Filling a page and a half of the Talmud (Bava Batra 73b-74a) are stories told by Rabbah Bar Bar Channa. He reports things he saw with his own eyes while on board a ship at sea or was shown by an Arab accompanying him out in the desert.
Some of these are right out of the Twilight Zone and could possibly have been subjects for Walt Disney’s imagination. If this were the 60s and someone told us these tales, we would think that person might be on LSD, but the Talmud is many centuries older.
No matter the commentaries I read, I remain years after discovering the stories with the question – what to make of them?
Just a few of them mentioned: (1) The place where those who died in the desert (from the Egyptian exodus) are located; (2) the hole where Korach’s band of rebels was swallowed up by the earth, and (3), based on two obscure passages in Psalms (50:11 and 80:13-14), he saw the Ziz bird.
This creature stood ankle-deep in the ocean and its head reached the sky. The Ziz seems to have entered Jewish literature like Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox in America.
By this point, a began to think of myself “This is my kind of rabbi — perhaps perfectly normal in his day-to-day interactions with others and yet a little off-center . My very favorite of the good Rabbi’s reports states that he was shown where heaven and earth touch. That one screamed out to me as a rich educational point of departure for discussion. So I began to ask my students and audiences where they thought heaven and earth touched. They gave many fine, often profound, answers, which I have broken down into different categories:
In the natural world: Gazing at the Grand Canyon or the Canadian Rockies in Jasper Park, focusing on the actual horizon, seeing sunrise, the rainbow, sunset particularly in a place like Hawaii with nothing but hundreds of miles of ocean, beyond the sinking sun, brilliant sunshine breaking through a three-day-old gloomy cloud cover.
Clustered around the world of medicine: The first flutter of eyelids from someone who had been in a coma, and, similarly, toes wiggling for individuals who were paralyzed, a friend they see whose diagnosis read that she only had a 1 in a 1,000 chance of survival – and there she stood, alive and well. In a way, some ophthalmologists or cardiologists who have practiced for 20 years look back at their days as an undecided intern looking uncertainly into the future and recall that one friend or professor or acquaintance who might have off-handedly said, “You might want to try ophthalmology or cardiology.” (No doubt they also whisper to themselves, “…and the rest is history.”
For lack of a better category-word – people: At birth, looking in your loved one’s eyes, on board cruise ships where grandparents celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary survey the children and grandchildren.
Torah: At certain Aha! moments when a sermon’s points goes right to your Neshama (soul), when you yourself discover a piece of Torah that you heard from a friend or teacher, or read on social media that really resonates with you.
Mitzvahs/Tikkun Olam: Not above all else, but way up there, you may sense heaven and earth touching at certain moments of connection to others, to the world, to the Giver of Torah and Mitzvahs, and to your innermost self when giving Tzedakah money or performing an act of caring, loving kindness.
This list does not presume to exhaust the possibilities. I believe it is worthwhile for everyone — as I have done for myself — to make his or her own personal list. I think it clarifies things about our lives and helps give perspective and direction to our actions.
My collection of great excerpts of midrash and halachah, selected from 2,000 years of Jewish heritage and tradition, compiled and translated by myself, in an easy-to-find, easy-to-understand format, Where Heaven and Earth Touch is available for free in pdf on my website