This summer for my birthday Sarah bought me a new pair of noise-canceling headphones. I thought it was the most amazing gift I’ve ever received! You see, I live in a noisy house. With four very active kids who love to horse around and play video games, build forts with our couch pillows, clean or should I say not clean, do their homework or I should say not do their homework, and on Sundays it’s the Dallas Cowboys so my house is very loud!
Whoever thought an open floor plan was a great design choice, obviously didn’t have a large family!
And with this new gift that Sarah gave me, all I have to do is put on these little white headphones and push a button and all I hear is … silence.
And it doesn’t matter what else is happening – whether it’s my kids running around or a really messy kitchen piled to the ceiling with dishes or a laundry basket overflowing with clothes, or any of the hundreds of other distractions – when those headphones are on, all I hear is my music, my podcast, my audio book – all I hear the sounds I want to hear and nothing else.
On the other hand, I can’t tell you how many times one of my kids or my wife tried to get my attention while I am on my own, doing my own thing with the headphones on. Like the other day when one of my kids told me all about their day at school and who they met and what they learned, but because my back was to them and my headphones were on, I heard none of it. And so when I turned around, I gave them a big smile and nodded my head like I heard everything when really I heard nothing.
Now, this trick might work for my kids, but let me give you a little piece of advice, don’t do that with your partner, ever. If you see them talking to you, or if you think they might even be talking to you, or thinking that they are thinking of talking to you. Do not put your headphones on cancellation mode.
Trust me on this one.
I’ve come to use these headphones all the time, in phone calls, meetings and watching movies. Sometimes, I don’t really trust that they’re working. I’ll be listening to a movie and I can hear everything so clearly and precisely, and I don’t think they are on, but then I’ll turn them off and all of sudden all the other sounds come flooding back in, and I feel overwhelmed.
Afterall, noise is, by definition, a cluster of sounds that are entangled with each other to the point that our minds can’t process it anymore. A song isn’t “noise” because the sounds are well-ordered and harmonized. A conversation isn’t noise, because the sounds you and I make in it convey something intelligible and have meaning. Even “white noise” or what I call the “Jackson Pollack” of noise, is disordered sound but somehow they blend together and give a calming effect. But most of the noise isn’t calming. Most noise we hear is upsetting. It’s chaotic. It’s anxiety producing and sometimes it’s terrifying.
And there’s so much noise out there – more than ever before.
Did you know that there are more than 250k new websites created everyday? That’s 380 websites every minute. There are nearly 3k books published every single day – that’s more than in the entire 19th century. We are drowning in information. We are drowning in noise.
And the noise is not just information, everything about our lives feels overwhelming.
One in ten Americans have experienced COVID with some 650k dying from it. One out three Americans have been affected this summer alone by extreme heat and fire, or flood. That’s one hundred million americans. Antisemitism has increased 115% in America for the third year in a row of triple digit increases. Homelessness here in Los Angeles we all know is not going away any time soon.
How many of you feel the world is getting worse instead of better? According to the Pew Research Center, the future is a complete toss up. Just over 50% of us think the future will be better than the past, but that number drops below 50% when this question was asked of younger generations and that number plummets completely when asked about the environment and climate change, about standards of living, and political infighting.
Sound familiar? It does to me. How many of us are simultaneously waiting and fearing the news?How many of us turn on the radio or the TV or look at our phones and are steeling ourselves for whatever comes our way? How many of us are just waiting for the next variant of COVID to take away the things we love?
The noise is so overwhelming. The world feels like it’s wobbling! And what many of us want to do is put on those headphones and push the button and run away from the noise.
But we can’t and shouldn’t.
And that’s what I would like to address with you today on my last Yom Kippur here as your rabbi at VBS. Last week on Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about the purpose of synagogue, and that it is the only institution that transforms lives, from your very first breath to your very last breath. Synagogues are the unique engines of transformation that prove to the world against the noise that love exists, hope exists, and God exists.
Today, I want to take us further and go beyond the experience of the synagogue and delve into the experience of your life and address the inner dimensions of this moment and how God won’t let us simply cancel the noise but to use the noise and ultimately rise above it.
I’d like to read to you from the Torah, just three lines which contain within them everything you need to know about how to respond to this moment. In just three sentences, the Torah gives you the theological seed upon which to build a new life and a new world.
“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was tohu vavohu, unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and the spirit of God fluttered over the water, and God said, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:1-3).
That’s it. That’s how it all begins. That’s the moment we are in right now, today.
