“Let there be light”
“Let there be light”: Rosh Hashanah 5778
Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins
“In the beginning … God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening and morning, a first day.” This day of Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of life, of light, of humanity. This opening story of Torah is not intended to be scientific or historic, but paradigmatic. As the prophet Isaiah would reflect on this moment of life’s unfolding:
יוֹצֵ֥ר אוֹר֙ וּבוֹרֵ֣א חֹ֔שֶׁךְ עֹשֶׂ֥ה שָׁל֖וֹם וּב֣וֹרֵא רָ֑ע אֲנִ֥י יְהוָ֖ה עֹשֶׂ֥ה כל־אֵֽלֶּה
I form light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil - I the LORD do all these things.
Judaism understands that there is only one life force, one existence or is-ness we refer to as God, and that within that singularity all that is, is: light and dark, good and evil, right and wrong. Just as the universe is made of light and dark, so too the human. We have eaten of the tree of knowledge of tov v’ra, good and bad; we have the greatest breadth of moral capacity. Among all the animals, we can be the most creative and the most destructive. Nuclear medicine or nuclear war? The choice is ours and so too the consequences. On this day we remember the choices we have made in our lives as individuals and as a community, thus it is known in our prayers as Yom Hazikaron, the day of remembrance; it is the day we hold ourselves to account for the choices we have made, and thus is it also known as Yom Hadin, the day of judgem
Ironically, for all the significance we have made of this day, there are only two short verses in the Torah that mention it, and each refers to it not as Rosh Hashanah, nor Yom Hazikaron, nor Yom Hadin, but as Yom Teruah - the day of sounding the shofar. The shofar cries, the shofar calls. It cries with all the pain of the universe; it calls us to awaken to that pain and to respond. Do we even hear the cry of this very wounded earth, the refugees who wander it, those starving to death as we speak, those too poor to have basic housing, sustenance or medical care? We are held to account, individually and communally, as to how we respond to the calls of anguish that surround us. There is much darkness around us, and we are called upon to dispel that darkness by embracing the light. Darkness and light, evil and good – it has always been so since the dawn of human consciousness.
After each sounding of the shofar, we will sing “Hayom Harat Haolam” – this day, each moment, is pregnant with the universe, the universe of choice and possibility. Daily we are called to recreate the first moment of the universal light of creation: light being the ultimate metaphor for right action, illumination of the mind, and spiritual insight. But, inevitably, daily we are ground down by the vicissitudes of life, and the darkness and chaos that envelops us just as it did at the very beginning of time, before light’s emergence: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep.” While in many ways today is no different than any other day, through our gathering here in this moment in time, through our engaging in prayer and learning, we make this day, these ten days ahead of us, days of introspection and direction. We choose to take this time to recalibrate, to decide how we will live and how we will influence life itself. Each of us has the choice and ability to recreate ourselves, our community, our society. Judaism teaches us to choose light, to choose life.
But Judaism speaks to us not just as individuals but as a faith nation – the faith that we together can be a light to the nations. That we together can bring light to a dark world, even when the darkness descends upon us as it has in the past. Out of the destruction of the First Temple the Torah emerged; following the destruction of the Second Temple, came the rabbinic genius that has fashioned the Judaism we practice today; the kabbalists and mystics flourished after the exile from Spain. Now after the Shoah, we have the opportunity as a free people in our own land, a people not suffering institutional oppression in any land, for the first time in 2,000 years to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy to be a light to the nations. (It is our narrative – a challenging one, and that might be the reason there are so few Jews, and at the same time our small numbers continue to make such a positive impact on humanity.) We are tasked as Jews to be the moral light, the intellectual light, the spiritual light - and we cannot let our relative power and privilege deaden our sensitivity to that obligation.
So let there be light! Let there be the light of justice. Our tradition teaches that light is a metaphor for right moral action, “your word is a lamp to my feet, a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105). We must shine a light on injustice and inequity wherever we see it, and take steps to rectify those wrongs. We can think of so many travesties, among them the dark forces who repudiate our ancestral connection with our land. Earlier this year, once again, UNESCO denied the historic claim of our people to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, insinuating there was no ancient, historical connection between Jews and the land of Israel. We decry this attack on our relationship with the land, this attack on our peoplehood. Our connection with the land is the basis of the Torah, and the essence of what the rest of the Bible is about. This dark attempt to erase our memories of, attachment to and presence in the land hurts and angers, it threatens our identity as a people. But we must recognise our cries reverberate in the cries of others as well.
Our prophetic tradition calls upon us to be a light – not just for us, but to the nations, to shine the light of justice for all nations. Given our experience, we Jews should be first in line to support the rights of the first nations of this land, Australia, to have their history recognized. That opportunity came to us in May this year when a group of Indigenous leaders from across the country called for a representative body to be enshrined in the nation’s constitution and a process established working towards treaties with them, in the “Uluru Statement of the Heart”:
“We, gathered at the 2017 National Constitutional Convention, coming from all points of the southern sky, make this statement from the heart:
“Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands, and possessed it under our own laws and customs. This our ancestors did, according to the reckoning of our culture, from the Creation, according to the common law from ‘time immemorial’, and according to science more than 60,000 years ago.
