In the beginning, G-d created spiritual return

1 TISHREI 5779 / SEPTEMBER 9, 2018

In the beginning, G-d did not create the Heavens and the Earth.
No, G-d created spiritual return, teshuvah,
at least according to the great early Rabbi, Eliezer.

According to Eliezer, nothing at all existed before creation,
except Hakadosh Baruch Hu, The Holy Blessed One­.
Feeling lonely and alone, as consciousness and creativity
formed out of the void and chaos, it occurred to G-d:
“Perhaps I should create the world?”
But rather than creating the heavens and the earth right away,
instead, G-d made a model of the world—
in order to see if it could stand up on its own.

As G-d was setting up this model of the world, it toppled over.
It had nothing to lean on,
nothing to hold it up or to keep it together—
it had no foundations—and so, not surprisingly—it fell over.
What Rabbi Eliezer tells us next is that—
upon seeing the collapse of this model—
G-d laid the first foundations of the world
by creating Teshuvah, spiritual return.

When we say on Rosh Hashanah
that we are celebrating the birthday of the creation of the world,
what does that mean?
And what does it mean for your own life?

In Rabbi Eliezer’s midrash,
before the beginning of the world,
only G-d exists, nothing else.
Before the empty canvas and brush are in hand,
before the architect puts pen to paper,
before a teacher creates a lesson plan,
before a student begins a project,
there are no boundaries to creativity.
All is a blank slate.
We stand at the moment before intention and purpose set in.

Then, a yearning, a thought forms, something out of nothing.
You have felt this before….
What’s for dinner? Where might we go today?
What shall I create of my life?
Out of a desire, something entirely new is conceived:
a world filled with creation.
Here is where the creative energies begin to form:
G-d does not create the world first,
but instead, plays and dabbles, models and constructs.
Creativity is embodied.
If we think of children in their play element,
we can delve into the creativity of the mind of G-d:
air, trees, water, tectonic plates, butterflies, insects of all kinds, roses, fire, acid reflux, zebras, moon and tide, crabs, cave and canyon, gerbils, the ingredients for chocolate…

When we celebrate creation,
we celebrate the unfolding creativity
on which the world is founded;
we celebrate what came before the big bang —
out of nothing came something;
we celebrate the process that has brought us here
and that continues to give us life.
We celebrate the endless imaginative play
on which the world is created.
One can only imagine how many universes
G-d created before this one that we inhabit,
If one pays close attention,
one might be able to sense
how many universes exist even within ourselves.
Like a child playing with blocks,
there are countless possibilities,
limitless processes to get us to this very birthday.

Here is a wildly different conception of G-d than we are used to:
a G-d that creates and re-creates,
worlds collapsing, only to be created on firmer foundations.
Models toppling over again and again
until G-d creates the single most perfect foundation
upon which the creativity of the world could evolve and manifest.
That single greatest foundation in my opinion is teshuvah, spiritual return.

A classic definition would limit
the word teshuvah to “repentance”,
or a sincere expression of regret
or remorse of one’s wrongdoings.
Linguistically, however, teshuvah has a deeper
and more universal meaning than “repentance.”
Teshuvah more accurately translates as “return”,
the way back to ourselves, the way back to G-d,
as individuals and as a people,
a world as a whole returning again to itself.
This is the primary work of these days
from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur,
known as Aseret Yemei Teshuvah,
the 10 days of Teshuvah, the 10 days of spiritual and creative return.

A tree that falls in the forest when no one is there to hear it,
does it make a sound? Perhaps.
Yet what is certain is that it will surely compost,
crumble over time into the earth upon which it grew,
bring itself back to the origins upon which it was founded,
and create the fertilizer for its own offspring.
The world’s building blocks are teshuvah.
We return not in the sense of coming back
to the same spot we were once standing,
but rather ashes to ashes, dust to dust,
we return like compost back to the origins of life.
Teshuvah is nature’s ability to regenerate itself
from deep within its own structure, to return to form and function.
It is nature’s generative and creative capacity.

In the words of my friend and colleague Rabbi Adina Allen,
co-founder of the Jewish Studio Project:
“Teshuvah is the innovation that allows for the continuation of creation.”
Again, “teshuvah is the innovation that allows for the continuation of creation.”

