind. They were, in fact, totally ignorant. Not for long, however.
But I do not see any evidence in history that humankind has progressed beyond the arrogance of the builders of the tower. We still think that we are not only the supreme expression of evolution but that, because we are, whatever we do is good. And because we think that whatever we do is "good," God should so acknowledge.
Traditional Rabbinic practices, though I am quite convinced most Rabbis do not realize it, are actually quite subversive. Indeed, I have stressed Torah's inherently subversive nature on a number of occasions.
My own teachers, Rabbi Gedalyah Engel (of Blessed Memory) and Rabbi Joseph Radinsky (of Blessed Memory), taught me that the very essence of our ritual calendar, our holy days, come to teach us to be humble if even only in our own eyes (perhaps especially in our own eyes). And, to be if not humble, at least a little less full of ourselves.
The central idea is that each of our holy days requires we give up something.
Shabbat: We give up earning a living. Additionally, the Rabbis divide "work" into two types: creative work and destructive work. On Shabbat, we also give up all creative work, actions designed to change the world.
Rosh ha"Shannah: Rosh ha"Shannah is just like Shabbat. On Rosh ha"Shannah, we abstain from creative work.
On Shabbat and on Rosh ha"Shannah, we cease manipulating the world. And miracle of miracles! the world survives. The world survives without us.
Succot: On Succot we give up solid walls and roofs. We give up not only creative work, as on Shabbat, but established dwellings.
And again, the world survives and goes on without us. And not only does the world survive without our ministrations, so do we.
Pesach: For Pesach, we give up work and bread.
Once again both the world and we survive.
Shavuot: Here, we give up work and meat.
And guess what? The world survives without us ... and more importantly so do we.
Our sacred times come to teach us that while we are each important, the world can survive without our manipulations and meddling. Kal va'chomer, our sacred times come to teach us that we, too, can do without playing around with the world, we also can survive without walls and bread and meat ... but not all at once. We can survive without these things.
Just in case we have forgotten or have never learned, once a year, we are asked to give up everything. Everything.
On Yom ha"Kippurim we cease both creative work and destructive work, we abstain from food, from every interaction with the material world, from everything. In short, we withdraw from the world to the degree that this is humanly possible.
For a little more than one complete day - one entire phase of creation - we withdraw from the world. It is as if we had not been created.
And the world survives without us.
And so do we.
Ben Zoma taught: "Who is rich? He who is happy with what he has."