Home > Sermons > Sharing Our Home: Lessons from a Spider

Sharing Our Home: Lessons from a Spider

(Following is the sermon I delivered on Yom Kippur morning 5779/2018.)

 

I had some help writing this sermon…from a spider. I’ll tell you about that in a few minutes, but first, a story.

The midrash tells of a group of people traveling together over the water. They were traveling in a boat large enough that each person had his or her own room, but sometimes resources were scarce. And so it was that one individual, deciding he needed more food, began to cut a hole in the bottom of the boat in order to catch fish from the water below.

His fellow passengers were horrified, “What are you doing?” they cried out.

And he replied, “This is my space, and I am allowed to do as I please here. I am not cutting a hole in your parts of the boat, only in mine.”

The other passengers knew, of course, that it doesn’t work that way. A hole anywhere in the hull would let water into the entire boat. So they reasoned with the man, all promising to share resources with each other, and thankfully they were able to stop him from cutting the hole that would have sunk them all.[1]

This midrash may well be the origin of the saying “We’re all in the same boat.”

 

Judaism does teach this idea that we are all in the same boat – that we need each other and that we are better off them we share and support each other. In fact, that is one of the central ideas of Jewish thought. Literally.

This afternoon we will read it from the centre of the Torah  – the central section of the central book of our holiest scroll. (It also happens to be my bar mitzvah portion, but that’s not really the point.) The middle of Leviticus is a section called the Holiness Code – because it tells the laws of living a holy life. Laws about worship; laws about giving tzedakah and caring for the poor. Ritual laws, ethical laws. Everything that goes into creating a fair and equitable and holy society. That’s what’s at the centre of the Torah. And that the centre of the centre is Leviticus 19:18:

וְאָֽהַבְתָ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָמ֑וֹךָ     – You shall love your neighbour as yourself.

There aren’t many things that all Jews agree on. (You’ve all heard the saying that when if have two Jews, you have three opinions.) But we pretty much all agree on this – it’s nice to love your neighbour as yourself.

We don’t agree, however, on what constitutes a neighbour. Many of the traditional commentators understand this passage to refer only to fellow Jews. Rabbi Gunther Plaut explains that “strictly speaking, rei-a refers to [a] fellow Israelite, rather than to a[ny] neighbour.”[2]

But in our modern world, we are much more inclined to see this passage as referring to all human beings. After all, we live in an incredibly diverse and multicultural society, and it seems to us to be an important Jewish value to treat all our human neighbours with respect, regardless of their religion or background.

Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if it might even apply a little further than that. Which brings me back to my spider friend.

What you need to know as background is that I have been deathly afraid of spiders ever since I saw the movie Arachnophobia at age 11. I don’t actually remember the plot of that movie very well – all I remember is that a big, scary spider stowed away on a flight to North America, where it and its evil spawn terrorized people for the next hour and a half while I held tight to the armrest and brushed phantom creepy crawlies off of my body. I was definitely too young to see that movie. And I’ve been afraid of spiders for almost 30 years because of it.

So you can imagine my reaction when, about two weeks ago, I opened my back sliding door to find a web, and a big brown spider right in my face. I must have jumped 2 feet off the ground. I slammed the door shut, and went to find a bottle of anything – some kind of chemical to spray on it and kill it. But by the time I got back with the Windex in my hand, the spider was gone.

IMG_2657So what could I do? I double locked the back door (you know, in case the spider could open the first lock). I turned on the TV, and proceeded to spend the rest of the evening once again brushing creepy crawlies off of my body and glancing over at the back door again and again.

Next morning, I broke the web down with a toy light-sabre, and went off to work, where there are no spiders to terrorize me. And that night, I noticed that the spider was back, and that it had rebuilt the web. I started to reach for the Windex again, but for some reason this time my curiosity beat out my fear. I started googling, trying to figure out what kind of spider it was, and I discovered that what I had here was a cross orb weaver. They are often brown; they live in Ontario. They are not poisonous to people. (That made me feel better.) And as I kept reading I discovered that this type of spider tends to pick a single location and build a web there. Then it hides all day long, before coming back out night after night to fix its web and to feed. In other words, this spider had chosen my sliding door frame as its new home. I had a new neighbour.

Over the last couple of weeks, that spider has become something of a fixture at our house. The kids have named it, not surprisingly, Charlotte. And I actually look forward to its appearance in the doorframe every night.

So when I say that the spider helped me write this sermon, what I mean is that this new – uh… – living situation has gotten me thinking about what it is to share a home with a neighbour. And in a larger sense, what it is to share our planet home with many neighbours – with the teeming multitudes of living things around us.

Now the fact is, we human beings aren’t very accustomed to thinking of ourselves sharing our home. At least, not sharing as equals. We tend to think of ourselves as the owners of this planet, probably in part because that’s what the Biblical tradition has taught us for thousands of years.

The Torah teaches that when God created the world, humanity was created last – on the sixth day of creation. We were created after light and dark, after water and land, after plants, birds, insects, and other animals. We were created as the culmination of everything, and we were given dominion over the planet.

וַיִבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְצַלְמ֔וֹ – God created human beings in the Divine Image. And God said to us:

פְר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻ֑הָ – Be fruitful, and multiply. Fill the earth and subdue it. You shall rule over the fish of the sea, and the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on the earth.[3]

That’s serious power put into the hands of human beings. Nachmanides, the medieval Spanish commentator, explains that: “God gave us the strength and the power on earth to do as we wish with animals and insects and other things that creep in the dust. To build, and to uproot what has been planted.“

And so we have. Armed with that knowledge, we have indeed וְכִבְשֻ֑הָ – we have “subdued the earth.“ We have remade this planet in our own image. Think about how we live today. We spend most of our time inside temperature controlled buildings. We drive fuel burning cars from place to place, hardly ever stepping outside except to walk across a parking lot. Our food comes from factory farms in other countries, grown in quantities we can’t even fathom for the billions of people on earth. We rarely see the stars – there’s too much artificial light in the city anyway. We spend far more time looking at screens than we do looking at trees. We have created an artificial world instead of living in the natural world.

We have become, you might say, devastatingly disconnected from the planet that we are living on. And the result for our planet has been devastating as well.

Even as we sit here today, people in the Carolinas, and people in the Philippines and Hong Kong, are beginning to try to rebuild their lives after being battered this weekend by the latest of what we used to call “once in a century storms.” These days, century storms come every year. Things on our planet are changing for the worse.

Ten years ago, in only my second High Holy Days as a rabbi, I gave a Rosh Hashanah sermon about the Jewish connection to the environment. (It’s a topic that has always been important to me – I wrote my rabbinical thesis on it.) So it was interesting in writing this piece to look back at what I wrote then. And what I found is that even in the last ten years, the rhetoric has changed quite a bit. Because the ecological crisis has worsened quite a bit. A decade or two ago, we were talking about what the effects of Global Warming would be if we continued on our path. Today, we know that we are living with those effects on a daily basis.

Last month, Vann Newkirk wrote in the Atlantic that we are living “in [a] new global reality, where each passing year is the hottest on record…” and where we are dealing regularly with “heat waves, droughts, storms, floods, and other extreme events.”[4]

This is our world. Every year, the hurricanes are getting bigger. Every year the summers are getting hotter. Every year’s wildfires seem to be the largest and most destructive on record. Food disparities are growing, especially in poor and vulnerable places. There is an island of plastic in the Pacific Ocean. And up to 150 species of plants and animals are going extinct every single day.[5]

In 2018, we are living on a planet that is changing on a daily basis, and not for the better. It is becoming less hospitable to human life. It is becoming less biologically diverse. We have taken the Torah’s idea of וְכִבְשֻ֑הָ – of subduing the earth – and we have turned it into our reality.

It is difficult to think that our Jewish tradition may be in some way responsible for shaping the attitudes that have led to this crisis. But that is the case. As Reform Jews, it is our responsibility to look back at our people’s texts and to understand what they meant and what they mean. In teaching us that we were the pinnacle of creation, our sacred texts gave us license to behave in ways that have devastated our world. I don’t believe that the writers of the Torah did this on purpose. But I do think that ancient people didn’t have a sense of the power that we humans would ultimately have to shape and reshape our environment.

But we modern people do understand that. And that makes it our responsibility to look back into the texts to find other ways to understand them. And specifically, to find a new way of framing our relationship to the earth and with other living things.

The good news is – if we look, it’s there to be found.

The midrash tells that when God created the first human being, God gave him the job of naming all the animals. One by one, God brought each animal forward and the man said, “This one is an ox (shor), and this one is a donkey (chamor), and this one is camel (gamal). And onward and onward until he had given a thoughtful name to every animal.

This midrash is part of a larger tradition in the second chapter of Genesis that says that other living things were created not as our subjects, but as our companions and partners.

The Torah says:

וַיֹ֙אמֶר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶהּ־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְנֶגְדּֽוֹ – “God looked upon the human being and said “It is not good for him to be alone. I will make a companion for him.”

And so God made wild beasts, and birds of the sky, and things that creep on the earth – to live alongside us and to share our world with us.

And the Rabbis teach that each creature matters. This is from Exodus Rabbah (and it’s one of my very favourite Rabbinic texts). It says:

Even those creatures you think of as being unnecessary in the world, like flies, and fleas and gnats, nevertheless have their allotted task in the scheme of creation.[6]

(In another version, instead of flies and gnats it says snakes and scorpions. You can take your pick!)

Here are the framers of Jewish tradition looking around at the world and seeing it as a beautiful and finely balanced system. And they argue that every creature – every tree, every plant, every animal – even the ones that we think of as pests – are reflections of God‘s wisdom. As it says in the Torah,

וַיַ֤רְא אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כָל־אֲשֶ֣ר עָשָ֔ה וְהִנֵה־ט֖וֹב מְאֹ֑ד – God looked upon everything that had been made, and it was very good.

This is a wholly different view of the world than the one that says our job is to subdue and conquer it. And it teaches us something different about ourselves as well. For that, I need to go back and finish the story.

After the first man had finished naming all of those animals, God went to the man and asked him, “What about you? What is your name?”