To learn how the world sustains itself
ask the tiniest seed.
From early on in creation:
“The earth brought forth seed-bearing vegetation, after their kind,
and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it.” (Gen. 1:12)
Embedded in creation is the inherent capacity
to re-create itself or its likeness.

When we say we are celebrating
the birthday of the world, of creation,
we are not celebrating a noun: creation.
We are celebrating the creative act
that has never ended,
itself unfolding with every seed that buds,
and every tree that falls to the ground to die.
The loss and repair of the world—
this is teshuvah.
Trees, plants, birds, beasts—
all are given the opportunity to see to their own renewal
through continued creation,
not merely as survival, but as creative enterprise,
as actors—from birth to death—on the stage of life.

As we enter this transitional time of seasons
shifting from summer to fall,
we will soon see the leaves turning, falling, composting,
only to rebuild the groundwork for new seeds,
new growth in the spring—
something we who live in Vermont know well.
This is the turning and returning of Teshuvah.

When we celebrate the birthday of the world,
we are celebrating the process of continual renewal.
We are celebrating the birth of process, and the process of birth.

More than “repentance”,
teshuvah is the single-most important foundation of our own lives.
Our bodies’ cells replace themselves
almost entirely every 7-15 years.
We “get” a whole new liver every couple years,
new red blood cells within ½ a year;
and a whole new skin every 2-4 weeks.
We are made of regenerative processes.
We change and grow in ways that we are not even conscious of.
We are creative renewal.

In the next 10 days of the aseret yemei Teshuvah,
these days of turning and returning,
as the trees just begin to change colour
and the weather gets cooler,
I invite you to focus on the things that renew your spirits,
the foundations of your lives, the foundation of creation.

Rabbi Adina Allen writes:
“Our actions, yearnings, discoveries, choices, losses,
words spoken and left unspoken,
anger, guilt, learnings, and love
will paint the picture of the life we’ve lived
when we reach the end of our days.
Each of these elements is important
and has a place in the painting of our life.
The extent to which we find our life
a work of beauty will depend on how deeply
we engaged with these raw materials…”
She continues:
“We’ve been conditioned to replicate an image
of what we think – or have been told
– our painting – our life – should look like.
But, in opting for safety,
we miss the wild, fecund, place of all possibility,
our innate creativity…
(we must) dare to create our world anew.”

Even G-d created a model of the world that fell over.
Sometimes, we may find that our aspirations and hopes come up flat.
Often it is the falling over that makes for the greatest poetry.
In fact falling is inherent in creation,
dying a part of life.
Even straying – missing the mark – is innate to our nature.
Yet, with the continual possibility of teshuvah,
we all have the capacity to begin again.

Our ability to topple over and stand up firm again
is what makes for life.
It is this process of creation that brings about meaning and beauty.

G-d has designed a world in which
every creation has the opportunity to renew itself—
but each of us needs to know how to go about renewing ourselves.
It does not come easy.

And so I ask you at this birthday of the world:

What sustains you?
What must you return to and turn towards?
What needs composting in your lives?
What needs more fertilizer?
What risks will you take?
When might you fall over?
And how do you plan for the inevitable falls?
How will you pick yourself back up?
What worlds of yours might topple over this year?
And what new worlds might you create?

And take a moment, and consider:
What is holding you back?
What fears do you carry from past years?
What organized, boxed-in life that you are leading
ought to be more flexible, cavernous, open-ended?

How might you paint a new picture of yourself?
Or one that is a little different—
more of the you that you are becoming,
that you wish to see in the world?
How will you let go of the fear that is holding you back
and tap into the creativity of life?

How will you get out of
the image of yourself you think you are supposed to be
into the person you are meant to be?

In the beginning, G-d created spiritual return.
What shall you return to this season?

Return to the moment before consciousness…
Return to your foundations…
Return to your creative process…
Return to what you are here for…
Return to yourself…

Now is our time for reflection;
now is our time to play and engage with the material
and paint a renewed picture.

What art will each of us make with our lives this new year?