Wings – Yom Kippur 5760 (1999)

Wings. Today I would like to share some thoughts about Wings and Yom Kippur. Wings, and how we balance our accounts.

The wings of butterflies, and the wings of eagles. The wings of angels, and the wings of Shekhina, the presence of God in this world.

The main purpose of wings is to lift their owner upward, usually by beating downward. If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to get close to a hummingbird, you know the breeze that, small as they are, is created by their beating. Even a butterfly creates a little downdraft with its meager, fragile wings. In fact, there’s a phrase well-known to many schools of scientists, called the "butterfly effect." Let me explain:

There is a branch of study today known as "Chaos Theory." Chaos theory is the study of complicated systems, with many, many individual units, all interacting, that manage to produce results that can be predicted, but only as a group. As For example, cloud patterns. Clouds form in certain predictable shapes, but only at a "gross" level. You can’t predict the exact shape of a cloud, because that would mean logging each bit of water vapor, and calculating how it will interact with thousands of other bits of water vapor, and so on, and so on. We can’t tell you the exact shape a cloud will take, but we know it will fall into one of a few categories: thunderheads, cirrus, cumulus, etc.

Weather is known as a "chaotic system." It’s impossible to predict in great detail, but it does fall into many predictable categories. Why is it impossible to predict? Because there are so many influences: whether or not it rains in Syracuse depends on molecules of air rising over the desert, water vapor collecting into clouds, even a butterfly in China flapping its wings.

That’s the butterfly effect. A minor event, almost immeasurable, that has some impact, completely unknown, on other, bigger events that are far removed from it. The butterfly effect says that if a butterfly flaps its wings in China, it may be sunny in Syracuse. But we just can’t know for sure – there are too many other factors involved.


Wings are found on creatures much more forceful than butterflies, of course, such as eagles. In fact, we find eagle wings on some of the more fantastic creatures in Torah: the Cherubim. These wondrous beings were not the smiling, ruddy-faced babies of Christian lore; they were part lion, part woman, and part eagle – a fierce combination! – that guarded the Tablets and the Tree of Life. They were, in a sense, the first Jewish heavenly beings – one might say angels.

Now when we talk about angels in Judaism, we have to shed our American cultural stereotypes. The notion of angels as being the form we take when we die is only one of the more obvious bits of Christian theological structure that we swallow as part of the American milieu. Who here hasn’t been inundated with the "It’s a Wonderful Life" imagery of an angel who must earn his wings through good works? As warm and fuzzy as this image is, it’s not a Jewish one.

According to Kabbalah, every act of ours, good or bad, creates an angel. That angel has a strength and a lifespan roughly in keeping with the importance of the act which created it: the more important the act, the stronger the angel, the longer its life.

If you think about it for a moment, that creates a fairly crowded universe: angels appearing here, there and everywhere, bumping into each other, with barely any room to spare. In fact, the Kabbalists organized the universe into spheres within spheres to accommodate all the angelic comings and goings. For, in their view, it was not only people whose actions created angels, but God as well, and even the actions of angels would create new angels!

When I think of such a universe, I am quickly reminded of the atmosphere of our world: billions and billions of invisible molecules racing around, bumping into each other, making "weather" by the way they arrange themselves and interact. In and of themselves, a single molecule doesn’t make a whole lot of difference, but in a group, they can matter a great deal.

It’s not unlike a lot of choices we have from day to day: take voting for example. one vote rarely makes a difference in an election, if you view it only from the perspective of the final tally. But when you think about people who vote and people who don’t, that voting behavior is part of a constellation of behaviors that does make a difference. People who vote are a little more likely to be involved in political discussions; people who are involved in such discussions are a little more likely to interact with the political system; such people are a little more likely to run for office, and so on. And it’s not as if you have to run for office to have an influence; it’s just another part of the spectrum you inhabit when you vote. To use the metaphor of angels, the angel that we create by voting influences our world just a little to move us down the path of other sorts of political behavior, creating more and more angels around the way, each one interacting with more and more people as we go.

We can apply this way of thinking to a lot of different kinds of choices: tzedakah is another good example. That small donation you make may not seem to make a lot of difference in the long run, but it helps propel you down a path of social responsibility where other, related choices get made, each one influencing more and more people, each one helping to improve the world just a little more. The butterfly wings of all those angels start to beat, and pretty soon there’s a good, strong wind blowing from all the actions we’ve been taking.

When you step back and imagine it, it can be a pretty overwhelming picture: every act of ours has unknown consequences, and has the potential for affecting the world in ways we may never know, but for which we are at least partially responsible. Taken all at once, such a vision could become paralyzing – kind of like being swamped by all those invisible angels, with nowhere left to move.

Fortunately, the Rabbis had a way of looking at the world that frees us up from that paralysis. Imagine, they would say, that all your past deeds are placed on a balance, the good on one side, the bad on the other. And imagine, they would continue, that the scales are perfectly even – the weight of the good is exactly equal to the weight of the bad.

And now before you, they continued, there is a choice to be made. Place it on the good side, and tip the balance in your favor. It’s that straightforward. Then just repeat the same process with each choice you face: imagine the scales in balance, and the one act you will perform will tip the scales.

For each good action will help tip the balance, for us and for the world. And just maybe that is the way in which God looks over us, and gives us shelter from the storms of life under the wings of Shekhina. Knowing that the good we do does make a difference, even if we never know in what way, even if we never see the final result, is a comfort. Trusting that our efforts matter allows us to feel the warmth of those metaphoric wings that not only beat down to create flight, but gather us inward to the richness of community, a community which we can support, and which can support us.

Our efforts may be like eagles’ wings, carrying us to new heights, but more often they will be like butterfly wings, their effect hidden from us. Our actions can propel us forward to new opportunities, like angels, but they can also gather our friends and community around us, like the Shekhina. What we must remember is that every choice we are given is an opportunity to act according to our best nature, no matter how far off the goal may be.

May each choice you make tip the scales for goodness, creating new angels – and new possibilities – for you and the world. And may the Shekhina gather you up in her wings and give you rest, and joy, and peace.

L’Shanah Tovah!

© 1999-2007 James F. Brulé