The disturbing recent news about the bloody protests in the Arab world incited by a video defaming the Prophet Muhammad remind me of a story associated with Rosh Hashanah, which begins on Sunday at sundown.
When Rosh Hashanah begins, the Jewish calendar will enter the year 5773. According to the tradition, exactly 5773 years ago, the creation of the world began with God’s words, “Let there be light,” and resulted in a world of staggering beauty and goodness--"And God saw all that She had made, and found it very good."
The rabbis taught that the light created with those first words, "Let there be light," was unlike the light associated with the sun, moon and stars, which were created on the fourth day. The first light made it possible to see from one end of the world to the other and God, afraid that evil people might use this light for destructive purposes, hid the light away, reserving it for the use of righteous people in the world to come.
I never had a very good idea of what kind of misuse of the primal light God feared, but now I do. The internet and global communications make it possible to see from one end of the world to another, so that a film made in California can be seen in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Iran. And in the hands of those who want to cause harm, like the filmmaker responsible for Innocence of Muslims, it is terribly dangerous.
In Philadelphia, back on the other side of the world, this same light brings me the news and stirs up several strong reactions. I'm horrified by the violence, saddened by the pain of my Muslim brothers and sisters who see their religion slandered, frightened by the far-reaching destructive power that can be wielded by a small group of people using the power of technology and my inability to do anything about it.
It is so tempting to cut myself off from this light that makes me aware of the suffering of others a world away. I have learned from the teachings of Joanna Macy and my teacher Rabbi Yael Levy, however, that fully facing and accepting the world's brokenness and our personal limitations are the first step in moving ahead.
At the very least it can relieve us of the crushing burden that results from feeling we must do it all--that I can prevent people from spewing hate like Innocence of Muslims, or relieve the suffering of millions and millions of Muslims. Recognizing our personal limitations may even lead us to create and nurture the kinds of human relationships and spiritual practices that will enable us to address the problems on a global scale we all face.
On Rosh Hashanah, when I participate in the tradition of fully prostrating myself as part of the great aleinu, I will do so with the intention of embodying my submission to the reality of my inability to control so much of what goes on in the world, and as I hear the one hundred shofar blasts, I will pray that they help me to stay fully awake and present to the world, its pain no less than its beauty.
Image by AS990 (Own Work / Trabajo Propio), [GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.