09 Oct 2015

Bereshit 5776: Divine Earth

Bereshit 5776: Divine Earth

“Earth, my dearest, oh believe me, you no longer need your springtimes to win me over…Unspeakably, I have belonged to you, from the flush.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke
My father told me that when NASA had planned to land on the moon, his rabbi had declared it an impossibility. “Not even a mustard seed could exist on the moon!” he said. He was of the opinion that the celestial bodies, along with space itself, were ethereal and had no physicality to them. For eons mankind has seen the sky as the realm of divine worlds beyond our own that were portals to the spiritual arena; where the throne of G-d, His ministering angels and all divine entities resided. Now we know that the moon, the stars and the entire universe are part of our own world run by uniform laws of physics; and across its unfathomable expanse it is made of the same particles. It is all physical and constitutes what Torah refers to as Erets; Erets meaning the Olam or what we now know to be the universe as opposed to just planet Earth. Shamayim makes reference to all that is spiritual and not of the physical universe[1].

In the creation narrative, the Torah makes it clear that our focus is to be on Erets rather than Shamayim. After Erets is mentioned we continue speaking only about it and all that it brought forth while Shamayim is mentioned only in passing.

In the beginning G-d created the Heavens and the Earth, and the Earth… (1:1)

We are told that our planet gave birth to all that it inhabits and that all came from its soil.

G-d said:
Let the earth sprout forth…(1:11)

Let the earth bring forth living beings…(1:24)

And G-d formed the human, dust of the soil…(2:7)

G-d caused to spring up from the soil every type of tree…(2:9)

So G-d formed from the soil every living thing…(2:19)

In contrast, we are not told anything of the goings on in Shamayim until Genesis, 28:12 in the dream of Yaakob. And even then it is all of one and a half lines:

And he dreamt:
Here, a ladder was set upon the earth, its top reaching the heavens, and here: messengers of G-d were going up and down it. And here: G-d was standing at its top. (28:12-13)

Our sights are not meant to be set in the ethereal world of Shamayim. We are not meant to aim at living our lives removed or in any way estranged from the earth. We are rather meant to know the earth, to be familiar with it and to care about it. We are meant to recognise ourselves as having come from it and destined to return to it [2] and we are meant to love it and rejoice in belonging to it.

The story of creation does not tell us much about the realm called Shamayim because we do not need to know. We tend to look past the basic everyday tasks and ideas that anchor our lives and build our characters and we replace them with mystic, illusive ones. This is one reason why we do not rule in Jewish law based on the teachings of Kabbala[3]. We can study the higher realms and become aware of creation’s spiritual dynamics but we must never leave the earth behind in our journey of growth and discovery.

Our path to reaching G-d must begin with, and defines its parameters by, the earth. Torah, therefore, is not meant to be seen as a book that is foreign or intrusive to humanity but a book that ‘speaks in the language of humanity’[4]. We are told explicitly by Moshe that Torah, although having come from Heaven, is decidedly no longer there but squarely in our human hands.

It is not in the heavens, for you to say ‘Who will go up for us to the heavens and get it for us…that we may observe it? (Deut., 30:12)

To be certain, we are meant to empower our souls and seek to connect to the spiritual and Divine. Yet, what we understand from the Torah’s focus and approach from its beginning to its end is that we are not meant to achieve it by disregarding the earth, but rather by investing in it. We are not meant to sacrifice our humanity in order to grow spiritually. Torah is aimed at helping us to become the greatest expressions of the earth. Only with firm footing upon it and through its paths do we find a connection with G-d.

Religion often prompts us to set our sights on the Shamayim. It is a noble goal but one that is flawed when it does not find its roots in the Erets. We can become easily distracted by esoteric ideas and flights of fancy that feel ‘holy’ because they speak of things beyond our familiarity. Bereshit teaches us that the greatest praise we give G-d is not that He ‘resides’ in the highest Heaven but that melo kol ha’Arets kebodo – the entire earth is filled with His Glory[5].
[1] Shamayim does not here refer to Rakia – sky, which is later referred to as Shamayim in borrowed terms (1:8). Rakia is called Shamayim because when we see the sky we think of the Shamayim. The primary and ethereal Shamayim is often called Shemei haShamayim (heavens of heaven) for this reason. Cf. Deut., 10:14; I Kings, 8:27; Psalms, 188:4.

[2] ‘For you are dust and to dust shall you return’. 3:19

[3] See Responsa of R. David ben Zimra, IV:80; R. Ovadia Yosef, X p. 128.

[4] Baba Metsia, 31b, 94b; Berakhot, 31b. Cf. Moreh Nebukhim, I:26

[5] Isaiah, 6:3