September 6, 2021
Live Long and Prosper - Jewish Wisdom on Harnessing Catastrophe (Erev Rosh HaShanah 5782)
Live Long and Prosper - Jewish Wisdom on Harnessing Catastrophe
Rabbi Maurice A. Salth, Rosh Hashanah 5782
Dedicated in loving memory to Rabbi Aaron David Panken Zecher Tzadik Livracha
“T-minus ten, nine, we have ignition start, six, the engines are on, four, three, two, one, zero…liftoff! We have liftoff! The clock is running1!” These words accompanied NASA’s Apollo 8 spacecraft as it blasted out of the atmosphere on December 21, 1968. The crew’s mission - to be the first humans to orbit the moon - soon became an extraordinary success. It was these astronauts who first witnessed an earth rise and then provided all of us with the Earthrise photograph2. This image. Earth rising over the horizon of the moon, standing alone with the black of space surrounding it. Never before had people seen our planet from this remarkable perspective.
Apollo 8’s crew was also the first to broadcast a live television feed to earth as they encircled the moon.
Days before the launch, Apollo 8’s astronauts were asked to prepare words to deliver during their telecast. The only direction they were given was to “be appropriate.” This confounded them. They were astronauts, not orators. The crew asked friends for help and one of them, Christine Layton, suggested: “Why don’t you start at the beginning?” “What do you mean?” they asked. And she responded: “Genesis.”
The broadcast day arrived. The world was captivated. A billion people tuned in; the largest audience in history.
As grainy black and white images of the moon’s surface beamed to earth, the crew began their words: “We are now approaching a lunar sunrise and for all the people back on earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you. ‘In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said: “let there be light” and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good.3’”
In the end they read the initial ten verses of the Torah aloud. They had the text printed on their flight plan.
They concluded their message with these words: “God saw that it was good. And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck…and God bless all of you, all of you on the good earth.”
Rabbinic legend considers tonight the start of Rosh Hashanah the birthday of the world, and synagogues around the globe declare: “Hayom Harat Olam,” today is the day of earth’s creation! Some congregations substitute the same Genesis text read by Apollo 8’s crew in lieu of the traditional Rosh Hashanah Torah portion.
When I was a kid, space enthralled me. Now, I am a child of the space shuttle era. Throughout my life I have watched every launch, followed every mission and read what astronauts have said about their journeys. Many of them reflect on a certain irony: they entered NASA fixated on the entire cosmos but their experience in space caused them instead to focus in on earth, our precious planet and all of us who inhabit it. Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders explained: “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the earth4.”
The Overview Effect
Author Frank White called this the “Overview Effect5.” Astronaut and moon walker, Edgar Mitchell, described his time in space saying: "You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, 'Look at that…6'" Look at that!
These astronauts were given a gift. Confined in their spacecrafts, with a window unto the universe, they looked back at earth. In doing so they gained a greater perspective, an overview, of what was most essential.
During this past year we have not ventured into outer space; we have not been pent up in spaceships. We have been here on earth, confined within our own spaces, our apartments, our homes, our cities. What have we seen through our windows? What perspective have we gained as we lived through, and now incredulously continue to live through, the worst pandemic in a century? This is period of such tremendous upheaval.
“Our good earth” as Apollo 8’s crew described it, and all of its people, all of us, have suffered. Many are struggling now. We mourn with those of us who lost loved ones. We commiserate with all who lived through the initial dark weeks and months of COVID in New York City and around the globe and all that followed: isolation, working remotely, Zoom-schooling, Zoom-shuling, Zoom-shivas, and for many, economic insecurity, a lot of fear and so much more.
This tumultuous stretch brings us here to Rosh Hashanah. So, in addition to the traditional apples, honey and shofar blasts, there’s added resonance in the holiday’s charge to contemplate our existence. Rosh Hashanah asks us to pull back, in order to gain greater perspective on what we have been doing and how we will go forward. No, we have not been to outer space, but all the upheavals here on earth provide us with the opportunity for even greater clarity – an enhanced overview effect of our own.
