Editor’s note: This essay is an excerpt from Rabbi Zemel’s Rosh Hashanah sermon.
“Rabbi Judah the son of Tema used to say: At age thirty, one reaches the age of ‘koach — or prime physical strength’ and at sixty, one reaches ‘zeeknah — old age.’ ” (Pirke Avot 5:23)
Pirke Avot does not pull its punches. These numbers hold significant meaning for me as this evening marks my 30th Rosh Hashanah at Micah. I was 30 — in my prime for my first Rosh Hashanah with this congregation — and in less than two months, in Rabbi Judah ben Tema’s terms, I will be old.
In honor of these milestones, I’d like to spend some time this evening viewing the world of the last 30 years through the kaleidoscopic prism of Torah.
Since Rosh Hashanah celebrates creation, we turn naturally to Genesis.
18. And the Lord God said, it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help to match him.
19. And out of the ground … God formed every beast of the field, and every bird of the air; and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them; and whatever Adam called every living creature, that was its name.
20. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found a helpmate.
God sees that Adam is alone and creates more life so Adam can have company. In his longing for companionship, Adam approaches these new creatures. He comes close to them, befriends them, gives them all names, but nothing clicks. Adam is different. And moreover, he recognizes this difference, creating a kind of existential loneliness — none of them can be his mate.
Torah’s genius is how it expresses the simplest and most profound. Humanity is of creation, but separate from creation as well.
It is this balance that defines what we are about as a species.
Why is this important for these 30 years?
Cain and Abel tell us the rest.
Cain’s cry after his horrible crime: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Genesis teaches us about alienation and the struggle between atrocity and fragility. There is a darkness in us, and a fragility as well, and it makes for a tragic mix. As human beings, we are capable not only of great love but of committing the most terrible atrocities, and our human fragility makes us vulnerable.
Genesis thus teaches us that with each passing day and year, we need to confront the horrors of our humanity and the powers unleashed by modernity.
Our newfound powers do not lead to ethical sensitivity and the knowledge wrought by modern science brings us to question ourselves. With each day we relearn the obvious: Modernity lacks wisdom.
Cultural critic Wendell Berry writes: “We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good for us. ... And now, perhaps very close to too late, our great error has become clear. It is not only our own creativity — our own capacity for life — that is stifled by our arrogance; the creation itself is stifled.”
Genesis teaches us about ourselves and our place in the world.