Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler
A habit among countless public speakers before they begin their presentation is to take off their watch and place it on the lectern to keep track of time. Fortunately for me, I never had to develop this habit because every time I begin a sermon here at Temple, especially a High Holy Day sermon, I see people glance at their watches to keep time for me.
This evening, no one has to check for me. I can tell the time. It’s now. Especially for this holiest moment of the year, now is the only time we need to know. And there is no better time than now to continue the pursuit of happiness.
On Rosh HaShana, the Torah’s 79,847 words laid secure the bedrock for path for the pursuit of happiness. Upon Torah, we poured the mortar for the path: morality. We then began placing the bricks in the mortar: intelligence, wisdom, common sense, altogether what we call Seichel. So began our pursuit of happiness. As we proceeded, we quickly learned that the pursuit of happiness is a meandering path. Together we found an important signpost in the talmudic tale of Choni the Circle Maker.
To review, Choni was walking along a road when he saw a man planting a carob tree. Choni asked the man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” The man replied, “Seventy years.” Choni then asked the man, “And do you think that you will live those seventy years to eat the tree’s fruit?” “Perhaps not,” said the man, “but my life is filled with the fruit of carob trees; as my forebears planted trees for me, so I plant this tree for my children.”
The tale, so far, embodies a precept that is inscribed at the bottom of the Rabbi Sajowitz Endowment Fund dedicatory wall in the foyer: “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.” Perhaps you’ve noticed the inscription and its author, Albert Einstein.
But this episode is actually part two of Choni’s three-part tale. Part three now continues.
Choni then decided to sit down in a nearby secluded spot and eat. After he ate, Choni was overcome by sleep, and he slept. When he awoke, he saw a man standing at the place along the road where the carob sapling had been planted, but now Choni saw a full grown carob tree, 40 feet tall, with countless pods of ripe carob fruit. Choni was puzzled. He asked the man if he was the one who planted this carob tree. The man answered, “My father did, 70 years ago.” Choni then realized that he had slept for 70 years.
Choni returned to his home. He asked for his son, only to learn that his son had died, but Choni’s grandson and his family were alive and well. When Choni told everyone, “I am Choni the Circle Maker,” no one believed him. Choni then went to the Beit HaMidrash where he heard the Torah scholars say, “The mitzvot are as clear to us as they were in the days of Choni the Circle Maker. Whenever Choni entered the Beit HaMidrash, he would resolve any difficulties the scholars had.” Choni then called out, “I am he,” but they too did not believe him, and they did not give him the honor he felt due to him. Choni was greatly grieved. He prayed for death and he died.
The Talmud often weaves fanciful tales into its intellectual rigor. This story of Choni the Circle Maker is, to say the least, imaginative. Of lesser note, we should appreciate that this talmudic tale precedes Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle by a good eighteen-hundred years. More to the point, we should appreciate how Choni is the Talmud’s way of teaching another lesson Einstein authored, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
Typical of the Talmud, Choni the Circle Maker has multiple layers of meaning. But what makes the tale so fanciful and imaginative is how it shakes our understanding of time. For Choni, seventy years pass in a snooze. For all others, it is a lifetime.
We think of time as a straight line moving from past to present to future. But according to Einstein, “This distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion.” If Einstein’s imagination challenges what seems to be our knowledge and experience, then it’s a good time to check the time. It’s now.
Therefore, now is the perfect time to examine the biblical Hebrew word for “now”: Ata. Ata is one of those rare Hebrew words in the category of homophones that always spark our imagination. Ata, “now”, is spelled Ayin-Tav-Heh. Every letter of the Hebrew Alef-Bet is a consonant, except for two, Ayin and Alef. Both letters are silent, and therefore interchangeable. So Ata spelled with Ayin is “now,” while Ata spelled with an Alef is “you.” In Hebrew, Ata turns now into you, and you into now. Imagine this: You are now.
If you are now in Hebrew, then what about “I”? On Rosh HaShana, we learned that I and eye are unique among the many English homonyms and homophones that are merely a matter of coincidence – write, rite, right? I and eye glow with meaning. Among all our senses, I is most present through our eyes, seeing and being seen. Aye! Yes! Given eye’s Hebrew derivation, no surprise that I in Hebrew, Ani, is also a homophone.
The Hebrew word for “I” is Ani, spelled Alef-Nun-Yod. When we replace the Alef in Ani with an Ayin, “I” becomes “poor.” Hebrew turns I into poor, and poor into I. The resonance between I and poor is profound. On the one hand, the notion that I am poor is humbling. Ani proposes that the pursuit of happiness is a path we can travel only with humility. At the same time, we cannot pursue happiness without recognizing that the poor, the needy and the hurting among humanity are part of who I am. Therefore I cannot progress on the path of happiness without bringing them with me, for they too are who I am.
The juxtaposition of Ani with Ata, “you” with “now,” exemplifies Hillel’s moral principle, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me; but if I am only for myself, what am I; and if not now, then when?” When we focus only on our self, we are poor. Equally, when we focus only on our self, we are detached from the reality before us, lost in time, unaware of what truly is now. It’s like driving and texting. On Rosh HaShana we considered Ben Zoma’s question, “Who is rich?” He then answered, “One who rejoices in his or her portion.” As Ben Zoma might also teach, “Who is poor? One who focuses only on him or herself.” So too, “Who truly lives in the now? One who relates to others selflessly and deeply.”
