This year's High Holy Day theme is "Tending the Heart, Mending the Field." In this drash I wonder about how we can mend our whole worldview. Wishing all readers a sweet, strong year.
So I figure this is the year that I'm going to change my orientation. Not that orientation, but my orientation to the world. I've been wondering about this idea we've been working with of mending the field, and have been noticing all the levels of mending that need to happen. It dawned on me that how we think of the world is in itself one of the things we need to mend.
Now I know many folks here are expecting me to talk about what's been going on in our country and how to hold it, and I will do best on that front on Yom Kippur. But for tonight, I think that rethinking the world is a big enough task, and not an irrelevant one.
It is, I think, the task at hand. This is Rosh Hashanah, which our tradition says is the anniversary of the 6th day of Creation. Rosh Hashanah is the day on which we sing, hayom harat olam. "Today the world is born." Meaning not only that this is the world's birthday, but that the world keeps getting born, reissued, on this day. Certainly we feel that way. We experience this time as a fresh start; we approach the year with new ideas and new hope; with a letting go of one thing and a visioning of something else. The world is of course one day older than it was yesterday, but it is also somehow new.
So I want to talk about the Creation of the World. I know we are not a group of people who believe in any literal way in the story of Creation that Torah hands us. But that story is our Sacred Myth. We know its details better than we know the physics of the Big Bang. It is embedded in our psyches and our culture and it affects, well, everything.
Philosopher Jean Houston says that sacred myths "contain the greater story that never was but is always happening." The greater story that never was but is always happening. While we no longer use our Sacred Myths to explain the origins of things, they continue to be the lens through which we see things. And that affects what we see and what we do and who we are.
So let's look for a moment at this famous core story of ours. From zero to all of this in six dizzying days.
Correction. Our story doesn't start at zero. In the beginning, there's darkness (which is not nothing) and deep water and God's breath fluttering across it.
Then God says, "let there be light" and suddenly light is separated out, extracted, from the dark.
ויבדל אלהים בין האור לבין החשך
God then makes a sharp distinction between the light and the dark. Snip. And in that moment light and dark become our first binary, with all the useful and problematic light/dark symbolism that arises from it.
On the second day the water is split and we get sky and sea. And on the third day, the lower water splits too, so we can have sea and land, surf and turf, as it were.
So this is the first half of Creation: all about splitting things in two. Creating oppositions. Then as the days of Creation roll forward, the earth and sea and sky bring forth uncountable kinds of life. Infinite variety – flying, swimming, crawling and rooted things. Each one l'minehu, distinct by its type.
And then nearly last of all, late on Day 6, adam – the clay creature, the human. This human is a little different in a few ways. It is created b'tzelem Elohim, in the Divine image, which is both encouraging and frightening, depending on what you do with it. Torah also says the human is meant to rule or oversee. And, Torah says, zakhar un'keyvah bara' otam, God created the human, male and female. Although you can't tell from the language – either in Hebrew or in English – if that means God made male humans and female humans, or if, as Midrash suggests, God made a human who contained what we might for convenience call male and female aspects. I dig that idea, of course, although the joy is short-lived. Only 25 Edenic verses later, God performs the surgery that separates man and woman, and our last big binary is born.
So that's what characterizes our Sacred Myth of Creation: the world comes into being through division, separation, the establishment of opposites and hierarchies. The raw material of the Universe gets diced into smaller and smaller bits, bits that interact but which are distinct, self-contained, separate from each other. And separate from God too! Because in this story, God has demoted Godself to being a character rather than the sum total of all of it.
Creation through division. That is our model. But Creation through division is limiting. I am not a great cook. But I know that if you're trying to make a soufflé and your only tool is a chopping knife, you're going to end up with salad. Every time.
So this Sacred Myth of Creation-Through-Division is for us the story that never was but is always happening.
It is happening. Separation, opposition, hierarchy: this is how we make sense of the world, at least a lot of the time. They are not like us. We are better than them. It affects our politics. Our agriculture. Our industry. Our economics. It doesn't matter who or what the "them" is. Plants. Animals. Immigrants. The Alt-Right. We make meaning by finding distinctions, binaries, across which there is someone or something unlike you. We construct binaries and we invest them with great importance.
We do it so constantly that we barely notice it. We don't think to think first of how we are connected, how we are similar. Did you know, for example, we share over 60% of our genes with that big oak tree on the other side of the parking lot? Its growth, its life, like ours, is governed by a double-helix strand of DNA. We are made of the same carbon and minerals from the same ground. We both need water and light to survive. We evolved on the same planet under the same conditions, but we vary in our strategies. It has evolved to hold tight; we have evolved to move at will. We look so different, but we are so similar and so closely related.
Now compared to that relationship, us and the tree, think how odd it is when we in this culture commonly see male and female, different by one chromosome and not even always that, not as variation but as opposite. Ask a schoolkid in this country what the opposite of "boy" is and you will not get rock or puppy or tree or quantum singularity. You will get "girl" every time. And in living by a strict male-female binary, we are robbed of the subtlety and richness and multi-dimensionality of human variation. Heck, we lose out on friendships! We don't notice how similar someone of a different gender might be to us, and what a good conversation we might have, because we are raised to see the binary, the distinction, as truer and more important than all of our shared, complex humanity. For some of us who grew up not clearly falling on one side or another of this binary, this is obvious. For others it's news. But it's important news.
Okay. So seeing how we differ more than seeing how we relate; that is what we so often do. We see a world of big divisions. So how do we mend it? Maybe we start with the divisions close to home. What if we adopt a practice of periodically raising our vision, lifting our awareness up one notch? Above the presumed divisions and binaries, one level of generality higher?
