Meditations on Creation and where we find ourselves in it.
Finding Yourself at the Intersection of
We live at the intersection of eternities.
Imagine our sun as a grain of sand. Earth would be a microscopic speck one inch away, and Pluto would be 40 inches away. The nearest star to our solar system—Alpha Centauri—would be 4.3 miles away. And the size of our galaxy would be 100,000 miles across.
Recent calculations put size of the observable universe at 93 billion light years. And that’s just what we can see. The whole universe is at least 250 times larger, if not infinitely huge.
And in the other direction… There are inside the human body about 37.2 trillion cells. Each cell contains 100 trillion atoms. And the atoms are made up of three subatomic particles and around 37 even smaller elementary particles.
Between the enormity of the universe and the minuteness of the atom stands the human being. It is easy to get lost in the unimaginable span that stretches both outward and inward. But the challenge of the Torah’s creation story is to find ourselves within a universe both intricate and vast.
Bereshit opens “in the beginning.” God creates the heavens and the earth, the sun and the moon, the sands and the seas. God causes a supernal light to pervade the universe, establishes a firmament to separate between the waters above the sky and those below, and animates all forms of vegetable and animal life. Finally, on the eve of the Sabbath, God crowns Creation with the ultimate achievement: humankind.
The first man and the first woman—who later become known as Adam and Eve—begin their lives in the Garden of Eden in blissful simplicity. Before long, though, the cunning serpent has persuaded the woman to eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. She gives the fruit to her husband, who was explicitly commanded not to eat of it. But for reasons we can only imagine, he too eats of the fruit. “And the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Gen. 3:7).
For many interpreters, this disobedience is to blame for all human suffering. Indeed, God tells Adam directly, “Because you ate from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat, cursed is the ground because of you” (Gen. 3:17). But with the sound of the shofar still echoing from Yom Kippur, we must believe that Adam and Eve had the option to make teshuvah, to repent for their wrongdoing. Their fall was their failure to take this opportunity to set things right with God.
After their eyes are opened, Adam and Eve hear God walking through the Garden. They are embarrassed by their nakedness, so they hide. God presently calls out with the simple and penetrating question אַיֶּכָּה, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9). This question is much more than a request for information; surely God knows where to find Adam and Eve among the bushes. Rather, God is offering them a chance to confess and apologize.
Instead, they point fingers. Adam blames Eve for the transgression, and Eve blames the serpent. Having missed their opportunity for teshuvah, all three get punished, and Adam and Eve are subsequently banished from the Garden of Eden. What might have happened had they responded differently to God’s question?
We must remember that none of this is to be taken literally. The Torah’s account of creation is not intended as a history book or a science lesson. Rather, it’s a sacred morality tale. The Torah asks not how we were created but why.
That’s how Martin Buber, perhaps the most influential Jewish philosopher of the twentieth century, looks at this story. Buber understands God’s question--אַיֶּכָּה, “Where are you?”—as addressed to us personally each and every day. There are at least three ways we can answer this question in our own lives: We can respond in terms of our place in the world, our moment in time, and our stage of spiritual journey.
First, God’s question of אַיֶּכָּה, “Where are you?” challenges us literally to look around us, to see the holiness in the ground on which we stand, and to commit ourselves to protecting it. God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ, “to work it and to protect it” (Gen. 2:15). A midrash expands on this teaching:
When God created the first human being, God led him around the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.
Judaism has always taught that human action affects the world, and each of us bears responsibility for safeguarding our environment. Whether we situate ourselves in our local community or take a more global view, our tradition urges us to cherish and protect the earth that sustains all of humankind.
In addition to finding our place in the cosmic order, the question אַיֶּכָּה also draws our attention our place in time. Each of us is the heir to a hundred generations of wisdom and experience, of yearning and aspiration. Though Judaism today looks very different from our ancestors’, we nevertheless owe them a debt of gratitude for paving the way to our current spiritual and ethical understanding. In their honor, we search for ways to keep alive the values and dreams they stood for in their own lifetimes.
And just as we look behind us, we also cast our eyes ahead, for what we pass on to our children and students will continue to resonate for yet another hundred generations. Some elements of our society we’ll want to preserve and pass on; others we’ll want to change. If a bible were written about today’s world, what lessons would we want to inscribe in it?
Each of us is an inflection point, the connecting link between the past and the future, and our loyalty extends in both directions. This is what it means to be part of an eternal people, a rare and empowering privilege that comes with considerable responsibility.
God asks אַיֶּכָּה, “Where are you?” Where are you physically, where are you temporally? And perhaps most powerfully, where are you spiritually?
It is easy to live an unexamined life. Indeed, that is our natural instinct. We follow our hungers and our passions, trusting that they will lead us ultimately in the right direction. But the human challenge is to transcend these instincts, to become greater than we were. And just as our bodies require proper nourishment to grow healthily, so does our spirit.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner teaches, “The creation of the world is a metaphor for the emergence of awareness.” Each of us begins as tohu vavohu, the formless chaos that Genesis describes before the creation of the world. As the earth takes shape and begins to bear life, it changes and matures, developing complexities and relationships previously unimaginable.
So it is with us. The world of the spirit, whether psychological or supernatural, is filled with uncharted territory waiting for us to explore. אַיֶּכָּה challenges us to survey where we are in our spiritual worlds and to imagine where we might want to go. This is no easy task, and our tradition urges us to seek out guides for this kind of exploration. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to find a guide within our own spiritual community here at B’nai Jehudah. We encourage every one of our members to connect with Rabbi Beryl Padorr, who can help you design an Individual Jewish Path. As a community of seekers, we support one another in discovering our own responses to the eternal question: “Where are you?”
The creation of the world as described in the Torah is a metaphor, elastically encompassing our view of the physical, generational, and spiritual landscape each of us inhabits. In the story, when God asks אַיֶּכָּה, “Where are you?” Adam and Eve fail to respond. In so doing, our mythical forebears forsake the gift of teshuvah—of traveling down a better path.
In this new year, let us learn from their mistake. Let us take this critical question seriously, surveying our beliefs, words, and deeds and how they impact those around us. In a world where it is so easy to get lost, let us seek out the guides, ancient and contemporary, that can help us—truly and deeply—to find ourselves.
 Scales taken from Brian Ventrudo’s “A Neat Trick to Understand the Size of the Galaxy” (here).
 These figures are from Chris Baraniuk’s “It took centuries, but now we know the size of the Universe” (here).
 According to the authors of the 2013 study “An estimation of the number of cells in the human body” (here). See also here.
 Cf. The Way of Man (1950), “The First Hasidic Tale.” Trans. Bernard Mehlman and Gabriel E. Padawer.
 Kohelet Rabbah on Ecclesiastes 7:3
 Honey from the Rock (1977, reprinted 2000), p. 124.
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