The path of happiness is pursued not only step by step. Happiness must also be pursued hand in hand. So let’s consider your hands, and begin to imagine the power therein with another Hebrew homophone: Or, or with an American accent, Or.
Or spelled with an Ayin is “skin.” According to the American idiom “skin deep” means superficial. But in fact, skin is anything but superficial. Skin is the largest organ of the body. We can imagine a meaningful and joyful existence without taste or smell or sight or sound. Beethoven, for example, was deaf when he composed his Ninth Symphony whose final movement is the glorious “Ode to Joy.” But we cannot imagine the same for a life utterly deprived of the sense of touch. No sense connects us with one another as powerfully as touch, and the medium of touch is skin.
However, what is merely skin deep is how we think that our skin is where we touch the universe and the universe touches us. The universe is in us, as we are in the universe. Take your hands for example. You need not have the imagination of Einstein to know that your hands are made of the same electrons and quarks, muons, gluons, bosons and so ons as the prayer books, the pews, and this ocean of air that we all breath and share. Everything that you might think merely surrounds you actually suffuses you. …So too, everyone around you, turning you and I into we and us. We and us now are part of a biosphere that stretches beyond this little blue planet some fourteen billion light years that counts a hundred billion stars in each of a hundred billion galaxies. Shema Yisrael, “Hear O Israel,” as God is One, God’s creation is one.
All this is knowledge, yet it is more. According to Einstein, “The most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the power of all true science.” All of these are signposts along the path of the pursuit of happiness: knowledge and science, imagination and now the “beautiful and profound emotion we can experience in the sensation of the mystical.”
Today cosmologists cannot decide upon a name for where we are: universe, multiverse or spacetime. Moreover, they believe, yes believe, that the observable universe is but 4% of the total composition of the cosmos. Cosmologists then hypothesize that Dark Energy comprises 68% of the cosmos, Dark Matter 27%, and the remaining 1% is a sprinkling of neutrinos, photons and so-ons.
Judaism has its own name for where we exist. We call it HaOlam. As a spatial term, the traditional translation is “Universe.” You know it well: Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, “Praised are You Adonai, Ruler of the universe.” HaOlam comes from the Hebrew infinitive, L’ha-alim, meaning “to conceal.” So HaOlam means “that which conceals.” To say the least, HaOlam suggests that Judaism has always understood what the cosmologists have only now come to hypothesize: that our observable universe is but a fraction of the totality of existence that is 96% concealed; and if you will, that our observable universe is but skin deep, 4%. But Judaism has a much broader and deeper understanding of the unseen that constitutes immeasurably more than 96% of existence. And that which is concealed is revealed in Torah.
B’reshit bara Elohim, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. The earth was unformed and void chaos, and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters. And God said, Y’hi Or, ‘Let there be light,‘ and there was light. And God saw the light, Ki Tov, that it was good.”
Or spelled with an Ayin is “skin.” Or spelled with an Alef is “light.” Light is God’s first creation. Light reveals. Scientifically, light is betwixt and between energy and matter, a wave and a particle, forming the wondrous transition from nothingness to existence. Yet spiritually and morally, light becomes so much more, for “God saw the light, that it was good.” God did something, God made the light, and what God did was good. There is no greater lesson that the Torah teaches us. Indeed if we are to live up to being created in God’s image, there is no greater lesson for all of humankind.
Edmund Burke, the British statesman came close when he said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” But God did not create good men nor good women. Rather, God created people who, in God’s image, have the power to do good, whose actions make for goodness, as God made the light … and it was good. As such, the light of our good deeds brightens the dark and dangerous stretches of apathy and ignorance that will otherwise lead us off the path for the pursuit of happiness.
So when do we start our journey on this path? There is no better time than now.
I’ve now said the word “now” twenty-five times in this sermon. And every time I said “now,” it was now. Yet now that I’ve said “now” twenty-seven times, it no longer is any of those. But it is still now. And it will always be now. In fact, now is the only time we ever truly know and experience. It is eternally now.
Remember Einstein wrote, “the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” With all due respect to the distinguished professor, Judaism begs to differ, albeit slightly yet substantially. For Judaism and the Jewish people, the past exists in our history and our traditions, in our morals and rituals, but they are real only when we remember them, only when they guide us in the pursuit of happiness now. This we learn from the concluding episode of Choni the Circle Maker.
When Choni awoke from his seventy year snooze, no one recognized him, to his dismay. He wished to die, and die he did. But despite the passage of time, his interpretations of the mitzvot were still remembered, still honored and followed. The bricks he laid and the sign posts he erected still led people on the path of the pursuit of happiness. The good deeds we have done and then passed on to others are what endure in time. Choni could have died happily, satisfied by the gifts that he had passed on to grateful generations thereafter, gifts that may still continue to guide people on the path of the pursuit of happiness. What an incomparable lesson the past now teaches us about the future that all of us share. In the divine scheme of Torah, not even death can thwart the pursuit of happiness.
So too the future exists in our hopes and dreams, in our prayers and surely in our imagination, but only if they inspire and guide us in the present. This is the way that past and future lay down brick upon brick in the path of the pursuit of happiness.
Tonight we considered the conclusion of the tale of Choni the Circle Maker. Tomorrow we will actually go back and tell the beginning of the tale. It may seem unusual to end the tale at the beginning, but as we now understand, it will still be now. It is always now. Now is eternal. Only three things are eternal: God, heaven and now. Imagine. In our pursuit of happiness, look at all we have discovered now.