Sadly, this is not the first time our people are entering a Rosh Hashanah at the tail end of a disaster. It turns out we Jews are expert at exiting and harnessing catastrophe to provide a new lens through which to see and live. Frankly, I wish our people had much less experience in this area. Still, I am heartened and inspired knowing that time and time again our ancestors found a way through calamity by using its lessons to take stock and reorientate themselves. We can do this as well.
What Does Your World Stand Upon?
Let’s consider how our Sages responded to one of the greatest cataclysms in the history of our people, the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. This occurred two thousand years ago when there was a power struggle between the Roman Empire, which had conquered ancient Israel, and the locals, the Israelites. Attempting to crush the spirit and soul of our ancestors, the Romans demolished The Temple, the center of Jewish ritual and spiritual life. It was a devastating blow.
The Jewish people could have vanished. Instead, we reinvented ourselves. A core source of Rabbinic wisdom was born out of this tragedy, a section of the Mishnah known as Ethics of our Fathers, in Hebrew, Pirke Avot. This text is proof that our Sages had their own overview effect.
The second verse of Pirke Avot states: “The world stands on three things: Torah, genuine prayer, and acts of loving kindness7.” Al Shlosha dvarim ha’olam omed: al haTorah, v’al ha’avodah, v’al gimilut chasadim.
I know you know these words in the form of a song: Al Shlosha dvarim. Al Shlosha dvarim…
Our sages suffered the most heartbreaking of losses in the destruction of the Temple and yet they were able to envision a new future.
Since then, be it through periods of normalcy or calamity, we have been asked through the centuries to consider what we have learned and how we will adjust and go forward.
So, let me restate this charge given to each of us on Rosh Hashanah using the terminology of our Rabbis: What three grounding principles do you want your world to stand upon?
This spring the Israeli author Etgar Keret published a fictional short story entitled “Outside8” in which he examines who we will be and how we will behave when we emerge post-pandemic.
After months of quarantining, one of his main characters ventures out into the city. He encounters a man wearing dirty clothes asking for money, and he says to himself: “You remember what you are supposed to do…You walk quickly by him, and when he tells you in a cracked voice that he has not eaten in days, you look in the opposite direction, avoiding eye contact, like a pro. There’s nothing to be afraid of; it’s like riding a bike: The body remembers everything, and the heart that softened while you were alone [in quarantine] will harden back up in no time.”
This would be the bleakest outcome of these past eighteen months - for all our stresses and strains to have taught us nothing; for our opened hearts to abruptly close.
No, this is not the post-pandemic overview effect that we are striving for. This is not what our world should stand upon; of course not!
But upon what should it stand?
This past March, Rabbi Jaime Korngold delivered a eulogy. It was for the ten people murdered at a grocery store mass shooting in her community of Boulder, CO.
She said: “The meaning of life is love, full stop.”
Rabbi Korngold explained that this supermarket, which is her local store, is the heart of her neighborhood because the employees and customers know each other; they really know each other. As an example, she described the day her cognitively-impaired mother got lost in the dairy aisle. One of the employees called Rabbi Korngold at home because they noticed her mother and were concerned about her; they cared about her.
Rabbi Korngold concluded her eulogy: “We have lost ten neighbors, it hurts…The meaning of life is love. We experience love through relationships. To be in relationships we must be vulnerable. Being vulnerable hurts. Still, I choose love.”
Love is one of the principles upon which Rabbi Korngold’s world stands. Perhaps this is a grounding principle for you as well?
Now I adore these High Holy Days. But my initial response to this overwhelming question: upon what three grounding principles does my world stand? Is to be, overwhelmed! Often I feel overwhelmed, there is so much going on.
