3,000 years ago, an unknown artist, perhaps the world’s first cartographer, created an extraordinary map of the city of Nippur, the cultural center of the Sumerian civilization.
There are several remarkable aspects of this map. For one, it is the first map known to have been drawn to scale - no mean intellectual and mathematical feat if it had never been done before. For another, it includes features such as the Euphrates river (the left-most double-lined “canal”) and the Ur Gate. (Abraham’s hometown was Ur - perhaps this very one, 100 miles southeast of Nippur.) But the most stunning element of this map may just be its perspective - from above. For the fact is, no human at that time could have seen the city from this perspective.
This view, as scientific and precise as it is, is a fabrication, a leap of the artist’s imagination.
Yesterday I was in NY at a wonderful afternoon of learning co-sponsored by COEJL (Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life) and the Finkelstein Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary. The subject was environmental ethics. Along with the engaging and little-known Jewish texts that we studied, we also heard from Dr Robert Pollack, Director of the Center for the Study of Science and Religion at Columbia University. In his power point presentation, Dr. Pollack had a slide which showed the universe, all of it, from what can only be considered a divine perspective. The viewer was outside the universe, which was drawn something like a short-bottomed ice cream cone lying on its side. For a moment, like for the viewer of the city of Nippur, we are taken outside of our limited reality, and asked to look back in at all of it at once.
The view of the universe reminded me of the map of Nippur, and I was struck by the juxtaposition of these two representations 3,000 years apart, so very different and yet so very much alike. For they both emanated from, and celebrated, the same human impulse: our expansive imagination.
This is what makes humanity unique: we can imagine what we have never seen and never known. We can project, plan, hope and dream. That, in part, is what enabled us to climb out of the caves and make the homes, the canals, the cities, the gates, the maps, the blueprints that gave us this blessed world we live in today.
Yet it is, paradoxically, the impoverishment of the human imagination that is stifling our acknowledgement and response to the dark side of all this wonder. We are not properly imagining the harm that the gift of our genius and progress is creating. We are not properly imagining the view of our world in the wake of its degradation by our actions. And we are not properly imagining what a renewed world, built on less instead of more, would look like.
Scientists tell us that if everyone on earth today, about 7 billion of us, were to live the way most Americans live, we would need 5 earths to satisfy the demand. If we fully used our imaginations to understand that, we would change our ways.
Needless to say, we do not have spare earths hanging around. But we do have endless imagination. Let’s put that remarkable attribute to use to help us both heal the world, and enrich our lives. For in truth, these two can only happen together.
There is something different about Passover this year, besides its confluence with Birkat Hahammah, that exciting once-in-28-years celebration. That is the way of holidays, after all. While they stay the same year after year, we don’t. Therefore, we experience them differently each year. If we pay attention to how we see them, and feel about them, and react to them each year, we can learn a lot about ourselves, where we are in our evolution of values, choices and life.
So it is for me this Passover. These past three years of living deeply aware of the impression, the footprint, the impact my life leaves on our physical world has made me judge my lifestyle differently. This is not, and never has been, am “I’m okay, you’re okay” world. We each live in each other’s space whethere we like it and acknowledge it or not. My waste is your legacy.
Which has taught me two things:
1) I must have you in mind as I live my life. That is, I must live intentionally with the awareness of your presence and how what I do affects you.
2) To live so intentionally is to live more meaningfully, more fully, more profoundly.
In a way, I am never alone. The community, the purposeful intertwining of lives that we all crave, is consciously part of my everyday life.
As a committed Jew, this has always been that way for me: “All Jews are related and responsible one for the other,” we say and teach our children. So too, the mezuzah is to me like a dot in the connect-the-dots puzzles we did as kids. Each mezuzah is a stopping point along that invisible line that connects us all, so that all Jews can seek home and refuge in a strange place simply by looking for the place with the mezuzah.
But this new heightened awareness is an extension of that, a filling out of that to include all people, all nature, all creation. So when I get up and turn on the shower, or rip the plastic off my dry-cleaned dress or microwave my breakfast, all of this is laden with an awareness of the ethic I am living. Every act I take, every act we each take, leaves a trail, and therefore is a witness to our values and our care for each other.
