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Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Dvar Torah For Parshat Breishit, 5773.

Balloons are one of the most fun and instructive of educational tools that I like to use. To elucidate one important teaching from the Torah this morning, permit me to blow up this balloon…. Obviously, were I to tie the end of this balloon, you and I could bounce it around and marvel at its lightness and liveliness until it ran out of air. With Helium inside, our lowly balloon could soar into the air effortlessly. Now, watch as I let go of the opening…. Obviously, balloons deflate when their air or Helium is let out, and they return to being mere pieces of cheap synthetic rubber or plastic.

Now, let’s take our balloon analogy one step further. I invite you, if you would like, to close your eyes for just one moment…For the briefest moment, pay attention to your breathing, the simplest, most miraculous thing that healthy human beings do reflexively every few seconds…Inhale and feel your lungs inflating, filling with air….Exhale and feel your lungs deflating, being emptied of air…At their simplest physiological levels, we and our lungs appear to be no different from balloons… But that is where the comparison ends…The air that we breathe is energy that feeds every last atom of our intricate, miraculous bodies and minds…The carbon dioxide that we exhale is the end result of processes too complex and too numerous to even try to describe…Best of all, we don’t deflate into lifeless, cheap balloons…For the duration of our lives, we continue to breathe, to live…Our breath is energy, divine in origin, human in execution…Our breath is the breath of God.

This idea that our breath is a miraculous wonder whose source is God’s breath is found in the second version of the story of the creation of human beings, which we read in our Torah portion. According to the Torah, (Genesis 2:7), “The Lord, God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living thing.” In crass, popular consciousness, this verse may evoke scenes of rabbis creating Golems or scientists creating Frankenstein beings, but in classic religious writings it is a touchstone for talking about the miracle of life and the uniqueness of human consciousness. The Targumim, the two ancient Aramaic translations of the Torah, interpret the words, “living thing” to refer to humankind’s unique ability to speak; Rashi explains this verse to mean that God created human beings with physical characteristics from the earth and with divine characteristics, particularly the ability to think; Nachmanides waxes eloquent and at length about the utter uniqueness of humankind in having been brought to life directly through the efforts of God, who directly breathed divine breath or life force into that first human. Later commentators on specific early morning prayers that emphasize the miracle of the body and the soul, allude to this verse when they write at length about the amazing nature of our bodies that manage to hold our spiritual essence –represented by God’s breath – inside of us through the duration of our lives; several commentators explore the complex, dual nature of humankind in that we share overt characteristics with all other animals here below on earth, while we are also heleq Eloah mi-maal: an enduring part of God above.

It is not clear if the traditional commentators on this verse of the Torah believed that God literally breathed enlivening energy into us at the beginning of time, and that each of our breaths is literally God’s breath flowing in and out of us. What is clear to me is that one need not take this verse’s claim literally at all in order to take it very seriously. This one verse and its interpreters represent the Bible’s and Judaism’s worldview and values at their best. They teach us that to be human is to be a daily miracle: we live and breath, actions that are so reflexive we do not need to think about them at all; yet not to think about them at all also puts us in the dangerous position of forgetting how miraculous being alive really is, and how critical preserving and respecting life truly is. This verse and its commentators also reflect brilliantly upon how complicated it is to be human. We are animals, not angels: we have animal needs, animal impulses, we live and die like all other animals. Yet, we are so much more than animals: we use speech, a trait that according to many anthropologists is the most important thing distinguishing us from all other species, and that has allowed to evolve in the way that we did; we possess consciousness and the capacity for moral choice that present us with challenges and glories no other animal could contemplate; we come as close to being divine as we can without actually being God;. Finally, this verse and its commentators constantly warn us that, no matter how special the human species is, we are not the center of the world, for we are not the Creators of ourselves, God is. In his comment on how God formed the first person from the earth, Rashi quotes an ancient teaching that God took earth from every part of Planet Earth because it is the medium in which we are buried after we die; but earth was also the material used to build the holy altar of the Jerusalem Temple, upon which offerings would be made to ask God’s forgiveness for human sin. Rashi is saying here that we human beings come from and return to the greatest symbol of our mortality and our humility. We will not live forever, and hopefully we learn over time that we are not the center of the universe, only the God of eternal life is.

This mortal life of ours at times looks, feels and maybe even is as fragile as the filling up and deflation of a balloon. That is worth our humble consideration when we lose perspective and allow the all-too-human capacity for arrogance to dominate us. However, this wonderful life of ours is also a precious creation of God whose own spirit resides in us, animates us, and propels us forward to do the incredible things that humans do best. Yes, we share much with all other species, but we are also profoundly different, in the most miraculous ways, from our most complex thoughts and actions, to our simplest breaths. This is why Jewish tradition teaches us to awaken each morning with simcha atzuma, literally “gigantic joy”, and express our deepest gratitude for simply being alive at that very moment. It is why we celebrate the birth and naming of baby or the wedding of two people who love one another: they are opportunities for us to stop rushing through this miraculous life relentlessly, so that we can look at and add to the rich tapestry of experience love that all began with that first breath of God which awakened our ancestors and began this great narrative we call being human.

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