Thinking about the birth of the world after September 11, 2001

Dear Anne,

Thank you for the description of your "spiritual" searching since the terror attacks of September 11. I understand how you might find Buddhism attractive, especially at a time such as this. You use the word "liberation" whereas I would probably choose "separation" - i. e. from the world. Forgive me if I set up a few "straw men" for a moment. We can, perhaps describe Buddhism as separation or denial, Islam as submission, Christianity as acceptance and Judaism as engagement. Each way has its own approach to living in the world that makes (more or less perfect) sense from within it. Because the language I learned to speak as a child is the Jewish one, and because, as an adult I have continued to learn more words within this language I can best (if not only) explain what I see and what I must do using Jewish metaphors and similes. At the same time, I grew up living in at least one other civilization and learned its language: modern western scientism. So here, in written form (instead of as a "rap" which is how I usually do it) is what I shared with my congregation on Rosh haShannah morning. I'll expand on it to fill in some gaps that my congregants have heard from me at other times.

A number of years ago I had shared with my congregation that we either believe that the world has existed for all time, or we believe in a creation. Those who believe in a creation (or a birth) of the world generally celebrate that creation at some time or other. As you have learned, births happen with contractions, and we Jews celebrate the birth of the world at a time when it begins to contract from the burgeoning growth of spring and harvest of summer. We celebrate at the time of the new (no) moon closest to the autumnal equinox, when the darkness becomes longer than the light. We often say that we celebrate the birth of the world at this time of year (and in the evening) as a way of imposing our vision of potential on what may appear to be a world of chaos.

The evening of Rosh haShannah I spoke about how Jews celebrate births (I'll share this with you some other time). In the morning, I spoke about how we can be aware of this birthing on a daily basis using the literature of our people. You know it is possible to get out of bed on the wrong side. Some sleep next to walls. Others share their bed with a partner and each has a usual side. But when we travel we often find ourselves changing sides to be closer to the bathroom and so, it is possible to literally get out of the bed on the wrong side. Some of the daily morning blessings help us focus on the correct side as we get up. In a sense, as I sleep, my "I" leaves me. It sometimes wanders in dreams or (if I can't remember the dreams) seems to die as I sleep.

As I awaken, I can say:

Modeh ani l'fanecha melech chai v'kayam sh'hechezarta bi nishmati b'chemla rabah emunatecha. I am thankful to you, living and sustaining sovereign (I'll get back to this word and a fuller version of a related phrase some other time), who has returned my breathing spirit (more on this here, below) to me with great compassion and faith. In other words: "whoa, am I glad to be awake to a new day!" Note that this is not a blessing (a standard Jewish mantra - more on this some other time too), but a general statement of thanks. There are lots of mantras "blessings" for the morning that help us focus on the wonders of each new day. I'll share only two here (I'll leave out the transliteration).

Next, I recognize that I am a physical being, not a spirit stuck in a physical body and check myself to make sure all the parts are there and functioning:

Blessed are You ... [more on this "..." word soon] our God sovereign of all space and time, who has formed humans with wisdom and created in them various openings and sphincters. It is revealed (in the simple sense of uncovered) and know before Your awesomeness, that if any one of them would open or close [inappropriately] it would be impossible to be sustained and stand before You. You are blessed ... healer of all the flesh and wondrous doer.

There a many others (often, one liners) with metaphors regarding, for example, opening the eyes of the blind, freeing the captives, etc. (This is where the old siddurim have "who has not made me a woman" - that's for another time.)

But then the next one I want to focus on is:

My God, the breathing spirit you have given me is pure. You formed it, You blew it into me You guard it within me and, in the future, you will recall it from me and return it to me in the way-distant future. All the time that this breathing spirit is within me I stand before you thankful ... My God and God of my ancestors master [as in "Master of Arts"] of all things, ruler of all breathing spirits. You are blessed ... , the one who returns breathing spirits to all living things.

OK, now I have to explain some terminology (are you with me?). A short discursus into science:

First, math.

There is, of course, an infinite number in each of them, even though the second and third can fit inside the first.

Odd, how we "know" that there is infinity, even though we cannot grasp it.

Next, biology/physics.

I'm sitting, writing this in San Diego, siting on a chair on a ceramic tile floor. You'll receive this and (if you decide to print it because it's easier to read that way), you'll read it, holding paper, sitting on the other side of the continent, probably also sitting on a chair or a sofa, on a wooden slat floor (four stories off the ground). You and I are made up of basically the same kinds of molecules. The chairs are also pretty similar to each other and to us, and, also the floors, even all the stuff that's in between us. Think about the chair you're sitting on for a moment. Yes, it's made of molecules, and they're made of atoms and the atoms are made of neutrons, protons and electrons (and I could get smaller, but that's enough for my purpose at the moment). The chair seems pretty stable, yet, you know the stuff inside is moving at fantastic speeds, filled with energy. In fact, what seems solid is actually if you look at it from another point of view, energy. The early 20th century "prophet" Albert Einstein, received this revelation towards the beginning of that century. He expressed it this way (you know the phrase): E=mc2. Energy and matter are all the same thing - and he spent much of the rest of his life trying to prove that it's all one in the "Unified Field Theory". That's all well and good, we've been saying that for thousands of years. You know the line: "Understand this, Israel [the idea just happened to be addressed to, or understood by, that group at that particular time], this thing '...' that you refer/defer to as God, that thing '...' is One/a Unity."

Ah, there's that ellipsis again. What am I trying to do with the ellipsis?

One more digression first.

