Posts Tagged ‘God in everything’

One day, a group of scientists got together and decided that humanity had progressed to the point that it no longer needed God.  So they picked one of their group to go have a talk with God – to suggest perhaps the Holy One should retire.  The scientist walked up to God and said, “We have decided we no longer need you.  We’re to the point that we can clone people and do many miraculous things, so why don’t you just leave, take a rest, retire.”  God listened patiently to the man.  After the scientist was done talking, God said, “I hear you.  How about this?  Let’s say we have a human making contest.”  The scientist replied, “Sure, great!”  Then God continued, “We will do this just like I did back in the old days when I created Adam.”  The scientist said, “Sure, no problem.” He proceeded to bend down and grabbed a handful of dirt.  God stopped him and said, “Wait a minute, go get your own dirt.”

Cute story.  Comes down on the side of religion in the faith versus science discussion.  Do you detect a few problems here?  I do.  First, I am sure there are many, maybe most of you, who if pressed would say factual truth is expressed more by science than by religion.  A lot of us are tired of the silliness of dealing with folks who take the first chapters of Genesis – those describing creation and the first human beings – as literal.  Indeed, very few Jews, from any part of the Jewish spectrum, take the creation story at face value.  Even Rashi, the 11th century commentator on the Torah, says chapter 1 of Genesis is not about a logical order of creation, that it makes no sense on that level.  That’s only a surface problem.  A deeper problem is the way the story depicts God – as a person with the same feelings of any human, but with super powers.  This makes God more like a DC comic book hero than the center of serious religious thought.

The problem begins in our own Torah.  God is never to be physically represented, that is God is invisible, yet God is continually depicted anthropomorphically – as having arms, as speaking, as having human emotions.  Maimonides says all of this is necessary metaphor due to the limitations on human understanding and language.  He says the Torah is like an apple that looks silver, but upon closer inspection we can see the silver is filigree and the core is gold.  The silver outside has value, but not like the gold.  Torah has value in its literal sense but Maimonides sees the real value in uncovering the golden core – the inner meaning.  Traditional Jewish commentary on the Torah is almost never satisfied with the surface meaning, but delves deep into the text, peeling back layers of meaning.  Torah and therefore God are mysteries to be studied and understood.

Which means we have yet to really understand creation or the creation story.  If you are scientifically bent you might be thinking, why even bother?  Clearly Genesis is mythology and our understanding of how the universe came to be is being continually sharpened by science.  A typical response by a religious person is that there need be no conflict between religion and science.  Science explains the “how” of creation and religion tells us the “why.”  While I do not disagree with that statement, it feels rather inadequate – incomplete.  I believe the Torah, if we cut through the silver and examine the gold, can teach us lot about creation, and what the scientific truths about creation really imply.  And today is the right day to explore this, as Rosh Hashanah is not only about our journey to repentance, it celebrates the birth of the world.  It celebrates creation.

So I begin at the beginning.  B’reishit bara Elohim.  Pretty much all translations render that as “In the beginning, God created.”  But that is not grammatically accurate, which even Rashi points out.  A better exact translation would be, “In the beginning of…God created.”  You see the difference?  The question it raises is obvious.  There is a word missing in the sentence – in the beginning of…. what?  The entire Torah begins with a mystery, a blank inviting us to speculate about the true nature of God and creation.  And when we speculate about the true nature of God and creation, we are really speculating about ourselves, and how we fit into the world around us.  Too often we see ourselves as islands, disconnected from most of what goes on in the world.  That is normal, but misleading.

I have been thinking a lot lately about how we are connected to all of creation.  My pondering began while on vacation in June.  We went to Alaska and one of our excursions was walking through a temperate rain forest at the base of the Mendenhall glacier.  The glacier, as most glaciers world wide, has been receding for the last number of centuries.  The rain forest grows where the glacier used to be, and for the last approximately 125 years the receding has been marked by signs that show where the end of the glacier was in various years.  Our guide shared a lot of interesting information, some of it shocking and some of it fodder for deep contemplation.  The most shocking was the rate glaciers are receding.  The end of the last glacial advance was about 11,700 years ago.  Scientists have been tracking the Mendenhall glacier for at least 125 years.  Until a few years ago the glacier was receding at the rate of 25 to 30 feet per year.  Now it is receding at a rate of 300 to 500 feet per year.  If you doubt that climate change is happening, go study the glaciers in Alaska!   The rain forest, growing in the wake of where the glacial ice used to be, is composed of 4 main elements, moss, alder, spruce, and hemlock.  They form the acronym MASH; which until this trip I thought stood for mobile army surgical hospital.

