Enough, Already! Or, For My Sake The World Was Created

Rosh Hashanah Day 5779

To watch Rabbi Limmer give his sermon, click here

It’s time someone said it: Enough already.  Really, it’s been enough.

It’s a hard world out there.  We know. Regardless of which paper gets delivered to your door, which social media feeds you check during the day, or which cable news channel you turn on at night, being awake and attentive is an exhausting experience.

So let me say it: Enough already: enough of politics, of war, of tragedy.  We see those every day. But today, we come here to celebrate.  We want a taste of something sweet, of something new, of some renewal in the form of Rosh HaShanah.  We come to the sanctuary this morning to differentiate that brutal world outside from this sacred space we share. Can’t we have just one happy day?

Turns out, it’s a hard world in here, too.  So much of what we’ve heard all day is how bad we have been, how filled with fault we are.  Avinu, Malkeinu, we have sinned before you.  We have little merit.  What is humanity, the child of dust? 

Enough already.  We spend so much of our energy focused on evil: in the world, in others, in ourselves.  For just one day, let us focus on the good.  A friend once suggested, “What people sometimes need is a sermon about how good we are.”[1]  Now I know none of us want to be blind, ignorant, or out of balance.  But the balance of our world seems so skewed.  Hate, lies, deception and evil are paraded before us every day; on this day of newness and re-creation, as we welcome the promise of a new year: how about we focus on the good?

Knowing when to focus on the good, finding balance in our lives, is important.  Balance is the entire key of a famous teaching of hasidic master Rabbi Simcha Bunem:

Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that they can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need.

When feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “I am but dust and ashes.”

But, when feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “For my sake was the world created.”[2]

There is enough in the world, in our liturgy, in ourselves, to feel lowly, depressed, discouraged and disconsolate.  Few of us arrive this New Year’s morning feeling particularly high and mighty.  Let “dust and ashes,” the reminders of our ignominious beginnings and ever-waiting end, wait for another depressing day.  Rosh HaShanah is a day to be celebrated; let us reach into our proverbial pockets and focus on words we want, we need, to hear: for my sake the world was created.

Bishvili nivra haOlam: for my sake the world was created.  These words, this phrase, come from the Talmud.  There, the notion that the world is created for my sake is not simply some slip of paper to put in our pocket: Bishvili nivra haOlam, “For my sake the world was created,” are words every human being is commanded to recite; our Rabbis made this affirmation a mandatory mantra.  According to the Talmud’s logic, every person should internalize these words because all human beings are created in the Divine Image.  At the crowning moment of the Creation of the Universe—the figurative birthday of the world we commemorate today—Torah tells us God created humanity in the Divine Image; in the Image of God were we created.[3]  Our Rabbis want every person to understand the significance of being created in God’s likeness.  And our Rabbis were not the first in Jewish tradition to be captivated by this aspect of our Creation.  Hear the awe-filled words of our Psalmist:

What is humanity that you are mindful of us?

Mortal beings that you take note?

You have made us little less than Divine,

Crowned us with glory and honor.[4]

We are little less than divine; that is how good we human beings can be.  We were created with incredible value, divine value, and therefore each and every person remains valuable, has inestimable worth.  This perspective of the Psalmist is at the core of another talmudic teaching, which we know best thanks to Steven Spielberg and Schindler’s List: If you destroy a single life, it is as if you have destroyed an entire world; and if you save a single life, it is as if you saved the entire world.[5] Human life is sacred, each of us is special.  Every human being, throughout the generations from Adam and Eve to you and me, is imprinted with the Image Divine.  This is why we are obligated to say the words, Bishvili nivra haOlam, For my sake, the world was created.[6]  Every single soul is of inestimable value.  We are that important.  We really are quite good.

