William Hamilton

Do Look Up

I enjoyed a recent conversation with our son about nature walks. Like many of us, he finds them refreshing. But, I added, even though we share life and a common-parent with the natural world, it doesn’t share our commitments, morals, or aspirations. Those things we need to find elsewhere. “True” he concluded, “but the walks do clear my head and calm me down enough to want to go looking for them.”

This notion that the natural world provides our grounding, but not our ceiling, feels like a worthy observation as we prepare for Sunday night’s arrival of the New Year for trees (Tu B’Shvat). Despite frigid days, the season of budding almond branches is not so far off.

Learning about human nature from nature through fields like evolutionary biology is enormously helpful. It’s vital, however, to recall that our uniqueness is comprised of more than our DNA. Hiding in the folds of the human spirit is a capacity to rise above our biology, to lift ourselves beyond the gravitational-pull of our seemingly almighty genes. It’s what we do with our nature that determines who we become in life.

Reactions to the new movie Don’t Look Up vary widely. The film dramatizes our current inability to respond to the impending-doom generated by a meteor that’s rocketing toward earth. As a mirror held up to our current culture, it is not encouraging. Nor, for that matter, is the life-advice that says Don’t Look Up.

The rabbis of the Talmud teach, do look up. A passage draws upon the concluding battle in this week’s portion of Torah. “And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand, then Israel prevailed” (Ex. 17:11). The rabbis introduce this passage to instill a recognition that “as long as the people turned their eyes upward and set their hearts on their heavenly God, they were less likely to stumble (Mishna, R’H’ 3:8).

The battle described is against Amalek, the biblical personification of the darkest side of human nature. But does the portion end on a decline or on an incline? Does it give the last word to descending into war with wickedness, or to looking up to ascend unto next week’s Mt. Sinai encounter with God?

The answer is never simple. Wicked acts are real. So too are wondrous gestures of goodness.

To help clarify our view, tradition encourages us to look up. Not for danger. Rather for grandeur and perspective.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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