Once upon a time, there was light. Primordial light. Light wrapped around God’s presence like a garment. Light that predated everything else. Light that was good. You might remember from Genesis.
There are so many stories of the beginning of the world, of the birthday of the world, and there are stories you might remember from Genesis about how that light came to be and what happens to it afterward.
But I want to bring a very particular story this morning, that I imagine will be quite familiar to some of you and perhaps brand new to others. And– in full disclosure– I’m jealous of the people for whom it might be new, because when I first heard this story it changed the way that I thought about light and about God.
So this is a story from Isaac Luria, who was a 13th century mystic, about where light came from, where God came from, and where we came from.
Once upon a time, there was God, and God filled the entire universe. God was all there was. But God wanted to create, and to do that, God had to take the very first breath. God engaged in a process called tzimtzum: the literal contraction of God’s self in order to create space to create. God took a breath and made space for the universe, and in doing that God created darkness. When we say that God said “Let there be light,” that was God’s first breath, and the light coming into the space, filling the space. God put the light into vessels– then of them–and there’s this notion that if the ten vessels had stayed intact, the entire universe would have been perfect. The entire universe would have been exactly what we needed it to be.
But the vessels couldn’t contain the light. They were too fragile. And they shattered.
So the sparks of light scattered across the world. These holy sparks. They fell and they are everywhere. And the job of humans– the job of creation– is to regather them: to find these sacred sparks and to put them back into the vessels– to put them back so that we have our whole world.
The phrase tikkun olam, repair of the world, is something that we use all the time. We say that any act of social justice is an act of tikkun olam. But this context– the context of it matters, and the context is this story. When we say tikkun olam, it’s a very specific act. It is literally regathering these sacred sparks to rekindle these holy vessels so that our light is regathered and our world is whole. Because right now it is broken.
And there’s another brokenness that I want to talk about.
I want you to imagine for a moment a wedding. A Jewish wedding, with a chuppah– with a canopy– and perhaps with a rabbi standing underneath with a couple. And the very end, right before the kiss, right before mazal tov, right before the celebration, there’s a broken glass. We’re swept up in the joy. Any wedding, even– no matter how the marriage turns out the wedding day itself is a joy. But in the middle of this joyful day we pause, and whenever I officiate a wedding, I really make us pause. I really make us stop, and remember that the glass is there to remind us of sorrow. Some say it’s the brokenness of the Temple that has not been rebuilt. Some say that it’s just a reminder that there is sorrow in the world– that when there is a wedding happening there are people, probably not far away, who are dealing with the utmost tragedy. Who are awaiting a death. Who have lost a job and don’t know how to provide for their families. Who have lost hope.
When we’re in joy, others are in pain. When we’re in pain, others are in joy.
And right now, we’re at a bit of an inverse of that wedding. Right now, we’re sort of the glass. We’re either waiting to be smashed, or we already have been, and the shards are everywhere, and the sadness is everywhere. And right now we’re in a place, we’re in a time, where it’s hard to remember that a wedding is even happening because what we feel is the weight of that foot that is about to smash us if it hasn’t already.
So, a few days ago, I did something a little strange, and I asked people to share with me good news from this year. I put something on Facebook and on Twitter, and I just said, “y’all, y’know, what do you–what do ya have? What do you have that could possibly be good, right now?” And people, surprisingly, had some things to share, so I’m gonna share a few with you right now.
So, we have, in March, the global efforts on ozone helped reverse the southern jetstream damage. The hole in the ozone layer and all of the jetstream damage that’s come of that? It’s actually gotten a little bit better this year.
On May 30th, SpaceX managed to launch a rocket– the first commercial spacecraft, with astronauts– which means that there’s a possibility that we could continue to do space exploration whether NASA is fully funded or not.
And speaking of NASA, in June, NASA decided to name its DC headquarters after Mary Jackson, NASA’s first Black female engineer, the figure upon whom Hidden Figures was based– the book and the movie.
In July, a Native American tribe got Big Sur ancestral lands back after 250 years. Land recognition is so important and we’ve done such a bad job, even since we’ve known the damage we caused, of returning lands to their ancestors and we’re beginning to in this moment.
