From Then to Now to Then

This is my attempt at a creation story, enjoy:

12th century Hasidei Ashkenaz poem, Shir Hakavod: “They envisioned you in an abundance of metaphors. You are one in all of those images.”

Evolutionary biologist EO Wilson: “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and are a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.”

The Baal Shem Tov was once asked why his Chassids sing and dance so much. He answered, “Imagine a great musician comes to town and starts playing a great composition for all to hear, and people start gathering and dancing. Then a deaf man walks by, and is very confused by all the singing and dancing, because he cannot hear the great musician.”

In the beginning, about 15 billion years ago, it all began with a single note, a secret chord. And in that note was all that was and all that is, the unified canvass of reality, the universe. The note was loud, brash, like a something, an everything, blasting outward into the void. And in the universe, energy turned to matter, and matter turned to energy. Matter joined with other matter, and stars formed that gave off energy. And in the fiery wombs of these stars, smaller pieces of matter baked into each other and formed bigger pieces of matter, the building blocks for planets. And the stars became too dense, and they exploded outward and the heavier matter formed planets. Our planet, Earth, was formed 4.567 billion years ago, and everything that formed Earth, and everything that would form life on Earth, had been star stuff. And this star stuff cooled, and energy flowed, and matter joined with other matter, and energy flowed through matter, and life emerged. And then it almost disappeared, again and again, and then, by four million years ago, we stood up for the first time to see over high grasses. From the beginning, we were propelled forward, shot into the void, shoved onto the cosmic stage without our consent.

By 1.78 million years ago, we developed tools, small stone axes. By 1.5 million years ago, we developed better and different tools, bigger axes, cleavers, and picks. We were no longer primate see, primate do, but we had become primate see primate think and improve. We could learn, improve, and communicate complicated information from generation to generation, and this allowed us to adapt and thrive. “Wisdom gives life to those who possess it.” (Eccl. 7:12). We humans do not survive in different environments because of our inherent physical traits. We survive because of the information we accumulate across many generations. Moses’ survival in the desert did not depend on his own physical fitness, it depended on the extensive knowledge of Yitro, Tzipporah, and their well-adapted desert group.

Over some time, we became a social species prone to altruistic acts within our groups. We lived in small interdependent social groups that roamed large amounts of land. Our groups conflicted often, and our natural selection proceeded on two twin tracks: The relative fitness of the individual compared to others in the group, and the relative fitness of the group compared to other groups. Our survival depended on both our actions within our groups, and our groups’ actions within our environment. In the words of evolutionary biologist EO Wilson, “Thus was born the human condition, selfish at one time, selfless at another, the two impulses often conflict.” The yetzer ha-tov, the instinct for altruism, and the yetzer ha-ra, the instinct for self-preservation, evolved together, destined to cause that wonderful human condition.

By 250 thousand years ago, Homo Sapiens distinguished ourselves from our other Homo cousins. 74 thousand years ago, Mount Toba in Indonesia blew ash and sulfur into the atmosphere and caused dramatic global cooling. Our new species shrunk to just a few thousand and we almost disappeared forever from the world stage. And then, 64 thousand years ago, some of us wandered out of Africa.

By 40,000 years ago, we were harmonizing with the beauty of the world. We crafted ivory flutes, and sounded their sweet sounds. We painted images of the sun and the animals on cave walls. Imagine the great joy of the first artists and their audiences, expressing our gratitude for the beauty of creation, leaving behind praises for our world for all time.

And then, 14 thousand years ago, we made a friend. The friendliest of the wolves came closer to the campfire. And for the first time, we began to consciously evolve another species. Today we have over 200 species of dogs: Some dogs are genetically healthy and adorable, and some dog species have chronic back problems and soft teeth, and are also adorable. The wolf was the first species other than ourselves that we consciously evolved, and it would be followed by everything from wheat to the chicken to our vaccines.

By 11 thousand years ago, our collective information, our shared Torah, allowed us to adventure our way to every continent except for Antarctica, our total population was between 6-8 million human beings, we had truly created a planet of the apes.

In the words of Carl Sagan, “We were hunters and foragers, the frontier was everywhere. We were bounded only by the earth and the ocean and the sky.” We were free to wander about Eden, delighting in the fruits of the land, and moving freely with the food. And then, we ate the apple. But was it an apple? Rabbi Meir says that the apple wasn’t actually an apple, it was a stalk of wheat. Why wheat? Wheat was the first domesticated plant. We ate farmed food for the first time.

And as we move into the agricultural era, let us stop for a moment and remember the words of Carl Sagan, “If you want to bake a loaf of bread, first you must invent the universe.”

After we ate wheat, we tilled the soil, and we had a lot of loving children with the extra matter and energy we harnessed, and every child birth was painful. Was eating the farmed food a joyful inevitability or a curse? Was this transition good or bad? We like to think we know the difference, and the traumatized story tellers did label it as bad, but life is complex by nature.

The first two children of the first two farmers were Cain and Abel. They both brought an offering of gratitude for the great musician’s composition. Abel, the nomadic herder, a relic of the pre-agricultural days, offered some meat, and Cain the settled farmer offered some grain. Cain felt like his offering was inferior, and the farmer was told that he must conquer his yetzer ha’ra, or else the music will be muted and suffering will increase. And it does. A dispute arises, and farmer Cain murdered his nomadic brother Abel. This wasn’t the first murder, we know that we have always murdered. The Rabbis ask, what was the dispute? They theorize that Cain and Abel decided to divide the world between them, Cain, the farmer, gets the land, and Abel the nomad gets everything that moves. This sets up conflict any time the wanderer moves through the settled land and grazes on the planted crops. I like to imagine that Abel convinced himself of the rightness of his diminishing lifestyle with the words of Rosseau, who wrote: “The first person, who having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say, this is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared, had someone pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: Do not listen to this imposter, you are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one.” And I imagine Cain replied from behind his secure city wall with the terse words of Hobbes, ‘Life in the wild is nasty, brutish, and short.’