It is clear that the soil left by the receding glaciers is quite fertile, rich with elements that spur growth.  Then our guide taught us something even more amazing.  The movement of the glaciers through the mountains scrapes off tons of marble and granite filled with minerals.  All the glaciers have streams that flow into the ocean.  These streams serve as feeding tubes for the world’s waters.  The minerals they carry feed all ocean life, a lot of which ends up on our dinner tables!  In fact, it is the glacial action all over the world that provides the nutrients necessary to sustain the earth’s oceanic life.  The waters off of Alaska, for example, are so rich in nutrients that the humpback whales who migrate to Hawaii in the winter to breed, actually do their feeding while in the north.  I was dumbstruck by this fact told us by our guide – without glacial activity, the earth could not sustain life.  Wow!  Think about that.  It is a stunning example of how all of life – all of creation – is interconnected in ways we usually do not think about or see.  The science of how glaciers are critical to our survival reinforces a mystical religious perspective!

What my experiences walking through the rain forest by the Mendenhall glacier, and seeing how glaciers affect life brought into focus is how all of life, all of creation, all of us are deeply interconnected – but most of the time we are blind or oblivious to that.  This is the golden core of the Torah of life.  We kind of stumble through life seeing the silver filigree.  We see the surface of existence.  We judge things based on how our little island of existence is doing in the moment.  Often the silver is quite lovely.  We enjoy our life, our friends, our hobbies.  Often the silver feels inadequate – we sense something is missing or we yearn for something more but often cannot really place our finger on what we feel is missing.  Our emotional responses, happiness, anger, sadness, pleasure; our judgments of people and events – are surface reactions – meaning we are responding to our impression, our satisfaction or disappointment to what is surrounding us in a particular moment.  We do not see the golden core.  We do not see beyond the boundaries of self that our egos erect for us.  We are mostly oblivious to deeper, inner realities.

But not always.

Have you ever had a moment in which you realized that your personal story was not uniquely yours?  Have you ever had that moment when you saw another person’s experience, although different on the surface, deeply connected to your own?  It can happen in a conversation, it can happen watching the news, it can happen in a movie.  When I saw the movie “Woman in Gold,” the story of Maria Altmann’s struggle to recover a painting stolen from her family by the Nazis and taken by the Austrian government, I felt that moment of connection – not to oppression or a shared family history in the Holocaust, but in the way family and extended community works.  It occurred in the scene in which she hires Randol Schoenberg as her attorney.  She hires him because her family knew his family in the 1930’s in Vienna.  She knew him as a little boy.  She serves him a piece of strudel and in that moment I was taken back to my childhood in the Bronx in the late 1950’s.  The kind of community connection felt by Maria and Randol is exactly what I experienced with my grandparents as a child.  I connected on a deep emotional level to people I had never known about because of a shared community dynamic.

In 2012, when I was meeting and getting to know the part of the Romberg family my father never knew, I got a lesson in hidden ties while talking to Magie (Romberg) Furst, who is my dad’s first cousin – one he never knew existed.  In my office is a photograph of a stairway in Brooklyn leading to a store of Jewish sacred books and ritual objects.  The title given the photograph is “Stairway to Heaven?”  The photographer is Teddy Tobar, my father’s close friend, dating to their childhood in Cologne, Germany.  Teddy, like a good number of dad’s Jewish community in Cologne, found a way to make it to America.  I remember him as a funny, engaging man who everyone in the German Jewish community in New York seemed to know.  He looked like Yogi Berra.  His apartment, in the late 1940’s, was a center of social gatherings for German Jews.  At one of Teddy’s parties, shortly after Magie was married, she told me her husband came to her and said he had just had a conversation with a man named Romberg, who must be related to her (her maiden name was Romberg), and she needed to talk to him. That man was my father, who had to leave before Magie could meet him.

