Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780
September 29, 2019
We Got to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden
by Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL
Well, I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, “Tell me, where are you going?”
This he told me…
I was born about sixteen months after the big party on Max Yasgur’s farm, and so I missed out on the three days of peace, love, and music that was the Woodstock Festival. That’s all right though, because Joni Mitchell, whose composition was adapted into the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song that is now inextricably linked to that event, also missed the concert. Nonetheless, Ms. Mitchell still managed to tap into the zeitgeist of that moment. In a similar vein, as the country commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of that historic celebration, it seems that one can continue to get into the spirit of the festival without actually having been there.
While some of the events initially planned to commemorate the original concert’s Golden Anniversary have fizzled out—the Woodstock 50 festival was shelved in August after experiencing financial and logistic setbacks—this milestone still allows us to look back on the ways that our world and our society have evolved since that so-called “summer of love.” As we reminisce, we have ample opportunity to reflect upon how that modest event has seemingly transcended time and space, continuing to share lessons with us to this day.
Said, “I’m going down to Yasgur’s Farm,
Gonna join in a rock and roll band.
Got to get back to the land and set my soul free.”
I suspect we all desire, to a degree, to “set our souls free.” For some of us, this will indeed be accomplished by joining a rock and roll band; others may partake (unadvisedly) in mind- or mood-altering substances. Some will purchase playthings that, however fleetingly, bring them a heightened sense of happiness; others will attempt yoga poses and transcendental meditation. And some will find that participating in a worship experience, striving for a closer relationship with the Divine, is exactly the sort of “pick-me-up” that they need. And so, we set aside time at this season each year to examine our spiritual needs, to reflect upon our past behaviors, and, in so doing, to strive to “set our souls free.”
We are stardust, we are golden,
We are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.
Just as the half-million concertgoers in 1969 were participants in a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so, too are we. We will never again be in exactly this place in time, never again be so equipped to engage in these significant acts of introspection and teshuvah in quite the same manner. As God musters and numbers and considers each of us according to our merits, we plead our case and ask for compassion and mercy. We seek to find ways to improve ourselves, as we strive to find our way back to the garden.
We are stardust, we are golden.
We go through life with this assurance, confident—perhaps even haughty, at times—about the fact that we are created in the divine image, and therefore enjoy an elevated status over the other creatures of the earth. Certainly, on this holiday of Rosh Hashanah, as we celebrate the birthday of the world, we are meant to hearken back to that moment of creation when God said, “Let us make humankind in our likeness.” Generations after creation, the psalmist reminded us of our place in the universe when he wrote, “You have made us little less than divine, and crowned us with glory and honor.”
It is a privilege to be able to emulate the best qualities of God, and therefore we should embrace this noble bearing with which we have been bestowed, along with the awesome responsibility that accompanies it. We have not been given this blessing and the concomitant privilege of stewardship over this world and its treasures, in order to squander these gifts and treat them cavalierly. God has completed creation—a new world will not be made to replace the one we have now. And therefore we have the awesome opportunity and duty to care for our surroundings, to ensure that we leave a world where our children and grandchildren can breathe easily and play safely.
Climate scientists warn us that our world is changing at an alarmingly rapid rate. In the past century, the Earth has warmed by an average of one degree Celsius, putting us dangerously close to the threshold of a two-degrees Celsius increase identified by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as being catastrophic. Many of the larger communities monitored by this body have already begun inching precipitously close to this mark, which would mean the death of the world’s coral reefs, and the retreat of ice sheets in Greenland, Antarctica, and the Arctic.
Yet our responsibility to future generations stretches far beyond environmental issues, important though they are. As a people, we have pledged ourselves to the work of Tikkun Olam, working in partnership with God to restore the world to wholeness, as it was first envisioned by the divine mind. It is not enough that we pray for the hungry to be fed, the naked to be clothed, the captive to be freed. We are called to work actively to right the wrongs of the world, to reach out to those less fortunate than ourselves and give them renewed hope and strength.
Rabbi Akiva taught, “Beloved is Israel, for they were made in the image of God. Twice beloved is Israel, for they are aware that they were created in the image of God.” Science has shown that humans are one of the few species capable of self-awareness which, in a Jewish context, may also manifest as an awareness of the position of responsibility that God has granted to human beings. At the same time, each of us has also been blessed with free will, meaning that each of us has the freedom to determine what he will do with the information of which Rabbi Akiva speaks. How do we incorporate into our daily lives the understanding that God has blessed us and positioned us in this manner? Will we strive in our actions to be true to our highest selves?
