In this season of turning, the new year, Rosh Hashanah, and of repentance and renewal, Yom Kippur, I’m reminded of the story of the rabbi in Russia who had become disillusioned and despondent and in the middle of the night wandered aimlessly and inadvertently trespassed into a military zone.
A guard called out from the darkness, “Who are you? And what are you doing here.”
The rabbi was jolted out of despair, his spirit leaped and he responded strangely, “How much do you get paid?”
“That’s none of your affair,” was the natural response.
The rabbi said, “But I’ll double your salary if you will agree to ask me those two questions every day.”
Who are you? And what are you doing here…today?
May this hour help to remind you, and assist in turning away from despondency and give some new direction to your days.
At atomic bomb test in Alamogordo, July 16, 1945 Oppenheimer recalled two lines from Hindu Scripture, the Bhagavad Gita: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.” and “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
“What have we done?”
We light this chalice in respect for the light in all the religions of the world…Muslim, Christian, Jewish…
Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and Shinto
And for the light of scientific knowledge
And for the light that comes through in poetry and the visual arts, and the inspired light that radiates through music…
Let there be light!
In this time of turning, as the cycles of the year gradually move from the heat of summer to the cool of autumn we are reminded that we also have our seasons.
Gradually we move through the seasons, cycles and stages of our lives, accepting as we must that which is left behind, but never forgetting those who have passed on to the ultimate transformation which is beyond our human capacity to imagine.
May the memories of those loved ones – those who have loved love into us, those who were able to understand us and to forgive us our daily faults and occasional failures – may those memories sink into the depths of the soul to provide an ongoing sense of companionship, bringing a simple, silent smile…
We begin again…mindful of our limitations but not so mindful that we get bogged down in shame and guilt…
Sermon: God’s Questions to the Adam’s Family
They are called the High Holy Days: Rosh Hashanah (rosh, head, Hashanah, year) Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement
The book of Genesis is like an ancient psychology text — it begins with the creation story in Chapter 1 followed by a string of mythological tales about the long evolution that led to the development of conscience – the foundation or essence of what makes us human, what distinguishes us in the animal kingdom. It is filled with sordid tales of deceit, murder, dysfunctional families and the depths of human suffering, love and passion. In other words, when you read it in the way I mean, it’s really all about us, here and now.
Genesis Chapter 1: says, “In the beginning…God created…” The word for God in the first chapter of Genesis is Elohim, which is a transcendent deity who created everything out of nothing. A transcendent god is not here, but ‘out there;’ a God who makes everything ex nihilo, and who forms man from some dust.
Jewish scholars suggest that instead of the word ‘man,’ for Adam, it’s more accurate to say ‘earthling,’ made of the earth. This reflects a Hebrew pun, since the Hebrew word for man is ha-adam, which derives from adamah, the word for arable soil, or ground, or humus. It’s interesting to note the etymology of the word human…humus (down to earth) and humility, and the word humor.
The early Hebrews who wrote the story dreamed of having a place of good soil, thus the Garden of Eden where the vegetation flourished – the dream of every subsistence farmer.
The god of Genesis chapter 1 is a transcendent god, existing as an unseen but all-powerful force ‘out there.’ Chapter one says that God created humans, ‘man and woman he created them.’
But the god of Genesis Chapter 2 offers an alternative creation story. God first creates an earthling who gets lonely, so he anesthetizes him, puts him in a deep sleep, and Adam gives birth to Eve, born from his side.
The rabbis say that Eve wasn’t formed out of Adam’s head because she might Lord it over him, nor from his feet because he might walk all over her, but from his side to indicate that they are equal partners, side-by-side.
The god of Genesis 2 is a hand’s on god, very much present, an imminent god…one who is down to earth and has conversations with his creatures…one who walks in the garden and is very actively engaged with his creation.
The god of Genesis Chapter 2 is referred to as YAHWEH, which means Lord, as in Lord and master of the house.
In seminary one of my Methodist professors said to me, “You Unitarians are very big on imminence and rather short on transcendence,” meaning we tend to think of God as ‘indwelling,’ or ‘the best in our human-ness,’ rather than a supernatural being residing somewhere else in the universe.
