Rosh Hashanah Evening 5778, Lift up Your Eyes
Where have you been? What have you done?
These are essential questions on our High Holidays. The prayers we recite tonight and tomorrow will help us to reflect on the past year as we engage in Chesbon HaNefesh, the self accounting we do as we move from the pain of the past to the healing of the present and future, our mistakes to our hopes, and our current selves to our ideal selves.
But right now, I want to look at the question literally: Where have you been?
I have a thought experiment that will help. I want you to imagine that during the past year, every step that you took was marked with a bright neon splotch of paint. Now, look at those steps.
There’s a lot near your house, school and work, the places you drive your kids to, and your favorite coffee shop and restaurant. Most of your activity is concentrated within a few square miles, but there probably are some of your markings in areas that are a bit further away - perhaps you went away on business or vacation. Here at CCI, you can see the beautiful intersection of activities from the year. The sanctuary is completely filled with prints. And since the colors are permanent, it's a good thing we're talking about our renovation!
Now, I want you to look beyond these frequently visited places. Think about all the places you haven’t been to in Jefferson and Winder, and even right here in Athens! Each of us quickly see that there is a lot we haven’t seen and done - And that’s just in a small segment of a small town in a southern state in a large country that rests on just one of seven continents on the one planet Earth.
This colorful thought-experiment leads to a feeling of humility: I have experienced what amounts to a tiny, tiny fraction of the world. And this is the beginning of that important work of Cheshbon HaNefesh.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but this reality shouldn’t cause sadness or any kind of existential ennui. In fact, it's quite the opposite - I find it inspiring. Because it is exactly this reality of our lives - this smallness - that affords us the possibility of living a holy and full life.
During our Schwartz Symposium last year, Imam Adel Amer chanted a beautiful line from the Koran. The 13th verse of its 49th chapter starts with a paraphrase from our own creation story in Genesis: O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female ... Then the verse continues, and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.
God created female and male, black and white, straight and gay, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. These are just some of the identities that many of us identify with. God created us with differences so that we may get to know each other.
Were you to retrace your steps from this past year, how often would they have made a mark in the life of people who are different from you? Do you visit the homes of people who are of a different race, religion, or socioeconomic status? We need to make more footsteps on the road less travelled.
When we listen to others, when we come from a place of empathy instead of argumentation, understanding instead of judgement, we expand our knowledge and experience beyond the small areas of our footprints.
Throughout the Torah, characters lift up their eyes. It's a phrase that occurs often, and we encounter it it just as one of our ancestors approaches a seminal moment in their lifetime. When one lifts up their eyes, things change, and in the Torah, they change for the better. When Abraham is about to sacrifice his son, he lifts his eyes and sees a ram in Isaac’s stead. After Abraham & Lot decide to journey separately, Lot lifts up his eyes and sees the Jordan, and decides to travel there. Isaac went to meditate in a field and lifted up his eyes, and saw his future wife, Rebecca. Rebecca lifted up her eyes, and saw Isaac. Jacob and Esau lift their eyes to see each other after being estranged for so many years.
Life can go on as planned, following the footsteps of our daily routine, but that’s the path of stagnancy, not holiness. These stories help us to move beyond our own small footprints. We realize that we need to move beyond ourselves to become ourselves.
Isaiah 40:26 states, Lift high your eyes and see: Who created these? Who calls them each by name?
Exactly one month ago, we lifted our collective eyes to see the solar eclipse. This rare celestial activity was amazing, as it was a great opportunity to recognize the grandeur of creation and the mastery of our creator. But what was even more amazing than the sun being eclipsed by the moon was the rare activity happening right here, amongst our daily routines and footsteps.
The miracle was not the eclipse. The miracle was that for a few minutes on that particular Monday afternoon, we got along. We did not get angry on social media. We stopped arguing our political viewpoints, and refrained from becoming more entrenched in our ideologies. We didn’t separate ourselves into us and them. The eclipse motivated us to wonder about the universe and science and our place in the world and learn and ask questions. All we needed to do is to lift high our eyes.
The eclipse is a recent time that caused all of us to look up and feel that inspiring sense of humility, of smallness.
40 years ago, NASA launched the Voyager probe into the skies. It was sent to space to study the outer planets of our solar system. Thanks to its sensors and photography, many incredible discoveries were made about Saturn and Jupiter. After 13 years, its mission was fulfilled. Carl Sagan had an idea. He pleaded with officials to turn the camera around so that it faced backward, toward Earth.
From a distance of almost 4 billion miles, the camera snapped its last shot before permanently going offline. Earth appears as a tiny speck in the photo. Here’s one data point to give a sense of scale: in the picture, Earth takes up 10% of ONE pixel in a 640,000 pixel area.
These words are taken from Carl Sagan’s reflections on this picture, called the Pale Blue Dot.
We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
To me, this underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot.
Abraham looked up and saw a ram.
We blow that ram's horn. Maimonides reminds us of its message: Awake, you sleepers from your sleep. Arouse you slumberers from your slumber and ponder your deeds.
The shofar's blasts force us awake, lifting up our eyes.
Judaism reminds us that we don't need a once-in-a-lifetime eclipse or a picture of Earth from the Milky Way or the devastation of a hurrican. We don't need these to remind us to turn to each other.
The Koran verse that I read earlier paraphrased Genesis 1:27: Male and female God created them, and blessed them. God created each of us with the ability to interact with others, to learn from others and to empathize with others. God created all of these differences. And yet, other than a select few brief and far-between moments, we spend too much time criticizing the differences of others.
I want to end with a quote from another "text" that I find to be somewhat holy ... Star Wars. May the force be with you is repeated dozens of times in the Star Wars films. But in Rogue One, the Star Wars movie that came out last year, a character says at one point, May the force of others be with you.
May the force of others be with you.
This year, we need to lift up our eyes. See the footsteps of others.
Today is the day that we celebrate the holiness of our creation. On this day, we don’t need to lift our eyes above - we need to lift them beyond - beyond our own limited knowledge and closed-mindedness. We need to lift them toward each other. After all, we are God's creation, and that's what God created us for.