A note to my readers:
I sketched this D’var Torah for Shabbat services on the Friday of Labor Day weekend, September 3, 2021, and extemporaneously delivered remarks that resemble those presented below. Recently (in November 2021), I went back and reconstructed the following message from my original notes.
Shabbat Shalom and a very happy Labor Day weekend to all.
We gather here tonight on the cusp of a new Jewish year. Rosh Ha-Shanah begins on Monday evening and therefore this is the last Sabbath of the year 5781. At this Season of Awe, we are charged by our tradition to consider deeply what we want to change—in our lives, in our souls, in our patterns of behavior (call them “habits”), in our relationships, in our communities and in our world.
To quote our siddur: “This is the hour of change.”1
I’ve heard it said that “Everything is always evolving, thus, by definition, everything is always changing. Yet many of us resist change. We prefer the comfort of the status quo and get distressed when things meet their natural end” (attributed to Thom Knoles).
Everything is always evolving, always changing—like it or not. This is a basic fact, a natural law of existence.
The Vedas are an ancient body of wisdom (indeed, the oldest of the Hindu Scriptures) that are intended to provide a human interpretation of so-called “natural law.”
These texts invite the reader, the one who contemplates their teachings, to recognize all aspects of the evolutionary process: creation, maintenance, and destruction… and to do so not reluctantly but with reverence.
It is taught that “understanding the role of all three [aspects], and the interdependence of all three, is essential to living a carefree, yet practical and evolutionary life” (Knoles). We need to honor the role of creation, maintenance, and destruction in our own journeys of spiritual evolution, of human progress, our own journeys of life in which all three forces will, in ways both seen and unseen by us, operate and interact.2
Consider the first vector or operator, that of creation. Creation is the theme we most commonly associate with Rosh Ha-Shanah, with this time of year. It’s probably the easiest for us to wrap our heads and hearts around. Our Rosh Ha-Shanah liturgy is replete with images of pregnancy and giving birth. We sing Hayom Harat Olam, “today the world is born anew”; alternatively translated, “Today all of existence is pregnant with possibility.” Some even say that the sound of the shofar evokes a baby wailing as it is being born.
Now consider the middle vector or operator, the function of maintenance. There is more than one reason that we naturally resist change. One is because we prefer the comfort of the status quo. I think most of us, in contemplating our lives, are naturally inclined toward an attitude of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Things are good… enough. Why upset the apple cart? We also resist change because, as has been said, we “get distressed when things meet their natural end” (Knoles). “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
And yet, there can be no evolution—of the self, of the soul, of the society, of the world—without “breaking” some stuff. Without destruction. Or, at the very least, without acknowledging that there comes a time when a thing, a life, a process, a relationship, may have outlived its useful function (in its current form) and so must end that incarnation in order for something new to be created. Ask your friend the caterpillar about this.
And if Rosh Ha-Shanah is the “creation” holiday, then surely Yom Kippur is the “destruction” holiday: the observance on the Jewish calendar that invites us to consider what we need to let go, to give up, to allow to be put to rest forever, in order for us to evolve. It is often pointed out that all of Yom Kippur is an emulation of death, a rehearsal for death of sorts: we wear white, like the traditional Jewish burial shrouds or takhrikhin; we empty the holy ark of its Torah scrolls so that it becomes an empty box. (It bears noting that the word for “ark” in Hebrew is aron which is the same word used for a casket.) We take in no food or drink; we eschew all forms of material comfort; we do not procreate. We beat our chests over the heart as if trying to perform CPR on a soul that has become spiritually deadened.
With that in mind, I thought it would make sense on this Shabbat that anticipates the Yamim Nora’im, the Jewish season of awe, to spend some time contemplating how destruction functions in the process of spiritual evolution, how we can embrace destruction as a necessary component of our human and Jewish journeys, and to encounter the destruction operator when it shows up in our lives as an important (if not always immediately welcome) presence. That will be our focus for tonight, and our homework for the coming Days of Awe.
When I speak of “destruction” in this context, I must emphasize that we are not necessarily talking about violence or wreckage (although we might be). Another way to think about destruction in the evolutionary cycle is when things reach their natural or logical end, and, without this ending, evolution will be inhibited rather than encouraged.
Kelly gave me a great analogy here. The main function of a fingernail, she pointed out, is, of course, to protect the fingertip. It can even be used, if it’s long enough, as a weapon or tool or to pick the strings of a guitar or harp and make beautiful music. Evolutionarily speaking (and I mean this in the Darwinian sense), fingernails are amazing developments.