The voice of the imminent God, YAHWEH, is ‘that still small voice’ within each of us who calls us to pay attention, to be awake and aware of what’s happening in the here and now. (Being awake and aware – paying attention – is the essence of the teachings of the Buddha.) The imminent god calls us to task, acting as our conscience, which is that thing within us which urges us to strive to be good…that part of us which causes us to feel a sense of wonder, a feeling of awe in the face of this vast, unfathomable universe…and that in us which seeks to learn more about the universe, about nature and what makes it all work. It points to the source of our spirituality.
Emerson referred to it as ‘the wise Seer in me.’
Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson
Henceforth, please God, forever I forego
The yoke of men’s opinions. I will be
Light-hearted as a bird, and live with God.
I find him in the bottom of my heart,
I hear continually his voice therein.
The little needle always knows the North,
The little bird remembereth his note,
And this wise Seer within me never errs.
I never taught it what it teaches me;
I only follow, when I act aright.
Whence then did this Omniscient Spirit come?
From God it came. It is the Deity.
The High Holy Days, also called ‘the days of awe,’ is a time of reflection, a time for soul searching; specifically a time to be reconciled with one another and with this inner voice we call conscience—to be reconciled with one’s self; to take a look at the past year and ask ourselves about our faults and failures; ask who we might have offended, even is such offense was not intended to offend…
It’s a voice that comes from deep down in the depths of the soul, and it’s about the need to seek forgiveness and to offer forgiveness to those who may have offended us.
Without forgiveness we are simply stuck in the past, with a mind filled with regret on the one hand, and resentment on the other
‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…’ as the well-known prayer of the rabbi, Jesus, puts it so succinctly. You can’t be forgiven if you don’t also forgive.
The Christian practice of confession came out of The High Holy Days, especially the pre-psychotherapeutic practice in the Roman Catholic Church of going in to a darkened, private booth and telling someone on the other side – a representative of God – what you feel ashamed about. Freud understood that process.
Let’s look at the story in Genesis, from Chapter 2:
“Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate.”
Then the story says, ‘the eyes of both were opened’ and they could see that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.
“And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent beguiled me, and I ate.”
The first question put to us by the ‘wise Seer’ asks ‘where are you? Where are you on the broad spectrum of moral development? What kind of life are you living? Where do you stand on the moral/ethical issues of the day?’
Genesis says, “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD.” And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
He should have taken an anger-management course! But he didn’t. Genesis says, “Cain said to Abel his brother, “Let us go out to the field.”And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?
This is a powerful piece of mythology, which is to say, it’s a story that speaks deep truths to us today. “Where is your brother who is unemployed? Where is your brother who lacks adequate health care? Where is your brother whose children are living in poverty in a land of plenty? Where is your brother who is suffering from effects of two or three tours of duty in Iraq?
The Genesis story, as I read it, is about our long human evolutionary history, which continues to this day, of course.
The story says that a God created everything – his ultimate piece of work is humankind – a little lower than the angels. Or is he? Shakespeare has Hamlet put the question to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern where he says with irony:
What a piece of worke is a man! how Noble in
Reason? how infinite in faculty? in forme and mouing
how expresse and admirable? in Action, how like an Angel?
in apprehension, how like a God? the beauty of the
world, the Parragon of Animals; and yet to me, what is
this Quintessence of Dust? Man delights not me; no,
nor Woman neither; though by your smiling you seeme
to say so”
With Hamlet I often think, when reading the New York Times, or watching the nightly news, ‘Man delights not me.’
Cain kills his brother because he is jealous of God’s showing favor to Abel’s gift but ‘had no regard’ for his.
What a piece of work – envy is one of the so-called deadly sins because it kills the spirit – in Genesis it leads to fratricide.
The questions God-YAHWEH puts to the first family, the Adam’s family, are, for me the basic questions Life asks of us. We are the descendents of the so-called first family, so the questions are built into us and put to us by some indwelling spirit – the voice of an evolved conscience.
The story begins with Adam and Eve’s innocence; they were conscious, but until they tasted the forbidden fruit, ingesting the knowledge of good and evil, they suddenly had no conscience. After eating they suddenly had a new awareness, ‘their eyes were opened,’ and they could see that they were naked, just as they were before the so-called fall, but now they knew they were naked and they were ashamed.
