Am I the Universe?

This week we enjoy the proximity of Tu B'Shvat, the New Year of the Trees, and Parashat Yitro, which contains within it the awe-inspiring revelation at Mt. Sinai. As we shall see, nature plays a key role within this seminal moment for the Israelites (and of course, ultimately for the world, since this is when the Ten Utterances/aka Ten Commandments are given). 

The description of the moment of encounter with the Divine is vivid and mesmerizing:

This is a terrifying experience of nature- the earth is quaking, the mountain is smoking, the thunder that sounds like the shriek of a shofar, and the Divine descending in fire.

Unless we experience a hurricane or some other natural disaster (and generally this is only episodic), we tend to forget that throughout history, we humans feared nature and saw ourselves as a very small part of a very huge world. Nature ruled us; we did not rule nature.

All that changed with the advent of technology. Now we contain and conquer nature, not the other way around. Now we harness fire and with it, can destroy at will with weapons of mass destruction.

This is why today we have a difficult time internalizing the value of humility. Humility simply means that you know that you don't/can't control everything. You have your place while other people and things have their place. You are not the center of the universe, nor are you its master.

What changed? When we can create light with the flick of a switch, rather than the laborious process of creating fire, we mastered fire. When we can summon any sound with the touch of a button on our phones and block out sound with our hurricane-proof windows and Beatbox headphones, we mastered sound. When we can get into an airplane and ascend to the heavens and back safely, we mastered wind. When we can get into an automobile and transport ourselves wherever we wish, we mastered the earth.

All of this technology gives us both the reality AND the illusion that we are masters of the universe... and therefore some of us feel we can do whatever we wish, just like any master.

OR we can begin to internalize humility simply by looking up on a starry night.

I'll never forget sitting on the balcony of my old apartment near FIU's Biscayne Bay Campus and looking out on the wetlands, the intracoastal, the ocean beyond, and the vast expanse of the sky above. And there, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a plane flying north.

The plane was like a teeny tiny toy in comparison to the cloud it was flying next to, let alone the vastness of the whole sky I was looking at. And the sky that I was able to perceive was, of course, only a miniscule portion of the sky that encompasses the entire planet.

And that's when it hit me-WOW! I am microscopic in comparison to the rest of the world. And yet... I can control and dominate and display power in ways that belie my natural place in the world.

This is why we think of ourselves as separate from as well as above and beyond nature. When in truth, we are just more "sophisticated" expressions within nature. Or are we...?

Trees Need Not Walk the Earth
By David Rosenthal

Trees need not walk the earth
For beauty or for bread;
Beauty will come to them
Where they stand.
Here among the children of the sap
Is no pride of ancestry:
A birch may wear no less the morning
Than an oak.
Here are no heirlooms
Save those of loveliness,
In which each tree
Is kingly in its heritage of grace.
Here is but beauty's wisdom
In which all trees are wise.
Trees need not walk the earth
For beauty or for bread;
Beauty will come to them
In the rainbow-
The sunlight-
And the lilac-haunted rain;
And bread will come to them
As beauty came:
In the rainbow-
In the sunlight-
In the rain.

Shabbat Shalom


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