I find there’s no coincidence, but plenty of serendipity, and even Jungian synchronicity, that when I start noticing an event of hubris in the news, I see it in myself, in the Torah portion that week, or in something the Pope says. Currently we’re in this COVID crisis, and there’s lots of news of human attempts to control our endangerment by wearing masks and social distancing. Our safety is limited to controlling our behavior, not the virus’s natural inclination to spread. In time we may have made a vaccine, again creating control between ourselves and the virus, but not ending or controlling coronavirus itself.
How human and necessary it is for us to adapt to dangers in the natural world. The anti-vaxxers decry our attempts to create a barrier between us and the virus, because they believe the former is far more dangerous than being exposed, taking the consequences, and letting herd immunity develop. I’m not here to examine that. What I do think is important to us spiritually is to explore how much control I am allowed to take over natural events, rather than over myself in response to those events. On the one hand, I can’t control a tornado; I can only take cover. On the other, if science finds a way to send a drone into a tornado to blow it up from within itself and stop its power, I suppose that’s a good thing. But I’m no scientist and maybe there would be an unforeseen negative consequence to doing so.
Trouble is, we tend to prefer any short term solution and ignore the potential for sacrifice of the future good. Climate change, for example, is caused by our preference for extreme independence over communal responsibility. The blue skies over China as car traffic ceases and factories close down shows us this. Here in Denver, there’s less smog for the same reason. Less commuting hassle, less stress, nice behavior…more patience…a kumbaya of community feeling due to our discovery that, even with the devastation of the virus, it’s sort of nice, this lengthy Sabbath we’re forced to accept.
Meanwhile, our Torah portion today focuses on a bizarre story. God has given Moses rules for making appropriate ritual sacrifices to bless the people, and Moses teaches these to his brother Aaron and all. But his nephews alter the recipe with their own original incense, and ZAP! they are burned up, by an act of God, leaving only their tunics behind. Our natural reaction to this narrative is, WTH? Why would God be SO ANGRY? What about divine love, forgiveness over a little mistake?
In the discussion in our shul this morning, we all began our reflection in agreed that this is bizarre divine behavior from a God we like to think of as a creative, loving force and source of life. But as usual in contemporary reflection on biblical texts, we know we have to dig deeper and not take the surface as the whole meaning. We know God’s character is not the main focus here; the focus is on our hubris. Even though I like incense and think, how cool of Aaron’s sons to BYO to the party, it’s clear they trespassed against rules that, not surprisingly, have to be followed or there are consequences. Kind of like lots of things in life, some rules seem arbitrary, like God’s rules here. Like waiting at a stop light even when it’s 2AM and no one else is on the street?
This week I’ve been reading a book that’s fairly over my head (why do I do this to myself?) about humans and making things. The Craftsman, by philosopher Robert Sennett, begins by recalling his conversation with his teacher, Hannah Arendt, in which she warns against human beings doing whatever they find they have the power to do without a care for the consequences. She was speaking post-atomic bomb. (Without going into discussion about how it ended a war and saved American solders’ lives and whether that justifies the ending of millions of Japanese civilian lives, lets’ stick with the issue at hand.) Sennett cites how Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos project, had remorse after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, recalling the words of the Hindu god Krishna: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
A human being, appropriating the breadth and depth of mechanized destruction that ought only to belong to a superhuman power: that’s what we become if we do too much making without enough thinking. Without care for what happens to the innocent. In the past few days, having grown too tired to endure social distancing, some folks have protested with public gatherings and no masks, demanding to get back to business as usual. I understand and feel sorrow for all those unemployed, the businesses likely to never re-open, to real human suffering because for a long time forward, the best science tells us a second wave of innocents will die in the virus otherwise. We are not in control of that, only of our response to limit exposure to it.
For me as a psycho-spiritual therapist and spiritual director, I lean into the weird but wise idea that for often unclear reasons, we have to follow the rules. Or at least, we need to understand the rules and how to follow them loyally, before we ever dare, over time and with care and prayerful intent, to break them. We are to co-create our lives with the Sacred and its values, but we cannot fly too close to the sun or, like poor Icarus, our wings will meant and we’ll plunge to earth without a parachute big enough to cushion our landing.
I see I won’t get to what Pope Francis, alone in Vatican Square, is teaching during this crisis of faith and purpose and lack of control of danger. But I’ll close for now with an interpretation of Torah that works for me. In Genesis, God creates us in the Divine image, called “tzelem,” and likeness, called “demut.” Tselem doesn’t mean “we look like God” because, duh: what does God look like, not having a physical body? Instead, we are like God in that we are makers of things, of machines, of bombs, of art, of love. Unlike God, though, we can not make things out of nothing. We need raw materials. Demut means, like God, we consider what and why we make what we make. And unlike God, we cannot see ahead into all the future consequences of our making. There are limits. We are not given that power. We have to try to imagine, and to submit to our lack of seeing clearly and far into the future.
There are rules we just shouldn’t try to break.
Within that structure of our finitude, we are pretty much free to enjoy making.