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The Splendor of Creation, a Biblical Ecology (excerpts) by Ellen Bernstein


Ellen Bernstein founded Shomrei Adamah, Keepers of the Earth, the first national Jewish environmental organization in 1988 and is author of Ecology& the Jewish Spirit, The Splendor of Creation: A Biblical Ecology and Let the Earth Teach You Torah. Used by permission of the author. For more information about Ellen Bernstein’s work, visit www.ellenbernstein.org The Splendor of Creation: A Biblical Ecology can be purchased at Amazon or through Pilgrim Press.


Chapter Two: Planets and Time - the Fourth Day


 

And God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the heaven to divide the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and for years."

And they will be for lights in the expanse of the heaven to shine upon the earth.

And it was so.

And Gmade the two great lights, the greater light to rule the day and the smaller light to rule the night, and the stars.

And God gave them to the expanse of the heaven to light up the earth and to rule over the day and over the night and to divide between the light and the darkness;

and God saw that it was good.

And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.

 

And God gave them to the expanse of the heaven to light up the earth (I.17)

Va-yitain otam Elohim bi-rekiya ha-shamayim lehair al-ha-aretz.

 

The Gift of Time; The Practice of Prayer

The word yitain is a form of the word "to give" in Hebrew. It has the same root as the word, natan, gift. The luminaries, and the dimensions of time they create, are a gift from God.

We rarely approach time as a gift. Unlike many of the gifts of Creation which we can see and touch, time is imperceptible. Because it is vast and invisible, we imagine it stretches on forever ahead of us and behind us, and too often we take it for granted.

The idea of time as a gift is powerful both spiritually and ecologically. If we could fill ourselves with the invisible moments of time, rather than the material artifacts of space, we might discover a new fulfillment as we deepen our care for nature.

Time (zeman) is an invitation (zeman) to encounter all the mysteries a moment brings. We can relish time, awake and aware, choosing life in every moment, or we can let time pass by, reacting unconsciously to our circumstances.

Responding to time doesn’t mean using time to accomplish or accumulate; it doesn’t mean doing more in less time. It means simply being in time. It means experiencing time fully—being aware of whatever feelings and thoughts, good or bad, time offers us, and integrating them all. It means living with the presence of the present.

We are invited to discover, uncover, and explore the gifts of time and all of nature, to turn them over and around, to treasure them. We are invited to wonder at all we have been given.

Time becomes a gift only when it has a receiver. When a gift is offered and it is not received, it becomes an object with no particular meaning. It loses its power as a gift. We cannot receive if our hearts are hard. The gift may be delivered, but the door is closed.

Many of us are not receptive to gifts freely given. We think that the only rewards come from our own willfulness. Every day we gird ourselves for battle to advance and progress; we tense our shoulders, tighten our jaws, furrow our brows, and harden our hearts. We become used to a constant state of defendedness, never availing ourselves to the gifts all around.

Prayer is a practice of opening the door, opening the heart to welcome the gifts. In Hebrew, to pray, hitpalel, is a reflexive verb, something we do to ourselves, like wash or dress. It requires practice, like playing an instrument or learning a language. When our hearts soften, our bodies open and we can receive the gifts.

The rabbis composed blessings—for rain (which as desert dwellers they understood as "good news"), the ocean, mountains, valleys, shooting stars, thunder, and lightning—to train us to open our hearts to the Creator’s gifts. They gave us a simple practice to help us to meet the world afresh with beginner’s eyes. Upon seeing mountains, valleys, oceans, rivers, and wilderness, for example, we say, "Praise to You who makes the works of creation."

While prayer is the practice of receiving, it is also the practice of giving. If the fundamental human flaw is our insistence that the world is ours to take, then the fundamental repair requires our giving back to the world. The rabbis believed that the way to give is to express gratitude—constantly. They suggested making one hundred blessings a day to train us to give back to the world. We’re to do this even when we’re not in the mood for gratitude, even when the world looks bleak.

