I begin with a familiar story - so familiar that I am almost embarrassed to tell it to you. But, like some of the texts I mentioned last week, the story is usually told incompletely, and as a result, it loses the nuance that is important in taking it to heart.
Rabbi Simcha Bunam of P'shis'kha was an unusual chassidic rebbe. Unlike many of those in the constellation of chassidic masters, he took pride in being both worldly and intellectual. That is not to say that most of the chassidic masters were parochial and unsophisticated; however, most of those who were saw little use for their worldly knowledge. Simcha Bunam had been a lumber merchant and a pharmacist. He attended the theater and was familiar with the popular music of the late 18th and early 19th century. He was active in the political affairs of both the Jewish and general communities.
He came to chassidism relatively late in his life -- he was not among those young men who threw over their parents' plans for them to follow some charismatic rabbi. But lots of those young men came to study with him, which may explain the central emphasis of what became known as P'sish'kha Chassidism: full and conscious sincerity with oneself. Simcha Bunam was among those who interpreted Leviticus 25:17 in a very personal way: "You shall not deceive another, but you shall fear God" was understood to include yourself. You shall not deceive yourself, and thus will you be able to stand in awe of God. Only the one who is honest with himself or herself can know true devotion.
Without that background, it is easy to omit the last words of Rabbi Simcha Bunam's most familiar teaching, but with that background it is impossible to ignore it. The story is usually told this way:
Rabbi Simcha Bunam used to say, "Every person should have two pockets. In one, [there should be a note that says] bishvili nivra ha'olam, 'for my sake was the world created.' In the second, [there should be a note that says] anokhi afar va'efer, 'I am dust and ashes.'"
In some versions of the story, as if the listener can't figure it out for him- or herself, Simcha Bunam is alleged to continue, "When one is feeling down, he should take out the note that says 'for my sake was the world created.' And when one is feeling smug, he should take out the note that says 'I am dust and ashes.'"
In other versions, the contemporary homiletic reading speaks of how pockets are on either side of a person, and we therefore live in the tension between our arrogance and self-denigration.
You can find both versions on the web, dozens of sermons by dozens of rabbis. I read a bunch of them in preparation for writing this one. So if you like the story, but not the sermon, you can do better after Yom Kippur by googling "dust and ashes."
But I wouldn't be honest with you if I didn't share the rest of the teaching, which I found in the collection Iturei Torah, a verse-by-verse collection of Chassidic teachings on the weekly Torah portion. Simcha Bunam draws his own lesson from his delightful image:
"One must know how to use them, each one in its proper place and right time. For many make the mistake of using them in their opposite applications."
That is to say, too often, when we should be acknowledging our arrogance, we are defending it. And when we should be overcoming our self-denigration, we are confirming it. And so tonight and tomorrow, I want to spend a little time on each statement and how it might apply to life. Don't be surprised to hear a version of this introduction tomorrow. I told you I only had one sermon in me for all four times I had to speak.
The saying bishvili nivra ha'olam, "for my sake was the world created," is actually from the Talmud. You will find it at the end of the fourth chapter of Mishnah Sanhedrin, beginning on page 37a of that same tractate in the Talmud. It is in the midst of the description of how witnesses to a capital crime are to be instructed by the judges before offering their testimony, impressed with the importance of their complete honesty before the court. After mentioning the recrimination God invokes on Cain following the murder of Abel - "The blood of your brother cries out" - the judges are to say, "Therefore, only one human being was created in order to teach that one who destroys a single soul, Scripture regards him as if he destroyed an entire world, and one who saves a single soul, Scripture regards him as if he saved an entire world.
"Moreover, for the sake of peace among humanity, that no one be able to say to anyone else, 'My father was greater than yours'…And to tell the greatness of the Holy One, for when a human being mints many coins from a single mold, all of them are similar to each other. But the Holy One minted every person from the mold of that first human being, and not a one is the same as another.
"Therefore, each and every person must say, bishvili nivra ha'olam, 'for my sake was the world created.'"
As you might imagine, there were not many capital convictions during the time of the Mishnah.
