Rabbi Freidenreich Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon: Ki Tov

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779: Ki TovGod said, “Let there be light!,” and there was light, and God saw that the light was good. God separated dry land from the sea and saw that this was good—vayar’ elohim ki tov. The earth brought forth vegetation: good. Sun, moon, and stars—vayar’ elohim ki tov. Swarms of sea creatures and birds: tov. Cattle and beasts and creeping things: also tov. Then, to top it all off, a human being. “And God saw all that God had made, and found it very good,”tov me’od.
Rosh Hashanah Sermon: Ki Tov

All good? Really?? What about the hurricanes and tsunamis that swamp the land with sea water? What about the insects that carry deadly diseases, to say nothing of the bacteria and viruses themselves? What about the destructiveness of human beings, to the world around them and to one another? All the Torah has to say is ki tov, it’s good?? If the biblical account of creation appeared on cable news, we’d call it propaganda in support of a populist strongman.

We’re all too familiar with powerful figures who cherry-pick facts to make the world around them look great, whether through willful denial of reality or deft manipulation of the information that others receive. The rabbis of antiquity saw the same dynamics within the Roman Empire of their day, and some imagined God behaving in a similar manner during the world’s creation.

“Rabbi Berekhiah said: When the Holy and Blessed One prepared to create the first human being, God saw that some humans would be righteous and others would be wicked. God thought, ‘If I create a human, wickedness will flourish, but if I don’t create a human, how can righteousness flourish?’ So what did the Holy and Blessed One do? God placed the ways of the wicked out of God’s own sight.” Today, we might say that God dismissed this inconvenient truth as fake news.

“No, that’s not what happened,” replied Rabbi Hanina. “When the time came to create the first human being God consulted with the angelic ministers. God said to this cabinet, ‘Let’s make a human being!’ They warily replied, ‘What’s the nature of a human being?’ God told them that humans are righteous but didn’t tell them that humans are wicked, because if God had told them the full truth, God’s ministers wouldn’t have let him create a human in the first place.” Even God, it seems, had to worry about being hamstrung by senior officials in the divine administration.

Rabbi Simon offered a third account in which members of the angelic cabinet themselves disagree: some argued for the creation of human beings, while others were staunchly opposed. The Secretary of Righteousness argued that humans would act righteously, and the Secretary of Hesed expressed optimism that humans would be loving and faithful. But the Secretary of Truth retorted, “Don’t create humans: they all lie!” The Secretary of Shalom chimed in: “Don’t create them, they always fight amongst themselves!” What did God do? God fired the Secretary of Truth and issued an executive order to create human beings over the objections within his fractious cabinet. According to Rabbi Simon, God’s declaration that humans are great literally has no Truth behind it.

Rabbi David Weiner, a colleague of mine in rabbinical school, offers a different take on the refrain vayar’ elohim ki tov, “and God saw that it was good.” He draws our attention to a similar phrase in the story of Moses’ birth. “A certain man of the tribe of Levi went and married a Levite woman. She conceived, bore a son, and saw that he was good, ki tov hu.” You know that feeling of holding a baby in your arms and being overwhelmed with joy over all the good that lies in store? For just a moment, we forget about life’s pain and suffering. That’s what Moses’ mother felt when she gazed upon her son, and that’s what God felt when God birthed the works of creation.

Moses’ mother, Yocheved, was not naïve, nor did she ignore the reality of life as a slave in Egypt. Just one verse earlier in the Book of Exodus, Pharaoh decreed that all Hebrew boys should be cast into the Nile to drown. A midrash explains that Yocheved’s husband separated from her upon hearing that decree, reasoning that it’s better not to have children at all than to subject them to such a cruel and premature death. Yocheved, however, focused on the good. She prevailed upon her husband and, when their son was born, she protected him for as long as she could. Then, Yocheved subverted Pharaoh’s decree: she did place her son in the Nile, but in such a way that Pharaoh’s own daughter would find the baby and feel compassion for him. The Exodus from Egypt, Revelation at Sinai, everything else that follows in the Torah and in the Jewish tradition rests on this act of compassion and this focus on the good even in the bleakest hour. So too, God exercised compassion when creating us and the world in which we live. Eyes wide open to the many flaws embedded in creation, God nevertheless focused on the good and acted accordingly. That’s why human beings exist, and that’s why we’ve gathered here tonight.

Hayom harat olam: Today, God gave birth to the world. More specifically, today is the traditional anniversary of God’s fateful choice to create human beings. As we celebrate the world’s existence and our own, let me challenge you to emulate God by focusing on the good. Vayar’ elohim ki tovis neither propaganda nor willful ignorance: God models a way to see the positive within our world and to act so as to make its goodness even more visible. We live in a deeply flawed world, and it’s easy to get mired in the toxic negativity within contemporary society. Change for the better requires positive thinking coupled with all of the attributes represented by God’s ministering angels. We need to behave righteously and engage in selfless and loving acts of hesed, inspired by the goodness we see in one another and in the world around us. We need not and emphatically should not discard truth in the process. We should fight for our values rather than against our fellow human beings, and our ultimate goal should be shalom, peace and wholeness for all.

Closer to home, a ki tovmindset means focusing on the good in one another and in our community itself. The Adas Yoshuron community is full of incredible people with amazing talents and inspiring character traits. It’s easy for those who devote endless hours to this congregation to lose sight of how special the people in this room are, just like it’s easy for those who participate only occasionally to leave without discovering the many things that make this community so wonderful. This congregation’s size, location, and diversity are among its greatest strengths. Resolute focus on the goodness within Adas Yoshuron will enable this community to become even stronger.

There’s a popular story used in community building workshops of all types about a small, dying, and fractious community. You can find many versions online by searching for “A Rabbi’s Gift.” In each version, the community’s exhausted leader seeks advice from a nearby rabbi. “I’m sorry,” the rabbi responds, “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.” The leader shared this cryptic message with his community, and as they pondered its significance over the following days and weeks they began to treat one another with extraordinary respect on the off chance that someone among them really was the Messiah. They began to focus not on what they found annoying about fellow members of the community but on the almost miraculous gifts that each possessed. They also began to focus on the goodness within themselves: “After all, suppose Iam the Messiah!”

The atmosphere of that community changed dramatically. In every version of this story I found online, the community grows as a result. To be honest, I don’t like that conclusion: it suggests that seeing the good in oneself and in one another is simply the means to a demographic or organizational end. I’m quite confident that a ki tovmindset will in fact help Adas Yoshuron attract new members and a year-round rabbi, but the true value of focusing on the positive rests in a deepened appreciation for this community among everyone who belongs to it. Ki tov—life’s good here.

The story of Yocheved and Moses highlights the personal dimension of a ki tovmindset. Focuing on that which is good, even in the midst of the most trying circumstances, enriches our lives and our closest relationships. It gives us the strength to carry on and the wisdom to make hard choices well. Seeing ourselves as good, even as great, means seeing ourselves as God sees us: tov me’od. Embracing that positive perspective about ourselves is the first and most important step down the path of teshuvah, the process of realigning our lives in light of what we know we can become and, in truth, what we are already. I hope that each of us has a shanah tovah, a year in which we truly see the goodness in and around us.

— Rabbi David Freidenreich

David M. Freidenreich is the Pulver Family Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at Colby College, where he serves as director of the Jewish studies program and associate director of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life.