A story is told of the rabbi of Nemerov who would disappear every Friday afternoon during the Hebrew month of Elul, the month preceding the High Holy Days. Rumors abounded as to how he utilized that time: where he went and what he did. Many of his congregants believed that he actually was capable of communing with God in heaven to seek forgiveness for his people prior to the Days of Awe.
One year, a skeptic decided to follow the rabbi. He watched as the rabbi disguised himself as a woodcutter. The man trailed the rabbi deep into the woods, where he watched as the rabbi chopped down a tree and split it into logs. The rabbi then approached a decrepit shack and knocked on the door.
“It is I, Vasil the peasant,” the rabbi said, “and I have wood for you.”
“But I am just a poor widow,” said the woman who came to the door. “Where will I get the money for firewood?”
“I will lend it to you,” said the rabbi.
“How will I repay you?” she asked.
“I will trust you,” came the answer.
The skeptic watched in silence, and crept away back to town. From then on, whenever people would speculate as to the rabbi’s whereabouts, whenever they would say, “He’s gone to talk with God in heaven,” the man would mutter to himself, “If not higher.”
What sort of mitzvotcan we undertake to work selflessly to improve our world? How high will we—the golden children of stardust, according to the song lyrics—manage to take ourselves in the coming year?
We are billion-year-old carbon.
Counterbalanced with our recognition that we are created in the Divine image is our realization that we are, ultimately, mortal. A Chassidic teaching urges us to ground ourselves in this reality by suggesting that every person should go through life with two pieces of paper in his or her pockets. On one should be written, “The world was created for my sake.” On the other should be written, “I am but dust and ashes.” When one needs a pick-me-up or ego boost, he or she should read the former note. When one is feeling a bit self-important, he or she should consult the latter phrase. In so doing, the Chasidim believe, an individual can achieve the appropriate balance in life.
More than one pundit has remarked on the fact that all human beings are suffering from a terminal condition called life. Given this reality, we are called to live each day to its fullest, to get the most out of this brief moment when we are privileged to walk upon this earth.
Consider the legacy of Aaron Feuerstein. In 1981, he was running a textile mill in a 300-year old textile town in Massachusetts. It was unsuccessful, and the company was in bankruptcy. Rather than give up, Feuerstein opted to re-open the mill, keeping all of its employees, who were, at the time, already being paid above the industry standard. He spent millions of his own money to develop a new product line, called Polartec. These risks paid off, and Malden Mills once again became successful.
In December of 1995, however, a devastating fire destroyed much of the factory. Nearly 3,000 workers thought that all hope was lost. But Feuerstein used his insurance money to rebuild the factory, and to pay the full salaries of all employees during the reconstruction phase. The reconstructed company went on to enjoy several more years of success, before Feuerstein was forced out in 2001.
The decision to do the right thing, to be a mensch, cost Feuerstein over twenty-five million dollars of his own money, and eventually cost him his job. But Aaron Feuerstein understood that ultimately it did not matter if he was remembered for Malden Mills, or Polartec, or for the amount of money he could manage to amass. All of that fame and fortune is fleeting—“you can’t take it with you.” Feuerstein saw a different way to make an impact, by caring about the future of his employees.
Our legacies will not be defined by statues or monuments testifying to our grandeur, by trophies or plaques or citations. Rather, we should be content in the knowledge that we have built firm foundations upon which future generations may stand, and from which they may grow in new and wonderful ways.
John Knowles, author of the coming-of-age novel A Separate Peace, once told an interviewer that following graduation from college, he had gone off to Italy to write his first novel. Knowles was then bold enough to send a draft to Thornton Wilder. The older author responded with his critique, writing, “I am on page 156 and can go no further. I am convinced that you are not really interested or emotionally involved in what you are writing.” Knowles later reflected, “It had not occurred to me that I was supposedto be emotionally involved.”
Sadly, this is often the manner in which we go through life: unaware that we are meant to be emotionally involved with the world, with God, and with one another. If we open our hearts and minds and consider the legacy we wish to leave for others, then we may occasionally achieve greatness.