“This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.
“How could it be otherwise? That peoples possessed a land for sixty millennia and this sacred link disappears from world history in merely the last two hundred years?
“With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.
“Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.
“These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness.
“We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.
“We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.
“Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.
“We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.
“In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.”
How can we of all people not walk with the First Nations of this land? We hear their anguished cry for recognition, and we understand their call to action as parallel to ours. As much as we would desire a statement at Islam’s Dome of the Rock acknowledging it sits on the site of the ancient Temple of the Jews, so too would the First Nations of this land be made more whole by similar acknowledgment. Thus, they have called for inscriptions on statues of Captain Cook to reflect their presence in this land before he arrived, and admit that in hindsight Australians understand that he did not discover this land after all. In a recent article, Stan Grant wrote: “Who would have thought the mere suggestion that Captain Cook did not in fact discover Australia would be so controversial? It seems to have taken some people by surprise, the idea that people were here for more than 60,000 years before the Endeavour dropped anchor. What were we doing all that time, just waiting for white people to find us? And to dare challenge this ‘discovery’; how impertinent.” We shine the light of justice for the First Nations of this land when we acknowledge factual, evidence-based history and adjust our narrative and recognition accordingly. We can hear their plaintive cry for justice, and when we listen and respond accordingly we become a light for the nations.
So let there be light! “Send forth your truth and your light,” says the Psalmist, (Psalm 43:3) for the light of justice is based on the light of knowledge. We know that in these troubled times of fake news, ignorance and fear leads to bigotry and racism. There is a difference between opinion based in learning, and opinions based on misanthropic misinformation. On this day of remembrance, we should recall that it was an aboriginal man, William Cooper, who knew to shine the light of reason in the face of racism and discrimination. In December 1938, just weeks after Kristallnacht, Cooper led a delegation to the German Consulate in Melbourne to deliver a petition which condemned the “cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government of Germany.” Sadly, 70 years after the Shoah, antisemitism remains part of the human story, as witnessed in Charlottesville, Virginia just weeks ago. It is necessary to rail against antisemitism, a hatred based on irrational fear and outright lies, but not sufficient. We need to care about ourselves as Jews, true, but our responsibility is to all humanity. As a light to the nations, it is incumbent upon us to shine the light of truth whenever we see the darkness of discrimination. And that darkness surrounds us in these days when we are being surveyed as to our position regarding marriage equality.
When the light of reason is applied to this conversation, we see that it is fear and prejudice that leads people to oppose marriage equality. No argument against marriage equality stands up to the light, (as recently noted by Dr. Ron Levy, a senior lecturer at law at the Australian National University in The Sydney Morning Herald September 3 2017). First, let us be clear, we are speaking about allowing people of the same sex the right to marry under Australian civil law. This has no impact on religious celebrants or religious education. Second, historical fact shows marriage has not always meant the same thing over time – it has not even meant monogamy. Third, to be valid, marriage does not require progeny – or we would outlaw all second marriages of those over 40. Fourth, today, with adoption and IVF, same sex couples can have as many children as heterosexual couples and establish a family. Fifth, we now have the first generation of research that clearly indicates that children in same sex families are equally well adjusted – if not better – than those in heterosexual families. There is no evidence that children need parents of opposite sex to thrive; if anything, maintaining marriage inequality for heterosexuals only privileges them, while having the potential to undermine the security and well being of same sex couples and their children. “No, your family is not good enough, your parents’ love not recognised by us.” With the light of reason and logic, we come to understand that opposition to same sex marriage is more an opposition to same sex relationships than a defence of an institution called marriage that has changed over time. The LGBTQI community cries in pain, we must respond to their call with a resounding “yes”, if we are truly to be a light to the nations.
Let there be light! For the month leading to this beginning of a new year we have been reading, “God is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear”; we will continue to read this Psalm through the whole penitential season until the last day of Sukkot. In contemporary terms, we understand God as eternal being, life force, ultimate awareness. Our spiritual light depends upon our freeing the source of all conscious being colloquially known as God from the stories told about it. We must reject “religious leaders” who with hubris have arrogated to themselves the exclusive right and absolute authority to tell you what is God’s will. Ours is not blind faith, but faith in the power to learn, to feel, to act. When we contemplate eternal being, when we understand the interconnectivity and mutual responsibility that implies, when we act accordingly – then we are a light to the nations.
We must not read Scripture as the immutable word of some all powerful, all knowing external entity, but as our core mythical stories giving us the deepest insights into life and our role as Jews on this planet. Just as we see parallels to Aboriginal culture with their connection to the land, just as we cry out with them against bigotry and prejudice, so too we should understand Torah as our version of dreamtime, our mythology. While myths may not be historically accurate, they provide insight into the human condition. The tree of knowledge of good and evil is no more an actual tree than the rainbow serpent a real snake. If we Jews are truly to be a light to the nations, then the ultimate light we must shine is upon the words of Scripture themselves. The stories themselves cry out to be read as creative myths, not absolutist dictates; we answer their call by reading them in such a way as to bring light and faith to this dark and fearful world.
“And a spirit of God moved over the surface of the waters and God said let there be light.” We are that spirit of God. Let us be that light, a light unto the nations.