Stimulating that feeling of deeper connection can come from seemingly alien incidents and people.  They do not have to be revelations of family and cultural similarities.  In 1992, as the videos of Rodney King’s beating were played all over TV, my dad called me in tears telling me it was making him relive his youth in Nazi Germany.  Dad saw himself, a German Jewish immigrant, cabinet maker and businessman; in an African American taxi driver in Los Angeles.  On September 12, 2001, I called one of my former congregants in Fredericksburg, VA, as I knew his wife was an American Airlines flight attendant who was often working flights to Los Angeles.  I was worried she was on flight 77, the one that crashed into the Pentagon.  As it turned out, she was the on call back up attendant who was sent home when the regularly scheduled attendants all showed up for the flight.  I would wager many of you have similar stories, of connections to events and people that shake you, that surprise you.  I would wager that many of you see the faces of your own children or grandchildren when, for example, you hear of incidents like the mass shooting at Sandy Hook.  I would wager you see yourself and your friends when you learned of the tragedy at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.  We sense a deeper life connection in moments of sadness, tragedy, joy, and relief.  We get a glimpse of the interconnectedness of all being in those brief moments.

And that is a hint of a deeper truth: the beginning of understanding the golden core of all creation.  We feel and act isolated, but we are not.  Midrash teaches when the 10 commandments were recited for the Israelites at Sinai, all they saw was one thing, the letter alef.  It is the letter printed in your leaflets.  It is the first letter, of the first word, of the first commandment – anochi adonai elohecha, “I am Adonai your God.”  There are a couple of interesting things about that phrase.  First, the word elohecha “your God,” is in the singular form of “you” even though all of the people of Israel are being addressed.  From God’s perspective they are one unit, not a collection of individuals.  But why does the midrash teach that all the people saw was the letter alef ?  That is the letter that begins the word translated as “I am.”  Take your leaflet.  Look at the alef.  Turn it slightly so the center line of the alef is not diagonal but straight up and down.  Look at it carefully and what you will see is the outline of a face.  The center line is the nose.  The 2 curved lines are the eyebrows.  It is a face with no details.  It is God’s face.  It is your face.  It is the face of every human who ever was, is, or will be.  It is the signal of the truth in the golden core.  All of us, all of creation, are connected in the most basic way to God.  We are connected to each other.  When we look at another person, do we get distracted by skin color, by hair color, by eye color, by clothes, by makeup, by ethnicity, by religion by wealth or by poverty?  Or do we see the alef, the presence of God, our connection to all creation, to each other?

Bereishit bara Elohim…“In the beginning of….”  The Zohar teaches that what emanated first from God, was keter, literally crown.  This is the “crowning” if you will, of all creation.  When you look at the kabbalistic tree, That shows the emanations from God that create the world, you will see that the first, the first emanation, is keter, the crown of creation.  From the crown comes the qualities of binah, understanding, and chochmah, insight.  The very first letter of the Torah is a bet, from the word b’reishit.  On top of that bet is a decorative crown, a keter.  That bet is the only one in the Torah with a decorative crown, as bet is not one of the 7 letters that usually gets that decorative piece.  That crown on the first letter is our reminder – to read the story of creation, indeed the whole Torah, with binah – understanding and insight.  We are invited to understand that all we really need to see is the alef that begins the word anochi.  All we need to understand is that the word anochi, “I am,” is not just about me.  It is about God.  It is about the reflection of God in each other, throughout creation.  God placed God’s self throughout creation.  God is present in everything, in each one of us.  That is why God declares about creation ki tov, behold, this is good.

May this be the year we can see the connection, the good, throughout creation.  May this be the year we can see the connection to God we share with each other: even those who seem so unlike ourselves.  May we all look at the world, at God’s creation and declare, ki tov, behold, this is good.

Amen and Shanah tovah!

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