Living with Change: Chaos and Creation
Mason Cooley, an author well known for his witty statements, said of the process of Creation, “No chaos, no creation. Evidence: the kitchen at mealtime.”
There has certainly been no end of chaos and creation in our people’s history and it has not always been a pretty process, even if at the end of the day, we, like God in the creation story, can say, “It is good.” Many of our stories are full of chaos and change. The narrative of the Creation of the world which begins with “Tohu and Vohu,” the formless chaos, is only the first. Then Adam and Eve are expelled from Gan Eden, more chaos. Then, the flood story, a narrative of both chaos, the flood itself with its disorganized disintegration of the world, and order, Noah’s creation of an ark filled with an orderly array of animals who eventually help recreate the world. Even the stories of the Patriarchs are full of chaos that leads to creation.
Abraham is told “Lekh Lekha,” “Go forth,” to leave his well-ordered life for a new chaotic one. As someone, who along with his wife recently traveled across country with three children in a minivan and experienced the chaos that is a modern road trip, I can hardly imagine what the migration of Abraham’s entire household would have been like! Then there is the story of Joseph, our people’s eventual servitude in Egypt, and the Exodus.
Is there a story better suited to explaining the difficulties and chaos of change than the Exodus narrative? Three children complaining every few minutes about when we were to arrive on our journey cannot be compared with forty years of hearing the cries of tens of thousands.
Moshe, are we there yet? I’m thirsty!
I’m hungry! Manna again??? Don’t they have a McDavid’s in this Wilderness?
Which desert are we in now? Look children, we just crossed over a Wadi!
How many more years until we get there?
Why couldn’t God have given us a GPS at Sinai and granted us the Ten Commandments when we get to Jerusalem???
Over and over again, even in more modern times, beginning with the destruction of the Second Temple until the modern day, the number of times our people has faced radical changes is incalculable. We have faced difficult times, difficult circumstances filled with strong emotions, too many difficult journeys. Yet, creation always followed destruction and exile. Hope sprung forth from even the deepest despair.
There are more than a few jokes about the choice of the Jewish people as God’s chosen coming up for renewal! Oy, our aching backs! Standing up for principles and values that others do not share can be difficult and it has been difficult for our people throughout the ages. The burden has been great. Yet, because the Jews of old upheld them, the values and principles of Judaism were there when later generations needed them. The Torah, the Prophets, the Psalms, the prayers and the stories have served as anchors amid the stormiest of seas in our people’s history.
Concerning that point, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote:
There ‘s a view—I hear it in the media almost every day—that in an age like ours, of unprecedented change, our values, too, must change. Forget marriage and the stable family; forget virtues like honour, fidelity, civility, restraint; above all, forget religion. They’re old; they’re past their sell-by date. For heaven’s sake, aren’t we living in the twenty-first century?
It’s a view that couldn’t be more wrong. It’s when the winds blow the hardest that you need the deepest roots. When you’re entering uncharted territory, it’s then that you need a compass to give you a sense of direction. What gives us the strength to cope with change are the things that don’t change—a loving family, a supportive community, and the religious texts that preserve the wisdom of the past.
Now, I must say that Rabbi Sacks is the Orthodox Chief Rabbi of Britain and that I would demand that some changes occur because of our changed sensibilities. That is what Reform Judaism is all about, adapting to the modern world. For example, Reform Judaism removed most of the references to chosen-ness from our liturgy. Why? Because we believe that we have chosen to take on the commandments and the mitzvot, not that God has forced US to adhere to them because our ancestors were chosen. And we removed that chosen-ness language because we believe that people of other faiths are equally “chosen” if that term means that they are considered by God for their action and inaction, their good deeds and their misdeeds, for blessing. There are a multitude of other examples of how having changed sensibilities has affected the kind of Judaism that we practice compared with the Orthodox, including the role of women in Jewish religious life.
Yet, while we would certainly differ on the specific values and practices from ancient times that should be maintained in spite of modernity along with those changed sensibilities, we do agree that some things too easily abandoned in the modern age are essential when we face chaos and trouble in our lives. Among them are the importance of prayer and a faith community.
One of those times of chaos and trouble that is most memorable to us occurred nine years ago, this weekend. Shabbat Shuva, this Saturday, is September 11. September 11, 2001 brought chaos to our lives and to much of the world.
I remember how I felt that day, the profound lack of feeling at times, a sense of shock, of total disconnect from reality—followed swiftly by a sense of profound loss, of terrible sadness, of anger, of rage—of fear, of helplessness, of a desire to hide and yet a desire to be around others. I remembered praying and praying.
We organized a service that night for the community. Not all of the congregations participated. Some congregations closed their doors in fear. I felt, and others did as well, that people needed support. They needed open doors. So, along with a rabbi at one of the larger congregations, I planned a service for that evening. Hundreds of people attended. We hugged. We cried. We offered prayers of healing and prayers of mourning. We asked for peace, even as anger welled up within us. And we sang Oseh Shalom with tears in our eyes.
Religious leaders throughout the Western world noted a dramatic increase in attendance at services for weeks after the event. People turned to religion. They sought spiritual support. Jews found support in prayers and songs of peace, in the Mourner’s Kaddish and prayers for healing, but also in the action of coming together as a community in support of those in need in our congregations even as we offered prayers for those around the world. Within a few weeks, certainly within a few months in most places, as the intense emotions of the crisis lessened and lives returned to normal, so did attendance at religious services.
