Small enough to know you. Large enough to serve you.

Sensing the Sublime (Noach – 10/13/18)

Rabbi Neil SchumanSensing the Sublime

The book of Genesis speeds quickly from the creation of the universe to the expansion of humankind on the face of the earth. The story is not pretty. Before decent people like you and I appeared, society was corrupt. Extortion, theft and the abuse of power was common. It’s fascinating how history repeats itself and that sexual harassment was the straw that broke the camel’s back (Genesis 6):

1 And it came to pass when people commenced to multiply upon the face of the earth and daughters were born to them.

2 That the sons of the nobles saw the daughters of man when they were beautifying themselves, and they took for themselves wives from whomever they chose.

3 And the Lord said, “Let My spirit not quarrel forever concerning humans, because they are also flesh, and their days shall be a hundred and twenty years.”

5 And the Lord saw that the evil of man was great in the earth, and every imagination of his heart was only evil all the time.

6 And the Lord regretted that God had made humans upon the earth, and God became grieved in God’s heart.

7 And the Lord said, “I will blot out humanity, whom I created, from upon the face of the earth, from humans to cattle to creeping thing, to the fowl of the heavens, for I regret that I made them.”

Humankind was selfish; everyone and everything became some person’s means to self-gratification. God felt that a reset was necessary for the planet, hence God sent the flood.

The renown Sage of Conservative Judaism in the mid-20th Century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote the following about the ways we can relate ourselves to the world:
“We may exploit it, we may enjoy it, or we may accept it in awe.”
He says that nowadays, society has become entirely materialistic. “Our age is one in which usefulness is thought to be the chief merit of nature; in which the attainment of power, the utilization of its resources, is taken to be the chief purpose of man in God’s creation. Man has indeed become primarily a tool-making animal, and the world is now a gigantic tool box for the satisfaction of his needs.”

But it wasn’t always this way. “The Greeks learned in order to comprehend. The Hebrews learned in order to revere. The modern man though learns in order to use … Knowledge means success. We do not know any more how to justify any value except in terms of expediency. We teach our children how to measure, how to weigh. Yet, we fail to teach them how to revere, how to sense wonder and awe. The sense of the sublime, the sign of the inward greatness of the human soul. The sublime may be sensed in things of beauty as well as in acts of goodness and in the search for truth. It may be sensed in every grain of sand, in every drop of water. Every flower in the summer, every snowflake in the winter, may arouse in us the sense of wonder that is our response to the sublime.”[1]

I feel blessed to live in Plainview, right near the Bethpage State Park Walking/Biking Trail. Throughout the year, the trail enables me to be surrounded by the glory of nature, and it restores my tranquility. When I bike with my children, and they on their own point out the beauty of the flowers and the majesty of the trees, I feel that I have taught them something noble. This is Heschel’s Awe. Hopefully, this Awe will inspire us to be selfless and make the proper efforts to save our planet.
What destroys our environment is self-interest. The idea that only I matter. That was the sin of the generation of the flood.

The ideal form of person to person relations is “The Golden Rule”, to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
When I’m stuck with a flat tire on my bike, I’d love for someone to offer me a lift. I hope I’d do that if I see a person in that predicament.
If our wallet gets stolen or lost we then can’t afford the train ticket home, we’d love for someone to act generously. I try to be compassionate when someone asks me for help with their ticket purchase.

Yet there’s even a level higher than the golden rule, and it has to do with Heschel’s Awe: to love a person the way they need to be loved.

Martin Buber said “Love is the responsibility of an I for a Thou.”
When a person respects their spouse, when they’re seen as a gift from God (or the Universe), the need to treat them as special is essential.

Loving them as I love myself may not be enough. They most likely have different desires and needs. (Having them sit next to you with beers and nosh for five hours on a Football Sunday afternoon may not satisfy them.) We must be attentive to their special desires. (There’s an excellent book on this topic that I recommended for all people (married or not) called “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman)

The generation of the flood failed because they treated people as objects, as a means to their selfish ends. God hit a restart on that generation, for that shouldn’t be the way humans treat each other.
Ideally, one should follow the Golden Rule, to love, to treat another as oneself.
But in marriage, one should love the other, as Heschel says, with Awe. To treat the other the way that person needs to be treated.

Let’s teach our children to see the world and other people with awe, to sense the sublime within and outside of us. Let’s love our planet and our neighbors with the love we’d love to receive, and lastly let’s give our spouses (and other family members) the love they specifically need.

Have a great week,
R’ Neil

[1] Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Wisdom of Heschel (Kindle Locations 324-330). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

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