On Shabbat, we seek a cosmic Jewish perspective that is out of this world
The Jews have always been wanderers, engaged in a sacred journey in search of the Promised Land. On Shabbat, we journey across vistas of space and time, back to the beginning. It is not only the journey of the Jewish people, but the journey of humanity and of all life on spaceship Earth that we celebrate.
On Shabbat, we rejoice in the birth of the universe, of Earth and of all living things, as we remember that my journey is linked with your journey, and the journey of the Jews, is linked with the journey of all people, and the journey of humanity is in the words of Martin Luther King “inextricably linked” with the journey of all living things, with whom we share this planet as it travels around the source of all life, the sun, towards which in the words of Carl Sagan we pay “gravitational homage” and owe our very lives. Our sun also schleps us along on her trip around our galaxy approximately once every 250 million years, which in turn travels around our local galaxy cluster, which in turn, travels away from all other galaxy clusters, in a rapidly expanding universe.
The road of life on Earth has often been bumpy and filled with dangerous twists and turns, but our ancestors left us a vision of not only what is, but of what could be if we view people of other nations not as rivals, but as fellow “arrivals” on Earth, or in Hebrew, Ha-Aretz. Those stuck in the tribal perspective of viewing themselves as God’s chosen and the sole repository of all truth, tend to spread conflict and violence. Since their “path” is “illogical”, they become “pathological”. Rational Judaism has evolved from the tribal to the global, from the mythological to the logical, from an awful God to a God of awe, who is not supernatural, but natural and super, described by Albert Einstein not in personal, anthropomorphic terms, but rather as the impersonal, yet magnificent creative power intrinsic in every atom, proton, and particle in the universe, reflected in the symmetry and laws of nature, and the source of a numinous sense of awe and wonder we experience when our minds are reflective, as we contemplate the universe and our place in it. Such a vantage point enables us to experience what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described as “radical amazement” at the grandeur of nature, and a cosmic perspective that is out of this world.
So let us journey together on Shabbat back to the beginning of time and space when Creation was new. Both science and religion tell us that all began as one, science refers to this unity as a singularity, which preceded the big bang, and led to one form of life complexifying into all others. Ancient religion personifies this unity as God or gods, as it personified all other phenomena it did not understand. Judaism eventually came to view one God, as the sole Creator of everything, including us. Although the Torah got the time frame a bit off, confusing a nearly 6000 year old universe with a cosmos that is actually closer to 14 billion years old, and was confused on some of the details of creation, offering two different creation stories, one where man was created first and woman was created as an afterthought when none of the animals seemed a proper “helpmate”, despite these inaccuracies, our ancestors accurately taught that all humans are kin, which is an invaluable lesson sorely needed in today’s fractured world.
On Shabbat, we rejoice over Creation, with an enhanced appreciation provided by the spectacular insights of science, and seek to recapture this original unity in our lives with music, fellowship, sacred symbols and common aspirations, that some call prayer. Once a week we are encouraged to take the greatest journey of all, to go from the person we are today, to the person we could be tomorrow, if we lived up to our highest potential, the dreams of our parents, the vision of our prophets, and the “still small voice” within us that sees us as both unique and part of a shared humanity, united by love, justice and mercy.
While our understanding of Creation has improved over the millennia, especially after the Earth-shattering revelations of Darwin, which allowed us for the first time to understand how we got here, we join our ancestors in celebrating Creation and the unity and harmony of the cosmos, reflected and proclaimed by the Shema, the watchword of the Jewish faith, found on the lips of martyrs with their last dying breath, and at the core of the Shabbat celebration. Why are these 6 words so important? Because the Shema’s focus on unity has guided and inspired our people with the dream that one day all mankind and all life forms will live in peace, at one with our unique core, that some call the soul, and recognize that this sacred spark of life and creative power within us, also resides in all life and reflects the true, but often hidden nature of every creature that ever walked, crawled, flew, scampered, grew, or existed on Earth, including us.
So let us join our fellow travelers of all creeds on Shabbat, and rejoice in our common striving to outgrow ourselves as we discover the sacred in our lives. As we embark on this transcendent pilgrimage beyond the self, and link our lives to the lofty ideals of our people, let us express our profound gratitude for pioneers in religion and science on whose shoulders we stand, that provide us with a cosmic perspective that allows us to see that we are indeed a child of the universe, not only a part of it, but a by-product of it as well. As Carl Sagan observed, “We are all star stuff” whose bodies are made of the remnants of long dead stars, which exploded and released heavy elements that were forged in their bowels during the end stages of their existence, in a spectacular supernova which was not only super, but also “nova” which is Latin for “new”, as they gave rise to new heavenly bodies, including our own, and everything else we see around us.
As Marcel Proust said “The greatest voyage of all is not to see new lands, but to see with new eyes.” On Shabbat we seek new eyes to expand our perspective beyond a myopic tribal perspective that characterized humanity for eons, even beyond a global perspective, to a cosmic perspective, in order to understand our true place in the universe. When Voyager I was passing by Saturn on its way out of the solar system from about 6 billion kilometers away, Carl Sagan thought of taking a “selfie’ of Earth and turned Voyager I around to capture a breath-taking image of Earth, which appeared as a “pale blue dot”, a tiny, barely visible speck in the vastness of space, even from the close proximity of our own solar system. Sagan then wistfully mused how all yearning, love, jealousy, conflict and striving of every living being since the beginning of life on Earth, took place on this pale blue dot, and from this perspective, war and conflict seemed even more perverse and pointless than ever. This broader view of life is also the goal of religion, which in its more enlightened versions, views war, conflict, and harm to our planet as crimes against nature, resulting from a narrow, short-sighted, point of view. These insights may also give rise to a “comic” perspective, in which we don’t take ourselves so seriously, and the sole purpose of creation, but rather view humans as a creative, joyous, gregarious and playful part of the grandeur of nature, brought into being by a rapturous, seemingly unfathomable, yet subtle creative power that some call God, as well as other names.
The purpose of Shabbat and religion, is to open our eyes to the world as it really is. Our minds play a trick on us. The more we see things, even if beautiful and wondrous, the more they become invisible to us. Thus, we often take for granted the beauty of this world like flowers, trees, birds, nature and even those we love.
That great scientist and philosopher, Albert Einstein, said “We can see the universe as if everything is a miracle, or nothing is a miracle.” Science and cosmic religion both provide us new lenses which enhance our vision and reveal the startling fact that everything is a miracle, including us.
As we embark on the journey of Shabbat, let us strive for the day envisioned by our prophets, who provided humanity with corrective lenses to enable us to possess a shared vision of a harmonious, interconnected world, a vision for which martyrs of Judaism and of science gave their lives to preserve. As the heirs of this blessed heritage, let us transcend denominational barriers that often divide us, and religious barriers that create walls of separation between us, and use this perspective to build bridges of understanding with all people. Thus, shall we fulfill our people’s mission to serve as a light to the nations, and a source of hope, love and peace in the world.
And what shall be the motto for this new approach to religion? I propose the following for your consideration, “There is no god but the cosmos, as revealed on earth in the wonders, symmetry and majesty of nature, and Carl Sagan, Albert Einstein and Abraham Joshua Heschel are its modern-day prophets.”