Often it is far easier to recognize that religion; that the practices of faith and spirituality can play a role when the entire world is in chaos than it is to recognize that they can be of help when our own personal world is turned upside down. It is even more difficult for those who have not already made use of spiritual practices and the support of a faith community to perceive the ways in which they may aid, not only in the aftermath of traumatic events in our lives, but in preparing for the possibility of their occurrence. The practices of faith and spirituality can help a great deal.
Chaos may arrive suddenly in our lives in our doctor’s office, on the phone, through the mail, by email or even by text message. We may find out that the way that our lives have been conducted will dramatically change. We or our loved ones become ill. We may find ourselves caring for an ill loved one in our midst, radically altering our daily routine. Those who have been the pillars upon which our lives have been constructed may die or perhaps choose to leave us through divorce. We may find ourselves or our partners without jobs or without healthcare. Even when changes are due to our own choices, they are not necessarily devoid of significant stress, such as a decision to change careers, go back to school, or move to a different city or even into a new house around the block.
This past year, brought with it some significant changes to our lives and the life of our congregation. As Laura and I worked in preparation for this year’s High Holiday services, no few times did we find notes reminding us of what Peter Pintus was to do in our services. No few times did those little reminders, those sticky notes bearing his name, trigger other memories, drawing a tear or two, or a smile as we remembered a bit of humor from days past.
Just as Peter is greatly missed, so are the many others whom we as a community and we as individuals have lost in the past year and in past years. If we close our eyes, we can imagine them sitting or standing beside us. They are still a part of our lives. Their memory lives on. The Greek philosopher Pericles (5th Century BCE) said long ago, words that ring true today, “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”
Next week in the Memorial Service we will read the words of Herbert Louis Samuel:
If some messenger were to come to us with the offer that death should be overthrown, but with the one inseparable condition that birth should also cease; if the existing generation were given the chance to live forever, but on the clear understanding that never again would there be a child, or a youth, or first love, never again new persons with new hopes, new ideas, new achievements; ourselves for always and never any others—could the answer be in doubt?
Life challenges us to take tohu and vohu, the stuff of formless chaos, and to make something of it, even from the darkest depths of chaos; to take that and to create. From there may arise new hopes, new ideas, new achievements. But also new loves, perhaps, new friends, new joys, a new and different kind of happiness.
The new may not be like the old at all. What brought chaos into our lives, may have brought with it sadness, anger, or darkness. Our world changes, our lives change, and those changes can shake us to the core. But life teaches us that with every Fall and Winter comes Spring and Summer. Life teaches us that every night is followed by dawn. No year, no season, no day is exactly the same as the last. Some are certainly worse than others. Yet every new year, every new season, every new day we have the opportunity to the rebirth of our souls, to elevate our spirits.
Every dawn brings the first day of the rest of our lives. Every High Holidays brings us the chance for Teshuva, turning, repentance, a new way. We always have the chance to change, to make ourselves better people, to brighten the lives of others as well as our own, but this time of year, the Jewish Tradition urges us to act with urgency.
I began this talk with a joke about creation and the kitchen, that creation and chaos go hand in hand. But I did not use that quote simply to make THAT point. When we make things in the kitchen, we must use what we have on hand. Sometimes, we have to compensate when we lack ingredients. Sometimes, we try new things because what we intended to make cannot be made with what we have. Sometimes, our substitutions do not work very well…or at all. Other times, we may discover something wonderful. Along this line, there is a joke about God’s creation of mankind. The following is my own family friendly version.
The angels asked God, “Almighty Master of the Universe, Architect of Creation, human beings are so problematic. They seem to have so many faults. Yet You, Master of Perfection, fashioned them with Your own hands! What happened?”
God replied, “Well—first, I took from the formless stuff of creation and made day and night, the heavens, sun, moon, stars and the earth. That took up a lot of the materials. The Then I made the plants and then the fish, the birds, the insects and the animals. That took almost all of the rest. For the platypus, I had to use spare parts! A duck’s bill and webbed feet, a beaver’s body… You’ve seen the platypus, right? So I was already stretching.
Now, there wasn’t much left of the good stuff to use, so I had to make do when I made human beings. I used what I had left and threw in a good bit of water to make it all hold together. But don’t tell the people, they all think they’re perfect!”
Our Tradition teaches us, and we are reminded during the High Holidays in particular, that though we are told the world was created for our sake, our origin is dust. We are not to think of ourselves as made of exceptional stuff.
Dust. We are of dust. Dust with a soul. Dust imbued with the breath of life. Dust, nonetheless. We are to be humble, to understand that we are not perfect, even though we are created in God’s image. But though we are to remember that we are of mere dust, we are to strive to be better, to change ourselves if we can, to strive toward holiness for ourselves and for others. When God, or life, calls us to change, when God says “Lekh Lekha,” “depart,” “change,” even though it may be very difficult, we must go. When chaos enters our lives, we must work with what we have to create anew. May Judaism—the Torah, the Prophets, the Psalms, the prayers, the songs and the stories, the teachings of the rabbis, the support of our congregation and community, faith in God and the elevation of spirit—help us along the way.