Then I stop, breath and open up to all of it. This is a difficult question to answer. Then I remind myself, I do not have to be a Mishnaic sage. I can take my time; In Israel they say “l’at, l’at, slowly, slowly;” it doesn’t have to be perfect. I resonate with what Rabbi Alan Lew teaches, that “Our souls are making this journey, yours and mine. The trip will go better for us if we know where we’re going9.”
What Do I Want My World To Stand Upon?
I’ve thought more and decided, I want my world to stand upon acts of loving kindness. Yes, gimilut chasadim, the same grounding principle that the Sages prioritized in Pirke Avot millennia ago. It turns out they were desperate for their fellow Israelite to treat each other with compassion.
As I walk through our city and watch and read the local, national and international news, I long for people to behave with care and respect towards one another.
The Talmud teaches that it wasn’t the Romans that destroyed the Temple. Instead, it was the baseless hatred of Jews to fellow Jews10 that resulted in the fall of Jerusalem. Our own hatred of one another caused our demise! In the wake of such horror the Rabbis set forth a vision of a new Judaism grounded in the principle of acts of loving kindness toward one another.
Recent medical research has shown that engaging in kindness is good for our health11; being kind can actually help us live long and prosper. But we don’t need a clinical study! We know the benefits of giving and receiving kindness.
Social scientist Dr. Richard Slatcher notes that the pandemic has profoundly affected our social relationships12. As this challenging year has gone on, and on, I have noticed too many moments when I have not been kind. Too often I have been impatient, fast to judge and quick to lose my cool with my family, my friends and with people I don’t even know.
Author Houston Kraft points out the difference between being nice and kind. “‘Nice’ happens when it's convenient, when it's comfortable. The sort of kindness we need right now [in today’s world] requires a lot more listening, a lot more discipline, a lot more sacrifice and quite a bit of discomfort13”. He recommends committing to a practice, a discipline of kindness so that we engage in it when it is easy and especially when it is hard to do so.
V'al gimilut chasadim, out of this terrible pandemic, I am prioritizing a discipline of kindness. This is one principle that my world stands upon.
We Have Liftoff! 5782
In preparation for this sermon, I asked some of our fellow congregants to reflect on their insights, the lessons they have learned from all that has transpired. I am grateful to those who responded and gave me permission to share their thoughts.
Dianne said: “I now strive to listen. To be respectful. To remember there are at least two sides to every argument.”
Ella wrote: “Don’t put off tomorrow what can be done today. Buy the tickets. Make the plans.”
Iris told me: “Here are mine: cherish the people you love. Be grateful for your health and also…eat the cake!”
And Susan said: “My three are: slow down. Family and friends are most important. Be gentle on yourself.”
We’ve got some wise congregants. You can find additional sechel, Yiddish for wisdom, from more of them on my Facebook page14.
What three grounding principles do you want your world to stand upon? What will you be printing on your flight plan for this new Jewish year? This pandemic has made it clear how precious our life's time is. Each of us has been provided with an enhanced perspective - our own overview effect. Let us use it wisely.
Hayom Harat Olam! Today is the day of earth’s creation! Rosh Hashanah has arrived.
Friends, we have liftoff! The clock is running!
Our tradition believes in us. It has empowered each of us to chart a course forward into this challenged and wonderful world. What will your path be?
1.Watch Apollo 8’s Liftoff: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-cv_JJOxGI
2. See the Earthrise photograph: https://www.nasa.gov/centers/marshall/history/this-week-in-nasa-history-apollo-8-captures-earthrise-dec-24-1968.html
3. Watch Apollo 8’s telecast to earth on Dec. 24, 1968: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ToHhQUhdyBY
7. Pirkei Avot 1:2
8. Read Etgar Keret’s short story “Outside”: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/07/magazine/etgar-keret-short-story.html
9. Lew, Alan, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared. (Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 2003)
10. Yoma 9b:8; see https://www.sefaria.org/topics/sinat-chinam?tab=sources