Rosh haShanah 2021: The Messiah of Sympoesis, or The End of Progress

By all counts, the Progress that Modernity has promised has faltered, if not failed. How do we stand in its wake, continuing to do the sacred work assigned to us so long ago? How do we continue to pursue the messianic era in a world where the concept of Progress has been troubled?

Rosh haShanah is, at its core, about the marking of time. Every First of Tishrei we come together to celebrate the dawn of a new day,to reflect on the events of the year, and to project forward our hopes for the year to come. I’ve heard and read countless people speaking about how the normal ways of maintaining our sense of continuity and change, that is, time, have been altered since the very beginning of the pandemic by our quarantines, lockdowns, working from home, and inability to travel. Judaism, with its calendar of Shabbatot and other holidays, has been able to shine through the timefog with its own internal mode of time, which, ultimately, we’re celebrating today. 

As Reform Jews in particular, during Rosh haShanah we think about what progress was made towards the messianic era - a time when our work towards building a world based in universal love of the Unified Divine and humanity will progress to its full culmination. Reform Judaism itself, now often viewed as part of a wider umbrella of “Progressive Judaism,” has always focused on this progress - not only on Rosh haShanah, but as its overall essence.

One of the leading early thinkers of Reform Judaism in America, Rabbi Kauffman Kohler, once wrote:  “Jewish ethics is autonomous, because it insists on the divine spirit in man...Life is like a ladder on which man can rise from round to round, to come ever nearer to God on high who beckons him toward ever higher ideals and achievements. Man and humanity are thus given the potentiality of infinite progress in every direction.”

The Modern form of understanding progress within time and history is a framework by which we use large events as markers in a ceaseless uphill climb. As Rabbi Kohler put it, Progress is a climb up the rungs of a ladder. These rungs, whether they are positive or negative events, are viewed as the culmination points, to leaps forward in history. From the moon landing, to the tragedy of the Challenger shuttle, from the fall of the Berlin wall, to 9/11, we see our world as progressing through fits and starts around these large scale moments.

But perhaps this is a problem. If our view of historical progress relies upon these flashpoint events being the validation of our worldview, we then wait for these events to direct the flow of history. The belief that progress is inevitable, and that these major events that shift our world around us prove it, makes us subject to these events as part of an inexorable march forward. 

On this Rosh haShanah we stand in a world utterly overwhelmed by events that have shaken the ideological foundations of our society. Along with the other ways time has become unmoored during the pandemic, the Modern idea of progress, too, may be worth rethinking.

One of my favorite stories in the Talmud involves Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi meeting the Messiah - the person who would bring about the redemption of the world. The Messiah sits at the entrance of Rome among the poor who suffer from illnesses. The regular people untie their many bandages all at once and retie them all at once, but the Messiah unties one at a time and reties one at a time. He says: Perhaps I will be needed to serve to bring about the redemption. Therefore, I will never tie more than one bandage, so that I will not be delayed.

The entrance of Rome where these people are dwelling is a metaphor for the edge of power - the threshold of the engine of society. The poor who suffer from illnesses? Everyone in the world who is subject to the power structure embodied by Rome. The Messiah is indistinguishable amongst them except for one thing: he is constantly ready to participate in the redemption of the world; he sees the world as one single ongoing event, not a series of events. This single ongoing event is his primary consideration, and it leads him to behave in a remarkably different way. He is waiting for the moment of his call, but he knows that moment could be any moment. The rest of the individuals at the entrance are almost never ready to act. They are consumed by fully unwrapping and then rewrapping their bandages. They are caught up in a rhythm that requires all of their attention, and often leaves them completely vulnerable. They are subject to the moment, literally wrapping themselves up in bonds, never fully able to engage in the world.

The story of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi and the Messiah displays the Messiah as always being ready - he is not left vulnerable by the tides of time, but instead slowly and concertedly wraps and unwraps his bandages, always ready to participate. At the outset of the story, Rabbi Yehoshua approaches the Messiah and says “Shalom, my master and teacher.” 

The Messiah responds, “Shalom, son of Levi.” 

The Rabbi asks, “When will you redeem the world?” 

And the Messiah responds, “Today.”

Shalom is, as many know, a general greeting in Hebrew, that is often translated as peace. But in Hebrew’s verbal root system, it also means something akin to intactness, or wholeness, or, in particular, healthiness. In the context of this story, it is striking that the ill Messiah, bandaging himself, is wished “shalom,” and then wishes “shalom” in return to the fully healthy Rabbi Yehoshua. Further, the answer, which is resolved later in the story as the Messiah referring to a line from a Psalm which reads, “Today, if you listen to God’s call,” displays the Messiah’s completely different view on time. 

He did not respond, “Once economic growth reaches its destined peak,” or “Once technology progresses far enough to reach a singularity.” He responded, “Today.” The Messiah sees the possibility for redemption, for shalom, for everyone, in every moment - today, even.

How then do we switch our mindset to be closer to that of the messiah? In her book, Staying with the Trouble, Donna Harraway provides an alternative way of looking at the world called sympoeisis, writing: Sympoiesis is a simple word; it means “making-with.”Nothing makes itself; nothing is really autopoietic or self-organizing. Sympoiesis is a word proper to complex, dynamic, responsive, situated, historical systems. It is a word for worlding-with, in company."

This is the mystery of the Messiah coming “Today.” 

This is the mystery of “shalom.” 

This is the mystery of the binding and unbinding bandages. 

Everything relevant is happening now, together, connected in symphonic cacophony, connected through sympoiesis. The progress we felt, or foresaw, happening -the orderly rungs of the ladder, the one-off events that defined eras - were illusions of limitation. Instead, the collective of all things  happening together in the moment, today, is what matters, and is how we must view our relationship to the world and those we share it with.

As the classical sage Rabbi Tarfon puts it: the day is short, the work is plentiful, the laborers are indolent, the reward is great, and the master of the house is insistent.

We are here for only a short time, and if we keep ourselves focused on here now, together with the other laborers, that is how we attain reward, and listen to the Master of All’s call.

We have been through the ringer the past few years. From global pandemic, to global uprising; from disastrous climate alteration to a failed, violent coup on the presidency. When I look back 10 years and consider what I thought the future held, I would have thought, just as Rabbi Kohler did, that infinite progress was possible. But today it seems clear that this vision of progress only clouds my capacity to see clearly the nature of our reality. 

At each turn, so many people, including myself, have been strangely blindsided by the way in which our world has unfolded. Perhaps each of us were too busy looking at the chain of events as rungs of a ladder towards progress; perhaps each of us were too busy unwrapping and rewrapping all of our bandages at once; to be able to look beyond Progress towards worlding the world together in sympoesis, here and now.

Let us, this Rosh haShanah, rethink what it means to be stepping into a new year - what the passage of time itself can bring us that is not related to unending growth, or ceaseless accumulation. How can we, instead, act sympoetically, to be with each other, to be with the other, to be with the world, as we all develop together. Rather than attempting to wrest a linear series of events from the swarm of reality, let us, today, listen to God’s voice.  Let us, Today, seek shalom. And let this be enough to bring us redemption in the year 5782. Shanah tovah.