Scientists call it “stuck tune syndrome”; we know it as an earworm: a few notes, a musical phrase, a lyric or a beat that gets stuck in your brain.
For much of these High Holidays, my earworm has been singing two short notes, followed by a third, over and over again. Ah-do-nai, Ah-do-nai, followed by El Rahum, v’Chanum.
The 13 attributes of God, sung repeatedly during the High Holidays, keep coming back to me. They first appear in the Torah after the events of the Golden Calf. Moses has smashed the first set of tablets and is instructed to hew new ones. In a moment of trepidation, God passes before Moses and shows Moses God’s ways of compassion, God’s ways of governing.
Great Wonder—beyond our comprehension: The ways are known through compassion and mercy; graciousness and patience; abundant in goodness and truth, inherently forgiving.
It is the defining motif of the High Holidays, and I’ve often wondered if there is a connection with this week’s Torah reading, Bereshit, which begins anew the five books of Torah, starting with Creation. Talmud teaches that the Torah was the blueprint for all of creation. Literally? Figuratively?
As Creation unfolds, in its most pregnant moment the story says, Ruach Elohim m’rachefet al pnai hamayim. The breath of God hovered over the waters. And all the days of Creation burst forth from this potential.
This potential is echoed in a kind of acronym contained in the phrase itself: the first, middle, and last letters, resh, chet, and mem, spell rechem, the Hebrew word for womb, and are also the root letters of rachamim, the Hebrew word for compassion. Thus is compassion—that is, a feeling of empathy born forth when one witnesses another’s pain and a concurrent sense of pain awakened within oneself—understood to be a component of creation.
I don’t know the absolute of the spiritual; to comprehend it is to limit it. But I am struck by the resonate rhythms of these defining themes, the earworms of our Torah, expressions of the idea that creation goes on and on and on, without limit and in boundless compassion.
May this new cycle of readings and rhythms be ever a reminder that the Torah and we too go on and on and on, in birth, renewal, and acts of compassion.
Rabbi Jay Strear
President & CEO
Please email Rabbi Strear at CEO@JEWISHcolorado.org with comments or questions.