I know we people really are quite good.  I know this from the people I know.  They are the folks who fly off to some other state every weekend to tend, lovingly, to an aging parent.  They are families who have literally brought refugees into their homes.  There’s my friend, with a full-time job, who is raising his infant grandchild so that his daughter might better battle her addictions.  They are doctors who volunteer in inner-city clinics to provide needed medical care, attorneys who station themselves pro bono at the airport to ease immigration.  And if these cases seem exceptional, consider all the people you know who spare their time to tutor other people’s children, who chair causes that combat cancer and other illnesses, who bring a fresh meal when you come home from the hospital, or who simply know the right time to give you a call or a hug.  The people we know, the people with whom we spend our time, really are quite good.

Really?  Or: Enough already!

I mean, it’s nice and all to give a sermon about how good we are, but I know it doesn’t always ring particularly true.  Despite the goodness we sense in ourselves, sometimes we can’t even walk down the street without being knocked over by people staring at their phones, or being run over by drivers ignoring all rules of the road.  For all the friends who know when to call, there are countless others who disappear at the first sign of difficulty.  And we are supposed to believe people are not only good, but also little less than divine?  God created the world for the sake of kids who cheat on tests and parents who encourage their self-serving shortcuts?  People who bully and insult the vulnerable are created in God’s image?  Little separates the self-absorbed and self-centered from the God we worship?  Really?  Enough already!

            If you feel that way, you’re not alone.  The angels agree.  Hear this talmudic tale:

When God thought to create the first human being, God asked the angels, “Na’aseh et haAdam b’tzalmeinu? Shall we make human beings in the Divine Image?”  The angels asked, “Master of the universe, what will these human beings do?”  God explained, “Human beings will behave just like this [and described the human behavior—filled with shortcoming and sin—we know too well].” Thinking humanity to be a mistake, the angels turned the words of the Psalms on God, skeptically wondering, “Master of the Universe, what is humanity that you are mindful of them?”  [Appreciating neither their doubt nor their impudence,] God destroyed these angels with a bolt of fire.

Then God summoned a second set of angels; they heard about humanity, expressed their own reservations, and were likewise annihilated.  So, when God consulted with a third set of angels about creating human beings, these angels knew a change of tactics was in order. “Master of the Universe,” they said, “Look what happened to the others who questioned you! The entire universe is yours: do what you want!”[7]

You can hear this third set of angels say, “Enough already!  God, You’re fixated on humanity, regardless of their frequent faults and dirty deeds.”  The angels see what human beings will do, and think the world will be better without us.  At the very least, the angels do not think we deserve to be associated with God in any way.  They see us more like mere dust and ashes.

So which are we? The goodness we sense inside, or the ugliness so apparent on the outside? Are we the dust and ashes of human frailty and failure, or the inestimable crown of creation?[8]  Knowing how bad some people are, why would our Sages instruct that each and every person is obliged to say: for my sake the world was created?  The answer is arcane, for this affirmation arises in a strange context.  We are told to remind ourselves of our Divine createdness when we confront the worst in human nature: when we see one human being kill another.[9]  We are told to say, “Bishvili nivra haOlam, For my sake the world was created,” when we have a monumentally important task at hand: serving as witness in a capital case.  A witness in a trial where the punishment is the death penalty faces serious consequences. When one person has already died and another could be put to death, a witness is in a severe situation: if they make a mistake in their testimony, and the accused is wrongly put to death, these witnesses themselves are considered guilty of murder.  Listen to literal Talmudic warning:

Know that matters of life and death aren’t like financial cases: in financial cases [a false witness] can repay money and achieve atonement.  But in capital cases, [a false witness is responsible] for the blood of the victim and for the blood of all his future offspring, to all eternity.

Therefore, Adam was created as one, in order to teach you that all who destroy a single life are accounted as if they destroy the entire world; and any who sustains a single life, Scripture accounts it as if they sustained the entire world.

Therefore each and every human being is obligated to say: Bishvili nivra haOlam: for my sake the world was created.[10]

For my sake the world was created.  They who save a single life are as if they sustain the world.  These teachings come from the same source. Yes, the textual source is our laws of testimony, where we are warned of the supreme importance of having someone else’s life in our hands.  But the source of these teaching is deeper than the legal context in which they appear. The true source of both these teaching is Judaism’s unwavering commitment to the fundamental decency, goodness and importance of human life.  Every human being is created in the Divine Image, every person has within the spark of purest holiness.  For my sake the world was created; but for your sake, as well.  For your sake, even though you are accused of a heinous crime.  The entirety of the universe whose Creation we celebrate was created for the sake of each of us, of all of us.  The world was created for my sake, yes.  But the world was created for your sake, too.  I am responsible for you, even for the worst of you, the worst in you.  I had better take that responsibility seriously.

