500 years ago, in the tiny town of Sfat, in the northern hills of Israel, Rabbi Isaac Luria pondered the story of the creation of the world…the very story whose anniversary we celebrate on Rosh HaShanah. The Torah opens that story with the words breishit bara elohim – in the beginning God created. But Luria wanted to know: what happened before that?
Drawing on the mystical tradition of Judaism that had been bequeathed to him, Luria taught that in the age before beginnings, there was God. God was everywhere. God’s presence inhabited every millimeter of the universe.
And so when God was ready to call forth stars and planets and birds and fish and people, God did what we call tzimtzum…God contracted God’s self, making the Divine Presence smaller so that we, and the rest of Creation, could exist.
God contracted the Divine Self and put it into a series of glass vessels – Godly storage jars if you will – thinking that these would be able to contain the Holy One while allowing room for everything else to exist.
But no vessel can contain God. And so, in the very instant in which God’s presence was sealed in, the universe witnessed a tremendous shattering, as the vessels were crushed by the power of God’s presence into a billion trillion shards.
We celebrate God’s contraction because it made creation possible. It made all of us possible. And we mourn the shattering because brokenness entered the world.
The corollary to Luria’s story is that human beings were created to be agents of tikkun, of repair. The task has fallen to us to complete the work of creation by doing acts of lovingkindness, out of the mystical belief that when we do those deeds, we unleash cosmic rays of healing light. And at our core, we believe…we hope…that if enough light is unleashed in the world, then our universe – and God, by extension – will some day know a true sense of healing and wholeness.
Fast forward in time by about 200 years to the latter part of the 18th century, and head 2300 miles due north of Sfat to the shtetls of Eastern Europe, where we encounter the very first rebbe of Lubavitch, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadiy, who was once imprisoned by the Russian authorities. He later told a story about one of the prison guards who looked after him.
One day, in an attempt to make conversation with the rabbi he had come to admire, the guard asked about the odd wording of the passage from the Creation story… at Genesis 3:9…when, just after Eve and Adam ate of the forbidden fruit, they became embarrassed because they were naked, and so they fashioned clothing for themselves.
The text reports that the first thing God says in response is the word Ayeikah? God – seeking out Adam and Eve – asks: WHERE ARE YOU?
The verse rightly troubles the prison guard. Why in the world would the Master of the Universe…the One Who had singlehandedly fashioned the entire cosmos out of nothing…why would a god like that need to ask Adam and Eve for driving directions to their new home? Surely the Source of all Existence could have utilized the heavenly GPS system to locate the only two people alive. Why, the prison guard asked the rebbe, does the Bible have God asking Adam and Eve where they are?
The rabbi responds that God’s question isn’t meant exclusively for Adam and Eve. The question is also meant for each of us. Of you, he says to the man who guards him, God is asking “where are you?” And if Shneur Zalman were here today, he would surely turn to all of us and ask the same thing: Where are we?
The question, of course, is existential, not geographic.
It is the same question as the one that lies at the heart of Luria’s story. It is the question of our ultimate purpose on this planet…of whether we were put here to simply enjoy the materialistic bounties of our abundance, or whether we have a larger role to play in the Divine Plan.
Where are we, on the road toward building lives that are filled with meaning?
Some of us are familiar with the writing of Victor Frankl, the noted Holocaust survivor, therapist, and author. Frankl observed that: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is [the one] being asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his […] life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
Frankl teaches us that the meaningfulness of our lives is measured by the extent to which we respond to the needs of those around us, by claiming responsibility, and then giving back.
Or to put it another way: the amount of meaning and fulfillment in our lives, according to Frankl, is directly proportional to the extent to which we dedicate our lives to others.
Throughout these High Holy Days, we recite the Un’taneh Tokef. The prayer is a meditation on the awesomeness of this season when we are judged for our choices. How many will pass on and how many will be created – who will live and who will die, the text asks? Our morality and our mortality are decidedly linked, according to this prayer. And so there is a bleakness to the words, because all of us stand guilty. None of us has lived a perfect life this past year.
And yet, the prayer holds out hope. Teshuvah, U’tfilah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et roah ha’gzeirah. We are not doomed to suffer in punishment, because repentance, prayer, and giving of ourselves generously by way of our dollars, our time, and our wisdom – all of these avert the severe decree.
Why should our acts of tzedek – of taking responsibility to help others – help to avert God’s severe decree?
My colleague, Rabbi Elyse Frishman writes that acts of hesed humble us. They make us feel less self important, and they shift our worldview away from acting exclusively in our own best interest to doing what is in the best interest of others and the larger world.
The paradox is that tzedek work, that work of helping those in need, can actually be in our own best interests…not in the sense of increasing the bottom line of our checkbooks…but in terms of the spiritual gifts that we come to know when we help others.
Amy and I have tried to do our part in this holy work, and we aspire to be the kind of role models for our children that our parents were, and are, to us.