Imagine with me for an instant, what God, as it were, saw in the moments before creation? God saw a world of chaos, a world where light and darkness were commingled. Where day and night were indistinguible. Where words like wet and dry carry no meaning because everything was both wet and dry at the same time. A world teeming with uncertainty, a world in which goodness was trapped, bound and incarcerated by evil. A world where everything was entangled and disordered.
Even the words tohu vavahou, present themselves as a tongue-twister to give us the physical sense of the chaos before creation. God looked upon the earth and saw and listened, and heard the disquiet, the cacophony of it all and heard – well, noise.
The world then is the world now – Tohu Vavohu.
Tohu vahou – A world that is parched by drought and flooded by water at the same time.
Tohu Vavohu – A world that is scorched by fire and flooded by water at the same time.
Tohu Vavohu – A world that is astonished by morality. And indifferent to corruption.
Tohu Vavohu – A world where equal voices are given to “both sides” because they both have fine people.
Tohu Vavohu is a world where terrorisism is considered more moral than democracy.
Tohu Vavohu – A world where the world blames the poor, the sick and the wretched for the problems of the rich, the strong and the healthy.
Tohu Vavohu -A world where there is no hope for the future, because goodness is still trapped away. A world that runs from the future.
This is the moment that we find ourselves in. This moment is a moment Tohu Vavohu, of noisy chaos.
And there is a deep part of us that just wants to run away from it all. To put on those headphones and push that button and cancel out everything around us. We want to escape. Escape from the world. Escape from each other. And escape from the future.
Psychologists call this escape “numbing” ourselves or “detaching ourselves.” It’s when we try to disassociate ourselves with our world and delve into fantasy, into sports, into drugs, sex, and into alchohol. How many of you this last year drank more than you think you should? How many of us tried to close off the world and close off our hearts to the pain that exists all around us by taking one more drink or one more puff? How many of us really only want to be with people that agree with us, to never be challenged or made to feel uncomfortable? How many of us care more about RBIs than SSIs, or interest rates more than poverty rates?
It’s so easy to put on those headphones and cancel the noise.
But in the Torah, God didn’t cancel anything, God did the opposite. Instead of ignoring the noise, God decided to become an artist by using the noise. When God looked upon the world, God made the most astounding choice. God could have walked away. God could have put in headphones and ignored it all. But God didn’t. God saw the void and heard, as the psalmist says, the raging and rushing waters of chaos, and God rose above it and pushed back the noise, using God’s own voice. (Psalm 93:4, Psalm 104:7) To create a world. To create life. And to create goodness.
God heard the noise and turned it into a sacred song. (Psalm 29:9-10) God used the brokenness, the pain, the cacophony of chaos and formed it into creation. This teaches us something so profound and so life changing. The very act of creation itself was a choice for God to show up in the world for the first time and to liberate goodness from evil and to redeem the light from the darkness. God could have walked away, but chose in that moment just before the Torah begins to tell us the rest of the story of the universe and of the Jewish people, to make the unwritten but most profound choice to transform the noise into a song by singing “Let there be light.”
It’s God’s signature move in the Torah. It’s God’s only move, really. At every moment, God’s artistry seeks to transform the noise and turn it into a new song. In Genesis, God did it in the flood, with Noah. (Genesis 8:22) And with Abraham at Moriah (Genesis 22:12) In Exodus, with Moses at sea (Exodus 14:21) . In Leviticus, by taking your pain, your guilt, your shame and your sin into smoke upon the altar. (Leviticus Ch. 6) In Numbers, by making curses into blessings with Bilam (Numbers 23:7) and in Deuteronomy, God transformed a nation of slaves into a freed people. (Deuteronomy 30:15) Over and over and over again, God changes the course of life not by ignoring the chaos but by using the brokenness, the chaos, as fuel for the future.
The highest personal and theological ethic in Judaism is imitatio dei or as Rabbi Schulweis z”l said, to act Godly. That means we too must be sacred artists and transform the chaos into sacred song. I’m reminded of the story of the soviet atheist and scientist, Anotoly Sharansky. Antoly served nine years in a Soviet Gulag simply for vindicating the rights of Soviet citizens who were Jews. Sharansky, who wrote of his incarceration in his autobiography, Fear No Evil. Year after year, they tried to wear him down by showing him the triviality of his morals and the meaninglessness in the world. He was asked to sign his name to untruths and fake confessions with arguments like, “Antony, who will ever know? What difference will it make? It is such a small thing, and it will make things go much better for you and for us, it will be for the common good, just sign here.” Just sign here. He descended into the world of Tohu Vavohu.
I’m reminded of Anne Frank, whose family as you know, lived in an attic hidden behind a bookshelf to escape the Nazis. In her diary, she wrote of the descent of her beloved city Amsterdam into darkness, the expulsion Jews and her family moving into the secret annex. She too watched her world descend into tohu vavohu as it encroached closer and closer and eventually took her to Auschwitz.
