Angels in Hardhats

September 28, 2019
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780

If our synagogue’s present construction serves as any indication, then on that first Shabbat of Creation, when the good Lord stepped back to behold the divine handiwork, the wi-fi was nowhere near close to being hooked up. Printers had not been connected to the mainframe; furniture was sitting in a shipping container on a dock in New Jersey; and some angel had forgotten to install a phone jack in God’s office. Why did God wait until the fifth day to fill the land, sea, and air with living creatures? Now I know. Because the angel entrusted to supply the TCO, the Temporary Certificate of Occupancy, chose that week – of all weeks – to go on vacation!

Park Avenue Synagogue: Welcome back to 87th Street! As staff, we re-entered the building on September 4, but I imagine that for most of you, this evening – Rosh Hashanah – is your first time back to behold all the progress . . . and all that is still in progress. As I have reflected many times from this bimah, it is of deep significance that when the world was established, the adjective God used to describe creation was tov/“good,” not “perfect,” not “flawless,” and certainly not “complete.” There is still work to be done, details to attend to, and we are all looking forward to the formal dedication on Sunday, December 8. But even now, it is incumbent upon us to pause, to note how far we have come, and to appreciate all that is tov, all that is good. To say “thank you” to you, our members, for your shared vision, support, and patience. And while the entire leadership under our Chairman Marc Becker and President Natalie Barth deserves thanks, I would be remiss if I did not publicly express gratitude to the synagogue officer who has shepherded the construction every day, every step of the way – the indefatigable, the one and only – Craig Solomon.

Having never lived through a building project of this magnitude, I naively believed that the sequencing a construction project was a fairly straightforward undertaking. Construction is announced, construction is completed, and construction is be enjoyed. What I have discovered, what everyone else seemed to know but never told me, is that nothing could be further from the truth. Construction is messy, punch lists take time to complete, and the act of creation extends well beyond the date of occupancy.

In fact, as the rabbis tell it, far from a crisply sequenced undertaking, the creation of our world itself – what Rosh Hashanah commemorates – was a similarly frenetic deadline-busting effort. Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of Our Fathers, relates the anxious hours prior to that first Shabbat – corresponding to our precise moment, theologically speaking – when God remembered a list of ten items that had been overlooked. (5:8). Ten things that had to be rush ordered at twilight – including the rainbow to follow the Flood, the manna to sustain the Israelites through their desert wanderings, and the tablets upon which the Ten Commandments would be engraved. What a great image, one that I hope gives our Executive Director Beryl Chernov comfort – that even God had to yell at the foreman to get the job done by deadline.

As I researched these midrashim, these rabbinic glosses to the Genesis story, I discovered that there are actually different lists scattered throughout rabbinic literature describing different things that God created prior to Creation, including, for instance, the Torah, the Holy Temple, and God’s throne of glory. But of all the things on all the lists of what needed to be created prior to the physical universe coming into being, the most remarkable, the most curious, and the most relevant for our purposes today is not actually a “thing” at all, but an idea, a concept or behavior. And that is teshuvah/ repentance. Teshuvah/repentance stands alone, an idea without which the world itself would not and could not exist.

So, I began to wonder why. Why would God need to create teshuvah as a precondition to creation? The first answer, I think, requires knowledge of another midrash, which teaches that God had actually created other worlds prior to this one, but each one disappointed; none of them worked out. What was missing in these earlier creations? What was missing was the one thing we all know is needed in order to handle our world’s inevitable disappointments, setbacks, and shortcomings. The ability to see beyond a slight, to see the big picture, and to move forward: Teshuvah. Only before this world was created did God finally understand that in order for this world or any world to endure, it would need some give, it would need to forgive. Like a skyscraper built to sway in the event of an earthquake, teshuvah was the “give” built into the world in order to withstand the inevitable imperfections to come.

It is a sweet thought, but it lacks precision, because strictly speaking, teshuvah does not mean forgiveness; teshuvah means repentance. Namely, the ability of an individual to reflect on the past, to feel remorse over one’s behavior, and to resolve to choose a new course of action in the future. By this thinking, teshuvah had to exist prior to Creation, because it is the precondition not just to our world, but to our very humanity. As the great sage Maimonides taught, our humanity is based on two fundamental theses. First, that every human being is endowed with the ability to distinguish between good and bad; and second, that every human being is endowed with the ability to choose between good and bad. Simply put, without teshuvah, without moral agency, human beings would not be human.