Nowhere, it seems, are things taken less seriously than on Twitter©.  Witness these witless tweets: “I’m just like a Pringle’s can: salty, and empty on the inside,” or the inane, “I’m sick of having to go to two separate huts to buy pizza and sunglasses”.  Perhaps the only things worse on Twitter than the tweets are the trolls: people who provoke others with hatred and contempt.  One such troll stalked comedian Sarah Silverman last December.  Just two days after Christmas, a man named Jeremy replied to a random tweet from Silverman with one derogatory, hurtful, four-letter word.[11]  How did Silverman respond?  She didn’t resignedly say, “Enough already!” and meet his hatred with wrath all her own.  She neither ignored Jeremy nor equaled his invective; instead, she scoured his twitter feed to try and understand the source of his anger.  Doing so led Silverman to reply with incredible compassion:

I believe in you.  I read ur timeline & I see what ur doing & your rage is thinly veiled pain.  But u know that.  I know this feeling. Ps my back [expletive] sux too. See what happens when u choose love.  I see it in you.

 Wow.  I see love in you.  Said to the man who called her such a nasty name.  Five minutes later, Jeremy’s response:

I can’t choose love. A man that resembles Kevin spacey took that away when I was 8. I can’t find peace if i could find that guy who ripped my body who stripped my innocence i’d kill him.  He [expletive] me up and I’m poor so its hard to get help.

The cyberspace conversation continued.  Jeremy effectively explaining, “I am dust and ashes,” Sarah reminding him, “For your sake the world was created.”  Within twelve minutes, Silverman was offering caring counsel, “All I know is this rage… it’s punishing yourself.  And you don’t deserve punishment.  You deserve support. Go to one of these support groups. You might meet ur best bros there.”  Ten minutes later, Jeremy agreed to go back to therapy, even though he had been burned before.  Silverman continued to encourage, “Im so psyched you’ll go. KEEP ME POSTED. Don’t give up on yourself. Be brave enough to risk getting burned. It’s what happens when u fight for yourself. But it’s worth it. I promise.”  And she didn’t stop there.  Four hours later—minutes after midnight!—Silverman tweeted the entire town of San Antonio asking for back specialists to help her new “friend” Jeremy, who had no insurance and couldn’t work because of severe pain.  By morning, a doctor from San Antonio assured Silverman he was seeing Jeremy, for free, that afternoon.  Two weeks later, amidst accolades for her actions echoing across the internet, Silverman humbly responded:

A bit embarrassed by the glory I’m getting from being human 2 another human.  Literally everyone can do this. I do lots-this 1 just got noticed. (I also DONT do it LOTS- often not my best self. It takes PRACTICE) so please, keep ur expectations of me low or I’ll surely disappoint.

Being human to another human: not just a rarity on the internet, but in our real world as well.  The example of Sarah Silverman fulfills our teaching of the Talmud: each and every person is obligated to say, “For my sake the world was created.” This obligation reminds us of our own self-worth, but should not make us self-centered: even as we say, “For my sake the world was created,” we know every other human being needs to believe this as well.  The world was created for each of us, for all of us. This is precisely why we should be wary about destroying, deriding, demeaning, devaluing even for one minute any human being.  This is why we work so hard to sustain another’s life, even if that other might be attacking us.  This is precisely why, perhaps even with the uncommon compassion Sarah Silverman showered upon a seemingly hateful internet troll, we need to work so hard to sustain, to prop up, to empower, to encourage and to believe in not just every human being, but—more importantly—any human being.