For instance, look around the room now. Without staring, notice someone whom you think of as quite different from you. Maybe based on gender, sexual orientation, skin color, economics, age, body or, God forbid, politics. Now hold that person in your mind and imagine both of you levitating up, above your bodies, above whatever that difference was. So that now you're just two human souls, two neshomehs, looking down and noticing your differences the way you might notice different clothes. Look back at each other in your mind's eye and imagine what you share. Love, struggle, longing, regret, ambition, the taste of ice cream. And notice how close you now feel to that person. A different sympathy between you. Could we use a practice like this to bridge between us not just in our imaginations, but in the field of earthly relationship?
So how else does our Creation story, this myth that keeps on giving, make us think? How about us being in charge of it all? Thinking of ourselves as above nature rather than as nature? That's not gone so very well. And there is much teshuvah and mending to be done on that front that we already know about.
There's another thing our Sacred Myth suggests too. It has to do with an assumption of emptiness. Of an empty world with things in it, clattering around. God maybe outside of it, shaking the box. I want to illustrate the problem of this using another culture's Sacred Myth.
I was in Alaska in August, and in Sitka I visited an outdoor museum of Tlingit totem poles. Each one was beautiful, ornate, carved from top to bottom in a way that narrated some story. There was one that especially caught my eye. There was the shape of a bird on top, and underneath it the pole was smooth for about half its height. Then there was another bird and a woman's face and additional figures underneath her. I got caught up trying to guess why half the pole was blank. Was it unfinished? Was it reconstructed, and the smooth section was where pieces were lost or missing?
It never occurred to me that what I was looking at was sky. The woman below was Fog Woman, a kind of Tlingit deity, who had married Raven, who was flying overhead. The smooth part of the pole was air, space, the distance from woman to bird. I couldn't read it properly, because I would only have expected emptiness between the woman and the bird. I wasn't conceiving of sky and earth as being connected and continuous.
But of course sky and earth are connected and continuous. In the same way that I am connected to each of you here. The space between us is not empty. There is air between us. I can make waves that touch you, as we know from the fact that you are hearing my voice right now. There are photons carrying our images to each other. All of this physics connects us; and metaphysics too! Care, attraction, love, simple attention. Those things fill the space between us and bind us to each other.
But fine, that's a short little distance. Big deal. So imagine a distant star system, and us over here, with light-years and a vacuum between us. Are we connected? Well, think of this. We all emerged from the same primordial blast. We are heirs of the same singularity. We share history and momentum. We are connected by a field of Creation. And the vacuum that separates us? It also connects us.
So that imagining was kind of the same practice as before: notching our sights up to a higher level of generality. And suddenly we share something profound with distant galaxies. In fact, at this level, we run the terrible risk of being connected to everything. And suddenly the universe is not empty – it is full. And suddenly no longer a salad, we are a soufflé.
Now I know it must seem odd that in this rabbi job I'm standing here presenting our Sacred Myth of Creation as a problem. But the story ain't over yet. Because chapter two, the seventh day, opens like this: vayekhulu hashamayim v’ha’aretz v’khol tz’va’am. Which we typically translate as "and the heaven and earth were finished, and all that was in them."
But I happen to have bought a book recently, a mid-19th Century prayerbook in German for Jewish women. I've started reading prayers out of it, and in the Shabbat prayers, it quotes this very line – vayekhulu hashamayim – and translates it into German this way: Himmel und Erde war vollendet… Not that Heaven and Earth were "finished," like a Chevy off the assembly line. But that they were full. Heaven and earth were full; filled. Fulfilled.
I went back to the Hebrew and saw vayekhulu and realized that even in Hebrew that word doesn't mean "finished" but comes from the word kol, meaning "all". The heaven and earth were all. Maybe the process had involved some chopping, but with the coming of Shabbat holiness, the world shifted back into wholeness. Into soufflé form – soufflé, by the way, being a French word that means to blow air into something, not unlike God's breath on the water that was the start of all of this to begin with.
And wait – we forgot about God! Where is God in all of this?!
In the first six days of Creation God is a doer, a maker; everything else is the product of God's industry. God is separate from and outside the Creation that is taking form. Separate from us. But on that seventh day, vayechulu – Creation shifts and is everything. We get a hint of God not as producer, but as process. God is no longer outside of Creation, God is Creation. It's all God, all the time.
FYI, I'm not suggesting that this is something for you to believe literally, although you could. But if we allow this part of our Sacred Myth, this part about all of it being God, all God, all the time; if we allow that to be "the greater story that is always happening," imagine how our relationship to this planet and to each other would shift.
There is a story of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z"l, sitting on the shore of a lake at a retreat in Connecticut. It was a beautiful day and the friend sitting next to him said, "Look what God created!" And Reb Zalman thought for a moment and responded, "No, look what God has become!"
So this year I'm going to try to change my orientation. To remember that there is no empty space. To ease off the binaries in favor of a more beautiful complexity. Not to ignore differences, but to remember also to lift my sights high enough to see connection – to other people, other animals, plants, even distant stars. And to remind myself that it's all God. All God. I will carry this orientation with me, see where it leads, see how it changes me, and see how it begins to mend the fields that I live in, the fields we share.
Hayom harat olam. Today the world is born. Now look around this room. Look at what God has become.
Gratitude to my friend Shir-Yaakov Feit for telling me the story about Reb Zalman and to Rabbi Marcia Prager for the Jean Houston reference.