I’m scheduled to read Torah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah at the synagogue where I work. My aliyah is the very first one in the Torah, from B’reishit, detailing the first day of this world. It is the very essence of Rosh Hashanah, which some people call the birthday of the world. In these five short verses, the world begins the journey from chaos to order. (I’m not quite sure where or whether that journey culminates.) Separations are made, categories are drawn, things begin to be put in their proper places. Earth and sky get organized, and the lights go on. From the jumble of undifferentiated time comes evening and morning, a first day.
It is curious to me that for all the separation and categorization of this aliyah, it concludes, like the Sh’ma, with the word echad (one). There is a constant tension in Jewish thought, with separation and unity dancing around each other. We make a point of separating meat from milk, Shabbat from weekdays, the holy from the everyday. And yet we pray three times a day a reminder that there is one G-d, that our most important thought is the unity of the force that animates us.
Life, as always, is very full. As I work through the planning for the chaggim, I am making list upon list, categorizing and recategorizing. Sometimes when my mind gets overwhelmed with details, I’ll take a blank piece of paper and take all the scrambling thoughts and put them into categories. And when the scraps and notes on my desk pile up and threaten to choke the life out of me, I stack them all up into one big pile and make a fresh list, taking the gleanings from each scrap and giving them a fresh start on a new piece of paper. The feeling of knowing the landscape helps me know where to step first. Like G-d on that very first day, I separate the to-do from the done, and I survey it. Sometimes I can even say that it is good.
When chaos reigns, we cannot tell which end is up, just as on that first day of creation neither heaven nor earth was plain to see. Separating things into useful categories helps us see the spaces between – and that’s where the light is.
Yet when we look at the Sh’ma, we see that all the categories, all the days, all the meats and milks, the evenings and the mornings – all the things, as the young people now like to say – add up to the same thing. The One who created all the categories is somehow immune from category. For myself, the categorization creates the necessary breathing space so that I can feel the unity more clearly. The two seem to lean on each other in an interesting and paradoxical way. I don’t know what to make of this dance between separation and unity, and it pleases me to think that perhaps G-d needs both and values both.
As the new year comes barreling toward us, I wish us all the perspective to see the categories and the unity that underlies them. L’shanah tovah!