Judaism - Torah

“How can we know this, and still succumb to the illusion of separateness?”

Thoughts for Rosh Hashanah 5780

In the winter of 1968, the spacecraft Apollo 8 spent six days, three hours, and forty-two seconds orbiting the moon. It was the first time in history that humans left low-earth orbit,  the first time we escaped the gravitational influence of our planet, and the highest and farthest humans ever travelled away from home.

Ironic then, that it was during this distant journey that some of the most profound innermost truths about our own humanity were learned.

On December 24 of that year, just after 10:30 am, Apollo 8 and its three-astronaut crew – Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders – are finishing their fourth orbit around the moon. They’re in the midst of a navigational computation, when all of a sudden Anders interrupts the manoeuvre. He says:

Oh my God, look at that picture over there!
There’s the Earth comin’ up. Wow, is that pretty!”

For the first time in human history, the crew witnessed an “Earthrise” –  seeing the entire planet with their own eyes. In the audio recordings of their communications, you can hear the shutter of a camera start clicking furiously.

Borman is startled:

Hey, don’t take that [picture], it’s not scheduled!”

But William Anders rushes Jim Lovell to quickly give him more colour film.

Hurry. Quick!
Just grab me a colour – colour exterior.
Hurry up! You got it?
Anything! Quick!”

Lovell is searching, but he can see out the window, too:

Oh man, that’s great.”

Their picture of the blue earth against the inky blackness of space has been called the most influential photograph ever taken.

Twenty-six years earlier, in 1942, the poet Archibald MacLeish imagined a moment such as this. It was in the days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and haunted by the unimaginable power of the airplane, he dreamed that pilots could do more than just battle. By literally rising above the conflicts on the ground, he prophesied, they might also reshape our very understanding of the planet.

Never in all their history,” he wrote, “have men been able truly to conceive of the world as one: a single sphere… a round earth in which all the directions eventually meet, in which there is no center because every point… is center – an equal earth which all men occupy as equals.”

MacLeish never saw that single sphere – that round Earth in which every point is centre.

But ever since the Apollo astronauts reached the highest vantage point in history, watching our planetary home rise over the surface of the moon, we have known just how right MacLeish was in imaging the power of such a perspective.

Every human who has seen our planet from space has returned to Earth speaking of inheriting a profound new understanding – transcendent, and spiritual in nature.

Every human who has seen the blue marble has understood our humanity in a new way.

Artificial boundaries disintegrate; political borders seem meaningless; all the barriers to human interdependency seem inconsequential.

Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon, said:

From out there… international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’”

It’s such a profound, shared, life-altering experience, that scientists and writers have a name for it: The Overview Effect.

I am envious of these astronauts. Not just because since I was a child, I have dreamed of traveling into space, but because I crave a visceral confirmation of something I believe so deeply: that we are all interdependent, interconnected, and have a tremendous obligation toward each other. An obligation that most of us are shirking on a daily basis.

And I’m not selfish – I want our entire planet to share this desperately needed spiritual recalibration. We’re so much in need of a system shock that would jolt us forward: beyond war, poverty, famine, climate change…

But despite my childhood dreams, most of us will likely never get to see such an image in person. So in the absence of that perspective, a different story…

*       *       *

There’s a scene in season four of Anthony Bourdain’s TV show, No Reservations, from the episode they spent in Egypt.

Bourdain and his crew want to get some footage of people making ful – the everyday Middle Eastern dish of fava beans. But the Egyptian security authorities accompanying the crew don’t want them filming the fava beans.

They say: “You don’t want to shoot, it’s not interesting!”

Bourdain says: “Yeah, it’s very interesting.”

The Egyptians say: “No, it’s not good!”

Bourdain and crew say: “This is exactly what we do, everyday food and the people!”

To which the Egyptians say: “You must not shoot, we’ll pull your permits, we’ll kick you out of the country.”

They filmed it anyway.

Reflecting later, Bourdain says:

[The security forces] understood that the show is seen in Egypt, this is before the Arab Spring, and the bread prices were going up, the flour mills are owned by the army,  and ful is what most of the population live on, which is something they didn’t want to acknowledge, either; this is it, this snack of flatbread and some watery lentils, this is all the Egyptians are getting to eat…”

Anthony Bourdain – may his memory be for a blessing –  understood something deceptively simple: how vulnerable it makes you when the boundaries come crashing down.

