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Rosh HaShanah

September 8, 2010

By Rabbi Katy Allen

Look in the mirror. You are unique, but your two sides are not so different from each other. Compare the patterns of the two sides of your face. Do you see the connection? Like every other human and myriads of other organisms you exhibit bilateral symmetry – your left and right sides are mirror images.

Now look around. Compare the patterns in yourself to the patterns in a cat or a squirrel. Do you see the connections? Compare the connection between the patterns in yourself and in the squirrel to the connection between the patterns in a butterfly and in a bee. Do you see those connections? And now compare the connections among all those patterns to the connections in the patterns in a maple leaf and an oak leaf compared to those in a turtle and a frog. Is your mind starting to get a bit boggled?

Philosopher and naturalist Gregory Bateson describes these comparisons as orders of patterning – first-order, second-order, and third-order patterning, and Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman in The Art of Public Prayer (pp. 119-121) points out that if we take these comparisons to a still higher level, we reach a point totally beyond our comprehension. We enter the realm of the Mysterious, the Divine, Ein-Sof.

“The Big Picture” is another way to name the Indescribable. In The Story of Stuff (pp. x-xiii), Annie Leonard discusses how everything on Earth and everything we do and everything we buy and everything we eat is all connected, and seeing the “big picture” of interactions and connections is important for both understanding and preserving our planet, without which nothing can survive.

In the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer teaches that Rosh HaShanah is the anniversary of the creation of the first humans (Rosh Hashana 8a), and our liturgy reminds us, Hayom harat olam – today the world is born. But we humans were not created in a vacuum; the Earth and all other life already existed, or was all created at once. We are just one part of a complex web of sacred life on Earth. As part of both the human and the larger biological communities, our actions are not without consequences, for other humans and for plants, animals, fungi, water, land and more. Our actions count.

At this time of year we find ourselves taking stock of our actions. Judaism teaches that saving one person is like saving the whole world (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). Even though the number of plastic items floating in the oceans is far beyond counting, our one plastic bottle either unbought or recycled may help to save a tiny bit of microscopic phytoplankton floating on the ocean surface, which, multiplied over and over, may have further impact. Our letter to our representative may be the voice that tips the balance in how s/he will vote. The actions we take for the environment can contribute to saving the whole world – the only one we have. Even our emotional connections have impact. The Talmud teaches that the Messiah is named Menahem, the comforter, (Sanhedrin 98b), and Rabbi Elliot Kukla in his Torah Reflection from the Bay Area Healing Center reflects, “When we allow someone else to comfort us, we allow them see who we truly are…when we console another, we change the world.”

What can I do to bring about world peace or heal the devastation from natural disasters? Why should I take a shorter shower when only 10% of water consumption in the U.S. is residential? In such daunting contexts it is easy to decide we are not important. But our tradition repeatedly teaches that our actions have consequences. Actions commanded in the form of mitzvot or done for other reasons are all important, even when we don’t realize it. Often, we do not know by which action we touch another’s soul. We do not know by which action we inspire another to notice the planet. We do not know by which words we convince another to step closer to an estranged family member. We do not know. We are human. We can only see the first-order and second-order and maybe the third-order patterns. We cannot see beyond this. It is too complex. It is in the realm of the Divine.

But we are human, and we can change. We can use the anniversary of our human creation as a time to start re-creating our individual selves. We may not know how our re-creation will make the world a better place, but our tradition tells us that it has such power; it is, therefore, the least we can do – for ourselves, our loved ones, our community, our world, our planet, our God.

So let’s go, and let’s keep on going.

Rabbi Katy Z. Allen is a chaplain at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA, and the rabbi of Ma’yan Tikvah in Wayland, MA.