For both Anatoly, and Anne when the noise got loud and chaos rose it could have overwhelmed them. But like God, they used the noise to rise above it. Sharansky fought the Russians invading his mind by creating a new identity and a new life for himself. Someone was able to get him a Book of Psalms and he spent his quiet moment communing with King David and realized the eternal truthfulness of Judaism. As a result he became more observant, not less under oppression He became more learned, not less under torture. He became reborn, choosing the name Natan, meaning gift, and became stronger through his time in the Gulag, not weaker. In the face of chaos he created himself anew. He revealed to himself wisdom, knowledge and truth. And he liberated himself from the prison. In the face of the noise he turned his life, like God into a sacred song.
Anne too, could have canceled the noise. She could have done nothing, written nothing, and given herself over to the abyss. Instead she took a pen and paper and created something beautiful. She writes, “I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.” Her writings are read globally as a testament of remembrance and resilience in face of chaos. She created something from nothing. The act of creation rebirthed her hope and courage, it liberated her from her fear, and gave her immortality because her writings live on long after the toffets Auschwitz stopped burning.
For Natan and for Anne they chose, like God, to rise above the noise and use it to fashion something new. To shape the noise into song. To shape chaos into order and to sequester the darkness to let light spring forth. Creation is revelation. Creation is liberation. To act like God is to look out at the noise, the pain, the anxiety we all feel and to take this moment, today, and sing, “Let here be light.”
Today is Yom Kippur. It is our holiest day, and day when we believe more than any other that we can transform ourselves, transform our relationships, and transform the very foundations of our lives to make the world better. Central to our prayers is the piyut, “Ya’aleh” which means to rise!
Ya’aeleh – May our prayers rise at nightfall, may they come to You in the morning, and may You return to us at dusk.
Ya’aleh – May our voices rise at nightfall and our righteousness arrive in the morning, and our redemption come at dusk.
The world is noisy, it feels bleak and confusing. But on this day, of all days, on this Yom Kippur when we take stock of who we are and what we want out of life, we must not run away from it and shut ourselves off. We must, we be like Natan, and be like Ann, and Ya’aleh, rise up. We must rise up like God and use the noise to create a sacred song.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Ben Zoma was asked, how far above the waters of the deep did God’s spirit flutter? How far did God have to rise in order to create a new world? He answered, only the three finger breadths, like a dove hovering over its nest. (Chagiga 15a:3) The other students thought he was crazy to speculate how close God’s presence was to the waters. They thought it was a waste of his time, and of our time actually, to ponder such a thing. They called him crazy and outside the norm for even daring to speculate about such a thing, But in truth Ben Zoma is right. Because that’s all it takes. Just a few inches to turn noise into song and a broken world into a NEW one.
Three finger breadths is a tiny distance. It’s the same distance from your eyes to your brain. It’s the same distance from your ears to your mouth. Three fingers breadth is the distance between seeing and hearing, thinking and sharing. It’s the distance between input and output and the distance between thought and action. It’s the very short path that God took to rise above the noise and create the world. That’s all it takes for you to rise above it, and create your life anew.
The distance between despair and repair is only three fingerbreadths. That’s all it takes to change your life from one that cancels to one that builds. From one that shuts out the world and cancels everyone and everything to one that creates the world anew.
And today is the day. One evening, one nightfall, one dawn, and one dusk to rise above the noise. One day to use the pain of the world to make a better one. To use the cacophony of chaos to create goodness. To choose life like Moses. To choose justice like Abraham. To choose pride like Esther. To choose our people and our faith like Ruth. To make the godly choice to create the future instead of being afraid of the future. Today is the day, the best day, the only day, to say, “I won’t give up on the world.” I will liberate goodness and redeem the world because creation is revelation and creation is redemption. This is our holy mission as Jews, to partner with God and look at our noisy world and refuse to run away from it. But be like God and rise above it and say, “Let there be light.”
It has been an honor to be on this journey with you for these many years, my friends. I will miss you so very much, and so let us all use this one day, one evening, one nightfall, one dawn and one dusk as an opportunity to make the world anew.
Gmar Hatima Tova, May you all be sealed in The Book of Life.
THOUGH there has been no intimacy between us I will miss you as I understand you will leave VBS soon. I have found your writings to be very fulfilling in spite of my rather weak pursuits of religion. My understanding of Torah has been enriched as have I. Todays was one of your best; opening up our minds to the grey with the beauty of color. I hope we will still have access to your comment. I wish you a long life journey bring light to all you touch.