Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, August 13, 2021


This week’s Torah portion takes a hard line on bowing down to idols, the sun, the moon and any of the “heavenly hosts.” This anti-idolatry stance predates this Deuteronomic mandate, it even predates the 10 Commandments that outright outlaws it. The theme begins in the Book of Genesis when God creates the sun, moon and stars. The message is clear: these are physical entities that are created by and are of God, material objects that cannot possess God within them. They are simply God’s tools.

It’s an important point on the omnipresence of God: if God could be contained in a material object, or even recreated by human hands and imagination, then God’s scope and power is inherently diminished. When the ancient Israelites sought to articulate an invisible God, God as being the space in which the universe exists, rather than God residing within the universe, it was a seismic shift in perspective.

That said, while the sun, moon, stars don’t possess any God-like creative power on their own, they are powerful signs of reality unfolding - day rolls into night - the physical manifestation of the natural processes and mysteries goings-ons of the universe - also known as God.

You see, this is my God-concept. God as the invisible force in which all things exist. The Great Connectedness of reality - the Colossal Oneness of all things.

There are many God-concepts in Jewish thought - all of which are considered to be limited human snapshots, brief illuminations, half-viewed parts of the unknowable. This one, in which God is the backdrop of the ever expanding universe, is the one by which we call God “HaMakom.” HaMakom literally means “the place.”

An early rabbi, Rabban Gamliel, to elucidate this idea asked: "Why did God choose to reveal Godself to Moses in a lowly burning bush?” He answers, “It was to make the point that there is no place on earth which is devoid of God's presence." God is everything and no thing.

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch expands upon this: “Rabban Gamliel's view became concretized in a bold new name for God, perhaps my favorite, Hamakom, which we might render best as "the All-encompassing One." The term expands beyond measure the indeterminate "place," "makom," of Genesis. God is now dauntingly conceived as the space in which the universe exists. God is neither outside the world nor a resident within it; the world constitutes a part of God. Transcending both gender and image, the conception expresses the grandeur and austerity of Jewish monotheism. It has the capacity to do justice to a universe more than 15 billion years old and still expanding.”

This is an important place to pause. 15 billion years old and still expanding? Rabbi Schorsch is referencing the world of physics. Normally one would expect science and religion to diverge at the point where we start to discuss the “nature of the universe” and it’s processes. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

I’m not a physicist, but I listen to them sometimes, particularly Brian Green of Columbia University. He was interviewed recently by Krista Tippet for On Being, her podcast on NPR.

Tippet and Green raised a classic science vs religion paradox: how can one believe that the universe has some unifying force, purpose or order when we know the second law of thermodynamics...that is, the concept of entropy, that “all things fall apart.” How can one believe in a higher order when we know all things decay and dissolve?

According to Greene, that would be too rash of a conclusion. He says, “the science itself makes clear that there can be these intermediate windows of time — in fact, we’re living in that window right now — when the universe can enjoy order. It can enjoy structure. It can be the home of beauty. It doesn’t last long, on cosmological scales, but here we are. We are these living beings whose bodies are so exquisitely ordered that we can have conscious experience. We can think and feel, and we can look out into the world, and we can figure things out, and we can puzzle about things, and we can have grief and joy and elation and pain. And all of that, collectively, is an enormous feat for a mere collection of particles governed by physical law, which is all that we are. And so to my mind, yes, ultimately it all does fall apart, but look how spectacular it is that we’re here, in this window, at this moment that the universe supports the kinds of structures — stars and planets and, on at least one such planet, living systems such as ourselves who can have these transcendent experiences.”

This isn’t about worshipping science or heavenly bodies, or even an anthropological God. This is about the sublime order of all reality and how we can marvel at that with awe. In my book, religion is the vehicle toward awe, not necessarily a submission to a dominant outside force as many often portray it.

And there’s more that unites physics and religion. Believe it or not, but a debate about “freewill” rages in both. Greene shares: “I don’t think that we have freedom of will in the traditional sense. I don’t think that we are the ultimate authors of our actions. I do fully believe that our actions come from the motion of our constituent particles that are fully governed by physical laws. So I think our brains are really good at concocting a narrative whereby our actions fit into a coherent story, but that story itself suggests that we are the author of that story, when it’s actually the laws of physics, if you will, that’s the ghostwriter behind the scenes.”

