high holy days · sermon

Why the world was made

There are some places in this world that fill me up with an awe of creation more than anywhere else can. Places so beautiful they make me wonder why they exist.

The Scottish Highlands are such a place. Those mountain landscapes are cragged rocks and stark hills stitched together by seas and tarns and smaller rock pools. They are peat bogs and waterfalls growing shrubs and trees, so full of life it feels as though they are themselves breathing. 

This year, I went to visit them. With my partner, we walked through the hills, saw old churches, visited a beloved rabbinic mentor, and witnessed the birds and wildlife. 

In between completing my dissertation and getting ordained as a rabbi, I decided to make a pilgrimage to mark the transition. It truly felt like a religious moment; a chance to draw closer to something sacred.

As we walked, we met with a land that was part of our country but felt decidedly foreign, and we met myths that, while part of our heritage, seemed alien. 

For the Gaelic-speaking peoples of Scotland and Ireland, these landscapes have their own origin story.

Those mountains are no accident. They were built intentionally, but a type of deity called Cailleach. Known also as Beira, or the Queen of Winter, she is an aged crone; one-eyed and completely white. 

She battles spring each year to reign her icy dominion over this hemisphere. She is a deer-herder, a lumberjack, and a warrior. She carries in her hand a great hammer as she strides across the Celtic Isles. She is the mother-goddess.

It was Cailleach who built the Highlands. She pulled rocks out of the sea and carved out stepping stones for her giant strides. She pushed through the space, breaking up new mountain faces with her hammer. She walked as winter through the new landscape she had made, and allowed waters to flow and overflow in every crevice.

I was enamoured by this story. Yes, that is what it looks like. It looks like an enormous witch has made it. It feels bursting with purpose.

My boyfriend prefers another version. He is a scientist, a doctor. We see the same world but through different lenses.

Millions of years ago, he read, the earth endured an ice age. Frozen water cut through the earth and wore down the ancient mineral rocks at a glacial pace. When the waters finally thawed, they left behind these precipices and pastures on the Scottish coastlines.

But isn’t that just the same story, told in a different way? Cailleach is simply an anthropomorphic ice current. The processes attributed to gods and fairies – that breaking and carving and flooding – are repackaged in scientific language. The scientists can give us approximate dates and name when the layers of sediment formed, but they are effectively telling the same story.

What difference does it make whether these wells were made by frozen currents or by the Wild Woman of Winter?

It is not fair to say that one is rational and the other is mythical. Both accounts are testament to humanity’s ability to understand its surroundings. The story of Cailleach is no less important a contribution, and we cannot just dismiss it. 

Equally, we cannot treat the national myth in the same way as we would our best scientific discoveries. They are not equally weighted as theories about how the earth was formed. Centuries of technological advancement and detailed research have given us this account of the Highland’s foundations.

The difference between these stories is not whether they tell us something true, but what kind of truth they point us to. The scientific explanation tells us the history of the world in context of great geological events. It teaches us how to identify, exploit or protect the natural surroundings we have inherited.

The story of Cailleach, by contrast, tells us about the unquantifiable truths of the Highlands: the awe they inspire; the magic they seem to hold. It teaches us about the shared national destiny of the Scottish, Irish, and Manx people who tell her story. 

These are not competing, but complementary, stories of creation. One tells us the truth of how a place was made, the other tells us why.

At this time of year, we turn to our own national myth and origin story. Our new year recalls the creation of the world. It is a day for us to delight in the fact that we are alive.

The biblical account of creation does not only explain the origins of one geological formation, but seeks to tell the genesis of the entire world.

5,783 years ago, the world was made in six days, from explosive dividing light, through land and seas and atmosphere, through to sea creatures, winged beasts, mammals, and human beings.

It is no good to compare this religious tradition with the theories of the Big Bang or evolution through natural selection. They are telling the story of the same thing, but from totally different perspectives. 

Science attempts to understand how the world was made; our myths ask us why.

The first chapter of Genesis suggests some reasons. The world was created with great purpose. Each day, with everything that God created, God saw that it was good.

When God created humanity, God gave us responsibility for the earth and what is in it. God gave us companions and promised us regular rest. God created the world for goodness, with humanity at heart.

The scientist and the theologian alike look at the world with a sense of wonder. We both feel awe as we track their stars in their orbit. We both marvel at the fact that a planet has produced the perfect conditions for life to form and grow entire ecosystems to sustain myriads of plants and creatures.

On this we agree.

The difference is that, for the believer, we do not just gaze in awe. Awe gazes back at us. 

You are not just amazed at the world, but the world is amazed by you. 

Not just the parts of you that you share in common with all other living beings, but those things that are unique to you. 

Not just the fact that you have functioning organs and limbs, but you. That transcendental, magical part of you. We might call it personality or soul or neshama.

It is not something mechanical or quantifiable. There is something about you that is wonderful and irreplaceable.

That is you

When we are confronted with the wonder and beauty of the world in which we live, we are tempted to ask what it is all here for. The answer of Judaism is that it is here for you.

To the religious imagination, your life is not an accident. It is a blessing. You were created for the sake of the world and the world was created for the sake of you. 

According to our Torah, at first creation, God wandered round to take in the Garden of Eden in the cool of day. And, there, God called out to the first human being: “Where are you?” God was looking for the human.

The great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, understood that this question is addressed to every human being in every age. We, too, are forever hiding, behind the stories we tell ourselves that our lives are meaningless and our actions matter little. We find ways to try and escape truth, even to hide from ourselves. 

And God, that great Source of amazement, nevertheless seeks us out, asking “where are you?”