It’s a very deep story. In our personal development there’s a point early on where we realize that we can lie and get away with it, or we think we can; we can steal, cheat and so forth. We lose our innocence.
Then we begin to feel shame; we feel guilty. We develop a conscience, and we suffer.
It’s inevitable. Some say, “I know, I know, I have Jewish guilt.” Or “I have Catholic guilt,” or some home grown family version invented by mothers or fathers or teachers.
‘Shame on you!’
God’s question to Adam is the Yom Kippur question the wise Seer asks: where are you? Let’s take your measure; let’s remind you of your faults and failures, including your obvious inability to even see your own faults – thus the need for confession, and the hope of forgiveness – the need not only to confess the faults and failures about which you are well aware, but to ask forgiveness for things you didn’t even realize you did, but others know…how you offended or failed them.
My rabbi friend opened his Yom Kippur sermon by saying, “It’s a day for confessions, so I want to confess that for a rabbi and a religious Jew, I enjoy Christmas entirely too much. Of course, I don’t celebrate the holiday, but I enjoy the lights and decorations and the spirit of that time of year. I sing Christmas songs, even though they all come out sounding like Hasidic melodies. And most of all, I cherish Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Dickens understood t’shuvah. (Repentence and return) He believed in the power of truth to open a heart, to turn a soul, to bring a man home again. On one fateful Christmas Eve, Ebenezer Scrooge is transformed from miser into mensch.”
Yom Kippur is about forgiveness. Without confession, which is to say, a personal acknowledgement of faults, failures and limitations, there is no forgiveness, and without forgiveness we cannot love…can’t love ourselves or others.
God’s question to Adam, then, if one of the most basic questions each of us asks of ourselves – where are you?
Adam ate the fruit and became more human, or one could say that the knowledge of good and evil is what makes us human, it’s what distinguishes us in the animal kingdom. A person with no conscience is called a ‘sociopath.’ Pathetic.
To be human is to be aware of one’s own capacity for both creativity and destructiveness; the source of dignity, integrity and pride on the one hand, and self-loathing, shame and guilt on the other. These are basic human attributes and religion at its best helps one come to terms with them.
In Hinduism there’s a trinity which consists of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva…they are creator, preserver and destroyer of the universe, the inner forces of good and evil, creativity and destructiveness.
The Genesis story suggests that Adam, the first earthling, progressed from merely being conscious to the development of a conscience. So the first thing he does is fashion some fig leaves to cover himself up, and an inner voice speaks to him, questions him, accuses him, stirs up his new-found, painful conscience.
Eve sees what has happened and asks herself, “Oh my, what have I done?”
This new awareness, this conscience, seems not to be passed on to their children – they have to learn for themselves. Oh how we would like to be assured that our children will be good persons, that they won’t kill one another, at least. It’s not guaranteed! No matter how highly developed our parenting skills – each has to have experiences that become their teachers.
Fortunately very few will do what Cain did, but the question is put to all of us – metaphorical children of Adam and Eve – where is your brother?
To be advanced in our evolution we must assume some degree of responsibility for all of suffering humanity. It’s called empathy; it’s called compassion. Sometimes it hurts, especially when we see suffering about which we can offer no help.
So: where are you? What have you done? Where is your brother?
The High Holy Days were invented to formalize the cyclical experience of feeling these questions come to us, and one important aspect of that annual process is to go inside and face the truth about ourselves.
We confess to ourselves that we have sometimes failed, and we seek forgiveness.
In his book Human Options Norman Cousins says, “Life is an adventure in forgiveness.”
Cousins approached the issue of forgiveness from a Humanist, not a theistic point of view. He said that our beliefs determine our health…it matters what we believe/think/feel. He writes about the mind-body connection, saying:
“The healing system is the way the body mobilizes all its resources to combat disease. The belief system represents the unique element in human beings that makes it possible for the human mind to affect the workings of the body. How one responds—intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually—to one’s problems has a great deal to do with the way the human body functions. What we believe is the most powerful option of all.”
The High Holy Days, as I understand them, were invented by insightful, one might say ‘inspired’ persons who realized that we need to stop emailing and texting and tweeting, we need to stop reading and talking and arguing and go into ourselves and we need to respond to those three questions: Where are you? What have you done? Where is your brother?