It is this idea that teshuvah is what makes us human that is the premise behind the High Holidays – the theological ante, if you will, to the days ahead. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur wouldn’t make any sense if we didn’t believe we had free will, that we can repent our past and choose a new course of action. This evening we commit to shedding all the excuses we employ year-round to justify our behavior: that we were “just doing what everyone else is doing,” that “circumstances were beyond our control,” and that ownerless “mistakes were made.” To believe in teshuvah means that we look back on the year knowing that we did know better, we did have the choice, and, nevertheless, we made bad choices. All the rationalizations, deflections, and justifications – all of them –are checked at the door tonight. There is another midrash that teaches that when a child is conceived, an angel brings the fetus before God. The angel asks, “Will this child be tall or short?” God decrees its height. “Will this child be smart or not?” God decrees its intellectual capacity. Then the angel asks, “Will this child be good or bad?” And God is silent. Because moral volition is not a matter of divine decree but of individual choice. To believe in teshuvah is a bold challenge to our humanity – because it means that our mistakes belong to nobody but ourselves, but it also means that we can, if we so choose, rise to our God-given potential.

But that still isn’t the full picture. The formation of teshuvah at Creation is not just about God, nor, for that matter, just about you and me. Teshuvah is actually about other people – or more precisely – about all of us. Because if you believe, if you truly believe, that you and I can be reflective and remorseful and change for the better – then you know what? That person who wronged you in the year gone by: you have to believe that he or she can change, too! The person who caused you hurt, the one who demonstrated such poor judgment, the person whom you have benched indefinitely from your life – that person is also capable of reflection; that person is also capable of regret; that person is also capable of course correction; and that person may just be worthy of forgiveness.

One of the most enigmatic midrashim regarding Creation tells of God’s deciding to create humanity while the ministering angels debated over whether humankind should be created. Love said: “Let them be created for they will do loving deeds.” Truth said: “Let them not be created because they will fall short of truth.” Righteousness said: “Let them be created because they will do righteous deeds.” Peace said, “Let them not be created because they will bring discord.” On and on they debated, right in front of God, the midrash teaches, until God seized hold of Truth threw it upon the earth thus creating the first human. (Bereshit Rabbah 8:5)

I will be the first to admit that I don’t fully understand the text. But I think part of its message is that in order for humanity to be created, Truth had to be thrown to the ground, lest any one human claim to be in possession of Truth in its entirety. None of us are in possession of the whole truth; there is always another side of the story, and during the days ahead we need to be open to hearing it. I am well aware that I personally have caused people hurt this past year. When I know, I reach out: I call, I email, I write a note, I ask someone out for coffee, I do whatever I can to seek forgiveness. When someone reaches out to tell me that I let them down, that I caused them offense, I try my best to resist the urge to be defensive. I remind myself that there is always another side. I don’t know if in the days ahead we will resolve all the hurts of the year gone by – that is a tall order. But I do know that if we fail to allow for the possibility that neither you nor I are in possession of the whole truth, if we fail to allow for the possibility that our loved ones are as capable of change as we would like to think we ourselves are, then this entire season of repentance will not amount to very much.

I imagine there are all sorts of reasons why teshuvah had to be built into Creation – why it was a precondition to the existence of our world. It’s the sort of question we should all be thinking about during the holidays. But it was sometime last week, as I was writing late at night in my new office (with the wi-fi now up and running), that it finally hit me. I had gotten up to stretch, and I took a stroll through the building. I saw all the construction workers and maintenance professionals working round the clock and through the night, these angels in hardhats, working furiously to put our building back together. Not a new building, but a return to our old one; Returned not to its former glory, but to a beauty beyond what anyone imagined possible. A building that honors all that came before and is poised to house an infinite number of memories still yet to come.

And I thought to myself: if that isn’t what these High Holidays are all about, then I don’t know what is. And I remembered that the word teshuvah doesn’t just mean repentance; the word teshuvah, from the Hebrew root shuv, means “returning.” Teshuvah signals the possibility of a return home and the promise of a new future – at one and the same time.

Why did God establish teshuvah at the twilight of Creation? Because God wanted us to be able to feel like we felt when we re-entered this building this evening. A feeling of coming home hand-in-hand with the experience of something altogether new. The familiar mixed with the unfamiliar, the sense of comfort alongside the thrill of the unknown; in other words, the sensation that we are entering into a new chapter of our lives. That is what teshuvah feels like. That is what these High Holidays are about. And that is why God had to create teshuvah before our world came into existence. God knew that over the course of our lives we would wander and go astray, and so God gave us the divine gift of teshuvah, of return, of finding our way back home, even as we step forward into new territory. That is the promise of this building, that is the promise of these High Holidays.

Friends – welcome back to 87th Street. It is beautiful, it is new, it is tov. It is tov m’od/very good – and it is your home. This is the place where you belong. A new building. A new year. Let’s make the most of it!