When the rabbis-of-old mused about the nature of the universe, their telescope was the Tanakh (the Bible), their philosophical society the pathways of Yavneh and Babylon.
Without advanced technology, with no peering devices beyond their own eyes, they used the latest - which is to say the earliest - source of knowledge they had, the texts of their tradition.
They asked: “On what does the earth rest? How does it stay up, stay put, stay stable? What supports it?” (Even framing the question was a leap of faith, what with the physics of globes and planets and space and gravity being such a grand mystery. Which it remains today, even with all we know.) For answers they turned to the words in the Bible.
“The world rests on its pillars,” they answered, “for it says: ‘God shakes the earth from her place till her pillars tremble.’” (Job 9:6)
But if so, the more curious wondered, what do the pillars rest on? “Upon the waters,” they replied, “for it says: ‘He spread forth the earth upon the waters.’” (Psalm 136:6)
And what do the waters rest on? “The mountains, for it says: ‘The waters stood above the mountains.’”(Psalm 104:6)
And the mountains? “On the wind, for it says: ‘For, lo, He formed the mountains and created the wind [which supports the mountains] . (Amos 4:13)
The wind in turn, rests upon the storm, for it says: “The storm gives the wind its substance.” (Psalm 148:8)
The storm, in turn, rests upon the arm of the Holy One, blessed be He, for it says: “And undergirding [all creation] are God’s everlasting arms.” (Deuteronomy 33:27)
Finally, Rock Bottom (tzur olamim); a place that requires no other place; a support that requires no other support.
Ever curious, and eager to be more precise, the rabbis circle back to the beginning of this cascade of speculations, and wonder just how many pillars, in reality, held up the world? Some said twelve, one for each tribe. Others said seven, as in Proverbs 9.
But these answers did not satisfy R. Eleazar b. Shammua. He sought not the physical, but the metaphysical truth of existence. Material integrity allows the world to exist, he conceded. But it is spiritual integrity that enables it to thrive.
So, he asks, what is the spiritual foundation of the world? He answers, “The world rests on one pillar, and its name is ‘Righteousness’, for it is said: ‘The righteous form the foundation of the world.’” (Proverbs 10:25)
Rosh Hashanah is when we celebrate the birthday of the world. It is an appropriate time to speculate on what holds it up and what keeps it going.
It is humbling and exalting to imagine that the righteous tasks we do, both large and small, day in and day out, form the foundation that keeps this world going. But be certain that they are, for in truth, nothing else can.
Shana tova. Have a happy, healthy, peaceful and prosperous new year.
And may it be filled to overflowing with righteous tasks.
(Based on the Talmud, Hagigah 12b)
Janine Benyus is widely known for her pioneering work promoting biomimicry, that is, answering our technological needs by mimicking nature’s ways.
Nowadays, industry makes things by “heating, beating and treating.” Which may get the job done but often leaves destructive residues, gobbles up enormous amounts of financial and energy resources and only gets us half-way there.
Nature, on the other hand, has been field-testing the best ways to build things, dissolve things, grow things, arrest growth, and altogether thrive in the most efficient and enduring ways.
If we can conduct our industry in ways that are cheaper, enduring and better, why wouldn’t we?
That is the promise of biomimicry.
As Benyus says, “Learning about the natural world is one thing, learning from the natural world… that’s the switch.”
Brew a cup of tea, sit on a comfy chair and take 20 minutes to watch her TED talk. It will inspire you, and give you hope!
The oldest “to-scale” map in the world is of the city of Nippur on the Euphrates some 3500 years ago. What is so remarkable about the map (to us moderns) is that its most prominent feature is its watercourses. (Ignoring of course the crack that time - not the mapmaker - put there.)
The view (drawn from a vantage point found only through the mapmaker’s imagination) shows the rivers and canals that gave life to the city. The city walls complement and punctuate the prominence of the water.
Which made me think about a peculiar law of the Jewish divorce document (called a get). In the text of a get, one must note the location of the proceedings by city name and the nearest watercourse (and the presence of local wells!).
