Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson
Flatbush Jewish Center
Rosh Hashanah 2nd morning – 5778/2017
This morning, we’re going to do something a little different. Instead of me just giving
a sermon, I’m going to hand out a text and invite you to study it in chevruta, the
ancient Jewish art of study with a partner. Don’t worry, this is not a cop out or a sign
that I didn’t do my homework—after we’ve done some chevruta, I will share with
you my own thoughts about the text. I wanted to try this with you for two reasons.
First, I want you to be my active partners in studying Torah. And second, when we
approach a Jewish text, each one of us brings a unique life-experience to it, so each
one of us discovers unique and special wisdom in it that no one else can uncover.
When you hear my interpretation of a text, you hear it refracted through my life
experience, and perhaps the life experience of my teachers. When you tackle it in
chevruta, you get three for the price of one—your own take, your study-buddy’s,
The question I want us to investigate today is how God spends God’s time—and
you’ll see, as you as you hear the text, why this relates directly to Rosh Hashanah.
It’s not simply an abstract question of theology. One of the fundamental principles of
every religion—so far as I can tell—is imitatio dei, the imitation of God. We are
supposed to strive to emulate God. But, the rabbis of the Talmud (Sotah 14a) ask,
how is that possible, since God is so utterly nonhuman? After all, the Torah
describes God as a devouring fire! Their answer is that we should try to follow the
attributes of God. So, in order to learn how we should be spending our time, we
might want to know how God spends God’s time.
Here’s how this works: find a buddy to study with, someone sitting nearby.
Introduce yourselves if you don’t already know each other. I’ll start off by reading
the text out loud for all of us, but I encourage one of you to read it out loud again. It
can help to hear it twice, and it breaks the ice at the beginning of the chevruta. Then
start to share any observations you make, questions you might have, ideas or words
or images that strike you as odd or interesting. It’s a bit like studying poetry, if that’s
a helpful analogy. Ask yourself, or your partner: What surprises you in this text?
What moves you? What annoys you? Keep talking—and if you get stuck and fall
silent, read the text out loud again. Something will catch your ear and you’ll be able
to pick up from there. I know this will be unfamiliar and challenging for some of you,
and I encourage you to embrace that feeling and try it anyway. Take a step outside
your comfort zone. Remember, there are no right or wrong answers. I’ll let you
know when to stop.
Talmud, Avodah Zarah 3b
Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: There are twelve hours in a day.
The first three hours, the Holy Blessed One sits and is occupied with
The second three, [God] sits and judges the entire world. Then, seeing that
the entire world is guilty, [God] rises from the Throne of Judgment and sits
on the Throne of Mercy.
The third [set of three hours, God] sits and feeds the entire world, from the
horns of antelopes/gazelles to the eggs of lice.
The fourth [trio of hours, God] sits and plays with the Leviathan, as it says
(Psalm 104:26), “The Leviathan that You created to play with.”
I want to thank everyone for going a little outside the bounds of what we’re used to
in the middle of services and trying that out. There’s a lot I could say about this text,
but I’ll just share a quick thought or two about each piece.
Before we get to that, we could also ask the question: what does God do all night?
That could be a great question to take up if we decided to write our own midrash.
But we’ll leave that as an aside for today.
So, first, I love the fact that God studies Torah, because it highlights how Torah study
is much more a process than as end-goal. An omniscient God—a God who wrote the
Torah!—already knows everything that is in it, but nevertheless, God finds study
worth devoting a quarter of every day to. Studying Torah is not mainly about
learning the content—it’s a way of being in the world, of opening ourselves to deep
questions, of relating to God and to each other.
Second: God judges the world each day. Now, I’m not suggesting that we should
spend our time judging each other. But we do spend our days taking in information
about the world, thinking about it, and making decisions. How to respond to this
comment a friend made. Whether a certain rumor or article is trustworthy or
suspect. To give this particular homeless person some change or to walk on by.
We’re constantly trying to exercise what we call “good judgment.” And we need to
be smart, careful judges, or else we will make mistakes, sometimes serious ones. But
at the same time, the Talmud is reminding us that failures are inevitable. When it
comes to the people in our lives, we should do our best to give them the benefit of
Third—God feeds the whole world, from the largest and most majestic creature to
the smallest, most annoying. As we care for others—whether it be through giving
tzedakah or just looking out for those around us—let’s make sure we don’t just
focus on the graceful gazelles but also on the causes and people that nobody really
wants to notice.
My favorite part of this midrash is the last part. God spends the evening playing.
Playing! Frolicking! Unwinding! I don’t know about you, but I have these twin voices
in my head, and they make me crazy. If I have a little free time and I decide to do some work, one of them says to me: you really should take advantage of this time to
relax, do something fun. And if I decide to do something fun during that little free
time, the other voice says: you have such a long to-do list! How can you possibly
afford to waste these precious minutes? No matter how many times I hear about
research that says we are more productive when we give ourselves a break, it’s hard
to make myself take one. So here I am once again, trying to convince myself—and all
of you—that we really do need to take a break, on a regular basis, and just play.
Now, the thing about imagining how God spends God’s time is there can be a zillion
possibilities—so, in that spirit of pluralism, I want to share another midrash that
offers a different take on the same question. A rich Roman lady asks one of the
rabbis what God has been doing since the creation of the world. He responds that
God has been playing matchmaker. The Roman scoffs—“That’s how your God
spends his time? That’s easy!”—and brings in one hundred of her male slaves and
one hundred of her maidservants. She lines them up in two rows, pairs them off, and
locks them in their rooms together for the night. In the morning, they are all beaten
black and blue, missing teeth, bleeding from their noses, and so on—at which point
the lady concedes that making successful matches is harder than it looks and worthy
of God’s attention.
This midrash also offers us guidance on how to live—and no, I don’t mean we
should all become Yenta the Matchmaker. What does it take to successfully match
two people up as life-partners? I’m sure we could come up with many answers if we
went back into chevruta, but here are four that occur to me. First, a lot of careful
listening, to really get to know the person on a deep level. Second, compassion, to
see the person as a whole being, warts and all, and see how their faults are part of
what makes them loveable. Third, the wisdom and sensitivity to challenge some of a
person’s preconceptions—and to know which ones to challenge and which ones to
let lie. And fourth, courage to take a risk, knowing we might fail.
Let us strive to enter this new year as students of Torah, as careful and merciful
judges of each other and the world, and as generous nourishers of those around us,
both the popular and the shunned. Let us be playful! And let us approach each other
like matchmakers: with open ears and hearts, with wisdom and sensitivity and
courage. By imitating God in this fashion, we’ll bring God into the world and
blessing into our lives and the lives of everyone around us.