It’s easy to say: “let’s all just acknowledge our shared humanity and get along.” It’s another thing entirely to confront the reality of what truly, truly believing that must compel you to do: if we’re all transcendentally equal – then what are you doing right now to alleviate the suffering of your sisters and brothers?

I think Bourdain got this. It’s why his television shows – while ostensibly about food – were really about something much deeper.

Think, even, about the names of his shows: No Reservations, The Layover, Parts Unknown – they don’t sound like cooking shows.

They all imply how we need to move a little closer with curiosity and openness to the unknown; to the different; to the foreign.

And the Egyptian security forces knew this all too well. That’s why they didn’t want him filming the humble fava bean.

The way Anthony Bourdain harnessed this power was astonishingly uncomplicated. He just asked very simple questions:

“What makes you happy? What do you like to eat? Where do you like to go to get a few drinks…? What do you miss about the place when you go away?”

In his own words, Bourdain found “again and again, just by spending the time,
by asking very simple questions, people have said the most astonishing things to me.”

Bourdain got close to people – not to get the perfect shot; not to make money for his advertisers, but to communicate a message of the fundamental intertwined nature of humanity.

There’s an interesting quirk about Bourdain’s show, though: part of it actually depends on borders. That’s what gives it its allure: when we watch it, we are intrigued by the exoticness of it all; by the peering into life beyond our borders.

But while the food is interesting because it’s different; the people are compelling because at the end of the day, we know we’re the same.

In the summer of 2018, in the very last interview Bourdain ever gave, Maria Bustillos asked him about this role of his: – not-quite-host, not-quite-chef, not-quite-diplomat, not-quite-therapist. And he shared the poignant awareness that grew within him as a result of this work getting close to people.

He despaired of “the contempt and the ridicule which has been heaped on places like West Virginia,” a place he pointed to as “the heart, demographically, of enemy territory,
as far as New York liberals like us are concerned.”

He acknowledged his role to play in persuading people to feel empathy for the Other.
To be kind, to be curious. To ask the questions that bring us closer. To find a way to look at things and say, “wow.”

And it is here, on that point, in that last interview Bourdain ever gave on Earth,
that his interviewer, Maria, alights on this idea:

“There’s nearly eight billion of us and we’re all in this mysterious situation,” she says. “It’s a spinning blue pearl in space… and it’s as temporary for the least of us
as for [the greatest of us] … somebody who’s been alive for a day is in the same condition as an 80-year-old gazillionaire. Slice it any way you want, everyone’s in the same condition. Mystery, amazement, beauty. Strangeness.”

That’s what Anthony Bourdain cracked at.

The same idea that overwhelmed the Apollo astronauts when they saw the spinning blue pearl in space for the first time.

*       *       *

Judaism has a word for this awareness: Chesed.

It’s usually translated as lovingkindness.

But it’s a very specific type of kindness.

We need to be careful of this “almost universal translation… which suggests just being nice or courteous.”

That’s not at all what chesed is.

Chesed involves specific acts that sustain the other: providing clothing and food; visiting the sick to provide emotional and spiritual support; standing alongside those in mourning and helping bury the dead.

The word chesed appears a whopping 245 times in the Torah (telling you something right there).

The rabbis taught that the Torah begins with an act of chesed, when God provides Adam and Eve with clothes; and it ends with an act of chesed, when God buries Moses. The greatest form of chesed, “is solidarity, or bearing the burden with the other,” teaches Rav Shlomo Wolbe, a contemporary Orthodox thinker.

“Bearing the burden means getting in there and shouldering what your fellow is dealing with… We are saying, ‘I am with you and I’ll prove it by being here with you and making myself vulnerable along with you.’ This is not only empathy, but solidarity and these types of relationships truly build the world.” (As told by Rabbi David Jaffe, Institute for Jewish Spirituality)

It’s the sort of boundless kindness we act upon toward others for the simple fact that we recognize our ultimate sameness. The kind of deeds that emerge from a sense of transcendent oneness. The kind of actions that aren’t quid pro quo.

A NASA psychiatrist might call the urge behind such acts The Overlook Effect.
Anthony Bourdain might have called it No Reservations.
Judaism calls it chesed.