“On the _ day of the week, the __day of the month of _____in the year ____ from the creation of the world ..., in the city ____, which is located on the river ______, and situated near wells of water, I, _____, the son of ______, who today am present in the city _______, which is located on the river ______, and situated near wells of water, do willingly consent, being under no restraint, to release, to set free and put aside you, my wife _____, daughter of ______, who is today in the city of ______, which is located on the river ______, and situated near wells of water, who has been my wife until now.”
(I will speak of the poetry and power of situating this water symbolism in such a sad and otherwise crisp legal document in a future blog.)
Yet, today, if you were to close your eyes and imagine a map of a city you knew well, chances are the meandering lines that were conjured up in your mind would be the highways and streets with barely a notation about the local streams and rivers.
Sometimes the reason for that is understandable. Those rivers and streams have been paved over, shoved underground to get them out of the way. We no longer get our water directly from rivers or wells. Our water streams into our homes through hidden pipes of all sizes and lengths. Its origin is almost forgotten.
Other times the water is ignored because it is considered unnecessary. Even an obstacle. We use maps today mostly to navigate, to find out where to go rather than where we are. We want to find that “You are Here” note only so that we can discover how to get from here to there.
Since we no longer go to draw our water directly from its source but rather have the water come to us, and since water is no longer the major course of travel, and indeed is largely an impediment to land travel (which bridges handily - hopefully - allow), why bother having water clutter up the important things we need to show on our maps?
But since what falls out of sight falls out of mind, we pay a dear price for leaving streams and rivers off our maps.
I would like to lobby to restore the place of rivers and streams and watercourses on our maps. I want to know the ways the waters flow around my house, in my community, throughout my watershed. I want to know how I am connected to those upstream and downstream from me.
It is not enough to know that this runoff in the gutter “Drains to the Bay”.
Wherever possible, we need to daylight streams, rip off their covers and give them back to the neighborhood. And restore them to health so they can again manage our stormwater, cool our cities and serve as welcome refreshment in our daily lives.
We need to teach our children maps of our neighborhoods and cities that include, like the maps of old, the web of streams and rivers and lakes and bays that water our lives. We need to etch in our minds the watercourses of our homes so they can give anchor to a renewed and cherished sense of place.
An enterprising man in a white pick-up truck came to the house yesterday, lured no doubt by the state of our driveway. He was not the first.
Trolling for work in these difficult times, such eager workmen drive around neighborhoods like mine checking out the state of people’s driveways. They knock on your doors, tuck rolled-up brochures under your handles and otherwise find ways to tell you about their driveway repair services.
No doubt he saw our driveway (yup, that’s ours pictured above) and began licking his chops.
To all the world, our driveway is a mess, as cracked and sun-baked as an iguana in a tanning salon.
But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. To us, the driveway is just beginning its lovely ascent into permeability.
The world is full of hard, rain-resistant, impermeable surfaces. Which means that when we get rain, especially lots of it, instead of staying put and percolating into the soil near where it falls, the water runs off, swelling and flooding local streams and rivers and overwhelming stormwater structures, and carrying all sorts of natural and man-made debris (trash, oil, pollutants, etc) into our already-overstressed water systems.
It rained last night and today the cracks of my driveway are outlined in moisture - which is precisely what we want. For that means that water was able to seep down into our ground, staying right where it landed, refreshing our aquifer (our neighborhood relies on well-water) and not rushing off into our local stream.
Land development standards are increasingly demanding that stormwater management be designed to keep water on site. We now realize that all those concrete culverts and diversionary methods of taking water away from the site are destructive of the eco-systems we are eager to heal. Which is why green roofs, rain barrels, rain gardens, green driveways and permeable surfaces are all becoming standard practices.
We are proud that our driveway is ahead of the curve! It started degrading years ago!
So, back at our front door, my husband thanked our visitor for coming, but declined his offer. Our driveway is just beginning to get to where we want it - functional for our cars, and receiving of rainfall whenever it comes.
The fifth chapter of Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, begins with a celebration of the number ten.
It recounts how the world was created with ten utterances; what ten things were created just after creation; how there were the ten miracles in Egypt and ten at the Red Sea; ten generations for one historic era and ten generations for another.
But my favorite celebration is the ten miracles that occurred at the Temple in Jerusalem - every day and at every pilgrimage holiday, when the city was bustling and bursting with pilgrims.