On August 21st, a Giant panda gave birth to a baby cub at the National Zoo, and it’s a little bit bigger than the size of a stick of butter now. I’ve seen some pictures. It’s getting its spots. But we have a baby panda.
And finally, just about a month ago, “Global polio eradication initiative applauds the World Health Organization for wild polio-free certification.” I have a friend who works in world health, and she was flabbergasted that this wasn’t getting more attention, that polio has been eradicated from the continent of Africa at this moment. It could come back, but right now it’s not there.
So these are just a few things that are happening in our world right now. These are just a few things that are good even in the midst of all this bad. And I am not sharing this to say “don’t worry; everything’s fine.” Everything is not fine. But there is good happening.
There are also– you know, there’s been a racial justice awakening this year. We are learning how to love our neighbor more. How to be an Anti-Racist has been on the New York Times Bestsellers’ list for 28 weeks running. We are learning, because of everything that we’re doing on Zoom, how to increase accessibility for people. We are gaining a greater awareness of who our essential workers are and what they need. And also, charitable giving is up. According to Fidelity, 46% of Millennials planned to give more to charity this year than they gave last year, along with 25% of Gen X-ers and 14% of Baby Boomers.
And, I don’t say all of this to be a silver lining. I do not say all of this to be a silver lining. There is more bad than good in this world right now. But we need to remember the wedding. We need to remember that there is still good happening. Because a few days ago, the director of the CDC announced that we’re probably not going to have a widespread vaccine for another year. The 3rd quarter of 2021, or, as Jews might put it, through the year of 5781. Chances are that we will not all be vaccinated until 5782, which means that in the best circumstances this year is going to be long and lonely and a little boring– and that’s best case.
If we’re lucky enough to be healthy, and not all of us are; if we’re lucky enough to be in a good financial situation, and not all of us are; and if we’re lucky enough to feel that we’re held in community, and I know that not all of us are because loneliness is at an all-time high in terms of its recognition among surveys and all of that; then we need to keep blessing even when we’re the glass. Because the alternative to blessing is brokenness.
It’s our job to do what Luria said and to continue to gather these sacred sparks of light, and the only good news about that is that they’re easier to see now because it’s so dark outside.
So my radical challenge to us this year is to bless more. My radical challenge to us this year is not to ignore what’s happening, because what’s happening is horrid. And y’know, I showed my RBG magnet at the beginning of services. I’m showing it again. This alone, this very last part of 5780, her death, is yet another slap in a year that’s just been gutting one moment after the next.
But this morning I got up, and I cut up an apple, and I blessed that apple. And I want you to bless your apples and honey. I want you to bless the leaves you start turning– you start seeing turning ever so slightly towards autumn. I want you to bless the person you see on your Zoom screen. I want you to bless the candles you light on Shabbat. I want you to bless the WiFi for working.
Every single time that we bless, it’s essential. Every single time that we bless it’s a reminder that even when the glass is what we feel, the wedding is still happening. Each of these blessings is a reminder that when the divine, beyond divine source took in a first breath and placed it back in the form of our universe, the light itself– the good itself– was so powerful that it couldn’t be contained, and it had to be scattered among us. So until that light is regathered, we regather the sparks ourselves, and we make our own sparks. We, created in the divine image. We make our own light. We engage in tikkun olam in every way we can, in this sense of gathering the sparks of light, in standing up for the people in our community who have less and who need us and who need to be empowered so that they can speak and act on their own behalf in a society that’s set up against them. We engage in tikkun olam because our world needs it, because we need it.
So I wish us a world that is sweet, not inherently, not because we ignore what is sour, but because we work to make it sweet. I wish us a world where we engage in tikkun, in repair, from a place of hope, from a place of possibility, from a place of love. Because each time we bless, each time we stand up, each time we pray together in the face of all that is wrong– knowing that there is so much wrong– we gather those sparks and we make our world a place that is better for us, for our community, and for all who dwell here.
So when I say shana tovah u’metukah, when I wish us a good and sweet new year, I wish us that with all of the depth of sorrow, with all of the righteous rage, and with all of the hope that we– acting from love, acting from possibility– can create a place where tikkun olam is possible. So I wish you a shana tovah u’metukah.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Rabbi Emily Cohen gave this sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5781 at West End Synagogue in New York, NY).