In the beginning, as we move into this realm of greater self-in-place/self-and-other awareness, we feel a bit overwhelmed. On the one hand, we don’t want to be so self-conscious about our habits and our deeds. Or what they say or what they mean. We just want to do them.
On the other, we already construct our lives based on the audience and reception of the other. I do what I do in part, and make the choices I make in part, because I worry about what you will say and think about me. That awareness guides us in the clothes we buy, the coffee we drink, the cell phones we carry, the papers we read. What I think you will think of me by what I look like and what I consume affects so much of what I do, even in the privacy of my own home. Which is to say, we already live with the burden of the presence of the other in our lives. Why not just extend that awareness beyond what it does for me to what it also does for you?
Which brings me back to this Passover. Walking down the supermarket aisles, looking at the profusion of hametz look-alike products, seeing all the did-it-for-you prepared foods, never mind the extraordinary expense we are all burdened with in buying all that stuff, I cannot help but believe we have strayed from one of the premier lessons of Passover: simplicity. On Passover, hametz/leaven, is the symbol of too-muchness. It is the symbol of bloatedness, the things of our lives that are more than is necessary. It is a time when we are to simplify, take only what we need, only what we can carry.
On Passover, my kitchen reverts back to the essentials: fresh and frozen raw fruits and vegetables (I will be more aware this year about what is seasonal and what is not); eggs; oil; matzah meal; spices; cheese. I will do more cooking the week of this holiday than I do in over a month during the rest of the year. And despite the amount of eggs and oil I use, this week will probably produce some of the healthiest food to come out of my kitchen.
We make homemade almost everything – from soups to French fries to desserts. Our haggadot too are becoming more homespun. So too our matzah covers, seder pillows, games. My buying appetite, never large, is getting smaller. Not just this week but throughout the year. I can hardly imagine something I need that I do not already have, in some form or fashion. That is where I am this year in life. It is this simple message of our return to Passover each year, that we learn more about what each of us truly needs, what is truly our hametz. Changing over our kitchens and doing more with less - or different things - than we have during the year opens our eyes to who we are and what we really need.
I am learning that for me, this year, I don’t need much. Rather, I cherish the homespun, the stuff that bears the earnest work of others, the stuff that leaves a smaller footprint, the stuff that conveys and inspires an interesting story, the stuff that brings people closer together, and the stuff that makes me worthier of sharing this world with my family, my community and you.
April 8 is almost here. The 206th celebration of Birkat Hahammah will soon be upon us. On the one hand, it is a rare and modest celebration. We mark this moment of welcoming the sun and praising God for its creation once every 28 years in the early morning hours with a one-line blessing: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who continually works the work of creation.” On the other hand, this is a moment of grand celestial reset in an age crying out for radical, cultural Reset. Perhaps that is why it is likely to be celebrated more this year than in any year in history.
The occasion of Birkat Hahammah marks the return of the sun to the exact spot, at the exact time on the same day of the week that it occupied at its creation. The sun was created on the fourth day, and therefore this celebration is always on a Wednesday. But it is more than a birthday. This confluence of time and place (at least in the rabbinic imagination), when the dimensions of space and time mimic the moment of the sun’s creation, makes this event a re-enactment, a rehearsing, a re-creation of the state of the cosmos when time and life began. It is, as it were, the moment of creation.
Birkat Hahammah, then, is not just a celebration of an anniversary. It is part of a return to that sterling, startling moment of newness. Every 28 years the heavens and the world reset. So too, it seems, can we.
We can use this under-stated, under-celebrated moment as a time to re-center our lives. Wherever we might have gone wrong, wherever we may have strayed from the path we once wanted to pursue, wherever we got distracted or lazy or sidetracked, we too can return there and reset our lives.
How grand of Judaism to give us so many chances of renewal: every day, every month, every year and every Birkat Hahammah. Interesting, isn’t it, that all these renewals are pegged to the cycles of our celestial bodies (or, regarding the sun, our earthly cycle in relation to it). Daily, monthly, yearly and 28 year cycles. Birkat Hahammah is, perhaps, the biggest renewal of all. If the heavens reset, why can’t we?
So, wake up early Wednesday, April 8. See the brightening and lightening of the sky, praise God for the majesty of creation, and your place in it, and begin the next cycle of your life anew.