“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
The author of these words, Charles Dickens, was a virulent antisemite, and his opening words from A Tale of Two Cities in 1859 England might well describe us on this Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783.
Each year we call Rosh Hashanah a new start, and this Rosh Hashanah falls on troubled times. Science is taming the pandemic, and gun violence is raging. Global living standards are the best ever, and Mississippi’s entire capital city just went days without drinking water while one third of Pakistan was under water. The world is more peaceful than at any time since Charles Dickens, and the Ukraine war threatens global stability.
Genuine commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion are blossoming, and antisemitism is resurging. The U.S. just made historic investments in clean energy, and climate disasters are mounting. Democracy’s guardrails held, and they are at risk.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Both are true. And the both-ness of our “best of times” and “worst of times,” the emotional and cognitive load of it all, has been a rollercoaster. We’ve felt afraid, courageous, overloaded, numb, sickened, healed, inspired, disgusted, hopeful, helpless, angry, overjoyed and just plain tired – sometimes in rapid succession, sometimes all in the same day.
“It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.”
We’ve believed and we couldn’t believe it. We had faith and lost it. As a nation, we lost our way and began finding it, whatever our politics or none at all. Routines went out of whack. Our planet went way out of whack.
“It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Normal went out the window, and hindsight is showing us that for many, normal wasn’t all that. Some recent troubles had been hiding in plain sight. They weren’t news to the poor, marginalized, social justice advocates or scientists. And, much good is happening to offer us real reasons for encouragement and optimism.
Hope and despair; everything before us and – sometimes it seems – nothing. If it all feels like it might topple over, or maybe we will, or maybe we already did and we’re trying to right ourselves again, then it’s time to seek a new and healthier balance – as individuals, as families and communities, as a people, as a polity, and as a planet.
Seeking balance anew – in Jewish mysticism, Tiferet. That’s our theme for the High Holy Days of 5783. In a sense, our theme was preordained because our two communities are following a seven-year cycle of Kabbalah. Two years ago, our theme was Hesed – qualities of love and kindness that support teshuvah, the path toward our best selves. Last year was Gevurah – the strength, courage, discipline and healthy boundaries that make teshuvah possible. On that seven-year cycle, next up was Tiferet anyway – and it’s the urgent call of this time.
Balance has eluded us. Usually we feel not its presence but its absence, when we feel imbalanced – when something feels off. It’s like our air: usually we see it only when fog or smog rivets our focus.
Yet balance is nature’s goal. Equations balance: it’s what they do. Nature abhors a vacuum and rushes to fill it and restore balance. We all seek balance, though often unconsciously. Our bodies are wired to maintain homeostasis, a chemical and physical balance that we usually notice only if something’s off or we feel shaky on our feet. Relationships, psyches, communities, economies, ecosystems and we ourselves exist in dynamic equilibrium, in or out of balance.
Light and dark, best and worst, tragedies and miracles, me and you. The element common is one little word often overlooked – and, Tiferet teaches us, oh so holy.
And that one little word is “and.”
The world is a dumpster fire, and the world is being made new. Some stuff is badly broken, and some stuff is dazzlingly wonderful. We sinned and must do teshuvah (especially now, in this season), and our souls are existentially pure (even if we forget). Tiferet is our holy “and” – not to always take a middling view, but to hold and connect whole truths, and often different truths, to boldly enrich our world and make genuine teshuvah possible.
Our world aches for Tiferet now. Problems pile up because, at heart, we lose our “and.” Humanity pursued wealth and comfort for centuries as if the “and” of environmental impact didn’t exist. Toxic politics can claim that there is no “and” – no reasonable reason to disagree unless someone is corrupt or stupid. Often our character flaws, our missed marks, pile up because we can’t or won’t fully see the “and” of where they came from, how they impact us and others, or that we really can change and make repairs.
And. Balance. They’re easy words to say – like “Love YHVH your God with all your heart, all your soul, all you’ve got,” or “Love your neighbor as yourself” – but rarely easy ones to fully live.
And yet, it’s what we’re here for. Biologically we’re wired to seek balance. There’s a reason that “Fiddler on the Roof” goes by that title: Jews as a people, and each of us individually, stand atop the roofs of our lives, perched in ways that inherently risk a tumble, trying to keep balance in a world often badly imbalanced. Yet there, exactly there, is where we make beautiful music. We’re all fiddlers on the roof.
So as roof fiddlers, how do we seek balance? How to cultivate this quality of Tiferet and manifest it in our world? That’s our question for these High Holy Days. Maybe our instinctive answer is simply not to move. After all, if we don’t move, then maybe we won’t fall – but that’s not balance. That’s being stuck and afraid, a prison of inertia.
Besides, we don’t have the luxury to stay put. Our hearts and souls, our relationships, our country and our planet need change and a healthier balance, not the same old same old. Plus, as any rooftop fiddler knows in our bones, if we don’t move, we can’t make music.
That’s why Tiferet isn’t just balance but also beauty – a balance that makes it better, even amidst and through conflict. It’s a holy “and” that can harness love and power – Hesed and Gevurah – to admit the mistakes we made and hurts we caused, and galvanize us to make repairs, however difficult, with a heart of beauty and grace. It’s seeing who we’ve been and who we can become, not just one or the other. It’s feeling the wrongs others did to us and that their souls are sacred. It’s sensing the world in all its brokenness, and our sacred capacity to help heal it. Or as Paul McCartney put it:
Blackbird singing in the dead of night:
Take these broken wings and learn to fly.
