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Archive for September, 2013

Genesis and the Big Bang

These musings about Genesis come from my perspective, with one foot in science teaching and one in Jewish spirituality. In my life I’ve found each deepens the other and assists in our understanding and awareness of this incredible universe. This understanding will always be beyond our grasp, but we are a part of it, and so we can always strive to grasp a bit of the mystery, which as Einstein said is the most beautiful thing we can experience….
This past week we began reading the Torah from the beginning, well, actually, from the end right into the beginning again, which implies timelessness, or no beginning….? So is the universe and time finite or infinite? And is God? Kaballah calls God ‘ain sof’ or infinite. According to physics today, there is no “before the universe” because the universe includes both space and time, and the big bang singularity (a horrible term, apparently) was the start of both.
Consider this: In all of this chaos, God is the creative power within this energy and chaos. And when parts of this universe combine to be much more than the sum of their parts, from quarks to atoms to molecules to cells, to organisms, that creative power, operating in opposition to entropy, the powerful tendency of the universe to Disorder (tohu va vohu in Hebrew) is where God is found. For me Genesis is a guidebook of where to find God in this universe, our spiritual origins, and value judgements of creation. We find God in the light (which took about 400,000 years to emerge after the big bang ). That light of opening our eyes and our hearts, after birth, and after darkness of spirit, is the light of God. So that’s day one. We find God in the beautiful oceans, that exist both on the shore, and within our physical bodies, which are mostly water. So that’s day two. We find God in beautiful forests (day 3) in Blue whales, and sparrows, and sea horses, coral, dragonflies and imaginary flying dragons! (day four) Our minds are blown open as we ponder the galaxies of the night sky (i cannot even stretch my mind far enough to match the numbers of galaxies out there!!!) and the powerful nuclear fusion of the sun which heats us as E=mc2 turns its material into the energy of our lives from 93,000,000 miles distant, into animals which evolved naturally and powerfully into our ancestors and into each other. We know the value God puts on each of these – they are GOODNESS! which itself is an anti-entropy judgement. And as for the animals and humans on that sixth day, very, or powerfully good. And that is why we are b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s shadow. That spark of creativity and potential for goodness is in the spirit of each of us. We are in the protective shadow of God as well, when we become as a community, more than the sum of each person alone can ever be. We are midrashically formed of this earth, a part of her, from earth of the four corners, of each color – from white sands, black volcanic ash, red mud and yellow clay. And in truth each human being is 99.9 percent genetically identical to every other, and a child of the universe. As much as the trees and the sky, we have a right to be here
and Love is the reflection of God, for it is parts in relationship which add up to more than the sum.  Perhaps Love is the answer (by Dan England).
And Adam and Eve left the perfection from which they were born to go to work and create new life, because we are all broken, and so must cling to one another to create shadows of the perfection from which we originated. And Cayin (whose name bizarrely means “Yes, I’ve created a man, with God’s help) slays “Hevel” whose name means “breath” becomes insubtantial, as death enters the world. Or did it enter when Hevel slew his sheep and offered it as a sacrifice, or when God accepted this sacrifice, showing favoritism to Hevel over his brother’s offering? I feel for Cayin, who pioneered sacrifice, only to be overwhelmingly rejected by God, tested to see if he could master his emotions, and failing this test. Failing the test of mastery is happening now to us. We are commanded to guard and serve this earth in mastery, and are messing it up royally. We’ll see in Noach next week, that the command to master is rescinded. But let us never forget the command to ovdah v’shomrah, serve and guard this precious planet – it’s where we find God. Again, perhaps Love is the answer



Why a Sukkah?

Why?  I urge my students to ask me why they should care about the stuff we’re learning – why it should matter in their lives!  I tell them it’s my favorite question, asked with respect, of course!  And why? is so much fun to ask!  In the Mark Brothers movie “The Cocoanuts”, before the Why a Duck? quip (about 3:20 in this clip ) Chico asks Groucho about the  Levees: is that the Jewish neighborhood? Groucho asides: I’ll Passover that remark. Then Groucho points out the viaduct and Chico asks Why a duck? So, to build on Chico’s question, why a Sukkah? In these days of huge worries, and technology, it’s so primitive, seems so out of place in the world. For me, it’s magic, one of my favorite times.  Just after Yom Kippur, I stop at the farm stand to buy a bunch of corn stalks, trim some evergreens for the branches, go into the basement to dig out the bags of decorations and strings of lights, laminate my New Years Cards and tote it all to the back yard.  I’ve had several types of Sukkot over the years, but 14 years ago, after building my kids’ swing set and tree house, It occurred to me that it would make an amazing sukkah! Just take off the roof, replace with branches, decorate up, and you can climb up and slide down – so much fun!

So, it’s fun, but still, why a sukkah?  Well, it’s autumn, the leaves are beginning to turn, the winds begin to blow. I do love autumn, the leaf colors and the crisp weather. Those leaves: a friend, native of California, who’d never seen the colors ’till she moved to NJ, she was blown away by the psychedelic flamboyant leaves. So I often try to see the leaves her way. But, at the same time, I hate the death of summer, the coming of the cold.  During the week of Sukkot we read Ecclesiastes, written, perhaps, by an older, ambivalent, wise, King Solomon, it speaks of life being in vain, or Hevel, in Hebrew, a breath (same name as the Brother Cayn killed), reminding us how fleeting youth, and health and life are, but hinting at the deep meaning and the timeless things beyond the vanity. The  Torah portion reminds us mistakes have been made in vanity: the Israelites have despaired and built a Golden Calf in Moses’ (and therefore God’s) absence. But as this portion begins, Moses goes up to Sinai for a second try at encounter with Divine, and carries down a new set of tablets, and is rendered radiant! Historically, we are wandering in the wilderness during this period.  All the Israelites will die, and their children must become the parents, and the inhabiters of the Promised land in spite of their losses. And all of this informs my personal answer to “why a Sukkah?”