So, Buber says, you have to answer that question. You have to seek deep inside your soul and answer who you really are. You have to try and give an account of what you are doing on this earth. You have to make yourself present, ready to face Truth, and, crucially, to change.

Where are you?

You are on this beautiful earth, crafted by a magnificent Creator. You are here and alive. You are a miracle.

God is amazed at how wonderful you are.

And now you have to show that God’s faith is rightly placed.

Shanah tovah.

Cailleach, Queen of Winter
high holy days · sermon

A life without regrets

If today were your last day, what would you make of the time you have had? Would you be satisfied that you’d lived your life right? Would you feel like you had left much undone or unresolved?

If today was your last day, would you feel confident in your end? Would you know for certain what had made your life worthwhile?

These are the uncomfortable questions Yom Kippur pushes us to consider. And they are indeed uncomfortable questions. Without even mentioning God, morality, or religion, I know that some will feel affronted by the line of questioning. I know that if I were the one being asked, I would feel affronted. I would be raising objections to the questions. 

But everything about the rituals of Yom Kippur forces us into that way of thinking. 

We dress in the clothes in which we will be buried. A kittle, or cassock, for Ashkenazim. A simple tallit for Sephardim. No jewellery, no perfumes, no fancy shoes. We are dressed not too differently from how we expect to leave this world.

We pray.  We pray that we will be allowed to live. We recount the many ways in which we might die: by fire, water, beast, sickness, ordeal. We recite vidui: the final words we expect to say on our deathbed.

We fast, afflict, and deprive ourselves. All of this is supposed to make us reckon with our mortality. It is a death rehearsal. Yom Kippur asks us whether or not we are ready for death.

Today is Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat midway between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. While some of our readings are special to the occasion, the Torah continues where we last left it before the High Holy Days, with Moses proclaiming his last speeches of Deuteronomy. 

At this stage, Moses knows that he will die, and he contemplates his coming end. His life is over, and so is his mission. He will not reach the Promised Land to which he has travelled, and he must handover power. God tells Moses: “The time is coming close for you to die. You will soon lie down with your ancestors.”

God offers Moses no reassurance that he has succeeded in his life’s task. Quite the opposite, God tells Moses that the people will now chase after false gods, neglect the holy laws, and forget their covenant with God.

After all that. Plagues and miracles in Egypt. Signs and wonders and an outstretched hand to deliver them. They had seen the sea part and bread fall from the sky. They had received the commandments from a thunderous mountain. Now, God tells Moses, they will forget it all and ignore what they learned.

Moses must have wondered in that moment if his life had been worth living at all. His projects may not be continued. His beliefs might not be upheld. Everything he did may have been for nought. 

Yet, somehow, Moses seems to have achieved a kind of calm. He no longer protests against his Creator. He does not challenge the decree. He hands over to Joshua and lets him take the reins.

Perhaps, by this stage, Moses has learned that what matters in life isn’t whether your work succeeds, but whether you perform it with integrity. What matters isn’t whether you find out all the answers, but that you seek to learn. And what matters isn’t whether you perfect the world, but that you treat the world as if it can be improved. In short, what matters is that you do your best.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Rava tells us that, upon dying, Heaven will ask of us six questions:

  • Did you have integrity in your work?
  • Did you make time to study Torah?
  • Did you care for your family?
  • Did you try to make the world better?
  • Did you welcome new ideas?
  • And did you have reverence for your Maker?

Our task on earth is not to be wealthy or famous or powerful. It is to be honest, studious, caring, supportive, optimistic, inquisitive and loving. It doesn’t matter so much what we do with life, but how we do it.

Heaven doesn’t ask what our job was. It asks if we did it faithfully. Did we conduct our working lives in ways that we could be proud to give account of ourselves before God? Did we act as if how we treated others in business mattered for the sake of our own souls?

Heaven doesn’t ask if you can recite the whole of the Mishnah by heart. It doesn’t ask whether you mastered some sacred texts. It doesn’t even ask if you learnt your aleph-bet. Did you try? Did you take an interest in your traditions and heritage? Did you actually look to the past to see if it had any bearing on your own life?

Heaven doesn’t expect you to have had only one marriage of the right kind. It asks whether you actually looked after people. Did you care for those around you? According to palliative nurses, the most common regret among the dying is that they did not spend enough time with those they loved. At the end of life, God also challenges you with the same question. 

Heaven does not ask if you brought about salvation of all humanity. It asks tzafita lishua? Were you on the look out for redemption? Did you search for chances to make the world better? Did you hold onto hope that the world could be changed?

And Heaven does not ask if you arrived at the right answers. It asks whether you asked wise questions. Were you curious? Were you inquisitive? Were you interested in what others have to say?

Above all else, the question we are asked is whether we had yirat Hashem, awe of God. Without this, all the other questions are irrelevant. The Talmud compares someone without reverence for Heaven to someone who only has the keys to the door inside the house, but can’t actually get into the house.

Ultimately, what matters is that we treat our lives like they have meaning. You have to actually care about how you live, and believe that it really matters.

When Moses reaches the end of life, he doesn’t wonder whether it was worth it. He is faced with the far more fundamental question of whether he really lived right. 

Integrity. Curiosity. Kindness. Justice. Effort. Love.

These are the things that really matter in the end. We will get to the end and our only regrets will be the attitude we took towards life itself. 

Yom Kippur is, indeed, a preparation for death. But above all else it is a calling to live. It demands of us that we look at our lives and resolve to conduct them better, with fewer regrets.

Shabbat Shalom