This piece is part of a Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Experience series of sermons contributed by Hillel Directors for the 5775 High Holidays.
Rosh Hashanah is essentially about beginning and the rabbis refer to this day as the birthday of the world. But as you and I know, beginnings are always challenging--for us, for communities, and as the Kabbalists, the Jewish mystics tell, even for God.
I want to tell you a story from the Jewish mystical tradition about the problems that God confronted when God decided to create the world. First, a quick disclaimer: Neither I, nor the Kabbalists, are talking literally here. The story is really about a deeper truth: about creation, about being in the world and what it means to take up space in our lives.
So, the rabbis tell that when God began to create the world, there was a big problem. God's being was so expansive, that it filled all of creation. The mystics use the phrase ain sof which means "without limits," which is another way to say that the world was entirely God. Of course, we might say something similar when we look at the beauty of creation and say God’s presence, a sense of holiness, fills our world. But that wasn’t what the mystics were saying.
They understood that God’s presence was so expansive that there was no room for anything else to fit in. No room for the mountains or the oceans. No room for the stars in the sky. No room for the animals or human beings. So God solved this by contracting God’s self, making God’s self smaller, so that there would be room for other things to fill and inhabit the world. In Hebrew, this act of contraction was called “tzimtzum” – a purposeful contracting in order to make room so that other things can exist, develop and thrive. Once God pulled back, pulled in, there was room for the rest of the things that now fill the world. On this time of beginning, when we think of ways to approach our lives in the new year, I want to talk about this concept, tzimtzum as a working framework for change and transformation in our lives.
Now, it’s easy to understand how tzimtzum can be a good thing in social situations. We've all had that experience with a friend or family member or new acquaintance. We sit down with them for dinner or a coffee and all they can talk about is themselves. This person will tell a story and before you can answer, or reflect on what they said, or share a thought, they’re on to the next story. And you begin to think that they must have some kind of strange breathing mechanism so that they don't even have to take a breath between sentences. It is important to be aware when we take up too much space.
Now, I care about other people and I honestly like to listen to them. But in a world of reciprocity, a connected world, a world that builds friendships and strong families and real communities, we have to be aware if we are filling up all the space in the room. Thoughtful listening is more about being interested than being interesting. Good friends and leaders pay attention to when to practice tzimtzum and pull back to make room for those precious connections that are essential in true community, friendships and loving relationships.
Even when we are listening to another person, we sometimes fill spaces that only we know we are filling. Sometimes I’m in a conversation and I’m so focused on what I’m going to say next -- formulating my words, planning them out, searching for an opening so I can jump in and talk -- that I’m not making room in my mind and my heart to hear what the other person is saying. That’s another good time to practice tzimtzum, and create the space in our minds not just to appear to be listening but to really take in another’s words.
I think the practice of tzimtzum is especially important for parents. I can speak with authority about this being the proud parent of three amazing kids. When you are a parent, you sometimes get so invested in your children’s lives that you expand into spaces where you have no right to be. Let me share a true, but embarrassing story from a couple of years ago. I received a call from the mother of a student. This happens and I’m always happy to speak with parents. Before I could hardly say hello, she jumped in and said, “Rabbi, I was going through the course catalogue to help my son pick his classes and I saw you are teaching on Jewish music and prayer and I wanted to find out… Can my son get into the class if he’s a freshman?” Now there were so many things wrong with her questions, I didn’t even know where to start. If anyone needed to understand the importance of tzimtzum, it was this loving, overly-involved parent. So in a way that I hope was kind, but clear, I said to her that the process of choosing classes was incredibly valuable for students. There were all kinds of resources (advisors, peer advisors, other students, faculty) that are here for your son. But more than anything, it’s infinitely more important that he has the space to make these decisions, learns how to plan his schedule and choose courses that draw and engage his interests. Parents have to pull back, practice that tzimtzum, so children have the space to grow and be responsible for their own lives.
The concept of tzimtzum – pulling back to make room -- has important applications to our Jewish lives as well, and those of us in Jewish leadership need to recognize this. This has special implications for prayer over the holidays. People come to services, and we leaders fill up the space with so many words and prayers and tunes. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that the leader should never take away from worshippers the wonderful privilege of praying for themselves.
So I want to stress that while what we are doing up here is important, what we do “up here” is infinitely less important that what you do “down there” over the course of our time together. Because the real work of Rosh Hashanah is not on the page of the prayer book, or in what the leader says or sings, it’s how you use this time to think about your life and what is important to you in the year to come. How you want to change, whom you need to apologize to, whom you need to forgive? That’s the essence of Rosh Hashanah.
Here’s some ways that you might create your own space within the structure of services: First, don’t feel bound to be in lock step with the prayer book. If a thought catches your attention, stay with it, follow it out, close your eyes, re‐join the service when you are ready. Don’t be locked into your seat. If you need to get up, step outside, stare out the window as you explore a prayer, take that space.
You can also make your own space by not being constrained by the God language of the prayers if that language doesn’t work for you. (For me, God is a way that I think about my relationship to the universe, to history, to the people I care about deeply, my responsibility to the world.) The prayer book speaks in metaphors. You don't have to agree with the prayers. Some of my most meaningful prayer experiences have been arguing and struggling with concepts I find difficult. As rabbi here, I have no spiritual expectations of what you will think about or say or do over this time together. My profound hope is that you will fill your own space and use this time in a way that is helpful as you chart your course for the new year.
Finally, there is one more point of tzimtzum, of spiritual contraction that I’m thinking about as the new year begins, especially after this summer. I’m thinking a lot these days about Israelis and Palestinians. There was an article in the NY Times yesterday that rabbis can’t say a thing about Israel and Gaza without getting pounded either from the left or the right. But I am deeply connected to Israel and my family and friends who live there and I feel it’s important to say this: I have strong feelings about how important it is to envision and empower a future where Israelis and Palestinians live in peace, mutual respect and security. I think that in our small part of the world, here at Tufts, we can model an approach where we make room for a different kind of conversation to develop. But if I so fill my space that I have no room to hear another person’s narrative, questions and concerns, then I leave no room for understanding, peace and reconciliation.
The new year begins and stretches before us full of possibility. The richest life is a life that builds deep connection: with our friends, with our families, with our communities. We have to be able to pull back enough and make the room that enables those connections to build and strengthen--not just to talk, but to listen; not just to listen, but to really hear; not just to hear, but to act in ways that will contribute to a better world in the year to come. Shana tovah and wishes for peace, joy and blessing.
Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey A Summit is the Executive Director of Tufts Hillel.