In the Sukkah, I find an escape from the frenzy, as the sights of birds and decorations and leaves and moon and stars rule my vision. The quiet is startling, and then I become aware it’s not really quiet, but filled with he sounds of the wind through the leaves of the roof, music of a sort. Then I can sing quietly and add my heart’s sounds too, and it harmonizes right in! Waving the lulav, so primal, connects me to earth and sky and to my body: the etrog’s my heart, the lulav my spine, the myrtle, eyes, the willow leaves are lips. I am made of the stuff of earth too. The shakiness and the helicoptering leaves remind me of the passing of this season,  of the fragility of my life. The fruit reminds how sweet and beautiful it is in spite of impermanence. But amid this fragility come friends I’ve invited, reminding me how I get through those wilderness times in my life and the worriesDSC00004                         DSC00003. And the children remind me that it can be timeless. And besides, it’s fun. Chag Sukkot Sameach.

After Yom Kippur: Rebirth Fasting

One of my favorite children’s books is Legend of the Indian Paintbrush by Tomie dePaola.  A young man is different from the other young warriors, he is born for art, for painting. He goes on a vision quest and finds his reality, his fate. And today, flowers called Indian paintbrush dazzle the plains as evidence of his inspiration and insight.
Yom Kippur was yesterday, and when I took my shower this morning I had the weirdest deja vu experience:  to the morning after my son was born. It was life renewed: so great to take a shower, to have breakfast, to let the morning sun wash over me, to give thanks for the morning, and to ride my bike. A bit as I felt reborn after my own child was born. And I thought to myself, “wow, it really worked!” 
I want to write about the fasting on Yom Kippur. I’ve done it before out of trust and sticking with my buddies who fast. It’s sometimes difficult due to dehydration, and sometimes I just slog on and make it through the day to get to the end, that break fast. Is that all there is? Many that I know do not fast, they don’t see the value, and simply don’t want to.
But out of the trust that the tradition must have deeper value I have fasted. This year I realize that it’s myself I fast for. Friends often try to talk me out of fasting, for health reasons. As I was feeling a bit queasy yesterday morning (new medication on an empty stomach) one friend urged: “It’s Ok to eat, God doesn’t want you to get sick”. I assured her I’d be fine. Later I realized I don’t fast for God, but for me. To know that life is more than an endless quest to satisfy hunger, or habits. To know that food and water are not entitlements, but blessings. To raise empathy for those that go hungry and thirsty. But most of all, it’s my vision quest. Through fasting to draw near to ultimate questions, to myself and to the possibility of more intensely resonating. And this year I emerged like Jonah. In my head I knew that the world and I still faced giants of problems, but In my heart was  joy. I remembered this song, by Dan Nichols.
“Do as much as you can, with the time that you have, in the place that you are. Eighteen words from a kid, with less than a year to live, Eighteen words from a kid. He knew so much more than they thought he did. Lo Alecha…What can one person do, the task is great and the time is short, words our fathers knew. We can’t do it all but we can all do more…All we can do, is all we can do.” The next lyric cries: “from all that used to be, to all that might have been; there’s no mystery; if we work with what’s in between; All we can do is all we can do!”

Right on.
Hebrew, unlike English, has only three tenses, I’ve learned: present, future, and past. No might have beens. We’ve confronted our choices from last year, made apologies, moved on to the next year with a clean slate. No regrets, no “might have beens” Just all we can do, in


Loving Rosh Hashanah

I love Rosh Hashanah to pieces. After all the cooking, the New Year’s cards, the rehearsals (choir), suddenly the prep, is done, all is still. Family members long gone feel close. The air hangs brilliant with possibilities. I stop rushing around and start being, and singing and receiving hugs and smiles. And I smile, and cry and sing (I know I repeated that one…)

This Shabbat is Shabbat shuvah, Sabbath of Return, as we return to the “land of our soul” in the ten day journey from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. The Torah portion is Haazinu, “Lend me your ears”  From Craig Taubman’s Haazinu

Listen O Heavens and I will speak; Listen O Earth, to my words; may my message be like rain and my speech be like the dew. To Adonai my God I sing praises to you…. Remember the days, the days gone by. Remember the days, Remember, be wise. How Israel is one, one with Adonai. Sing a new song, sing it to the skies.

Rain, dew, earth, sky:  the inspiration and beauty of the world, and the very foundations of life. They must be witnesses to the covenant, just as we must be.

So Listen we must, to the sound of the shofar, to the music of Rosh Hashanah, and the very skies will listen, and the rain and the dew. One more from Craig Taubman, ties the music we make on Rosh Hashanah to the heavens:

Everybody searches; in light or in darkness, unsure of the way, afraid and alone;   Someone who stood right where you stand, would like to take your hand, help you feel, help you see, help you dream your dreams. 

Open up all your eyes, let the truth make you wise; when we sing with one voice, music will fill the skies. We can fly, we can be more than you, more than me; take my hand, we can fly, it can be.

The quality of mercy is not strained, it falleth as the gentle rain from heaven.

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