(This is a transcription, more or less, based on my notes, of the sermon I gave on Rosh Ha-Shanah I this year. A couple of comments that were not included are shown in [ ].)

I welcome you all to the …. Jewish Center. Since this is my first time here, I hope that you’ll welcome me, too.

The question is: Why are we here?

The machzor — the High Holiday prayerbook — tells us that we are here to proclaim God (as) King.

But already there’s a problem: 

Not everyone here believes in God. 

First — let me say that everyone is welcome here. This is your home.

But I wonder: How old were you when you chose not to believe in God? It’s often around age 15 or 16 that people make that decision. But I ask you — have other of the ideas you believed at that age changed afterwards? I would guess “yes.” Many of mine certainly have. Is it possible, then, that the decision you made to deny God’s existence, based on the best information you had at the time, could be re-examined in the light of information that you later receive?

Also — What made you decide not to believe in God? For many, it’s based on being impressed with what science has to offer in understanding our world (or universe).

We cannot and should not deny what science has given us. 

But — It might surprise you to know that some of the greatest scientists in history have believed in God.

Sir Isaac Newton, for example, said:

”This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent Being.” [1

He believed that God created everything with a plan, but that creation then proceeded on its own.

Albert Einstein believed in God, too:

“God is a mystery. But a comprehensible mystery. I have nothing but awe when I observe the laws of nature. There are not laws without a lawgiver…”  [2]

He even expressed feeling an “awe” in contemplating “the harmony of natural law” that he compared favorably to the religious awe felt by “religious geniuses [and prophets] of all ages”:

“…the scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation…His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. This feeling is the guiding principle of his life and work, in so far as he succeeds in keeping himself from the shackles of selfish desire. It is beyond question closely akin to that which has possessed the religious geniuses of all ages.” [3]

[One might say that Newton and Einstein saw “seichel” in natural laws; signs of wisdom and orderliness that could not be accidental.]

The midrash similarly says:

“When God wanted to create the world, He looked into Torah.[4]

God had a “blueprint,” as it were; a plan for how the world/universe should be.

In an attempt to resolve the intellectual and cultural conflict between Torah and Science, Yeshiva University, the home of Modern Orthodoxy, chose the motto “Torah u’Madah” — “Torah and Science,” to defuse the “Torah or Science” debate.

Yet, despite believing in a God who created the universe according to systematic laws, Einstein denied that the same God was bound to the creation by compassion or morality:

“I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, not in a [personal] God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” [5] 

Here is where Torah’s understanding of God goes beyond Newton’s and Einstein’s. 

Newton and Einstein (and others, of course) understood that God created the world.

However, our daily prayers tell us “ha’m’chadesh b’tu’vo b’chol yom tamid ma’a’seh v’rei’shith” — God not only created but renews the act of creation every day in His goodness. If He didn’t, all would cease to exist.

Hasidut takes it even further: God is renewing the act of creation from moment to moment. In the few minutes I have been up here in front of you, God has created the world (universe) again and again, many times.

The prayerbook also tells us, based on the prophet Isaiah, “M’lo kol ha-aretz k’vo’do” — the whole world (universe) is filled with God’s Glory [and elsewhere: K’vo’do maleh loam” — “His Glory fills the world/universe”].

When Moses stood before the burning bush, many commentators explain that the fire he saw was God’s kavod — God’s Light — in that bush.. But Moses understood that the presence of God everywhere was being revealed to him in that moment and place.

The English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning has a beautiful verse capturing the same idea:

“Earth is crammed with heaven
  and every bush is burning.”

“Earth is crammed with heaven” — recapitulates Isaiah’s vision.

“and every bush is burning” — recapitulates Moses’ vision and unites the two.

[Rebbe Nachman of Breslav calls this seeing the “seichel” in all things. Not only the “signs of wisdom,” as did Newton and Einstein, but the actual presence of Divine Wisdom perpetually active in all things from moment to moment.]

As for Einstein’s belief that God doesn’t concern Himself “with the fate and the doings of mankind,” we have only to look at today’s Torah reading (Gen. 21), in which Hagar and Yishmael are forced away from the safety of Avraham and Sarah’s community as a result of their own behavior, to wander in a dry wilderness. As their water runs out, Yishmael starts to cry and Hagar, helpless, puts him down and moves away to save herself the heartbreak of watching her own child die. Then God speaks to her through an angel, reassures her that Yishmael will have a great future, and gives them both water.

Did God know that relations between “Yishmael” and “Yitzhak” (the names represent both the men and their descendants) would in the future often be conflicted in serious — even deadly — ways? It must have been so. Yet — God  ignored the future and pitied a child and woman because they were dying helplessly in a wilderness.

What could be a clearer example of God’s caring than His sending His angel to help Hagar and Ishmael? What does that tell us about God’s care for us all?

[In the interests of time, I didn’t go further in talking about how we’re always interacting with God. God responds to our thoughts, words and actions. We can speak with God — especially in personal prayer — and know that we are being heard. But we’re interacting with God, even when we don’t know it.]

So when we proclaim God as King today, let us remember that we are proclaiming as King a God who is continually renewing the entire Creation, remaining intimately within it and caring for us all most deeply [and with Whom we are constantly interacting]. 

It is for us to remember this, and to respond appropriately to this God and to the world He is creating. 

L’Shanah Tovah.


[1] Principia  Mathematica, Book III; cited in; Newton’s Philosophy of Nature: Selections from his writings, p. 42, ed. H.S. Thayer; Hafner Library of Classics, NY; © 1953, p. 42

[2] Hermanns, William; Einstein and the Poet: In Search of the Cosmic Man; Branden Books; Brookline Village, MA; © 1983; p. 60

[3] Einstein, Albert; The Religiousness of Science: The World As I See It; The Citadel Press, Secaucus, NJ, © 1934, p.29

[4] Midrash Bereishith Rabbah 1:1

[5] Isaacson, Walter; Einstein: His Life and Universe; New York: Simon and Schuster, © 2008; pp. 388-389