Everything Starts Down Here

Two weeks before the Jewish new year begins, we read one of the most enigmatic phrases in the Torah. Most enigmatic because its simple meaning seems so radical and strange:

אֶת־ה׳ הֶאֱמַרְתָּ הַיּוֹם

Literally, that would have to be translated, “You cause G‑d to speak today.”1 Generally it is translated differently—in many forms—but the chassidic masters go ahead and explain it according to this simple meaning: On this day, the day of Rosh Hashanah, the Creator awaits us to bring Him to speak.2

What do we bring G‑d to speak? The ten sayings by which the world was originally created—“Let there be light!” “Let there be a sky!” “Let the earth sprout forth herbage!” Everything, up to and including, “Let there be a human being.”

As impossible as it may sound, we are responsible for the creation of our very own being.

On Rosh Hashanah, our state of being determines these things: What sort of light will shine in this world? What sort of heavens will stand beyond our heads? Upon what sort of earth we will stand and what sort of life will surround us? As impossible as it may sound, we are responsible for the creation of our very own being—“Let us make man.” And in “Let us make man,” all the rest of creation depends.

In the beginning, before we were here, creation could be in only one direction. G‑d spoke and the world came to be. Every year, that act of creation replays on the awesome day of Rosh Hashanah. Last year’s lease on existence was for one year only, and now the entire process must begin again.

You would think that lease would be renewed on the anniversary of the first day of creation. But no, the process—and negotiations—waits for our day, the sixth day of creation, when the human being was first created. Because, in the language of the Zohar, “From this point on, everything is initiated from below.”

Not just initiated. Driven.3

Three Labors

In three ways, the human being is responsible for his own creation. All of them are hard work; all are contained in the verse, “A man is born to labor.”4

“What sort of labor?” ask the sages of the Talmud.5 Perhaps for the labor of work? But no, that is not enough. Perhaps for the labor of talk? But no, that is also not enough. Perhaps for the labor of Torah—and yes, that is it.

The words of the sages are deep with meaning, much deeper than they seem. For in all three of these forms of labor lies the purpose of the human being. And in all three, we partner in creating our world.

The Labor of Work

Our first labor is that the Creator should create.

Existence, after all, is not a given—there is no reason why anything should exist at all. And once it does, there is nothing of the moment now that insists that the next moment of existence must follow.

How then is this world sustained? Through the labor of our work.

“G‑d is your shadow,” reads the psalm,6 and the Baal Shem Tov explained, “Whatever you do, G‑d shadows your actions.”7 Not as a shadow of darkness that has no substance of its own, but more like a personal shadow or assistant, who is there with you, to magnify the impact of your efforts.

You create—a home, a business, a life. G‑d shadows that and He creates—your entire world. You create with integrity and honesty, He does the same. That’s what we mean when we say that Rosh Hashanah is a day of judgment. It is a statement not of belittlement, but of empowerment: According to your actions are the ten sayings of Creation each year. And so your world will be.

The Labor of Meaning

Now that there is a creation, it requires meaning. A creation without meaning is like a word that spells nothing. It is not a word, it is a string of letters. As a story that tells nothing is not a story, so too a creation without meaning can barely be said to exist.

Whatever intent the Creator had in creating this world, He certainly let no inkling of it pass through His words. He said, and it was. But why? Why should there be light? Why a sky? What is all this cycle of life and renewal? Like a supervisor ordering about his underlings, “Lay the cement here! Put up a girder here!” with no reasons given, no room for understanding, like a meaningless string of letters, so the world came into being.

In this case, there were not even any underlings to carry any of it out. A concert played for deaf ears may be a wasted concert, but it still has beauty of its own. In this case, there was no concert, just a string of All meaning was withheld, so that the final creature could come and discover it on his own. commands. In the six days of Creation, all meaning was withheld, so that the final creature of this creation could come and discover it on his own.

Which is what Adam did on the first Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of humankind. He opened his eyes to a world that appeared to have always been here just because it was here with no need to justify its existence, or even any knowledge that it is an existence and that there is anything to justify. Adam lifted his eyes to the vast sky above, filled with stars at night and a bright sun by day. He gazed about at the bustling flora and fauna of endless diversity. He beheld mighty mountains and majestic waterfalls, flowing rivers and verdant forests.