We cannot keep our expectations low, as an excuse for when we disappoint.  For our sake the world was created.  Little separates us from the divine.  These Jewish beliefs remind us of how good each of us is, how good we can continue to be.  If we are little less than divine, it is because we have the divine capacity to create, to form and to shape, our world.  And because we have such remarkable capacity, we are charged—let’s face it, we’re warned—to use our powers wisely. Yes, each and every one of us has incredible capacity for good; we all earn the right to pull a piece of paper out of our pocket that reminds us, “For my sake the world was created.”  And the fullness of that teaching extends past our own personal boundaries and crosses into the difficult world where we interact with others, including those others who behave in such a fashion that seems to betray their divine birthright.  When we are feeling a little high and mighty, we should be reminded, “I am but dust and ashes.”  And when we need an emotional lift, we should remember that the world was created for our sake.  But on most days—those days that seems to count as normal in a world that feels anything but—we should probably be think of the full teaching of our tradition: For my sake, the world was created; that means I am responsible for what happens in the world.

And so I have given a sermon that talks about how good we are.  Because we are, sometimes despite ourselves, incredibly good.  But, before I can conclude, I need to remind us that however good we are, now is the time to be even better.  As we gather on this Rosh HaShanah, at the outset of this New Year, we know that however kind and decent and caring and giving we have been in the past, now is the time and today is the day for us to improve.  There is no reason 5779 cannot be the year in which we double our efforts to connect with family, double-down on our ability to be there for friends, deepen our commitments to the work that is our vocation, and commit ourselves more deeply to the avocations at which we work so diligently.  This world whose birthday we celebrate today was created for our sake, and we must make the most of it.  We can stop playing with our phones and talk with real people; we can ask the extra question to extend a meaningful conversation; we can set aside significant time to be with the people whom we love; we can go the extra mile to help a total stranger.  Because there is no reason not to make this coming year the best year it can be, there is every reason to make ourselves the best people we can be.

And, to be brutally honest even amongst these optimistic words, there are plenty of other reasons why we need to be at our best in 5779.  If we already have had enough of our society, its squabbles, its shortcomings, its sins, we know that no promise of a New Year will immediately change our world.  The bad news will still continue to pour in—the bad news might get worse—and we might continue to feel even more hopeless and resigned.  But that is no luxury we can afford.  The fact that our world is broken need not mean we should feel broken; Judaism calls us, for whose sake this entire world was created, to get out there and engage in the work of tikkun olam, of repairing that world.  It is because we are so deeply good that we are so thoroughly called to heal our fractured society.  We are created a little less than Divine, and we have a responsibility to that goodness inside of us: we must bring it out into the world until that world reflects the very divinity with which we were created.  

Really? Have we been empaneled on the Great Jury of the universe and our society that we must so serve?  We understand the serious warnings against providing false testimony, but—enough already, Rabbi!—it’s not like the fate of the world is really in our hands!  Actually, the fate of the world is in our hands.  Really. We are all witnesses: Atem Edai, Neum Adonai,You are My Witnesses, declares Adonai.[12]  So the prophet Isaiah admonished our ancestors thousands of years ago: You are my Witnesses, declares Adonai, My servants whom I commission. We gather this morning because we are witnesses to God’s Creation, to this marvelous universe whose majestic renewal we again celebrate at the turn of our year.  We gather this morning as well because we are witnesses to God’s Creation, and therefore are responsible for what happens in our world.  We are called to be witness to the world; as such witnesses, as Jewish witnesses, we are also admonished: take great care in the important role you serve.  To be a witness is to be aware of the great creative power, and fearful destructive power, in all human beings.  To be a witness to our world is to be trusted with the most important matters, with issues of life and death.  To be called as a witness in service to the Eternal is to know that for my sake the world was created, but therefore that I am responsible for the entire world. 

And so, in this coming year, let us remember our birthright as human beings:
for our sake the world was created.

In this coming year, let us remember we have incredible capacity inside us,
that we are good; in fact, that we are great.

In this coming year, let us remember that being good, in our Jewish tradition, 
means that we need
to do good.

            In this coming year, let us remember we are witnesses to the world:
we are called upon to save the world.

At this turning of the year, as the universe renews its cycles, may we renew our faith in ourselves, our belief in our fundamental goodness and decency, and the go out and make our entire world not just decent, but Good.