What he calls the laws of physics, I call God - the ghostwriter behind the scenes. Which helps us theological-types to work out how there can be free will with an omnipotent and omniscient God. Science tells us that reality has predetermined outcomes. Some religion tells us that too. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to act in moral ways and make choices for the better good. Even a physicist would argue that our actions matter here and now, no matter the chaotic, destructive direction nature is heading in.

Perhaps this is why, when someone dies, we say, הַמָּקוֹם יְנַחֵם אֶתְכֶם - HaMakom y’nachem etchem - May the All-encompassing One (may God) comfort you. Sure, this could be imagined as God placing a hand on our shoulder. can convey something more, like “may you be comforted in knowing that life and death are part of the natural processes of existence, processes we cannot control.” And with that said, the life they lived, and the life you live now, matter.

Midrash recounts how Abraham, the first Jew, was able to first conceive of God as the All-Encompassing Space in which all things exist:

"One night, upon seeing the moon and stars, Abraham said, 'The moon must have created heaven and earth and me. The stars must be the moon's princes and courtiers.' So all night long he stood in prayer to the moon. In the morning, the moon sank in the west and the sun rose in the east. Then Abraham said, 'There is no might in either of these. There must be a higher Power over them - so to God will I pray, and before God will I prostrate myself.”

Abraham humbled himself not to a thing, but to the knowledge that something bigger lies beyond the natural world and a human’s ability to conceive of it. That humility is what drives us to act in service of one another and, in doing so, in service laMakom - the great Unity of it all.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Pandemic Nostaligic

In the early days of the pandemic (which we didn’t know were the “early days” of what will be now a 2 year slog), we waxed poetic on what we had learned as a society. A video went viral of Tom Roberts - a guy my age who makes internet videos - reading a child a “bedtime story” called The Great Realisation. He imagined a vaccinated world after the pandemic, and what it would look like. He began:

“It was a world of waste and wonder, of poverty and plenty,
Back before we understood why hindsight’s 2020
You see, the people came up with companies to trade across all lands
But they swelled and got much bigger than we ever could have planned
We always had our wants, but now, it got so quick
You could have anything you dreamed of, in a day and with a click...
And while we drank and smoked and gambled, our leaders taught us why,
It's best to not upset the lobbies, more convenient to die.
'But then in 2020, a new virus came our way.
The government reacted and told us all to hide away.
'But while we were all hidden, amidst the fear and all the while,
The people dusted off their instincts, they remembered how to smile.
'They started clapping to say thank you, and calling up their mums.
'And while the cars’ keys were gathering dust, they would look forward to their runs.
'And with the sky less full of planes, the earth began to breathe.
And the beaches brought new wildlife that scattered off into the seas…
'Some people started dancing, some were singing, some were baking.
We'd grown so used to bad news but some good news was in the making.
'And so when we found the cure and were allowed to go outside,
We all preferred the world we found to the one we'd left behind.
'Old habits became extinct, and they made way for the new.
And every simple act of kindness was now given its due.
'But why did it take a virus to bring the people back together?'
'Well, sometimes, you got to get sick, my boy, before you start feeling better.
'Now lie down, and dream of tomorrow, and all the things that we can do.
And who knows, maybe if you dream strong enough, maybe some of them will come true.
'We now call it the Great Realisation, and yes, since then there have been many.
'But that's the story of how it started, and why hindsight's 2020.'

At the time, it was so uplifting, encouraging, it made it feel like all our actions were worth it.

But 2020 became 2021 and our patience for bedtime stories and compelling poems has waned.

Perhaps it is because at this moment, a new variant has us scared and confused. The conflicting science and lack of clear guidance has us fatigued.

Or, could it be that we haven’t actually learned all the lessons we thought we did? Could it be we need more time?

Back in June, Stephen Collinson of CNN wrote:

“The joy of family reunions, delayed weddings, the urge to travel and traffic returning to clog city freeways speak to a national reawakening that has seen infections and deaths shrink since early in the year. 

But such rituals have coincided with the jarring return of another quintessentially American rite: the mass shooting, 10 each on the last two weekends alone. Cities like San Francisco and New York are recalling their dangerous after dark reputations of the past. And questions are being raised over whether the pent-up frustration of months of social distancing and consequential mental health issues are combining in a fatal mix with a nation awash in firearms.

