Saturday, October 17, 2009
The texts of today’s Torah reading are the source of one of the greatest controversies of our time. Namely, the Creation verses evolution debate. It seems like you can barely turn on the television or open the papers these days without seeing some reference to this debate. Just look at the New York Times bestseller list this week and you see Richard Dawkin’s ‘The Greatest Show on Earth,’ arguing vehemently against the intelligent design argument, and there’s also Karen Armstrong’s ‘The Case for God.’ When Frances Collins was selected to head up the NIH, a veritable storm of controversy was kicked up by his scientific colleagues who could not abide his belief in God. There seems to be a modern obsession either with attacking or explaining away the biblical account of Creation in light of evolution. Richard Dawkins and his militant atheist friends seem to reduce all religion to fundamentalist literalism—that if you believe in God you MUST be a supernaturalist, and you must believe the biblical 6-day account. And folks like him arrogantly stir up all kinds of animosity toward religion in general, positing that all religions are based on facile notions of irrational faith, and the world would be better off without the scourge of irrational religion all together.
As a Conservative rabbi, this leaves me in rather a strange position. It seems pretty clear to me that life as we know it evolved over countless millions of years. It makes the most sense that some kind of process of natural selection charted the course of all the species of life we now encounter in the world. Scientific inquiry and rational investigation has yielded enormous evidence to this effect so that, while I can never know for sure, I am as certain of the validity of evolution as I can be about most aspects of life that I count on to be True. I read of fundamentalist Christians who demand equal time in school textbooks to argue that the world is about 6,000 years old and my stomach turns. I hear of some of my ultra-Orthodox rabbinic colleagues who similarly insist that God put dinosaur bones that carbon date to millions of years just as a nisayon—a test of our faith—and again, I am horrified. So what would Richard Dawkins make of the likes of me?
There are many well-meaning people who try to solve the clash of modern rationalism and religion by attempting to erase the problematic aspects of the biblical texts. There are those who argue, for example, that dinosaurs were from a previous Creation that God did “before” the account in our Torah; or those who say: what’s a “day” for God? A day for God can be millions or billions of years! So there’s no problem with our text, because each day left millions of years for evolution to happen! These justifications are nice, and they certainly solve the problem on some level, but they have always struck me as an attempt to fit a square peg into a round hole.
Let’s face it: the Torah says that God created the world in 6 days, and on the 7th day, God rested. If the Torah had wanted to say that God brought about Creation over eons of time, it certainly could have worded it that way. The great tragedy of this evolution verses Creation debate is that both sides fundamentally miss the point of the Torah. If you scratch beneath the surface of the arrogant claims on both sides, you will notice that they, just like us, are challenged very deeply by the Torah text. The debaters on this issue, just like we are, are human. This text very deliberately flies in the face of their experience of Reality, and so in their great discomfort with this fact, they either rush to the ramparts to defend it on grounds of “faith,” or rush to obliterate it on the grounds of “reason.” And in going to either extreme, they lose the Truth—the Ultimate Truth, the beautiful and transforming wisdom--of the text itself.
Six days of Creation: beginning with Tohu vaVohu—chaos—and the Light separating from darkness, waters above and below, land and sea, plants and vegetation, stars and galaxies, all manner of creatures and animals, and then finally humankind. And behold it was very good. And then, vayechulu, it was all completed: a day of Rest, Shabbat. It’s a story of order emerging miraculously up out of chaos. Through each “day,” through each cycle we see the Divine Will moving inexorably toward some kind of goal: God works ceasely through the 6 days, creating separating, naming, leading up to the greatest achievement of all: humankind, in the very image of God, capable of ruling over and manipulating this harmonious order itself! And then…something completely different appears! Rest. Cessation. Stillness. Non-Creation! And that stillness is called “Holy.” It’s a profoundly awesome and mysterious text. This is no history book. This is not a recounting of cold facts to be taken literally “on faith.” This is a spiritual teaching that is at once beautiful and terrifying, awesome, mystifying and challenging.
The point of this text is not to give us an easy answer about the world. It’s supposed to set us into a total tailspin! This life, this Reality that you and I find ourselves in, is but a hairsbreadth away from Tohu vaVohu, from incomprehensible chaos. That idea is frightening enough. But at the same time: this whole stable world that you and I count on to live in, day by day, is moving toward complete cessation, toward stopping, toward an unfathomable stillness where all our plans and dramas and loves and strivings will merge into that stillness! When we start to look at the text on this level, then we’re really reading Genesis: the point is not to take it on faith, but to inquire what it means. The point is not to read it as a factoid that happened 6,000 years ago, but to ask ‘where is this process of Creation happening within me, right now?’
Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, the author of the Sfat Emet, a great Hasidic commentary, noticed something very interesting about the Creation account. He noticed what the account leaves out, not just what it includes. Genesis, for example, says nothing about the creation of Heaven or angels or other realms beyond the material world. Certainly, Judaism teaches all about all kinds of angels and divine messengers—what of their creation? The Sfat Emet explains: The Torah didn’t have to explain the creation of heaven and angels. The fact that we’re here means that they are there! “Hem b’atzmam hachelek haSheni hashayach l’otan habruim shel’matah. They are the other other half of the creatures who live here on earth. As you live and walk here on earth, you have your angelic “other half” as it were, on a higher realm of Creation above. All week long, you’re just you by your lonesome here on Earth. But on Shabbat, however “yored oto koach hashoresh umitchabrin shnei hachalakim,” the power of the upper root comes down, and the two halves are joined together. In other words, in the joy and completeness of Shabbat, you become more whole than what you were, because now your higher spiritual self is joined with your mudane and worldly self.
A very interesting teaching, and it unlocks much of the mystery of the account of the Creation. Don’t worry: I’m not asking us necessarily to believe that we all have guardian angels or that there’s a heaven “up there” in a celestial realm. It’s all metaphor. What does it mean? It means that the story of Creation that we read about in Genesis is not so much a description of how the universe was created. Rather, it’s a message to you about the kind of universe that you are creating! The Torah text states directly that each of us, you and I, are the very image of God. Divinity expresses itself as a powerful energy, the very urge that has brought about the very evolution of the world that we perceive. Likewise, we create as well. We spend our whole lives doing just what God was up to during those six days: we’re constantly ordering things, separating this from that, good from bad, desirable from undesirable, happiness from sadness, beginnings from endings. We function on a week of 7 days. We manipulate nature, the whole world to suit our needs and our whims. But look where the story places us in this process: right at the end of all that doing. We exist on the cusp of doing, and ceasing from all doing. Our ancient sages remind us that God created us very last, right before Shabbat came in. And the Midrash explains that it is through us that God can finish all that ‘doing’ and it is through us, that God—and we--can enter into the Shalom, the Peace of Shabbat, of rest.
The point of the Genesis Creation account is to show you the big picture, the very purpose of your life. The purpose of Creation is Shabbat. The six days culminate in Shabbat. The purpose of your life is not to mindlessly scurry about, toiling and working and struggling with problems: but live fully engaged in life, to understand that the purpose of all work and struggle is to end toil and struggle and suffering. The purpose of your life is to transform the world into Shabbat. And you do that by transforming YOUR world into Shabbat!
Zen master Dogen once famously taught: “everyday we swim on the surface of the ocean, yet our feet can walk across the bottom.” By this, he means that to live life well, we must live consciously in two realms: the conventional realm and the realm of Ultimate Reality. In our daily lives, we get up, we get dressed, we go to work, we pay bills, we make meals, watch TV, etc. Most of us only live in this world of surface-swimming—which is the 6 days of creation. This world is Tov Me’od, it is very good. It’s real and it’s important. But we’re living only half of our lives if we live only in this dimension of Reality. There’s another realm of reality as well: the deep abiding depths of the Ocean, or the heavenly realm of angels, or the timelessness and peace of Shabbat. It doesn’t matter what you call it. It’s the Ultimate. The point of it all. The six days of Creation represent our material world: that’s the world where evolution happens over millions of years—it’s the world of space and time, of science and history, the world of dualities and separations.
Vayekadesh Oto…and God called Shabbat Holy, ‘ki vo shavat mikol melachto asher bara Elohim la’asot,’ because Shabbat is what all the work was created for in the first place. Shabbat is not just a day of the week. It’s not just a day to light candles and have challah and go to shul. Shabbat is a state of being. Shabbat is your Ultimate essence. It is the timeless moment where you are not separate and alone in the world, but connected to your Higher Angels—connected to Divinity itself. Shabbat is always there, beneath the surface waves and the trials and tribulations of life. When we develop this Shabbat-consciousness, suddenly all the troubles and challenges of life take on a different hew. They have a different context. They don’t loom as large, because there is a peaceful inner timeless realm where no time or work or troubles can touch us. We have Created the conditions for Shabbat. We enact Shabbat on a weekly basis as the Jewish people, but on an even deeper level, we are, each of us, called to enact Shabbat within our very hearts and souls.
Ramana Maharshi, a great early 20th-century teacher in the Hindu Advaita Vedanta tradition, once said, “The essential purpose of … [sacred scriptures] is to teach you the nature of the imperishable (‘Atman) [Ultimate Self], and to declare with authority “Tat Tvam Asi,” “Thou art That.” What he means is: look into the sacred text, look into the Torah. What do you see? If you see just a story, you’re not really seeing it. If you see a history book, a book of facts, you’re not really seeing it. If you see something irrational and supernatural, you’re not really seeing it. Look deeper. Thou art That! That text is meant to be a mirror into your Truest and deepest Self! The whole world is being Created through you. You are the miracle arising from chaos, on an incredible journey to find peace. May we see that journey as Tov Me’od, as very good. And when we find that peace within, may we indeed declare our whole lives, and this whole world, as holy.