Thanks to my teachers, I’ve long understood the potential impact that our generosity can have on others. But it wasn’t until earlier this year that I began to experience the impact that hesed work could have on me personally.
Several years ago, two classmates of mine in rabbinical school, married to one another, had to navigate the devastating diagnosis that their young son, affectionately known as Superman Sam, had cancer. After a heroic effort to beat the odds, Sam died in December. Shortly thereafter, a group of colleagues began to support the family by raising money and awareness for pediatric cancer research, in conjunction with St. Baldrick’s Foundation. St. Baldrick’s doesn’t just raise money. It invites its volunteers and donors to raise awareness for pediatric cancer by encouraging as many people as possible to shave their heads.
More than 60 colleagues and I wound up shaving our heads in the spring for what became known as the “Shave for the Brave.” I presumed that the shave would be a one time thing. It’s for a good cause, I thought, and a small gesture for two respected colleagues who were navigating an unimaginable loss.
What I experienced was something totally unexpected. I was transformed by that first shave.
What I realized was that my shave, my taking a miniscule bit of responsibility to help others, humbled me in exactly the way that Rabbi Frishman observes that an act of tzedakah is supposed to. Thanks to my baldness, for the first time in my adult life I gave myself permission to not worry about my physical appearance. It was liberating.
It felt so good, spiritually speaking, that I’ve shaved three more times since then…each time giving tzedakah…each time praying that a cure will be found…and each time patiently explaining to those I meet why I do it, thereby raising awareness for a cause I have come to believe in.
We are all meant to do different kinds of tzedek work. Head-shaving may not be right for everyone. The key is for each of us to figure out the work that we are not only most capable of doing, but also the work that is going to be most fulfilling for us.
For many, many years the members of SSTTE’s Helping Hands Committee have been leading the way for our community to do this work together here in our synagogue. More recently, we’ve broadened our Tikkun Olam Initiative to include new voices. Together, their leadership on matters of social action is the conscience of this congregation. Would you please join me at this time in a round of applause for all of those who helped to lead these efforts over the years? (Applause). We are indebted to each and every one of them for being role models to the rest of us. We are the grateful recipients of their vision for a congregation that is outward-looking, deeply attuned to the needs of those in the world around us. Our longstanding tradition of returning here on Yom Kippur with bags filled with non-perishable food continues as just one expression of these efforts. Please be sure that you get a bag on your way out today so that you and your family can join us in this critical work. And don’t forget that the food bank needs food throughout the year – so keep those donations coming!
I’m also pleased to let you know about a new opportunity that we will have to help others when we gather again on Yom Kippur. In partnership with our movement’s Religious Action Center and the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation, we will be facilitating a simple cheek swab for all those who are between 18 and 60 that are interested in being added to the bone marrow registry. The painless swabbing will take place before and after services on Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur, as well as on Erev Sukkot.
One of every 200 Americans will need a bone marrow or blood stem cell transplant over the course of their lives. 30% of them will be able to find a matching donor from within their families. The remaining 70% are relying on us.
Adding yourself to the registry does not obligate you to ultimately donate bone marrow, or more frequently-needed blood. It merely adds you to the list to give you the informed opportunity to decide later whether this gesture of tzedakah is right for you.
There will be more opportunities to do tzedek work with our congregational family in the months to come. I urge you to look for further publicity. And don’t hesitate to be in touch with me if you’d like to know how you and your family can get more personally involved in this holy work.
There is no question that doing this work can save the lives of others. Indeed the Talmud’s powerful admonition that to save one life is as if we saved the entire world rings in our ears.
But doing this work isn’t just about saving the world. It’s also about saving ourselves….as Rabbi Frishman’s commentary on the Un’taneh Tokef teaches us: there is something unhealthy about being only for ourselves. We can save our lives and our souls by humbling ourselves…by making ourselves a little smaller and less important, so that we have more room to help others.
On this day in which we celebrate the world’s creation…a day of reflection on how God created us to be partners in repairing this fragile world…on this day that is so concerned with questions of creation, we would do well to remember the words of the Rav, Joseph Soloveitchik, who wrote: “The most fundamental principle of all is that man must create himself.”
What a blessing it is that each of us has been empowered to determine who we will be in the year ahead. God has not fated it. Our spouses and our children don’t dictate it. Nor do our employers or our neighbors. At the end of the day, we have been gifted with the extraordinary opportunity to decide for ourselves where we want to go in the year ahead, and which values will guide us in our journey to get there.
Instead of dwelling on who by fire, who by water, let us ask instead: who will give by swabbing, and who by filling their grocery bag? Who by walking for breast cancer, and who by shaving their heads? Who by helping a young person learn to read, and who by donating used clothing?
All so that we will make the year ahead less about us, and more about others. All so that we can do our part to heal our broken world. All so that we can honestly answer God’s question: ayeikah? Where are you?
 Sacks, To Heal A Fractured World, p. 255
 See Rabbi Elyse Frishman’s essay in Who By Fire, Who By Water: Un’taneh Tokef (ed. L. Hoffman, 2010).