As states have lifted Covid-19 restrictions and the weather warmed, many US cities were hit by a sudden spike in gun crime, violence and homicides. Mass shootings have proliferated from Oregon to Louisiana and from Utah to Michigan. Last weekend, there were 10 mass shootings across nine states that killed seven people and injured at least 45 others…”

That same month, we got reports of airlines banning alcohol from their flights due to a higher incidences of drunk and unruly passengers. People are acting out. Not because we’re naturally violent, ungrateful beasts, but because we’re traumatized.

We aren’t meant to live as isolated ascetics. Unsurprisingly, humanity has crept back toward each other. Given the amount of psychological trauma and the fact that racist, misogynistic structures still prop up our society, it is perhaps no surprise that we emerged from our isolation more chaotic than ever.

For those with mental health struggles, they were exacerbated. For those without pre-existing conditions, the pressure has taken a toll. We tell ourselves: by doing this….I’ll feel ok. The benchmark comes and we don’t feel better. So then we say, by doing this, or when this happens….I’ll feel ok. And then we’re not.

The needle keeps getting pushed back. When we hit the benchmark and we don’t feel ok, we get angry, we feel guilty, we feel lost.

As the Delta variant moves the needle yet again, I wonder if it is possible to return to those feelings of moral recalibration. How can we tap back into that sublime state of ethical discovery? Or perhaps put differently: is there still time to actualize The Great Realisation?

Enter Torah. Torah understands people as emotional beings - speaking to us in spiritual and moral language. And it also understands us as social beings who don’t always know how to regulate those feelings. Therefore it legislates our actions. Deuteronomy, the book we are currently reading, takes great care to reiterate what these actions should be. Our tradition is so magically practical in its approach.

This week, Deuteronomy reminds us that we are an am kadosh, a holy people, that we are banim Adonai - literally children of God. It operates in the language of relationship and love, precisely what we’ve been reflecting on throughout quarantine. It reminds us that we are of God and therefore capable of demonstrating tremendous love.

This God-like emotional energy alone is pure and creative, but when applied to the human world, easily turns destructive. Hence the need for a religious code and a roadmap for living. Hence all the laws we get in this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh.

Torah itself is “the Great Realisation” - the idealistic projection of what the world and we can be. And like our ancestors this week, specifically Moses, we find ourselves on the cusp of the Promised future but not yet ready, or allowed, to go in. We’re still “in the thick of it,” so to speak.

Which is why I keep coming back to a piece that Sam Anderson wrote for the NYTimes called “The Truth about Cocoons.” Cocoons - the kinds butterflies emerge from.

He asks: “What is it actually like inside a cocoon? Is it cozy and peaceful? Or cramped and dim? Is the bug’s stay voluntary, involuntary or something in between? And what really happens during that seemingly magical change? Is it inspiring and wondrous? Or is it unpleasant and grim? What did I not learn in kindergarten?

It turns out that the inside of a cocoon is — at least by outside-of-a-cocoon standards — pretty bleak. Terrible things happen in there: a campaign of grisly desolation that would put most horror movies to shame. What a caterpillar is doing, in its self--imposed quarantine, is basically digesting itself. It is using enzymes to reduce its body to goo, turning itself into a soup of ex-caterpillar — a nearly formless sludge oozing around a couple of leftover essential organs...

Only after this near-total self-annihilation can the new growth begin. Inside that gruesome mush are special clusters of cells called ‘‘imaginal discs,”...[these discs are] basically the seeds of crucial butterfly structures: eyes, wings, genitalia and so on. These parts gorge themselves on the protein of the deconstructed caterpillar, growing exponentially, taking form, becoming real. That’s how you get a butterfly: out of the horrid meltdown of a modest caterpillar.”

We are still in the grisly desolation of a global pandemic - and not just because the Delta variant has us masked up and staying home again. We’re still mid-#metoo. We’re still asserting that Black Lives Matter. Extreme weather is causing homelessness, famine and poverty. We are still in the deconstructed soup of it.

But this fact, as grim as it feels, does not negate all the blessings we’ve discovered in our hearts during this time. In this primordial goo of our reinvention, those holy feelings of love and connection that we are discovering are exactly what we must gorge ourselves on; feeding on it long enough to translate those feelings to action and finally emerge transformed.