Later Talmudic sages were intrigued by this teaching, long after Jews had the autonomy to rule on capital offenses. There follows in the Gemara a discussion of what makes each human being unique. Delightfully, the rabbis suggest that we are different in voice and appearance so that we do not accidentally engage in sexual relations with the wrong spouse because they all look and sound alike. And they suggest that we all think differently so that robbers will have a harder time figuring out where we keep our valuables.
But when they get to the question of why the human being was last among God's creations, they give us some insight into what it means to say bishvili nivra ha'olam.
The first reason given is to pre-empt the claim that God had a partner in creating the world. If Adam had walked the earth on the first day or even the morning of the sixth day, there might be people who would say, "some aspects of our world are not in God's domain." Therefore, FOR my sake was the world created, not BY my efforts was the world created.
The second reason seems to be the very opposite of how we would understand this phrase. The human being was created last so that if he ever became haughty, God can say to him, "The mosquito was created before you were." In other words, the world was in place before you got here - it was created not just FOR you, but BEFORE you.
Third, the Gemara suggests, Adam was created late on Friday so that upon entering the world, the very first thing he could do would be to perform the mitzvah of observing Shabbat. In other words, existence in the physical world was no trick - sun and moon, birds and fish, lions and mosquitoes live in the physical world - but for my sake was the spiritual dimension of the world created.
But the fourth explanation of why the human being was created last gives us the meaning that I suspect inspired Rabbi Simcha Bunam of P'sish'kha: so that when he entered the world, he would immediately be invited to a feast. And the Gemara continues with an analogy: a king of flesh and blood built a palace just to welcome guests. The very purpose of the palace could not be fulfilled until the guests arrived.
This, my friends, is the meaning of bishvili nivra ha'olam, for my sake was the world created. This world is not complete, it is not fulfilling its purpose if you are not here fulfilling your purpose. Bishvili nivra ha'olam is not a mere affirmation of our privilege; it is a profound instruction about our individual mission. And therefore that statement says a lot about the reason we are here tonight and all day tomorrow.
You are in this room tonight because you have to be. You may consider it a matter of free choice, but face it - it's a Friday night in September and there are plenty of things you could be doing. But if the seat you are sitting in were empty, something would be askew in our world and in yours. It is your purpose on this day, the tenth evening of Tishrei in the year 5765, to be sitting in the Cohen Sanctuary or the Lainoff Auditorium and doing what you are doing - listening to me, sailing on the wings of Elisheva's voice, folding down a tab on your pledge card, looking at other people's outfits, forcing your way through 100 pages of Hebrew text. It is not at all inaccurate to say, "For my sake was this night created."
There is also a certain amount of myopia to that statement. After all, hasn't there been Yom Kippur for thousands of years? Before you were a twinkle in the eyes of your parents, they gathered in Alexandria, Virginia or in Alexandria, Egypt, in New York, New York or in York, England, in Petersburg or St. Petersburg, in Bethlehem or Beit Lechem, in Temple Hills or on the Temple Mount.
In a sense, the answer is yes, but in a more reflective sense the answer is irrelevant. We are distracted by the questions of the day: who shall live and who shall die, but we know the answers to those questions. We shall live and we shall die, of those answers we are certain. Only details are in short supply. Of greater mystery is the question, who shall be born? For if it is true that for my sake the world was created - and it is - then no soul whose time has not come will enter this world. Otherwise, the world was created in vain.
The first Chief Rabbi of modern Israel was Rabbi Avraham Kook. Rav Kook, as he is known, was a wise and gentle man, filled with passion and compassion. His writings about everything from Torah to politics are infused with his spiritual consciousness. Rav Kook wrote a commentary on the prayer we utter at the end of each amidah on Yom Kippur that begins with the words, "My God! Before I was formed I was of no worth, and now that I am formed, it is as if I was never formed."
Here is what he said: Before my birth, all the time from the beginning of creation until I was born, I was not needed in this world. For if I had been missing from any task or fulfillment, I would have been created. And since I have now been created, it is a sign that I am needed, for my time has come to accomplish some goal, to fulfill some mission. Some aspect of this world is meant to be corrected and completed through me.
Not just this evening, not just today, not just in this sanctuary, but wherever you go in this world, you are here for a purpose. I cannot tell you what that purpose is; nobody can tell you that purpose. It is your reason for living, and it is your reason for living with intention, rather than for the sake of existence. For my sake was the world created! The world has been waiting for me to arrive because without me, it cannot be complete.