The mishnah lists them, ticking them off one by one (click here for the whole text):
no woman ever miscarried from the smell of the sacrifices
no flies were seen in the slaughterhouse
the smoke from the altar never got in anyone’s eyes
no one ever got bitten by a scorpion
the rain never extinguished the sacred fire, and, my favorite,
despite the press and crush of crowds when the population of the city swelled beyond its earthly capacity, no one ever said: “There is no room for me to lodge in Jerusalem.”
After the awesome acts of creation, the miracles in Egypt, and the splitting of the Red Sea, these so-called “miracles” look very tame indeed. Why, then, would the rabbis catapult these mundane events to such a lofty heights?
Perhaps to teach us to celebrate the miracles of everyday life, when bad things do not happen, when the dog does not bark, when the power does not go out, when we do not cut ourselves making dinner or trip on the way to bathroom, when life goes merrily on its way. Every moment that life just does what life can do without a mishap or nuisance or pain or tragedy, that too is a miracle on par with Creation.
And perhaps even more, it comes to teach us to open our eyes, and hearts, and see. See broadly. For what is every bit as astonishing as the fact that no fly buzzed around the sacred meat was that someone, anyone, noticed.
How often do we pay attention to the absence of a nuisance, the absence of pain, the absence of discomfort, the absence of tragedy? Not just for ourselves alone but in aggregate, for all those around us?
Imagine, in this light, the immensity of miracles we are witness to when we just walk down the street. That we are able to walk, that so many others are able to walk; that we are not beset by marauders or plague; that we know how to share space and do not bump into one another; that life flows and greetings are exchanged and commerce happens; that no one says there is no room for me on this sidewalk - all these are everyday miracles.
Ten years ago, for a few brief moments, the miracles stopped. And the world, momentarily, seemed to come to an end. There were flies that sought to destroy our Jerusalem. There were rains that sought to extinguish the sacred fires of America. There were those who did try to say there is no room for us in this world.
But out of the ashes, the miracles stirred, came to life once again. People opened their doors to those who were stranded; heroes rushed in where angels dared to tread; strangers embraced strangers; we remembered, as a nation, the best of who we could be, and the gifts and blessings we can bring to this world.
Today is a national day of remembrance. Even as we recall the tragedy and the losses, even as we acknowledge the pain that will never go away, may we notice the everyday miracles that keep us going, the majesty of the human spirit, and that, if we will it, there is room for all.
This miraculous taming of God’s fierce fire; the channeling, damming and undamming of the stuff that drives the pulse of the universe and every creature’s heart.
Our slow, sad alienation from nature all began when we put those ions on the end of a leash.
The power we have harvested removes from us the awareness of the every day life. We forget the precious heaviness of water. We are blind to the ebb and flow of day’s light and darkness. Our spaces are filled with noise that drowns out the rustling, twittering, chattering and stillness of earth.
This is not a lament against progress. We know what our lives would be without electricity and we have chosen well.
But we still must acknowledge the collateral damage that has come with such a victory. And perhaps see what we can do to minimize it.
We can see both sides in disasters like hurricanes. Those with energy have the power to remove fallen trees; fix broken buildings and roads; help people in need; and get the world back into shape.
Yet those without energy for days on end enjoy blessings of our own. We feel again the rhythms of the earth, the circlings of the sun. Light is light and dark is dark. No mistake about it. Evening envelopes us slowly but wholly, and all we can do is pierce it faintly with our fisted candles and flashlights. We are reminded of the inevitable powers of night and day which the might of electricity makes us believe we can vanquish.
Without electricity, we rev up in the morning and slow down at night. We live more in the presence of those here with us than with those far away. We are more planful about the foods we eat and the people we eat with. We talk with neighbors, share our resources, cheer each other on. We are more mindful of the needs of others, send our thoughts to those who are also without power (of all kinds) and live in a more aware, intense, and appreciative way.
So, yes, we are still without power, five days after Irene, and since we are on a well, without water too. I am eager to put my house back in order, rinse the dishes with water gushing from the faucet, brush my teeth with water that flows without being poured, do a laundry at home.
But I will also miss the sweet quiet of the evenings, the increased visits to and from family, and the added intensity that living closer to nature’s rhythms has returned to us.