He replied, “The name adam – human being – fits me?”

“And why is that?” asked God.”

To which the first man replied, “I shall be called adam, because I was fashioned out of adamah – out of the earth.” [7]

This is the other great lesson of the Torah. We’re not here to rule over and subdue the earth. We are here because we come from the earth. Far from being something separate and above creation, we are connected to all other living beings. They are our neighbours. They are our family.

Science teaches us the same lesson. Most people who have taken high school biology know that human beings share a common ancestor with other apes that lived around 5 or 7 million years ago. If we go back further in time, we find that we also have such common ancestors with every other creature on earth. Our common ancestor with rodents lived 75 million years ago. We diverged from dogs, bears, hippos, and whales about 85 million years ago. From crocodiles and birds around 300 million years ago. It was maybe 590 million years ago that we split off from insects, and in the billions of years ago that we diverged from mushrooms and plants and bacteria. And about 4 billion years ago that the first living cell – the one that would give rise to all life on earth – came into being in the primordial soup of our young planet.[8]

All life on earth is descended from a single cell. I don’t mean a single celled organism (though it was that), I mean a single cell. One cell – that divided, and divided again, and diverged, and evolved until billions of years later it had yielded the incredible diversity we see around us, The diversity that we are a part of.

In the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5), the Rabbis say that God created only one human being at the beginning of time so that no one could say to another person “My ancestors are better than yours.” Maybe that midrash ought to go back a few billion more years, to the single cell that gave rise to all of us.

Yom Kippur is a time of teshuvah – a time to consider our values, and to account honestly for our actions and their consequences. If we are honest, we will know that our sense of ourselves as rulers of this planet has had real consequences – for ourselves, and for every other form of life with whom we share it. We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves. We have not been good stewards of this planet. We have forgotten that we are all in the same boat.

In the Torah it teaches that God took Adam, the newly formed human being, and placed him in the garden ‏לשומרה ולעבודה – to work the land, and preserve it. Accordingly, what we are is not rulers, but gardeners – responsible for the upkeep of our world. In fact, we have a dual responsibility – both to do what we can to preserve the earth, and to live our lives with appreciation for what we have been given.

As you know, it is a common Jewish practice to say blessings. We say blessings over foods that we eat, and over things that we drink. But it is also traditional to say a blessing when we experience some beautiful or wondrous element of creation. There is a blessing for hearing thunder; and one for seeing the ocean. There is a blessing for seeing a rainbow, and one for smelling something sweet. And when we see an animal or plant or thing of natural beauty, it is traditional to say:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁכָּֽכָה לּוֹ בְּעוֹלָמוֹ. – Blessed are you, Eternal God, whose world is like this!

Imagine if, just a few times a day, we were to look around and find something of beauty, something to appreciate, and say such a blessing. Imagine if we spent our days aware of our power and our responsibility to preserve what God has given us

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that by saying blessings we’re going to save the planet. We have very big problems and they will require global solutions. But I do believe that shifts in thinking lead to shifts in behavior. If we can begin see ourselves as part of the earth – if we think of ourselves as adam who is born from adamah, then it can shift the way we relate to the planet and to other creatures. Maybe I’ll think twice about throwing out that plastic that may end up in the ocean. Maybe I’ll put more consideration into the source of my food and whether some other creature’s habitat was destroyed to produce it. Maybe I’ll shop and eat and consume goods differently than I do now. Maybe I’ll even let that spider stay on my back porch.

638831main_globe_east_2048.jpgThe great Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch once surprised his students by insisting that he needed to visit Switzerland. So he and his students together traveled take in the majesty of the Swiss mountains and valleys. And when their travels were over, the rabbi’s students asked him, “Why did you insist on traveling in Switzerland?” Rabbi Hirsch responded, “When I reach the gates of heaven, I will be asked many questions. And I will have good answers for most of them. But what am I going to say when God asks me, “Nu, Samson, did you see my Alps?” [9]

May we – creatures of the earth yet made in God’s image – be the ones to ensure that God’s Alps, and God’s oceans, and God’s rivers and valleys and plants and creatures will still be here for future generations to see.

May we remember that adam comes from adamah. That this is the only planet we have, and we have many neighbours to share it with.

And may we look around us and know that Hineh Tov M’od, that this world is good and beautiful and worth of preservation. And that it is our responsibility to do so. If not us, then who? If not now, when?

I think Charlotte would agree.

 


[1] Misod Chachamim.

[2] Plaut, W. G. The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Revised Edition). Union for Reform Judaism, New York: 2005. p. 799.

[3] Genesis 1:27-28.

[4] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/08/climate-change-global-climate-action-summit/568069/

[5] https://www.cbd.int/doc/speech/2007/sp-2007-05-22-es-en.pdf.

[6] Exodus Rabbah 10:1.

[7] Genesis Rabbah 17:4.

[8] Dawkins, Richard. The Ancestor’s Tale. Phoenix, London: 2004.

[9] Adapted from Martin Gordon, Journal of Jewish Thought, 1985, page 123, as quoted in Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Wisdom, 1994, page 230.

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