Day 1 Rosh Hashanah 2014
Monday, 29 September 2014 | 5 Tishri, 5775
Rosh Hashanah Day 1
Our Pale Blue Dot
Rabbi Ralph Genende
Take a look at this picture, this little dot. It’s a picture taken from Voyager 1, the American space probe launched by NASA on September 5 1977 to study the outer solar system and interstellar space. It’s still operating today 37 years and 18 days later…transmitting its signs and signals. It’s the first probe to leave the solar system and it’s the furthest man-made object from earth.
As it was moving past Saturn (on the very edge of the solar system) in 1981 astronomer Carol Sagan suggested that the spacecraft take one last picture of earth. So the cameras were turned towards us and in this photograph earth lies in the centre of one of the scattered light rays reflected from a small angle between the Sun and the Earth.
Planet earth appears as a pale blue dot in the grainy photograph. In a frame of 640,000 individual pixels, Earth takes up less than a single pixel 0,12 pixel in size.
Carl Sagan requested the photo not for its scientific practicality but rather for the perspective it could give us. As he puts it:
“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us it is different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That 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…Every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilisation, every king and peasant every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, 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”
On Rosh Hashana we turn our attention to that drop of dust, our lonely planet, suspended in God’s superb galaxy. Today after all is the anniversary of Creation ( היום הרת עולם) – today the world was made. A place of astonishing beauty, majesty and creativity. Says the Talmud: (אדם הראשון מן הארץ עד לרקיע) Adam strode across the Earth reaching from one end to the other; filled with light & confidence (מסוף העולם עד סופו). But then he stumbled, he sinned and darkness was unleashed – and our planet was awash in pain and suffering. An unimaginable cruelty was birthed – as Yeats put it: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.”
And today we are witnessing the blood-dimmed tide of ISIS with its unthinkable medieval beheadings, mass murders, crucifixions and its terrible cargo of dazed, displaced and desperate refugees, the latest being the Kurds of Syria.
As Jews we are still reeling from those 50 days of loss and devastation in Gaza, still grieving for the fallen and their families. For those three bright-eyed teenagers full of hopes & dreams & so much living to be done. As the mother of 16 year old Naftali Fraenkel (a fellow student of one of our 16 year old choristers, Dvir Weinman) so poignantly said as she stood in front of those three simple stark coffins: “You lived your lives full of Arevut, Yisraeliut, Yahadut, Enoshuyot. You filled our lives with caring, Israeliness, Yidishkeit, humaneness. Everyone says you are now Bnei Olam Ha Ba – children of heaven – we just wanted more years of life, to watch you grow here. Bnei Olam Hazeh – kids of this world.” Yet even as we grieve, we are relieved that Israel discovered the horrible catacomb of tunnels and a mass-killing of citizens planned to be unleashed from those death passages was averted.
The Talmud, and subsequently the code of Jewish law, spends a lot of time defining the requirements of a kosher Shofar. Which animal it should come from (I’ll have the ram please); its shape (curvy preferable); whether you can use a stolen Shofar (depends on whether you stole it or are listening to it) and can you blow it in your empty swimming pool (i.e. are you hearing the echo or the real thing). It also carefully considers the anatomy of the shofar and ponders: “Shofar Sh-nisdak Learco….pasul….” (י"א אפילו בכל שהוא פסול). Is a cracked shofar kosher? And while technically it depends how deep and wide the crack is and whether it affects the sound quality, it seems to me that equally relevant questions are: Can a broken heart be healed? Is a cracked community kosher? Is a fissured relationship fixable? Can this ruptured lonely planet of ours be repaired? The answer of Judaism, the response of Rosh Hashana to all those questions is a resounding “Yes”.
Yes - We are here today because we believe in the possibility of “Tikkun”, of mending and making the world better.
Yes – we stand in prayer because we believe prayer makes a difference.
Yes- human action makes a difference.
Yes – tzedaka (charity) changes things.
And Yes – tshuva – human resolutions change reality.
We aren’t a people given to easy despair or panic. We’ve been around long enough to know that this is a wounded, wounding world, and we’ve been around long enough to know that human beings can change and rearrange the world.