For the fate of the world is literally in our hands.

[1] My dear friend, Rabbi Yehiel Poupko.

[2] Rabbi Simcha Bunem [1765-1827] was of Peshischa, in Poland.  This and other of his teachings are found in Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters, pp. 249–250.  The phrase “For my sake the world was created” is rabbinic, from the Mishnah, tractate Sanhedrin 4:5.  The expression, “I am but dust and ashes,” is biblical, and is attributed to Abraham at Genesis 18:27.  In Buber’s recapitulation of Bunem’s teaching, the order of these two texts is reversed; I changed them to emphasize “For my sake the world was created”.

[3] Genesis 1:27.

[4] Psalm 8:5-6.

[5] The original location is the Mishnah, tractate Sanhedrin 4:5.  I have altered the above text because the original is pretty particularistic:

Adam was created as one, in order to teach you the one who destroys a single Jewish life is accounted as if he destroys the entire world; and anyone who sustains Jewish life, Scripture accounts it as if he sustained the entire world.

[6] Mishnah, tractate Sanhedrin 4:5.

[7]Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 38b, adapted.  It should be noted that the premise of this midrash is the verse Genesis 1:26, in which God says, “Let us make humanity in the Divine Image.”  Because God speaks in the plural—and likely not the “royal we”—generations have speculated that God consulted a divine retinue of Angels before creating human beings on the sixth day.

[8] In fact, Abraham’s original assertion, “I am bust dust and ashes,” might not be the self-deprecating claim for which Reb Simcha Bunem takes it. In its original context in Genesis 18, Abraham shares this seemingly self-effacing pleasantry with God immediately before challenging God’s punishment of destroying Sodom and Gomorrah.  Thus, “I am but dust and ashes” actually serves not to lower Abraham’s position, but—in direct opposition to how Rabbi Simcha Bunem employs the phrase—to elevate his status.

On a separate matter, “I am but dust and ashes” originally arises in the context of capital punishment.

[9] While there are other capital crimes in the Talmud, I think this particular example makes most clear the logic behind being the need to remind ourselves of human worth.

[10] Mishnah, tractate Sanhedrin 4:5, adapted (especially to remove a particularism that isn’t all that pretty).  The full text reads:

How do we examine witnesses in a capital case? We bring them in and threaten them: Perhaps what you say is your own opinion, or is a rumor, or is your testifying what a witness said, or the report of a reliable person?  Or perhaps you were unaware that in the end we will interrogate you thoroughly?  Know that matters of life and death aren’t like financial cases: in financial cases [a false witness] can repay money and achieve atonement.  But in capital cases, [the false witness is responsible] for the blood of the victim and for the blood of all his future offspring, to all eternity. For thus we find with Cain who killed his brother [Genesis 4:10]: Your brothers bloods cry out to me.  Not “your brother’s blood,” but your brother’s bloods: his blood and the blood of his offspring.

Therefore, Adam was created as one, in order to teach you the one who destroys a single Jewish life is accounted as if he destroys the entire world; and anyone who sustains Jewish life, Scripture accounts it as if he sustained the entire world.  Therefore each and every human being is obligated to say: For my sake the world was created.

One potential explanation for the painful particularism of this passage—namely its focus on the value of Jewish lives—could be that the only potential defendants in a Jewish court of law would be Jews.  Granted, I do not find such an explanation to be satisfying, but feel it is only fair to the Talmud to share its historical context.

[11] I encountered this story through the website of the Canadian Broadcasting Company, CBC: http://www.cbc.ca/radio/q/blog/sarah-silverman-s-response-to-a-twitter-troll-is-a-master-class-in-compassion-1.4471337 .  All quotations from the Twitter conversation come from this January 3 article by Jennifer Van Evra, “Sarah Silverman’s response to a Twitter troll is a master class in compassion”.

[12] Isaiah 43:10. Importantly to the themes of this sermon, Isaiah summons Israel as God’s witnesses in order to attest to God’s role in Creation… which thus connects back to our being created in the Divine Image.

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