Monday, October 12, 2009
There’s a very fitting connection between Shmini Atzeret and the service of Yizkor. The term “Shmini Atzeret” literally means, “stopping on the eighth day.” Numbers always have great symbolic significance in Judaism. The number seven, of course, has obvious significance as the symbol of completion—like the completion of the seventh day of creation, and the completion of the week with Shabbat. But what of the number eight? When we consider the symbolic references to the number eight, we are reminded of the brit milah, the circumcision rite that always happens on the eighth day. It’s rather strange, isn’t it? Why indeed have rituals and holidays on the eighth day, when the seventh day has such a biblical connection to significance, completion, and perfection?
Our tradition teaches us to think of the eighth day as the fullness of seven, of completion… plus one more! It is true perfection, because when you reach the natural completion of seven, the eight makes a perfect circle: think of the eight-note musical scale: do re mi fa so la ti do! It’s only when you come full circle, that you can stop (“atzeret,”)turn around and behold the whole fullness of the hakafah—the circle—that we have been journeying through throughout this holiday period. That’s just the idea in a brit milah: the baby has survived the first full critical week of life, so now, on the eighth day, we can take a deep breath and truly celebrate this birth, this new little one entering the covenant of the Jewish people.
So here we are at Shmini Atzeret, the eighth day. Today we stop, we pause and look back with satisfaction and gratitude at the joy we have celebrated on Sukkot. And we are also at Yizkor: the act of looking back always reminds us of our loved ones who are no longer with us. But each service of Yizkor has its own particular character, it’s own palate of emotional experience. If, on Yom Kippur, we said Yizkor in our humility and awe from the intensity of the Yamim Noraim…today, Yizkor is recited as a simpler, sweeter reflection.
When Sarah Imenu, the great matriarch of the Jewish people, died, the Torah refers to her death rather strangely: it says “vayihiyu chayey Sarah meah shanah v’esrim shanah v’sheva shanim, shnei chayey Sarah,” which literally translates as “Sarah’s lifetime was 100 years and 20 years and 7 years, the years of the life of Sarah.” Strange wording. The Torah could have just said, “Sarah lived to be 127 years old,” but instead, it lengthed out the numbering of her years. And our sages explain that it’s worded this way because the Torah wants us to do a little “Atzeret,” to pause and consider the fullness of her years while she was live. Even before the Torah tells us that she died, it wants us to think about how she lived! …About how each and every year was well lived, beautifully and courageously lived.
I once read a story about a woman who couldn’t stop grieving over the loss of her son, who died in a mountain-climbing accident. For twenty years, this woman’s life was utterly devastated. What I read was the record of the counselor who worked with this woman: the counselor explained that this woman was stuck in an eternal mental loop that she was trapped in. Every day of her life, for twenty whole years, over and over, she watched in her imagination that image of her child slipping and falling off that cliff to his death. No! No! No! would be her silent scream in her head at this image. And then there was all her anger at him for not taking better precautions, her guilt at not doing something to protect him. Finally, the counselor asked that woman a powerful question: how many times did your son fall to his death? Once, of course. And how many times have you mentally been falling to death together with him? Hundreds of tens of thousands of times, more than anyone could count, was her answer. And with this answer, suddenly she realized that she could do her own atzeret, she could step out of that hakafah, that loop that went around over and over in her mind, and she realized that once that young man’s death happened, it was over. There was no more suffering for him, just for her because she was forcing herself to experience that death eternally. But all of a sudden, for the first time, she was able to grasp a much wider Hakafah, the much wider cycle of a beautiful life that had been gifted to her in the person of her son. Instead of just replaying his death, she had the spaciousness now to really look back at the fullness of her son’s life: this wonderful, funny, brilliant, creative, adventuresome young man whose time had come. Yes, it was so much shorter a life than anyone should live, but it was his time. And, for the first time in her life, his mother came to a place of peace, gratitude and even joy, because of the fullness of years she did share with her wonderful son.
