Many of you will know the famous story of the Maharal of Prague and his Golem – the lump of clay that he animated to be a living-but-not-human-being. The story goes that through mystical incantations and writing the word ‘Emet’ (truth) on its head the Golem came to life. When he wanted it to go to sleep he would wipe off the letter ‘Aleph’ from the word ‘Emet’ because that left the word ‘met’ – death.
The power of the stories of the Golem are manifold, but at its core we are dealing with the question of what it means to be human. To extend beyond ‘animation’ into consciousness and conscience. That is why these stories of humans making humans are so fascinating to us – whether it’s Frankenstein’s monster or the latest Robotic AI. What does it mean to be human? That is what is at stake on this Rosh Hashanah when, according to tradition, the first human being was created.
The moment of animation
In Genesis Rabbah, a collection of rabbinic interpretations on the book of Genesis from perhaps the 5th century, we read of the moment in which that first human being goes from a lump of clay to a living breathing person.
וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו (בראשית ב, ז), מְלַמֵּד שֶׁהֶעֱמִידוֹ גֹּלֶם מִן הָאָרֶץ וְעַד הָרָקִיעַ, וְזָרַק בּוֹ אֶת הַנְּשָׁמָה
“And he breathed into his nostrils” – it teaches that God set up a Golem from earth to heaven and threw into it breath. (Genesis Rabbah 14:9)
Something unique and profound happens when we have breathed into us the breath of God – we become human. The act of breathing is a reminder of the divine spark – or the image of God in which we have been created.
Created with the Seal of God
And so we come back to the Maharal and his Golem (all legend by the way). The Golem of the story is animated with the word EMET. Not with the breath of God – because this of course is a human endeavour not a Divine project. In a different midrash Emet – Truth – is cast by God to the ground in the midst of an argument over whether human beings should be created. With truth cast down to earth, God creates us. The divine retinue ask God – “Why have you despised your seal? – Let Truth spring up from the ground. [quoting Psalm 85:12]”. The moment of creation of humankind is a moment in which the true nature of our character must be over-ridden. Because the rabbis are asking in their interpretation – are we worthy of being created given our ‘negatives’? Truth is left to recover from the ground.
A One Word Letter from Heaven
In a fascinating chain of stories about the ‘evil inclination’ – the rabbinic incarnation of our human tendencies to err, to idolise, to sin – the Babylonian Talmud describes a rabbinic anti-fairy tale. The Rabbis imagine they can capture the evil inclination kicking and screaming and put it into a box and solve all their problems about what it means to be a human being that errs. When Rav, or is it Rabbi Yochanan, cry aloud to God about the sages desire to overcome the evil inclination a letter falls from heaven and written upon it is one word ‘Emet’, which Rav Hanina says is the seal of God. To be human is to have choice, to wish we didn’t but to resolve to recognise the truth of our human condition and strive to be better. The seal of God is a reminder of our humanity. We are not inscribed with truth like the Golem – one letter of the alphabet away from death – we are rather entrusted with the breath of all life. The delicate and confusing condition of being human is in balance and we have a responsibility to God’s seal – Truth.
To acknowledge truth and To speak truth in our heart
In the morning liturgy every day in some prayerbooks there is a phrase that reads: “A human should always be in awe of Heaven in private as well as in public, acknowledge the truth and speak the truth in one’s heart, rising early and saying ‘Ribon kol haolamim’.” The Ribon passage may have been an early confession by Rabbi Yochanan (bYoma 87b) on Yom Kippur. This opening intention ‘kavannah’ – to speak the truth in our heart – a quote from Psalm 15:2. What does that mean?
It is quite fundamentally what is at stake on Rosh Hashanah. I know there is a lot else going on in the world for us to contend with and many of my colleagues will speak to those issues. But for me, Rosh Hashanah is not about the state of the nation but the state of our souls. The souls animated by the breath of all life.
Duties of the Heart
In Bachya ibn Pakuda (11th century Spain) introduction to his ‘Duties of the Heart’ he reflects on its purpose:
“You should realize that the aim and value of the duties of the heart is that our exterior and interior be equal and consistent in the service of God, so that the testimony of the heart, tongue, and limbs be alike, and that they support and confirm each other instead of differing and contradicting each other. This is what Scripture calls “tamim” (innocent/perfect), in saying: “You shall be perfect with the Eternal your God” (Deut. 18:13), and “Noah was a righteous man and perfect in his generations” (Gen. 6:9), and “he who walks uprightly, and works righteousness, and speaks the truth in his heart” (Ps. 15:2), and “I will give heed unto the way of integrity..I will walk within my house with a perfect heart” (Ps. 101:2).”
To acknowledge the truth is to live with integrity. And the truth we are talking about here is not the latest proposition by a politician. It is that the inside and the outside of our lives should be consistent and equal. To be moved by the impression of the seal of God is not only to establish a world based on justice, truth and peace (Pirke Avot 1:18). Those external matters are important. But it is also to live a life of integrity – such that one’s exterior and interior are equal and consistent. In the 11th century Bahya Ibn Pakuda touches on that great challenge of what it means to be human – that we should walk uprightly (our external character), do righteous deeds (our external actions), speak the truth in our heart – it should all line up with our inner world that only you and God know and understand (Psalm 44:21).
The Forgetters of the Truth
What is at stake is our humanity. We have work to do on ourselves – the lies we tell ourselves and the lies we tell others. The untruths we live with and the untruths we persuade ourselves to believe about our characters. To be human is not to have been animated by truth. On the contrary – we are created despite the truth. We are not man made Golems that can be extinguished by a letter. We are prone to err, to sin and to falsehood. We cannot capture our undesirable inclinations and put them in a box – for then we would not be human. Rosh Hashanah is one part of the Jewish approach to coming to terms with this and changing. And so this Rosh Hashanah when we hear the shofar we are reminded of Maimonides 12th century code of law, the Mishneh Torah, on the meaning of the Shofar:
Its blast is symbolic, as if saying: “Ye that sleep, bestir yourselves from your sleep, and ye slumbering, emerge from your slumber, examine your conduct, turn in repentance, and remember your Creator!
They that forget the truth because of the vanities of the times, who err all of their years by pursuing vanity and idleness, which are of neither benefit nor of salvation, care for your souls, improve your ways and your tendencies, let each one of you abandon your evil path and your thought which is not pure!
It is, therefore, necessary for every person to behold oneself throughout the whole year in a light of being evenly balanced between innocence and guilt, and look upon the entire world as if evenly balanced between innocence and guilt; thus, if you commit one sin, you will overbalance yourself and the whole world to the side of guilt, and be a cause of its destruction; but if you perform one duty, behold, you will overbalance yourself and the whole world to the side of virtue, and bring about your own and their salvation and escape, even as it is said: “But the righteous is an everlasting foundation” (Prov. 10. 25), it is you, by whose righteousness you overbalanced the whole world to virtue and saved it. (Mishneh Torah, Repentance 3:4)
This Rosh Hashanah our souls are stake. The truth and integrity of our lives – both exterior and interior must be congruent with each other. That is what we seek for ourselves – to be fully human – at this Rosh Hashanah. I wish you a shanah Tovah – a good and sweet new year – a time of health, a time of support and a time of community. Shanah Tovah.