It’s a perspective you gain with the sweep of time – it’s the perspective the storied Rabbi Akiva had when confronting his fellow Rabbis who were in tears and desperation at the destruction of the Second Temple. He laughs and consoles them with the assurance that now there we’ve seen the worst, we can only expect the best. And he and his colleagues set about doing just that. They recreate a Judaism out of the ashes – a fabulous tradition of Talmud and a Trust of Jewish brain-power that commands the respect and awe of the world till today.
It’s the clarity of Rachel Frankel who as she got up from her Shivah sent a message to the parents of the murdered 16 year old Arab Muhammad Abu Khdeir: “Even in the depth of the mourning for Gilad, Eyal, and Naftali, it’s hard for me to describe how distressed we were over the outrage committed in Jerusalem – the shedding of innocent blood is against morality, is against Torah and Judaism, it’s against the basis of our life in this country…no mother or father should have to go through what we are going through now”.
It’s a clarity and perspective we get from our Torah readings today with their focus on the unexpected birth of two children: Isaac to Sarah and Samuel to Hannah. Children remind us that bad as the past may have been and the present is, the future can be different.
I take hope not only from our Jewish heroes but also from the doctors and health workers from across the world who put their lives at risk to save the lives of others. People like Texan doctor Kent Brantly and nurse Nancy Writebel who contracted Ebola while working in West Africa. Kent on hearing there was only enough experimental serum for one insisted it be given to Nancy.
I draw hope from the new governor of South Australia , Hieu Van Le who in his words arrived here 32 years ago with nothing but an invisible suitcase filled with dreams. A dream to live in a peaceful, safe and free country and live a meaningful and fulfilling life. He sends a powerful message that the poor, vulnerable and disenfranchised don’t have to remain that way and that by helping them we help ourselves and our society.
Sagan reminds us that our planet is a lonely flake in the great enveloping cosmic dark. That it’s the only world we know – so far – that can harbour life; that like it or not, for the moment the earth is where we make our stand.
It is a humbling reminder to preserve this fragile place from the ravages of climate change and environmental responsibility, to make sure we switch off the lights so we can keep the lights of our planet burning.
It is a humbling reminder to deal more kindly with one another, to reach out and heal when we can and keep in check the brutal when we have to.
This is the delicate balancing act we face in Australia between guarding our way of life and protecting the freedom we cherish; between making laws to protect us from the extremists and that don’t lead to racism against the moderates. We dare not allow our fear of the Islamofanatics give rise to Islamophobia. Remember the words of retired war veteran General Avigdor Kahlahni who recently said to a group of soldiers in Gaza: “We never taught you to hate, not in this army, not the IDF…maybe by hating the enemy, you are a fierce fighter…but we never taught you that. You will come back from war and it won’t be ‘the enemy’ it will be your brother-in-law or your neighbour or your former friend. When you teach people to hate, they’ll find someone to hate. So we never taught you that.”
Compassion drives us as a people and Israel as a nation. Compassion for the Israeli kids traumatised in the bunkers. Compassion for the Israeli parents mourning their soldier sons. Compassion for the mourning parents in Gaza and for their dead children. Compassion for the traumatised African refuges making their way to Israel. Compassion for the asylum seekers across the world.
Ultimately for Carl Sagan our planet hangs in the obscurity and vastness of the cosmos, for him in all this space “there is no hint that help will come from anywhere to save us from ourselves.” For Judaism God’s vision and intention is that in the end this tiny place called earth never be abandoned by Him or by us – that’s the meaning of covenant. We are not alone and as Abraham J Heschel reminded us God’s dream is to be not alone, but to have humanity as a partner in the drama of continuous creation and to make our home his home. To make his planet our planet.
In these days of danger and anxiety it’s also worth reminding ourselves that the world doesn’t have to be this way, that war and conflict are not inevitable, that the world is deeply flawed but the flaws are not part of its essence, that cruelty is not destiny and that the greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it. Start with yourself and your family and the conviction that while no one person can change the world, you can change it for one person…
At the end of the day and at the beginning of the new year let us remember to strive to do all we can to protect, nurture and cherish our small and pale blue dot, the only home we have ever known…