This is the meaning of Yizkor on this day of Shmini Atzeret: that death is not a gaping emptiness that swallows up life and love. No, death is a Shmini Atzeret, it is the fullness of a completed circle. It doesn’t matter how many or how few years a life was lived in this world. Each life is perfectly whole and complete—whether we die of natural causes or of tragic circumstances—when our life comes to an end, the Hakafah, the circle is full and whole. No! No! No! we may shout. He or she was too young. He or she didn’t get to complete this or that. I didn’t get to tell them I loved them one more time. All of that, of course is true, and we grieve these losses. But even with all of that, their time is their time. And so this moment of Yizkor is so important for us to acknowledge this side of the Truth: that despite death’s experience of separation, we can see our loved one’s lives as a perfectly completed circle. We can look back and find the peace within ourselves. At this service of Yizkor, we can remember our loved ones, and find the joy and fullness beyond all experiences of emptiness and loss…
All throughout our prayers, we affirm over and over that God never forgets the lives of each and every one of us: ‘umekayem emunato lisheinei afar,’ that God keeps faith with those who sleep in the dust, with our loved ones who have passed on. In our prayers, we say that God remembers the Chasdei Avot, the loving acts of our forefathers, and in fidelity to them and their love, God will send redemption to us and to our children someday in this world. God remembers, and we remember. Our tradition calls to us to remember, again and again, that when our loved ones die, don’t focus on their death, always remember shnei chayeyhem, the years of the fullness of t heir lives. Because in our remembering them, this is how they never die.
On Yom Kippur, I did a thought experiment, where I had us picture ourselves. Now we will do another thought experiment, but this time, think someone you love who has passed on. Close your eyes, and see if you can really call to mind a vivid image of them together with you right now. Go ahead: look at their wonderful faces. Look at their smile. Look into their eyes. See how much they love you. See if you can reach out in your mind’s eye and touch their skin and feel the warmth, the life of them. Just take this moment and be in their loving presence. Isn’t it amazing how much the fullness of their life is truly there for you? And don’t discount this as just a fabrication of mind, of imagination. This isn’t a random thought that you’re having. When we see our loved ones in our mind in this way, this is coming from a very real place in our neshamah, in our soul, that has been touched and shaped, forever affected by the fullness of our their lives. That image that you just conjured up isn’t random imagination: it’s an image that flows from a place of real love within you. So in an ultimate sense, that image—which is a vivid and living memory within you—is as Real and True as our loved one’s physical presence while they were still alive! This idea might sound outlandish, but when you search your own deepest Truth, this is undeniable…
When you think about anyone whom you love—living or dead—on a very deep level, you know that they’re always with you, because you have let them into your heart. It doesn’t matter where you are: whether you’re in the living room downstairs and they’re in the bedroom upstairs—really you’re not ultimately separate. Even if you’re in one continent and they’re on another, you can really feel them—sometimes even physically—you can sense their loving presence. Their heart is with you and your heart is with them. This kind of ‘knowing’ is very subtle yet powerful, and very very deep when you love another human being. This isn’t just an act of imagination: this is real stuff. It’s the Ultimate Reality. It turns out that time and space are not quite as real as Love itself. And when it’s all said and done, death itself is not quite as real as Love itself either!
In his old age, the Gerer Rebbe told this story: “When I was still a student, Rabbi Shlomo Leib came up to me in the Beit Midrash and said: ‘Young man, you are known as a gifted Jew from Poland, so tell me why our sages commented on the verse in the scripture: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart and with all they soul,” with the words: “Even if He takes our soul [you should still love God];” but [our sages]failed to comment “Even if he takes your heart,” [meaning: why did the sages NOT command us to love God EVEN if God takes our heart away?!]
I did not know what to say, [at the time, said the Gerer rebbe]… But …The older I get, the larger his question looms before me. If God so desires, let God take our life, but God must leave us that with which we love Him—God must leave us our heart.”
And indeed, this is the Ultimately reality that we discover at Yizkor on Shemini Atzeret: God may take the lives of our loved ones, but nowhere in God’s universe is it even possible to take away their heart. You see, their heart cannot die, because it is none other than YOUR heart! This is the great way that all love cheats and trumps death. In life, when we love another, we are present in their hearts. So when we die, our hearts live on—not metaphorically, but Truly, literally as their hearts.
Yizkor uses the language of ‘memory’ and ‘rememberance,’ but in matters of love and life and death, there is no time, there is no space. Even though we say we ‘remember’ our loved ones at Yizkor, in Truth we are more correctly making ourselves Mindful of their loving Presence that is with us always, in all moments of our lives. The fullness of their lives IS the fullness of our life. This is the essence of their love for us, which doesn’t die.So this year, let us take this moment of Shmini Atzeret, and pause and look lovingly at the fullness of the lives whose love has brought us to this joyful time. Let us come to realize that God keeps faith with their lives through our keeping faith with them through living our own lives. Let us feel their care and nurturing and concern supporting our every lifebreath. And may the wholeness and completion of their lives remind us to cherish the fullness and completeness of our own life’s blessing here and now, while we have it. May their lives be source of blessing to us and to our children from generation to generation.