The World Shall be Built on Love
High Holy Day sermons – Rosh haShanah
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
The World Shall be Built on Love
The Ashley Madison hack unfolded itself like a soap opera. It was the stuff of thriller novels and courtroom dramas. Over 38 million user accounts of the notorious adultery site (slogan: ‘life is short, have an affair’) have been made public worldwide.
The media, of course, took a run with it. For those who saw the scandal unfold, some of us may have been torn between schadenfreude (admittedly) and compassion on behalf of the families affected.
As tongues were a-chatter about the Ashley Madison scandal, I found myself reflecting upon it. In the grand scheme of things, was it really that important? Wasn’t this just an outbreak of moral hysteria? Placing moral judgment aside, could we glean any insights of the dynamics of personal conduct in an overexposed world?
What is it that leads to families breaking apart? What is it that makes otherwise sensible and moral people make rash decisions? What is it about the ‘smallness’ of the scandal—in a world of dead refugees washing up on European beaches, in a world of stark poverty, war and deprivation—that proved so captivating?
I couldn’t stop myself thinking ‘there’s a sermon in this’.
Mind you, this is not about feeling self-righteous about our own moral conduct. On the contrary: there’s a sermon in this because it confronts us with our own challenges and punctuates the tragic and predictable humanity of it all—there’s nothing more human than trying with the best of intentions and failing. This echoes the old truth of many a pop lyric: we hurt the ones we love. The issue then is not the specifics of what happened but the chance for us to reflect on our fallible humanity during this season of introspection.
The 12th century Rabbi-Philosopher, Maimonides also known as the Rambam, composed his monumental legal code, the Mishneh Torah. Much of what the Mishneh Torah deals with are the minutiae of Halachah, Jewish Law. At the same time, the Mishneh Torah also contains ethical wisdom. The core of Rambam’s message is one of accountability and empowerment. We have free will, we can fix what we break and small actions can have a big impact. The Rambam writes:
“A person should always look at him or herself as equally balanced between merit and sin and the world as equally balanced between merit and sin. If he or she performs one sin, he or she tips the balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and brings destruction upon him or herself. On the other hand, if he or she performs one mitzvah, he or she tips the balance and that of the entire world to the side of merit and brings deliverance and salvation to themselves and others.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4)
The true message of Ashley Madison is that our deeds matter. Small actions can have large consequences.
Do we ever stop to think how revolutionary and counter-cultural this message is? During the High Holy Days, we are bombarded with the often heavy-handed language of the Machzor. We find ourselves confronted with themes and topics in the liturgy that are dense and difficult and sometimes unbelievable or unpersuasive to our modern and skeptical sensibilities. For every hauntingly beautiful turn of phrase our tradition uses, there’s an equally troubling sentiment echoing archaic tropes of reward and punishment. Among this theological violence (sometimes quite literally so if we read the words of the Unetanek Tokef!), the revolutionary and transformative message of the High Holy Days is lost on us.
We have free will.
We can make the right choice.
Our actions have far-reaching consequences.
Even the smallest of deeds have cosmic implications.
Even the smallest of deeds have cosmic implications. This claim may sound particularly outrageous but finds resonance across centuries of Jewish tradition. Whether it’s the foundational narrative of B’reishit (the Book of Genesis) where Adam and Chava (Eve) eat from the Tree of Knowledge, the detailing of the Priestly service in Vayikra (Leviticus) or the sanctification of grass-roots Judaism in the Talmud, where every Jew became an celebrant in their own home, our faith and way of life has always had a vision of small actions having great significance. The cosmic perspective, however, gathered momentum in the development of Lurianic Kabbalah—Jewish mysticism—in 16th century Tzfad, the Land of Israel.
I know there’s a great many of you now thinking ‘how did I get involved in listening to a Rosh haShanah lecture on the esoterics of Kabbalah?’ as well as ‘is there a way for me to sneak out of the service now without being noticed?’ (The answer to the latter, I’m afraid, is ‘no’). I hope you will bear with me as well as remember that we have the Kabbalists to thank for such classic prayers as ‘Lecha Dodi’, so there’s more mysticism in our Reform Jewish tradition than we care to admit!
Isaac Luria was a prominent 16th century mystic who settled in Tzfad. While the Jewish world was in shock and ferment over the Expulsion of Sephardi Jews from the Iberian peninsula, Luria’s unique teachings of Kabbalah helped many make sense of a world that was baffling and cruel.
Before the rise of Lurianic Kabbalah, Jewish mystical teachings were a patchwork of texts from late Antiquity and the Medieval period. There was no systematic philosophy underlying them. The genius of Lurianic Kabbalah is that it heeded the existential call of its times, seeking to craft a narrative to help us answer that fundamental question: What is the point to our suffering and do our actions have any purpose?
Luria tried to unify two seemingly opposite understandings of our world: one, that the universe, as described in the Creation story, is fundamentally good. We live in a world of great beauty, of profound wonder and of enduring love. Any one of us here can testify to that. Just think of all the things that pluck at your heart-strings: an impressive natural vista, a baby’s coo, a lover’s touch, a soul-stirring piece of music—all those simple, amazing experiences that confirm what we intuitively know: we live in a blessed and benevolent universe.