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.
Blackbird singing in the dead of night:
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see.
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free.
Lots of brokenness, and Rosh Hashanah sings, “Yes, we can fly, even with broken wings.” Lots of blindness, and Rosh Hashanah says, “Yes, we can learn to see again, precisely in the dark.”
Broken and whole. Realism and hope. Tragedies and miracles. Grief and joy. Head and heart. Love and boundaries. Hesed and Gevurah. Rickety roofs and beautiful music. The “and” of real balance that powers us to change: that’s Tiferet.
But how? Especially when so much feels out of balance and, for some of us, if we fear that fully feeling it all would unbalance us?
Erev Rosh Hashanah is about limbering up our sense of perspective – what we sense, and how we value it. Judaism offers that how we see often shapes what we see, and that the unseen can be more real than the seen. Love isn’t visible, but its presence or absence are very real. The subconscious: invisible, and potent. Values. Ethics. God. Tradition. Identity. Memory. All exert profound influence, but how often do we sense them? Most often, they’re background programs.
Tiferet asks us to deeply sense those background programs, what’s usually unseen. What we can’t or won’t sense, we can’t connect or use for balance. So Tiferet, our holy “and” of heart-centered balance, starts with perspective and connection.
So let’s connect. Let’s connect with our sense of things. For instance, let’s connect with this.
On-screen is the largest structure in the universe, a gigantic supercluster of 830 separate galaxies inside four connected galaxy clusters. It looks a bit like a silken spider web stretching across spacetime. This supercluster is known as the Great Wall of the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey, or BOSS. It is located 13 billion light years from Earth, meaning that its light traveled for 13 billion years to reach us. The BOSS Great Wall superstructure itself is 1 billion light years across, so light from one side takes that long just to reach the other side.
Of course, it’s invisible to our naked eye. As mind-blowingly big as it is, it’s also 1/100,000 the size of a pinhead in the sky. It’s so big, yet so tiny – and Rosh Hashanah, Yom Harat Olam, is its birthday.
Now try this.
On-screen is a single hydrogen atom, its one electron sphere and its nucleus of one proton, which in turn combines three subatomic particles called quarks. The diameter of a hydrogen atom is 120 picometers. That means 8.5 billion of them – one for each human on Earth – would need to stand atop each other to reach the height of the average preschooler.
But wait, there’s something even smaller.
On-screen now isn’t a hydrogen atom but, get this, the shadow cast by a hydrogen atom.
The biggest thing humanity ever saw, and the smallest. The biggest, and the smallest. We’ll toggle back and forth for a moment. Experience what it’s like for you to toggle your vision between both. Maybe type into the chatbox what it’s like for you.
They’re both real, both equally real, seemingly polar opposites, and usually both invisible. The value and perhaps even purpose of all spiritual life is exactly this – to refine our vision to the biggest things and smallest things, and help us hold them and calibrate among them. In human terms, this capacity is where Tiferet begins.
It’s time to do likewise with our own selves. Take a moment to look inside, and sense what you’re most proud of. Really: sense your greatest achievement this year. Now sense your worst clunker, the mistake you most regret, the thing that you most wish you could take back. Sense your proudest accomplishment. Your worst failure. Back and forth, both equally real. Type in the chatbox what that’s like.
To be a Jew is to be an עד (eid) / witness – to bear witness to it all, the awe and grandeur of the universe, the often invisible things that are most real and valuable, the brokenness around us and inside that yearns for repair, and the power of the human spirit to do just that. We bear witness not passively, like zoning out to Netflix, but actively, as truth tellers and hope mongers in a world that needs all the truth and hope we can muster.
That’s where Tiferet comes in, and with it our New Year’s journey toward new balance in our lives. It begins right now on this Erev Rosh Hashanah and right here – by pushing ourselves to see the best and the worst, in the world and in ourselves. It’s about connecting them, so we can harness our best to repair and even redeem some of our worst. It’s about shining our brightest light into darkness, aware that there is darkness and brokenness: there are wrongs to make right.
Tiferet is about learning anew that, yes, we can calibrate into a new balance, because dynamic balance implies the ability to change. And we can, so long as we believe we can. Reb Nachman of Breslov said, “If you believe you can destroy, believe that you also can repair.”
That’s why this Rosh Hashanah, this new year, especially calls us into our holy “and.” During these ten Days of Awe, we’ll toggle between clear-eyed introspection into our unworthy behaviors, and our confident capacity to better ourselves, to heal, to transform and renew. We’ll connect with a world battered and broken, and full of beauty and blessings, being renewed before our eyes. We’ll feel into how we’ve fallen out of balance, and harness the call of our souls to seek and find balance anew.
That’s our Tiferet journey ahead – beautiful and messy, flawed and sacred. It might feel precarious at times, but then again, roofs are always precarious. And that’s where we fiddlers must go!
May the music of this new year 5783 bring sweetness and healing, joy and hope, peace and prosperity, and most of all a new and holy balance – to us, to all the people Israel, and to the world. Shanah tovah.
This is the d'var given jointly by R. David Evan Markus of Temple Beth El of City Island and R. Rachel Barenblat of Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires on erev Rosh Hashanah 5783. (Cross-posted to both shuls' websites.)