In the final analysis, we may be mere lumps of billion-year-old carbon. But we have been wondrously fashioned into sentient beings that are capable of making a tremendous lasting impact upon this world.
What do you want future generations to say about you? What will your legacy be?
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.
Going back to the garden has a number of meanings in Jewish thought. While Judaism rejects the notion of original sin—the idea that humanity is perpetually tainted by virtue of Adam and Eve having partaken of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden—there is nevertheless a recognition that a return to the idyllic perfection of paradise is something to which we should aspire. The rabbis of the Talmud viewed paradise as a simultaneously exciting and fearsome place, representing closeness to God. Tractate Hagigah teaches, “Four entered paradise. Ben Azzai looked upon it and perished. Ben Zoma looked upon it and went mad. Acher turned apostate. Only Akiva entered in peace and departed in peace.”
But our own quest for paradise—our quest to return to the garden—need not be fraught with such danger. When we do those deeds of social justice which we know as tikkun olam, we draw nearer to the Divine, and nearer to re-entering Eden.
Once upon a time there was a very generous king. He decided to replace any decrepit or unlivable housing with bright new homes for all of his subjects. Everyone was to have a lovely place to live. The people were very grateful and the kingdom prospered.
Some time after promulgating this plan, the king took a tour of his kingdom; he went all over and was greeted with great joy. In his capitol city, however, he found, in an out-of-the-way area, a rundown shack. He found a family inside, living there. Shocked, he asked them, “How is it that your house was not replaced as all the others were? Why do you still live in this shack?” The family replied to the king, “The townspeople have forgotten us.”
The king was distraught. He realized that if the townspeople were capable of forgetting this family that lives in their midst, how much more could they forget the King himself, who lives far from them in the palace and only appears occasionally! He ordered the family’s home replaced with a new one, and he had their old shack moved to the center of town. Over it was placed a sign: “This is the kind of shack we ALL used to live in.”
Going back to the garden also means remembering and learning from our history, lest we fail to heed its lessons. Though another song from Woodstock’s original three days of peace and love urges us, “don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now,” we understand that a healthy understanding of the past can guide us toward a brighter future. Like the shack in the story, the past may not always be pretty. But we must know from whence we came in order to successfully navigate the challenges of tomorrow.
And maybe it’s the time of year,
Yes, and maybe it’s the time of man
And I don’t know who I am,
But life is for learning.
This, then, is the challenge and the purpose of these sacred days: to determine who we are and who we would seek to become. To engage in the act of cheshbon nefesh, searching inside one’s soul to evaluate the life we have led thus far and the life we aspire to lead. Life is for learning, and if we open our eyes, our ears, our minds, our hearts to the lessons around us, then someday we may indeed get ourselves back to the garden.
 Lyrics cited in this paragraph and throughout this text are from “Woodstock,” by Joni Mitchell, released on Reprise Records in 1970.
 See, for instance, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/01/arts/music/woodstock-50.html, retrieved on August 3, 2019
 Genesis 1:26
 Psalms 8:5
 See Steven Mufson, Chris Mooney, Juliet Eilperin, and John Muyskens, “2º C: Beyond the Limit,” The Washington Post, August 13, 2019
 A paraphrase of Pirke Avot 3:14
 See, for instance, accounts of the test known as “MSR,” “mirror self-recognition,:” such as in https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/mirror_test.htm Retrieved August 3, 2019.
 A retelling of the famous story, “If Not Higher,” by Yiddish author I.L. Peretz (1852-1915)
 Based on a teaching of Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pesichcha (1765-1827)
 This seems to have first been expressed in writing by the poet Abraham Cowley in 1656. See https://quoteinvestigator.com/2017/01/29/life/(retrieved on August 16, 2019)
 The story of Aaron Feuerstein can be found in many places. See, for instance, https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/.premium-1995-malden-mills-burns-down-1.5435757 Retrieved August 3, 2019
 Variants on this story are told in various biographical sketches of Knowles. It appears in this format in The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin: The Riverside Years, Volume Two (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008)
 Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Hagigah 14a-b.
 Reprinted without permission from a packet of stories provided to me by Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Neither of us are certain of the author of this story. I include this citation to see whether anybody reads these footnotes.
 “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” lyrics by Stephen Stills.