But then there’s the second, opposing, awareness: that the universe, as described by the heart-rending cries of prophets and poets alike, is torn, broken, disturbed. Our world knows great evil and unparalleled suffering and no attempt to describe it would do it justice. How can we affirm our faith in a benevolent Creator with the observable empiricism of a world gone mad? Luria answered with his metaphor of ‘shevirat keilim’, the doctrine of the ‘breaking of the vessels’. He posited that a finite universe cannot contain infinite Divinity: when God poured God’s own essence into the ‘vessel’ of the cosmos, like boiling water in a fragile glass, God’s light caused the Universe to shatter and Divine light was scattered everywhere. It is a metaphysical narrative that sounds strangely modern to our Big Bang theory on the origins of our known universe.
Luria continued his mystical vision with a mission: just as the Divine Light broke our world, so too are we commanded to fix it. He called this ‘raising the sparks’. It is our duty, like spiritual detectives, to search out the ‘divine sparks’, free them from their constraining shells, and return them to their Source. A cosmic repair will be completed and redemption, with its vision of a better world, will be at hand. Lurianic Kabbalah is one of the origins of a very Progressive Jewish concept: tikkun olam, repair of the world. The piece the resistance of this mystical theory is that it is us who can repair the world through mitzvot. By fulfilling the commandments and behaving ethically, we stitch back what was torn by the forces of Creation, what cruelty and callousness had undone. For all its arcane talk of divine light and cosmic vessels, Lurianic Kabbalah is a very empowering worldview; fitting for the High Holy Days.
The world is broken.
We can fix it.
We can repair ourselves.
We can return to goodness.
God lures us to be His partners in Creation.
Every day, we are presented with, as Devarim (the Book of Deuteronomy) asserts, the choice between ‘good and evil, blessing and curse’. Free will is built into the master plan of Creation. The very fact that free will exists in us humans suggests that any credible theology dismisses a coercive God. God cannot force us to do good. This makes our choice to do good all the more meaningful! As my teacher and friend, Rabbi Bradley Artson writes in his book, ‘The God of Becoming and Relationship’:
“God does not work through coercion; God works through persuasion and invitation, through persistently inviting us to make the best possible choice, and then leaving us free to make the wrong choice.”
Think about some of the best choices we have made in our lives; to counter some of our less edifying choices. What did it feel like to make a good choice? Was it a touch of inspiration? Did we feel lured and encouraged, loved and accepted by a gentle intuition, a deeper understanding, a silent presence? There are so many ways in which we can understand God’s love, but the persistence of goodness in humanity as well as intimate moments of transcendence are perhaps the most compelling ways to understand the Divine.
It is the smallest acts of kindness that uphold the world, like a type of quantum-metaphysics. We can posit, perhaps, that it is the smallest units of ethics and grace, patience and generosity that provide the currency of divine economy. When we no longer respond to the lure of love, we neglect to pay each other in that currency; we become parsimonious with our warmth and kindness and relationships crumble. John Gottman, a pre-eminent researcher and therapist, calls this ‘responding to bids’. In a happy and fulfilling relationship, the partners will respond to each other’s bids. For instance, a wife sees a beautiful bird in the garden and calls out to her husband, ‘honey, look at that pretty bird!’ If the husband bothers looking up from his newspaper and lovingly affirms her observation, then he answers her ‘bid’ for connection and he turns to her. If he mutters ‘uh-huh’ under his breath or ignores her, then he turns away from her and may cause a tiny crack in the fortress of trust and love that a relationship is.
Gottman’s research indicated that:
“These bidding interactions had profound effects on marital well-being. Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had “turn-toward bids” 33 percent of the time. Only three in ten of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy. The couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.“
Lest we think this data is inconsequential, Gottman claims that he’s proven that he can predict with 94% accuracy whether couples—of all backgrounds, sexual orientations and ages—will stay together or not: solely on the basis of these emotional bids. The success of a relationship according to this psychologist does not depend on wealth or good fortune, status, quality of life or even sexual attraction. It just depends on the simple, earth-shattering power of everyday kindness.
This redemptive message is as intimidating as it is hopeful.
The cosmos itself relies on acts of kindness.
These are the sparks of our darkened world.
We are all equipped to raise them.
If all this talk of God’s love and lure, of sparks and light, of kindness and grace sounds cloyingly sweet or like psychobabble—well, I hate to disappoint my audience, but I refuse to apologise! This is the ethos of the Yamim Noraim. This is the thrust of the Jewish tradition.
‘Lo ba’chayil, lo ba’koach ki im beruchi amar Adonai Tzeva’ot’—‘not by power, not by strength but by My Spirit, says the Eternal of Hosts’ (Zechariah 4:6)
‘Al shloshah devarim haolam omed, al haTorah, v’al haAvodah v’al gemilut chasadim’—‘on three things does the world stand, on wisdom, on service and on acts of lovingkindness’ (Pirke Avot 1:2).
Psalm 89:3 says ‘olam chesed yibaneh’—which can be translated as ‘the world will be built in love’.
And according to John Gottman and other researchers, this is scientific fact.
Let us love and relate, repair and build, turn towards each other and to God in the tiniest of ways. We can glue the fractures of the heart, the fissures of our world through transformative gestures and sacred intentions. Can we have those meaningful (and often difficult!) conversations with our loved ones? Can we find the courage to avert alienation, loneliness, anger and hurt? None of us need to be condemned to Ashley Madison-esque fall-outs in our lives. We need not be resigned to hurting those we love.
If we believe only a fraction of the bold claims of the Jewish tradition, then we can affirm our faith in God’s love, in a universe continually rebuilt on relationship, from the Omnipresent down to the new suckling babe.
Reach out to the loved one, show kindness to the stranger. Tip the balance towards goodness. Find small ways to change the world forever.
May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life, Shanah Tovah u’Metukah: a good and sweet New Year to all.