May 13, 2009
Oneness at 30,000 Feet
Parshat Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34)
I am blessed with a window seat and a clear day as I fly to New York for my daughter’s college graduation. Above the Grand Canyon’s chalky landscape carved in subtle shifts of pink, tan and purple, the thrill of flight’s-eye view gives me the sense of seeing as God sees. I see the sparkling white of a snow-covered peak and a brilliant blue as the Colorado River feeds Lake Havasu. The Hoover Dam is visible from the air, but from this privileged panorama it seems fragile and insignificant. Perhaps that is my New Orleanian sense of the futility of engineering. With that awareness of impermanence, I feel an overwhelming sense of foreboding as I contemplate the lessons of Behar-Bechukotai regarding the consequences of how we live on the land.
Behar-Bechukotai warns that our rewards and punishments will be determined by how we fulfill our obligation to care for creation, according to God’s laws and decrees. This resonates with the apprehension I feel as we prepare for summer during an unprecedented heat wave and fear for our warming planet.
From this height, I remember a trip in the opposite direction a few years ago to lead a congregation on Maui. I practiced chanting Bereshit as I sat on Kaanapali Beach, looking out at the sea, repeating the words that gave birth to creation. I recited the lines over and over as the waves rolled in and out in consonance with the sounds that pronounced the planet for which Behar-Bechukotai instructs us to care. With the biblical song of creation in my head, I slipped into the warm salty waters to discover that I could open my eyes and swim like a sea creature, making contact with all manner of colorful fish just out from the shore.
When I wasn’t swimming or chanting or editing my sermons, I was reading a book whose memory is also evoked today from the vantage point of flight. The book, “The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman, conveys, with scientific detail, what will happen to our planet if humans are among the one out of four mammals slated for extinction. Oddly, in reading the book, I felt a sense of peace and awe similar to the feeling I have today as I look down at the Rocky Mountains. I knew that even in the absence of humans, the earth would survive, and somehow I felt comforted.
Kabbalists speak of mochin de’katnut and mochin de’gadlut — constricted consciousness (from katan, or small) and expanded consciousness (gadol, or large). It is the former that runs our lives when we experience the world through our own sense of self-importance, when we fail to hear the other as expressed through our sister and fellow humans or the cries for healing from our planet and its creatures. We channel the latter when the words of the “Shema” resound and we recognize ourselves as one component of an interconnected whole that is part of the Oneness we call YHVH.
Mochin de’katnut is characterized by our ego-driven striving that separates us out with the sense that we are entitled to self-serving dominion over the planet and its nonhuman creatures. Mochin de’gadlut allows for the sensual connection that I feel as I look out the window and feel an elemental resonance with what is below — we are one.
Alan Weisman’s thesis is strange comfort at this time in history. “The world as we know it” feels all too tenuous as economic and environmental challenges threaten our basic assumptions. We are also challenged by the danger that fear will elicit the small-minded responses felt when we are threatened and respond with our reptilian selves.
The ride has become bumpy and the seatbelt sign re-ignited as we cross what katnut might call the Kansas-Nebraska border. But gadlut and God’s-eye view see no border, just a patchwork of flat land carved by hardworking farmers whose gaze extends unbroken and unvaried as far as the horizon. The first clouds appear, casting intermittent shadows and then obscuring contact with the land. Their cottony whiteness drapes the sky far below the place where this silver bird seems to hang. My connection with what lies below is impeded. I feel untethered and in exile from the earth. My thoughts go to Weisman’s description of a world without people as I imagine the planet’s consciousness in the absence of the dichotomous understanding that came when the first earthlings ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and were cast out of the Oneness of the Garden of Eden.
The plane descends through a thick fog. It jostles its passengers as we imagine our unseen destination. As we get closer to the earth, I pray to the mystery that is the source of healing. I pray that out of this unknown in which the world is suspended will come healing possibilities. I pray that we will heed Behar-Bechukotai’s warnings and honor our contract with creation and our commitment to the planet and to God.