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Rosh Hashanah 5781 Day 1 – Beauty

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

In February of 2018, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNIESCO) and the European Broadcasting Union chose the Matisyahu hit song One Day as the theme song for the eighth edition of World Radio Day. World Radio Day “marks a time when people around the world celebrate radio and how it shapes lives,” according to a statement from UNESCO. The theme in 2018 was “Dialogue, Tolerance and Peace.” The song was broadcast by more than 2,000 radio stations on February 13, 2018.


UNESCO went on to say, “Radio brings together people and communities from all backgrounds to foster positive dialogue for change. More specifically, radio is the perfect medium to counter the appeals for violence and the spread of conflict, especially in regions potentially more exposed to such realities.”
The Israeli social music movement Kululam spearheaded a project in Haifa, the port city in northern Israel, whereby 3,000 Jews, Muslims and Christians – none of whom had met before – came together to learn the song One Day in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. In under one hour, they were able to sing and harmonize the lyrics; as was reported, it was a “breathtaking display of unity and beauty.” If you have not seen the video, I encourage you to do a quick YouTube search and watch it.
A former congregant from New Jersey, who was born in Israel and has since moved back, said about the project, “I was there. It was so very moving to be a part of it.”
As we learned when we were young, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” And yet while we each may differ on what piece of art, composition, poem, animal, event, interaction, etc. may be beautiful, I would assert a universal truth about beauty: Beauty is something that moves us. It stirs within us something we cannot articulate – perhaps it is awe or overwhelm. Maybe it is that beauty “takes our breath away.” Sometimes, we can respond only with a sound, not even a full word.
The UNESCO choice of One Day for World Radio Day in 2018 reminds us that even before the pandemic and growing social and political divide, there was much ugliness in our world – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Syrian civil war, the murder of Jews in Pittsburgh and Poway and France and too many other places around the globe, and on and on and on.


And so, the events of the past six months have added to our already burdened psyches, stressed out souls, and broken hearts.
Yet, there is so much beauty in the world. One tragedy is that war and conflict and disease and economic instability and food insecurity and hate and intolerance do what they can to block out the beauty. But only if we let them. So how do we learn to look beyond what blocks us from seeing the beauty around us?
First, we must open our eyes, our ears, our noses, our mouths, and our minds. Second, we must remember there have been times, many of them in fact, when the beauty of our world was apparent. Can you recall those first spring mornings when you awoke to the smell of blooming lilacs? How about the many first bites into a summer tomato or peach? What about the fall colors exploding around you – when is the last time you headed north just to drive across the Kancamagus Highway? Do you remember a first winter snowfall when you made snow angels, helped your kids build a snowperson (formerly known as snow man), or tackled a mountain on skis for the first time?
Our world is beautiful. There is ugliness in it, but we cannot allow the ugliness to define it. The book of Ecclesiastes reminds: “God made everything beautiful in its time.” This verse gives us the tradition of saying a blessing to God when we see beautiful things. Actually, there are multiple Jewish blessings for when we see beauty, in addition to our own spontaneous prayers, depending on what we see.


One blessing is baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam, oseh ma-aseh b’reishit, blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who made of the works of creation. This blessing is especially to be said upon seeing a mountain, a desert, a shooting star, a comet, a meteor shower, or other astronomical phenomena.
A second blessing is specific to seeing the ocean or other large bodies of water: baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam, she-asa et hayam hagadol, blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who made the great sea.


A third blessing for beauty is said only upon seeing a rainbow – though you would not necessarily hear it as a blessing for beauty. For us, liberal and modern Jews, seeing a rainbow is usually about seeing the rainbow itself – thee way the light hits the water after a rain shower; for our ancestors, seeing a rainbow was also about God’s promise never again to destroy the world with a flood – so stated by God after the flood in Genesis.


Thus, the traditional text recited is: baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam, zocher habrit v’ne-eman biv’ito v’kayam b’ma-amarav, blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who remembers the covenant, is faithful to God’s covenant, and keeps God’s promise. I always add the blessing for beauty to this one.
And that’s the final traditional beauty blessing – a catchall traditionally said upon seeing animals, trees, and anything else that strikes you as beautiful. The text is: baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam shekahcha lo ba-olamo, blessed are you, our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has such [beautiful things] in the universe.

While we have many blessings to celebrate and acknowledge the beauty of creation, even blessings for seeing beautiful or learned or otherwise distinct human beings, there is no blessing of God’s beauty.


David Goldman, who writes for Tablet Magazine, cites Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, noting that “Not once does the Bible call God ‘beautiful.’ God is called ‘splendid’ and [God’s] voice is called ‘majestic,’ but God is never called beautiful.”


Of course, we cannot say that God is beautiful, for God takes no physical form. Beauty is not an attribute of God, but rather, of how we sense God’s action in the world, maybe even God’s presence in the world.


Most of what I have focused on has been physical beauty, or even beauty through sound, like the 3,000 voices singing One Day together in 2018. But I would suggest that just as much beauty can be found outside nature or the arts. It’s like my former congregant, one of the 3,000 voices, said, “it was so moving to be a part of it.” It’s the beauty that comes from connections, from reaching out with your heart to touch the heart of another. Think of my opening story from tonight’s service – the young man’s beautiful heart versus the old woman’s tattered heart. Each exuded beauty of a different kind. But the most beautiful moment of the story was when they shared a piece of their heart with the other, and walked away, together.


Shanah tovah and Shabbat shalom. May your world be filled with beauty.

Wed, October 27 2021 21 Cheshvan 5782