Saturday, October 17, 2009

Creation: Thou Art That

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.

1 comment:

zzz... said...

I am happy that I found your blog.

Thank you. This is inspiring- I am rather a distracted person, but I imagine, even for a man who is wonderfully concentrated and devotes himself to meditation, what you have written would b enough sustenance for more than a month.

Thanks, again.