September 27, 2013
23/24 Tishri 5774
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
The impermanence of life, so illuminatingly rendered in Robert Frost’s concise verse, brings to mind a question I had never considered before about us Jews celebrating our New Year in the Autumn--Why do we seek to renew our souls, our souls, our lives, precisely when the earth and everything in it moves from the noisy vibrancy of summer’s growth to the quiet, cooling airs, shaking leaves of gold, the “hardest hue to hold?”
Our commitment to understanding the need for renewal in the face of the cycles of life, to birth and age and death, and rebirth, seems to be the essential threshing floor of beginning again. Know what is good from the past year, leave the chaff for the compost pit, and plant seeds deep in the earth, practice patience, and prepare for springtime bloom and cultivation, flower, fruit, and life itself, being life.
Lest one see in this lesson a dark, heavy, brooding Jewishness (after all, our New Year is hardly celebrated with streamers, masquerade balls and champagne toasts) the Torah narrative at the beginning, where we find ourselves again, having celebrated Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah, ending the year, and beginning the story of the origins of the universe and the Jewish people again, reminds us that in the beginning, God made light, that God saw that light, and declared it “good.”
Light to illuminate the darkness. To allow discernment. The Torah itself, the Tradition teaches, preceded creation. Torah Ora--Torah of Light, Truth, Illumination. Of inquiry, questioning, scrutiny. In some interpretive traditions, the light exists in order to expose, tame and banish the darkness. The light of the first creation, according to the Talmud, was not like the light of stars, suns and moons but rather was a great light of such enormous glow that one could see from one end of the earth to the other. It brings to mind, on a certain level, those sublime spiritual moments between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we allowed ourselves to be exposed to the truths of who we really are, and as we stood in awe and humility before the gates of heaven, we allowed this light of inquiry to penetrate to the depths of our own souls and, if the system worked, to allowed ourselves the privilege of beginning our own lives again.
Refreshed and renewed from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, we’re reminded, in the structured fragility of Sukkot, how fleeting and tenuous life can be--all the more reason to focus on what truly matters, what is truly essential, what is truly good.
Ecclesiastes, who faces the vanity of vanities full on, concludes ultimately, that The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments. For this applies to all mankind: that God will call every creature to account for everything unknown, be it good or bad. סוף דבר הכל נשמע את האלוהים ירא ואת מצותיו שמור כי זה כל האדם
The Sages, who were certainly by the Middle Ages well aware that scientific inquiry could potentially unravel the purely faithful idea of a God who is master of creation, had begun to grasp that science was beginning to speak in a voice of greater certainty. And if that was so then faith needed to pivot.
Breishit doesn’t begin here, they said, with the creation of the universe, but in the middle of Exodus, when God commands the Jewish people with the structure of law, in this case, with the first rules required of the Jews before their escape from Egypt. Inquiry allowed the Sages to pivot from pure faith in what could not be proven to a strengthened faith that took inquiry to heart by moving the foundation of creation to the founding of Law. The food we’d eat, how we’d dress, how we’d be required to behave on the journey from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, would be circumscribed by the light of the law.
This illumination--that people are deserving of an inherent freedom and justice; that each individual made in the divine image is in possession of a basic human dignity; that we are asked to express our ultimate oneness with one another through acts of loving-kindness; these are the fundamental building blocks of life at the very beginning of time. And that science, that light, never allows us to shy away from the truths that our work in bringing justice and freedom and love to the world is work that is never done.
In his beautifully rendered novel “Old School,” the writer Tobias Wolff paints a picture of a group of boarding school boys’ encounter with Robert Frost, just moments after the 1960 presidential election. Frost visits the school and in one sharp and humorous exchange with a faculty member who questions whether or not modernity mandates that we rethink our relationship to “old forms,” (read metered poetry, or, for sake of argument, faith) Wolff imagines Frost saying, “ ‘Don’t tell me about science. I’m something of a scientist myself. Bet you didn’t know that. Botany. You boys know what tropism is, it’s what makes a plant grow toward the light...We all have that instinct, that aspiration. Science can’t--what was your word? dim?--science can’t dim that. All science can do is turn out the false lights so the true light can get us home.”
“So the true light can get us home.”
So this is where we find ourselves, renewed and refreshed at the beginning of the year. No illusions about who we are and where we’re going. Home to ourselves, to those we love, to our community, our God, our people. Wherever we are going.
The shell of physicality, the impermanence of one form, as Frost so beautifully and truthfully tells it, yields a greater, deeper and more rooting reality--that our journey in life is about finding a home for the soul.
May this beginning be for you a soul searching and soul-satisfying one. And may the light of inquiry brighten your paths on the way.