I want to do an experiment with you. Wherever you’re reading this article, if you wish and are able to do so, I’m going to invite you to stand up and remain in your place for a moment. You don’t need to do anything other than stand with your feet firmly planted on the floor. If your standing is unsteady due to an illness or a disability, you might likely feel yourself trembling or experiencing involuntary movement; yet, for the most part, our experience of standing on the ground, on the earth, is static: we feel a sense of stability because we perceive that we are standing still. (OK, please feel free to sit down.)
But that sense of stability is largely an illusion caused by the immensity of our earth upon which our legs are planted. In fact, the earth rotates daily, tilted on its axis, at about 1,000 miles per hour. Daily, it rotates around the sun at about 67,000 miles per hour. The earth is a speeding ball from which we don’t get tossed only because of the supreme force of gravity. If we contemplated what I would call our fragile stability on our planet, we would be amazed and terrified all the time.
Our Jewish sages of Talmudic times were likely ancient “flat-earthers” who read the Bible’s descriptions of the earth in non-spherical terms. But as spiritually insightful people deeply aware of the fragile yet finely-tuned and miraculous nature of life, they taught us to cultivate that deep awareness as well, using their specific metaphors and poetry. In that vein, let me share with you the following Talmudic teaching that I recently learned.
Rabbi Yosei taught:
Woe to us human beings, who can see but don’t know what we see; who stand and don’t know upon what we’re standing.
What does the earth stand upon? Upon pillars, as we learn in scripture:
“God shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble” (Job 9:6).
These pillars stand upon water, as we learn in scripture:
“Give thanks to God Who spread forth the earth over the waters” (Psalms 136:6).
These waters stand upon subterranean mountains, as we learn in scripture:
“The waters stood above the mountains” (Psalms 104:6).
The mountains stand upon the wind, as we learn in scripture:
“For behold God forms the mountains and creates (just below them) the wind” (Amos 4:13).
The wind stands upon a storm, as we learn in scripture:
“The stormy wind fulfills God’s word” (Psalms 148:8).
And the storm? It hangs upon the arm of God, Who wears it like a bracelet,
As we learn in scripture: “And underneath creation are God’s everlasting arms.”(Deuteronomy 33:27),
(From Tractate Chagigah 12b with a variant in JT Chagigah 2:1:3. Sefaria translation with author’s modifications)
The earth positioned, like a stack of pancakes, on pillars, then water, then mountains, then wind, then storms, and ultimately dangling, as it were, from God’s arm? What a seemingly ridiculous set of images, especially for us, knowing perfectly well that none of this is scientifically true. Yet we know that teachings within our tradition like this one can be interpreted quite seriously and should never be taken literally. I suggest that Rabbi Yosei is couching some very radical ideas about life and our appreciation of it in a pious sermon. You might have noticed that to prove each aspect of nature is holding up some other aspect, Rabbi Yosei does the most conventional thing a rabbi can do: he quotes biblical verses, to show that these ideas are not really his, for their genuine source is in the Bible, God’s word. But a closer look, not at those proof verses but at what they’re proving, reveals Rabbi Yosei’s main point, one that can be so uncomfortable and so profoundly reassuring. We think we are standing on unconditionally solid ground, physically and spiritually, and we want to believe we are, but that is an illusion. Yet realizing that we stand on shaky ground could also cause us to believe that nothing and no one is holding us, preventing us from dropping, as it were, off the universe’s edge. That too is an illusion. All of existence – the earth, its pillars, the water, the mountains, the wind, the storms, hangs, as it were, upon the arm of God, Who keeps it and us alive.
This is a very provocative idea: we are dangling off the arm of God like a bracelet, living in simultaneous precarity and security, in tension between skeptical realism and hopeful faith. To truly live is to cultivate a deep awareness of that elegant and fragile balance between risk and safety, between uncertainty and security, between the potential for danger and the assurance that we stand on solid ground, in our bodies, our families, our communities, the wider world with its beauty and its beastliness. Woe to us, our teacher warns, if we can’t stay aware and engaged with both sides of the equation of real life. If we ignore the potential for our instability, we will plan poorly for the life ahead of us; if we see only instability, with no arm of God keeping us from falling, our despair will drive us to shut down and not plan at all.
We and all the universe dangle, as it were, from the arm of God, and God’s arm is rock solid. Yet what if, God forbid, God’s arm were to become injured; that is, what if God were to fail at doing God’s work? Let me share with you yet another ancient tradition of the Talmud which entertains exactly this unthinkable, chilling idea. Again, the rabbis teaching it aren’t asking us to understand it literally. God doesn’t literally have a head or an arm. They’re asking us to take its imagery seriously:
Even when a person suffers because they’ve done wrong, God cries out, “My head is too light for Me, My arm is too light for Me!” (That is, I, God, also suffer even when the wicked have to be punished. They too are My creations.) And if God’s head and arm become so weak out of divine distress over the deaths of people who do wrong, how much more so do they become weak and enfeebled when good people die. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:5, Sefaria translation with author’s modifications)
Note what is striking about this Talmudic teaching. Human behavior and the suffering that ensues from it have such a powerful deleterious effect on existence that they can, as it were, even weaken God’s head and arm, rich symbols for God’s power and guidance in the world. The very same God Who, as it were, has the whole world of nature in God’s hands, or at least dangling securely from God arm, becomes, as it were, weak, disabled, sick when as the result of free human action, all people suffer. Since the creation of the world, when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, we and God have lived in and often suffered from this paradox: the stability and predictability of nature, even at its most violent, alongside the earth-shaking impact of free human choice. As human caused climate change ferociously forces nature’s fine tuning out of balance, that paradox has become a prescription for disaster.
Climate change continues to be what terrifies us all in the abstract and what we assiduously ignore on a daily concrete basis, as we go about our business just trying to make it through the day. Human beings are wired evolutionarily to focus only on the short term. This worked well when we were hunter gatherers millions of years ago. Who needed to worry about long term planning, when you had to struggle with what was right in front of you? Yet with climate change, as we know, the long term is now at our global and local doorsteps as the short term. The future is now.
And the Jewish community has something to say about this, because we the Jewish people and our faith are also “wired” spiritually to act on behalf of our planet and God, before it’s too late. I am quite familiar with what I call fashionable despondency: that “how naïve can you be?” chic cynicism which rejects the idea of individuals and individual communities coming together at the grass roots to make a global difference. I understand this despair masking as apathy that fuels these feelings, but I think that, ultimately, it’s lazy and unhelpful: a self-defeating and self-fulfilling prophecy of doom that gives up on the capacity of human beings to change and to change the world, one solar panel, one electric car, one law, one new tree, one less lump of coal at a time. As we move through these ten days of repentance that celebrate the world’s birth and our capacity for re-birth, let me suggest that we choose one action, one lifestyle change -not necessarily something radical or huge – that will help to slow the ominous forward march of global climate change for our sakes now, for our great grandchildren’s sakes in a century, here and everywhere on this fragile, beautiful planet balanced on the mighty and weakened arm of God.
Yet another rabbinic tradition (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13) teaches us that when God created Adam and Eve, God took them on a tour of the Garden of Eden, the symbol for our planet at its best. “Look around,” God said to them. “All that you see here in all its wonder and richness is yours. See to it that you keep it well tended and in good, healthy order. For if you don’t, no one, including and especially Me, will come to repair it for you.” The time for repair has not passed; the time to repair our fragile and durable planet earth is now, is here, is us, is this precious and awesome opportunity and obligation to bind up the weakened arm of God from which are suspended, so that we may celebrate the anniversaries of the world’s birth for many years to come.