But, at a certain point, a fingernail will outgrow its usefulness. Not only will it become unsightly, it will also become unwieldy, impractical, hard to maintain, more of a hazard than a help.
At that point, it’s time to trim back, to cut, to prune, to destroy.
I think of how we do our best work at WRT. Each year our staff and volunteer leaders invest a ton of energy in brainstorming—an act of creation itself—around the question, “What shall we create? What will we build this year? What new programs, initiatives, engagements can we actualize?”
Much harder, though, are the conversations around, “What will we destroy? What should we get rid of? What has outlived its usefulness?” Many of us dislike this part of the conversation so much that we use a euphemism instead of destroy: “What programs are we willing to sunset this year?” invoking something conventionally beautiful instead of something dead, defunct, destroyed.
Other analogies grow from the agricultural realm. The gardeners among us may appreciate that if you prune back a flowering shrub, it will call forth more blossoms.
Ancient societies, including that of the Israelites, mandated years when the land would lie fallow, and no planting, no new creation of produce, was permitted. The practice encourages new and better growth as a result, but only after refraining from planting and harvesting. Such idle years are called shemitta, meaning fallow or inactive, and traditional Jewish communities to this day keep track of a seven-year cycle of shemitta years.3 It just so happens that the coming Jewish year, 5782, is a shemitta year, so it seems all the more apt for us to focus now, of all times, on the destruction operator.
Even the coming Labor Day holiday, and, for that matter, the whole point of every Shabbat, comments powerfully on the notion that we can’t spend every waking moment of our lives working, doing, making, creating. Periodically, we need to allocate time and space for maintenance and even destruction, at least in the sense of a reset.
Two texts illustrate all of these points. The first is from the Torah and the second, of course, is from the Torah of Bob.
The first text comes from this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Nitzavim.
Before they go on without him to the Promised Land, Moses warns the Israelites:
You know how we dwelled in the land of Egypt, and how we passed through the midst of those nations that you traversed. You have seen the detestable objects, the idols of wood and stone, silver and gold, that they keep.
Even now, perhaps there is among you some man or a woman, some clan or a tribe, whose heart is turning away from Adonai our God, to go and worship the gods of those nations. Perhaps there is among you a root sprouting poison weed and wormwood.
When such a one hears the words of this warning, that person may fancy him or herself immune, thinking, “I shall be safe, even though I follow my own willful heart”—which would be utterly ruinous.4
Adonai will never forgive such a person. Rather will Divine anger and passion rage against that person until every warning recorded in this Book comes to pass, and Adonai blots out that one’s name from under heaven.5
Whoa. It’s a real showstopper, this final warning from Moses to the people about the seduction of idolatry and the destruction that awaits anyone who strays. But notice that the seduction of idolatry is rooted, specifically, in nostalgia for the past, for what the people knew in Egypt, in the old days, the days of slavery. The old status quo.
God demands an utter rejection of what the people knew. Time and again the Torah warns the people not to turn back to Egypt, not to give into the pull to stick with what was familiar and, even—though brutal for the Israelite slaves—in a weird but relatable way, what was comforting.
Time and again the Torah demands that the Israelites not just turn away from idolatry, from the old ways and the old gods, but that they smash the idols into dust, burn the foreign shrines, utterly destroy all the old forms and places of worship.
Only after welcoming the destruction operator can the people spiritually evolve. Note well that we are approaching the very end of the scroll. Soon Moses will exit the stage. He knows he is about to die. This is his last chance to help his people change and grow and move forward, to evolve. And it can come about only with a measure of destruction.
The second text is the song, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” a beautiful and enigmatic song from 1965 that is also, significantly, the last song on the album Bringing it All Back Home, which itself marks a dramatic transition from, or, more aptly, a sharp break with, Dylan’s acoustic folksinger identity, and introduces the listener to a new Dylan, the electric Dylan, the rock-and-roll Dylan.
The song, which is full of destructive, even apocalyptic imagery, begins like this:
You must leave now
Take what you need you think will last
But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast
Yonder stands your orphan with his gun
Crying like a fire in the sun
As if preaching to himself, Dylan embraces the destruction operator and emerges an artist transformed:
Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you,
Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you.
The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore
Strike another match, go start anew
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.6
- Mishkan T’filah, 149.
- In the Vedas, each of these forces or operators is assigned a corresponding deity. Creation corresponds to Brahman, Maintenance to Vishnu, and Destruction to Shiva.
- See Leviticus 25:3-6, Deuteronomy 15:1-2.
- Literally, “to the utter ruin of moist and dry alike.” This sort of literary antithesis is a common rhetorical feature of the Book of Deuteronomy.
- Deuteronomy 29:15-19.
- Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music.