And guess what: while most of us are not astronauts and aren’t going to become acclaimed TV hosts, we can still act with chesed.

Why? For the rabbis, chesed is not just an exceptional attitude, but is a fundamental obligation. It was, for them, alongside prayer and Torah study, part of the very cosmic stitching of all of existence.

And it all finds its root in the core idea of walking with another; seeing eye-to-eye; transcending the boundaries we needlessly erect between us.

I have an image in my head of God – embodying the frantic energy of the astronaut Edgar Mitchell who wanted to yell at the politicians of his day – instead grabbing all of us collectively by the scruffs of our necks, dragging us a quarter of a million miles out and saying: “Look at that! LOOK AT THAT!”

I want to close with a difficult question:

If you buy into this idea – the one discovered by Edgar Mitchell and Anthony Bourdain, and by countless others…

The imperative that is expressed in the teaching that we are all created in the image of God, or in the reality that we’re all made from the exact same DNA…

If these ideas call out to you, what’s stopping you from making these words actually mean something?

What are you waiting for?

And I want to make clear that I’m asking myself the same question.

What are we waiting for?

Because if we believe in chesed and the idea of infinite connectedness, and we’re not regularly doing acts of chesed – then at best we are liars, or at worst, we are holding back the very redemption of humanity.

What is stopping you today from feeding someone who is hungry? Not just begrudgingly donating a single bill, but actually providing ongoing sustenance?

What is stopping you today from emptying out your closet  and clothing those who are quite literally naked?

What is stopping you today from signing up to comfort those who are sick or lonely
and in need of human connection and spiritual healing?

And while we’re asking these questions, here’s another: What is stopping us today
from moving beyond what is largely a “safety net” approach to these concerns?

For those who aren’t waiting, we’re still mostly doing the same thing that we and lots of other religious organizations always do: food pantries, clothing drives, and so on.

Immediate relief is important. But chesed shouldn’t just be reactionary. The hugely influential medieval Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, said the same thing: the highest form of tzedakah is to help a person become employed, so they won’t have to be dependent.  And “those whom we aim to help often tell us the same thing.”

If you were in need – what would you want more: a sandwich and a sympathetic look from a stranger, or a community that actually stood with you and lifted you up?

Our chesed should build the same self-sustaining, independent lives for others
that we so cherish for ourselves.

What are we waiting for?

I want to admit that for the past week, I have been feeling a little uncertain
about this message of chesed… Interconnectedness? Transcendence? Oneness?

Won’t people think this is just some new-age mumbo-jumbo? And besides, who knows if this stuff is really true, anyways.

And then, five days ago on Wednesday night, I received a message I was totally unprepared for. I went to hear the cellist Yo-Yo Ma speak, and with him on stage were Mandolin-player Chris Thile, and the writer Maria Popova.

And as the two musicians played their genre-transcending music, Maria read the following words from new her collection of essays.

I leave them with you, today, since they blessedly assured me that all of what I have shared with you is true and very real:

All of it — the rings of Saturn and my father’s wedding band, the underbelly of the clouds pinked by the rising sun, Einstein’s brain bathing in a jar of formaldehyde, every grain of sand that made the glass that made the jar and each idea Einstein ever had… every translucent fingernail on my friend Amanda’s newborn son, every stone with which Virginia Woolf filled her coat pockets before wading into the River Ouse to drown, every copper atom composing the disc that carried arias aboard the first human-made object to enter interstellar space and every oak splinter of the floor-boards onto which Beethoven collapsed in the fit of fury that cost him his hearing, the wetness of every tear that has ever been wept over a grave and the yellow of the beak of every raven that has ever watched the weepers, every cell in Galileo’s fleshy finger and every molecule of gas and dust that made the moons of Jupiter to which it pointed… all the facts and figments by which we are perpetually figuring and reconfiguring reality —

it all banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no louder than the opening note of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, no larger than the dot levitating over the small i, the I lowered from the pedestal of ego.”

“This veneer must have been what the confluence of accidents and atoms known as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., saw through when he spoke of our ‘inescapable network of mutuality,’

what Walt Whitman punctured when he wrote that ‘every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.’”

“How can we know this  and still succumb to the illusion of separateness, of otherness?”

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