After the murder, the civilized farmers had more kids, and they thrived.

And Cain went to the east and his firstborn son founded a city and they settled. We no longer wandered, Abel was dead and the fiery angels guarded Eden. We were confined, stationary. We changed our environments and our environments changed us. We worked the land and this allowed us to build towns and cities.  With more food stability, we had many painful childbirths, this was our fate, our joyful inevitability, the blessing and the curse of the apple. This new reality was painful for our ancestors, we did not adjust very smoothly. The farmers grew cities, but they were violent and corrupt, our yetzer ha’ra dominated, and our world was so unjust that it regretted life. But we had a righteous ancestor worthy of life. After the flood, our cities didn’t really get any nicer, and our righteous ancestor, brimming with hesed and yetzer ha’tov, had to flee the cities for a new land. And there, we wandered and wondered with the music while the wicked cities of Sodom and Gemorrah collapsed under the weight of their own sin.

But we had to go down into the cities of Egypt because cities and agriculture are stable. Grain can be stored so the bad years can be survived. And we were suspicious of cities, Abraham just assumed Sarah would be raped and stolen from him. And then we got trapped in the cities. And then we fled the cities, the narrow confined places, and we went into the desert. And it was at that time, that we had a forced evolution, a conscious information adaptation out of necessity, thousands of years overdue. We knew that we had to settle in a land and build cities, walled cities with stored food were more and more essential for survival, manna does not last forever, and we had a taste for farmed cucumbers. But we didn’t want our group to become corrupted and violent like the others. We didn’t want the music to be forgotten in the suffering slavery of the cities. So we accepted the law. God held Mount Sinai over our heads, and we accepted.  We accepted the covenant, we collectively established our relationship to the world and to each other. We accepted upon ourselves the yoke of the yetzer ha’tov, of the group, of the Am. The law was born. Law sets an environment in which we adapt. The better the laws, the better we adapt toward loving our neighbor like ourselves. The core mitzvah that commands the yetzer ha’tov’s cooperation and altruism and affirms the yetzer ha’ra’s self-love.

And then, 3,000 years ago, for a brief time, we figured it out better than we ever had before. A young shepherd from Bethlehem established relative peace and ended the anarchic horror stories at the end of Judges. He was a human who loved the music, and he harmonized with the music, and he strummed the secret chord, and it pleased the lord, hallelujah. The yetzer ha’tov flourished, we had peace amongst ourselves, but all things change, and that peace waned. The yetzer ha’ra asserted itself with greed and insecurity. Amidst the increasing chaos and corruption, our great prophets saw our next necessary adaptation, our next evolution. We will become a nation of priests and prophets, we will no longer learn war, justice will roll like a mighty river and righteousness like a never ending stream, and the glory of God will be revealed in all flesh. One day, we will all hear the music, and together we will dance in the streets.

And our species continued to suffer and fight and create beautiful art and artistic lives, and we continued to adapt to new environments and expand. We farmed the world and pru or’vued. By 1776, we had passed the ants as the heaviest collective animal species on the planet.

Then, in 1859, an English naturalist gifted us a lens to read the change written in reality. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution taught us that the world is a dynamic environment in which species adapt to survive. The world is always changing, and to stay alive, one must also change. Shakespeare knew that each human is a temporary actor on the stage of life. Darwin and others proved that humanity as a whole is temporary, and that all life changes. We were not the first actors, although we are descended from them, and we will not be the last actors, although they will be related to us. The play of life is long, and we change with it.

Right now, we are living through the greatest change for our species since the agricultural evolution. In this modern era we industrialized our ability to harness energy and matter and information. This has changed how we live, where we live, and how long we live. From the Revolutionary War until now, our population grew from about 1 billion humans to about 7.3 billion humans. We soared into space and dove into the seas. We subdued old foes like polio and infant mortality. And we enshrined into law our highest ideal social contract, as human beings created equally. Our change is accelerating, every new human is a new adventurer into the unknown, an unfolding story. Our collective creative capacity is larger than ever before, and we seem to have lost our evolutionary compass. We do not seek to harmonize with the sublime. We thrash about threateningly and we stomp on the trapdoor beneath our feet. In the midst of our evolution, we must perpetually stand again at Sinai and strive to evolve in the direction of the music, of love your neighbor like yourself, to live the knowledge that we are all connected, we are all at home in the universe. Our checkpoints on our derekh, on our journey, are the dreams of the prophets: No more war, justice and righteousness flowing freely, and joyous dancing with the music.

But it will not be we who collectively harmonize with the secret chord of creation. It will not be we who usher in an era of messianic redemption. It will not be we who beat our swords into ploughshares and summon the Shekhina by the merit of our care for the widow and the orphan. It will be a we that is very much like us. A humanity with more of our strengths and fewer of our weaknesses. We will be wiser, more compassionate, courageous, and far seeing. We will be able to reconcile our deepest contradictions, and to know with confidence that we are at home in the universe.

We each have the privilege to compose a verse within the universe. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “There is meaning beyond mystery… and the meaning of life is to live life like it is a work of art.” We get to be mad scientists in the laboratory of life. Wake up, we have life, and such a serious thing should not be taken so seriously.