Monday, May 20, 2019

Sinai and the Web of Life

by Rabbi Benjamin Weiner

At this time of year, two things coincide: the counting of the Omer and the planting of my crops.

The Omer is the period of seven weeks that stretch between the second seder of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot. They represent the time that elapsed between the moment when the Israelites were finally free of their Egyptian bondage, and the moment when they stood at the foot of the holy mountain to receive Torah. We count them each year, as if journeying ourselves, once again, out of narrow conceptions and into a deeper understanding of our relationship with what is holy.

According to mystical tradition, we mark these days by reference to seven of the kabbalistic sefirot, understood to be aspects or emanations of the divine, including, among others, abounding love, restricting firmness, splendor, endurance, and majesty. Beyond any single one of them, though, I am struck by how the totality of the system challenges us to relinquish the monomania that often passes for monotheism—inspiring us not to perceive the oneness of the divine as a simple, reductive dictatorship of any one single entity, but rather as the interactive tension of a multitude of forces held in balance.

I am thinking of them this year, in particular, after reading the reporting surrounding the latest UN study on species extinction, which confirmed, in the starkest of terms, what those who are aware already knew. We are at the beginning of a “sixth extinction” in which human activity is driving a staggering number of species of fauna and flora out of existence. This is not simply a moral or aesthetic crisis but also imminently threatens the future of the clever biped that thinks it is running the show. 

In the light of the sefirot, I see this crisis as perhaps the ultimate expression of a monomania subsittued for the sacred complexity of a whole and variegated fabric, and find myself wondering if there is, in fact, any way we can still escape from this Egypt, and toward a holier understanding of our relationship, as humans, to the holiness that is more than just us. 

So, as I plant this season, seeking to draw my family's food, sustainably and regeneratively, from the earth entrusted to my care, I am paying special attention to the insect life and the bees, in their reduced number, as they zip around me, to the milkweed and wild clover, to the hawks overheard and the worms and rodents in the soil, to the cluster of bats that paid a call a few nights ago at sunset. 

And I am thinking: whatever I find at Sinai this year, I hope it helps me, truly, to “choose life.”

Rabbi Benjamin Weiner is the spiritual leader of the Jewish Community of Amherst.  He lives with his wife and son on their three-acre homestead.  

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