Back to a bit of math, physics, and astronomy, bordering on metaphor. We say that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That the chair is more than the atoms and molecules that form it, it has the nature of "chairness". Rocks have rockness. Living things seem to have something a bit more. We know that animals (at least our pets) have consciousness. We're not sure about plants. (This distinction between the animate and inanimate world is expressed also by the authors of the first story of creation (before the Adam and Eve one) in the Bible. - but again, that's a story for another time.) So, our pets have consciousness, and some might even argue they have self-consciousness. Now we're going to start looking at the picture in bigger pieces and from farther away. The earth. We could say that it has the aspect of rockness as part of is, yes? And plantness as well? But we are also part of Earth (notice that I've just capitalized that e) so there's an aspect of humanness to Earth as well. Just as our pets have consciousness, and they are a part of Earth, could we not say that Earth has (since the whole is, at least, the sum of its parts) consciousness? (This, by the way, is not new with me, it's part of the Gaia Hypothesis.) And then, since we are also part of this world and we have self-consciousness, that must also be part of the whole of Earth. So, now Earth has self-consciousness, as does, as we abstract further out, the solar system, the Milky Way (it's always been capitalized), the universe, the entire cosmos? But, wait, if not the universe, then, the entire cosmos, at least, is infinite. Do I mean to suggest that the entire cosmos, the infinite that I cannot grasp is self-conscious? Yup. So, I even give it a name, I call that whatever, that's the greater than the sum of all the parts of the cosmos God and I'm willing to suggest that this is also self-conscious.

Now, to the ellipsis. I'll try to make a long story short. The Hebrew word that appears where I write the ellipsis is the "Tetragrammaton" or the "Four Letter Name of God" or the "YHWH", the word Jehovah's Witnesses named themselves after. We don't really know how to pronounce it. When Hebrew readers see those four letters in a text they use a euphemism: "Adonai" that most of us translate as "Lord". But, that doesn't even come near to expressing the potential of the word. A tradition from over two thousand years ago tells us that only one person said that word out loud: the High Priest in Jerusalem. And, he did it only once a year: on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. And he did it in a place no one else would be able to hear: inside the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. So, when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, and with it, much of the priesthood, the tradition of how to pronounce the name was "lost". But, can we get close to the pronunciation? Why do people say Jehovah (another question, good, and related, but for another time)? Let's take a close look at the four letters. Try to pronounce each letter (not its name, the sound of the letter as if it began a word). y..., h..., w..., h.... Not much more than breath sounds. In fact, the medieval mystics of Tzfat/Safed in northern Israel (second, or third generation of those expelled from Spain in 1492) taught the following: The initial y (the letter yod, which looks sort of like an apostrophe) represents our bodies at the moment of exhalation. The next letter h (the letter heh has the shape of a right angle with its corner in the upper right area of its letter-block then, from the lower left corner of the letter-block, imagine a line going up about a half to a third of the way, so there's a little opening on the right and it's wide open on the bottom (got the picture?)), represents an inhalation. The third letter w (the letter vav (or waw "wow") looks like that apostrophe if you had dragged the tail of the apostrophe down from where it hangs to the line where the letters sit) represents our bodies at the moment they are filled with breath. And then, the final h represents an exhalation. The process never ends. All living things breathe. Now we move to another text: Psalm 150:6 - "Every living thing praises God; Hallelujah" (and of course the word Hallelujah means "Praise God [the first two of those letters]!"). A more literal translation of that psalm would go: "Every spirit will praise God; All praise God!" in which the word spirit has the same root as the word for breath. So... with the appropriate awareness, every breathing thing continuously speaks ("meditates on/praises") God's name. Because breath is also a part of me, and all living things, it is part of Earth, etc. And, we can think of the entire cosmos as a living breathing entity. It breathes, pulsates with an awareness that is divine. As you wrote in your lovely note to us how a father is to speak "Om" to his child so the child should hear the sound of the universe as the first sound, so, we might also say that the sound of breathing is the sound of the universe. I use the ellipsis instead of writing "Living-Breathing-Essence-of-the-Cosmos" (which is a bit clumsy to say).

Bare with me. I've suggested that the Infinite has self-consciousness. Now, I - we Jews (and, here we're joined by our Christian and Muslim cousins) - suggest that the Infinite is aware of us, just as we are aware of pleasure or pain that occurs within us, or our fingers, or other aspects of ourselves. Sure, that's an anthropomorphism, but you can understand it metaphorically as well. We go on (with our cousins) to suggest that this Infinite cares about us. That one may be a stretch, but, since caring is an aspect of ourselves.... And, cares about us enough to let us know that we are cared about - that the Infinite is willing and able to communicate with the finite.

I won't go on to describe what the Infinite has communicated with the finite, other than to indicate that there is this desire to communicate and there is Caring or Love. If we just leave it at that, we can walk away with a couple of positive thoughts: We are not alone. We are loved. Now, even if we stop there, at least one corollary follows: We must be engaged with each other, each one of us a unique expression of the divine essence of the cosmos, to show one another the love we know exists.

Now, why don't you know how to pray? Your mother and I didn't learn how to pray as we grew up. Part of this was because the metaphor we had for our world didn't imagine that there was any value in prayer. Have I learned how to pray as I've grown up? That's another story. If you want, I can continue at some other time.

One more thing before I sign off. The real "work" of Rosh haShannah and Yom Kippur is not in the sermons, nor the services. I've prepared work-sheets that help me focus on what I need to do. You can get them from my Web Site (print them out and get a pencil):

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©Mark Hurvitz