As Jews, we hold these truths to be equally and simultaneously self-evident:
- The world was created for me.
- I am but dust and ashes.
Rabbi Simcha Bunim expressed the concurrent exuberance and insignificance of human existence that is meant to put our experiences into perspective, to embolden us when we are beaten, to humble us when we are haughty. To strike a balance which allows us to navigate life.
Most of the time these outlooks coexist however uneasily, and at this time of year they combine. Rosh Hashana marks the inception of these two realities: it is the anniversary of our world’s creation, and the placement of human beings in it. But for me, these concepts do not combine; they collide. I am buffeted by this collision when I look at the heavens; I am thrown off-balance. I feel no pride of place, but the infinitesimal insignificance of my space.
We are spinning on one planet in a solar system among 500 solar systems in our galaxy among two trillion galaxies holding as many as a quadrillion solar systems in a universe which after 14 billion years of expansion thus far would take 90 billion years to cross if we traveled at the speed of light.
That is more time and space than is imaginable, and an awful lot of time and space devoted to yield one planet which God blessed with life and Torah. If I were God’s consultant I would have advised, “It seems to me that the juice is not worth the squeeze on this project. Let’s find something else for You to do that makes better use of Your skills and resources.”
Notwithstanding that Jewish tradition views the timeline of creation as culminating with the formation of people, crowning the magnificence of all that preceded us, I cannot escape the gravity that pulls on me, shrinks me, and makes me question why God used 14 billion years creating trillions of galaxies across infinite space to produce … the Earth.
I happened to be in the vicinity of Kiddushin 26b when I overheard a conversation among three wise people. Rav Shmuel bar Bisna was explaining how a very complicated legal argument could be applied to staking a claim on a piece of land that was so small that it could support nothing larger than the point of a needle. Rav Yosef jumped on him, “Ugh. You are so annoying! Really? Did we need to go through all of that complicated, drawn-out and elaborate process only to justify how to acquire a needle?” Then Rav Ashi spoke up in defense of Rav Shmuel’s reasoning, saying, “Who is to say that hanging from that needle is not a pearl worth 1,000 zuz?!”
Shana Tova from my place on a pearl suspended from a needle in space.