No wonder a baby cries when it emerges from the womb. Who would want the job of being a human being? On those mornings when the alarm goes off and we pull the covers over our heads and refuse to come out, we are remembering that moment of formation and gestation and birth that heaped upon us the responsibility for preserving the world!
Rav Kook continues to interpret the prayer: Were I to dedicate my actions during my life to the fulfillment of that purpose for which I was created, it would confirm and justify my existence. But if I do not, then I have reverted to that state of being of no worth. In other words, it is as if I had never been formed at all.
We read the list of sins we have committed in the aggregate - ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, we have sinned, we have betrayed, we have robbed. We enumerate the possibilities that the human race has accumulated, by hardening our hearts, by abusing our speech, by acting on our lust. Those are sins that other people have committed, and to confess them is to ask forgiveness on their behalf. They live between the pages of that prayer book in your lap, they are rolled up in the scrolls that witnessed our declaration tonight, they are confessed by stubborn hearts and willing lips that are drawn to this place this night for this purpose.
But you and I have only one confession to make that is genuine. And what a horrible sin it is! For the sin that I have sinned for not remembering bishvili nivra ha'olam, for my sake was the world created! I have chased someone else's dream. I have coveted someone else's role. I have worked at someone else's task! I have left the world incomplete, because I have behaved as if the world has no need of my presence beyond a number, a ticket, a statistic.
When our tradition maintains the ultimate worth of every life, the ultimate worth of every individual, this is what it means. Your life is not an accident, a happenstance, a matter of cosmic indifference. You were born into this world to make a difference because the world would have been incomplete without you. When you were stamped out of the mold of Adam, the image that emerged, the image of God that is integrated into your DNA, into your soul, into your life force, is that purpose for which you exist at all.
And if we believe that God is good - and we do - then your mission in this world is good as well. It is a complicated place, our earth. It is a complicated pilgrimage, our history. It is a complicated system, our life. More things intersect through the chambers of our hearts than we can hope to track. It makes finding that purpose, that mission all the more difficult.
We want to know why we are here, so we invent the reasons. And almost always, it is something we don't have. Money. Love. Children. Celebrity. Influence. Power. Control. We think we see it, a shadow on the horizon, and we chase after it, only to feel that the world would have been a better place had we never been created at all.
Shai Held is a Conservative rabbi who works with college seniors as they begin to consider what they will do next. The students he meets are some of the best and the brightest Jewish kids in the country. They find their way into the top professional schools, the most prestigious educational institutions, the most lucrative and coveted entry-level positions in America. He teaches them this commentary of Rav Kook. And he pleads with them not to ask, "What can I GET?" He pleads with them to ask, "What can I GIVE?" More importantly, he pleads with them to ask, "What can I give?" In the nuances of those questions you can find the secret of forgiveness and redemption.
You are here tonight to repent. The mach'zor, with its litany of sins, does its best to persuade you how inadequate you are. You wonder how it is you will ever measure up to the standards implied by the shortcomings you confess. Please, let me reassure you. There is no one in the world like you. There is no one who can accomplish what you are here to accomplish. You were created because you were needed; you were needed now, for the duration of your presence on this planet. If you can but have the courage to be who you were meant to be, you have the power in your heart, in your hands, in your soul to redeem the entire world.
What an awesome responsibility! It makes each one of us just a little less than God, who imbued us with this purpose and set this feast before us so that we could dig in and be who we need to be.
Rabbi Simcha Bunam of P'sish'kha used to say, "Every person should have two pockets. In one, [there should be a note that says] bishvili nivra ha'olam, 'for my sake was the world created.' In the second, [there should be a note that says] anokhi afar va'efer, 'I am dust and ashes.' One must know how to use them, each one in its proper place and right time. For many make the mistake of using them in their opposite applications."
When you feel you do not matter, when you feel as if you are mere dust and ashes, take out that note that says bishvili nivra ha'olam. Let it kindle within you Rav Kook's passion and compassion to find the mission and the goal of your existence at this place, in this time. When you find it, do it with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might. For that is how you will love God. And that is how you will save the world.