And he cried out, “I know what this is! This is not just a jungle! This is the garden of a great and magnificent King! This is not just a sky! This is the vast glory of my Maker! This is not a sun, it is the warmth and love of He who made me! This is not just teaming life, a tiger, an elephant, an ant and a fish—this is the infinite beauty of my Creator in endless forms! This is not just a mountain, or a waterfall, or a river or a forest—this is all the majesty of the Infinite, who created a world out of kindness and might, beauty and wonder, glory and majesty, so that His creatures might know Him!”8

Man said, “It is light! All of it is light!” And everything became light.

G‑d made the world. Adam gave it a place to stand.

Some had the world stand upon the back of a turtle. Rabbi Shimon had it stand upon the meaning we provide for it.

“On three things the world stands,” taught Rabbi Shimon the Tzadik, one of the earliest sages of the Mishnah. “On Torah, on the labor of prayer, and on acts of loving-kindness.”9

Some had the world stand upon the back of a turtle. Others upon the shoulders of a mighty man. Rabbi Shimon had it stand upon the meaning we provide for it. And how do we provide it meaning? By connecting our minds to the mind of our Creator, opening our hearts to His boundless love, and laboring to transform His world into a place where one being cares for another, so that the many become one and darkness can no longer find a place to hide.

And then, the world has meaning. And so, it stands. It becomes real.

Which means that when you stand before your Creator on that awesome day of Rosh Hashanah when all the universe is renewed again, aware that you speak not to some foreign god removed from you and this world, but to the One who chooses to generate all existence in its every detail at every moment from the void, you, your self-sentience and your very sense of “I” included—at that moment a burning question must arise in your mind: In what way do I exist? How could I exist? What room is there for me to exist in the context of such an all-consuming existence?

There could be only one response. You say to this awesome presence, “I exist because you choose I should know you. I exist because you choose to desire my love. I exist because you choose that a puny being such as me will do whatever it can to fix up Your world, out of Your love for me, to let me partner with You in your act of creating this universe.”

And now there is meaning. And now there can be a world.

The Labor of Torah

But that is not enough. The creation, to be complete, must draw its Creator within itself. And that is achieved when we provide its Creator some interest in creating it.

From the evening of Rosh Hashanah until the shofar is blown the next day, all of existence is in limbo. In the language of the kabbalists, the inner world has departed and the outer world is in a coma. G‑d does not speak, His thoughts of the world cease, the ten sefirot return to nothingness, and the cosmic mind switches off. As a person on life support who can barely be said to remain alive, the world wavers at the most liminal border of existence. Most vitally, the Creator’s very interest in sustaining existence departs as well, as though He were saying, “Why should I have a world, whatever its meaning?”

“Know that which is above you,” says the Mishnah.10 But the Hebrew can be read as “Know that which is above from you.” Explained the Magid of Mezritch: Know that all that occurs above is from you.11 But his disciple, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, took that much further: Not only that which occurs, but the very existence of all that is above—up to highest emanations and even the primal will and desire of the Creator—all is from you. All that exists came to be only from the thought of what you would accomplish in this world on your own. 12

All that exists came to be only from the thought of what you would accomplish in this world on your own.

And now, to bring it to exist again, you much reach back to that primal thought.

How do we bring the Creator within His creation? By touching not just upon this world’s meaning, but upon the delight the Creator has in it. To do that, we must contribute something novel, something of our own. That is what is expressed in the labor of Torah.

There is Torah, and there is the labor of Torah. To study Torah is to connect your mind to the mind of your Creator. To labor in Torah is to delve deeply into that Mind, struggling with that which is beyond your own mind, reaching beyond your own self, until you tunnel deep enough to discover that which lies beneath all that was ever said, and yet, until now, was never spoken. To labor in Torah is to discover new Torah—Torah that was given at Sinai, but not yet received. Until you, now, have revealed it.

The subconscious of man connects with the subconscious of G‑d, and from there, something entirely new enters the world. This is the human being in his ultimate sense: Man, the creator. Not simply a creature that brings potential into actual, but one that creates something new on his own initiative. A creature that becomes a a partner in the creation of his own world. At which point, the ultimate Creator looks with the ultimate delight and says, “Yes! There I am! Something new has been made! I am creating from within My creation!”

This is the labor for which we have strived all these generations, and the focus of every Rosh Hashanah: To recreate our world. To make order from confusion, harmony from destruction, caring and compassion where apathy had reigned, light out of darkness.

Soon, very soon, will be a time when we will behold “the new heavens and the new earth that I have created.”13 And we will say, “We, too, were partners in that creation.”