More than a decade ago I taught a class on Spanish Mysticism in the basement classroom of a synagogue in the Bronx. Particularly, the class was on the thought Meir ibn Gabbai, who was one of the earliest to systematize Kabbalah. Describing how our actions affect the divine world, he describes two violins side by side. When the string of one is plucked, he explains, that same string on the other violin will also vibrate. Someone in the class asked, “Is that true? Has someone tested that?” In response, another participant who happened to be a physicist replied matter-of-factly, “Yes, it’s basic physics”.
I have thought of that exchange often since then and I had occasion to recall it once more as I studied a passage of the Zohar, Judaism’s essential text of mysticism, in preparation for Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year. The passage read, “when the shofar (the ram’s horn sounded on Rosh HaShana) is awoken, and when humankind turns away from their wrongdoing, they need to extend the sound of the shofar from our world below so that its voice reaches above. And then, it awakens the higher shofar” (Vol. III 99a).
Ibn Gabbai and the Zohar both point to different aspects of the same truth: we have an echo. What we do reverberates in different parts of our lives and in the lives of others. Our actions and words do not occur in a vacuum, but rather, they contribute to an awakening of similar actions and words within and without.
If we really sit with that, we experience a tremendous sense of responsibility. Each time we choose something positive to do, like volunteer work, simply smiling at someone sincerely, or even disagreeing with another but in a way that is respectful and honors them as a person, we awaken the root of those qualities more fully in ourselves and out there in the world. Take a minute and think about what some of those kinds of actions are for you. Similarly, when we post inflammatory content on social media that denigrates those we disagree with, let ourselves be wrapped up in our minds while we ignore others, or refuse to share our blessings with others, it is the root of those things that we awaken within and send out beyond. Again, pause and consider what some of those kinds actions have been for you this last year.
The high holidays of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are days of profound introspection. One way to approach this is to consider what we have awoken this last year and what we hope to in the coming year. What are the echoes that resound in the recesses of our hearts, and circulate out in the ether because of our words and actions? The truth is, for most of us they’re probably a bit of both the kinds we discussed, and the questions is, which ones are we allowing to become louder?
Sometimes it is tempting to think that our echo isn’t really audible, that our vibration can’t really set off others, for better or for worse. I sometimes find myself thinking that, but then, I remind myself that such a perspective denies a fundamental truth of our experience. After all, that we cause reverberations and echoes isn’t really a question. As the words of my dear physicist student will forever echo within me, “it’s basic physics”. And so, what is our echo, and what can we make it?
Tizku leshanim rabbot neimot v’tovot! May we all merit many, sweet and good years!
*(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)