My favorite Jewish teaching is probably the most obvious one: Yehudim, the Hebrew word for Jews, means to give thanks; yehuda is related to todah, "thankyou." My friend Gershon Winkler says being a Jew means first and foremost being a "thanks-giver." This is our obligation. It’s time for Jews to adopt this as a slogan, the watchword of our faith. An attitude of gratitude provides the foundation for our caring for the world.

Prayer or any form of quiet contemplation can center a stewardship practice. It can help us overcome our narcissism and our indifference to Creation; it can sensitize us to the world. It can help us regard all of life as a gift and teach us to care for it.

Lately I’ve been using the first few words from psalm 23—"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want"—as a mantra to focus my mind and keep my heart open to the Creation’s gifts. I love the imagery of God as a shepherd. Shepherding was considered the lowliest of tasks of ancient Israel, the most earth bound, the closest to the ground. If God is my shepherd, then I am a sheep. As I lay myself down, outstretched on the bosom of the earth, I smell the sweetness of the dew and feel the coolness of the earth. The emerald green meadows, flecked with wild flowers, roll out before me. And I realize, what more could I want? I am hopelessly provided for.

Traditional prayers in all religions include bowing postures and prostrations. As we lower our heads beneath our hearts, we are brought down to our humble roots and reminded that we are not masters of the universe. I never knew that this idea was alive in Judaism until I conducted a survey of the psalms that are chanted for the Friday night service, kabbalat Shabbat, literally the service for "receiving" the Sabbath, the ultimate gift of time. The practice of bowing down, of falling on your face in devotion, in recognition of the Mystery of life, is noted in six of the seven psalms that we chant as we welcome Shabbat. We don’t perform the motions any more, nor do we bang the cymbals or play the trumpet or the shofar to herald the Sabbath Queen, but I imagine if we did we would have a whole new experience of humility and grace.

It’s not just to purify ourselves, not just to see the world anew, that we pray. Nature needs us to give back. The cycle of giving and receiving must be complete. The Talmud said that it is forbidden to enjoy anything without blessing it first. If you eat a fruit and neglect to make a bracha, blessing, to express your gratitude, you are like a robber. The plant needs your energy to bring forth a new generation of fruit, and by not blessing, you rob it of its energy. You have taken from the plant and not given back. The expression of gratitude (or lack of it) has material consequences in the world. So religions provide us with prayers to say every time we eat or partake of the gifts of Creation, to remind us where our food comes from and to teach us to complete the eternal cycle of giving and receiving.

Prayer and blessings are religion’s ways of bounding off palatable slices of time, of ritualizing particular moments, to capture them and lift them up from the ocean of time. When we see the blessedness of certain moments, we become more open to the possibility of blessedness in all moments. Most traditions set particular hours of the day for prayer. The Benedictines observe fixed times for waking, working, praying, eating and resting; every hour has its purpose.

Dawn and dusk are common times for prayer in all traditions. Many people experience a sublime sense of life’s mystery and a deep peace at sunrise or sunset when earth is changing from light to dark or dark to light. We see more clearly when the light is not overhead but when we are losing it or gaining it, when it is balanced with a touch of darkness. These transition times provide a window to holiness and an opportunity for seeing more deeply.

I have always been a morning person; I’m up with the birds to watch the day break. The beauty of these hours finds their way into my heart, and I am moved, basking in gratitude for the life I have been given. In my courting stages with Judaism, I was gratified that my tradition marked these times with prayers that expressed what I could not find words for.

Source of Blessing, Eternal our God, Master of the Universe;

You form light and create darkness, make peace and create everything. How great are Your works, O God,

in wisdom You have made them all;

the earth is full of your possessions.

You give light out of mercy to the earth

and in your goodness you renew Creation every day. . .

I like to use the traditional hours that the rabbis designated as prayer times to tune into my soul and the soul of the world. This way I can connect with the cosmic world and my ancestors at the same time, joining my prayers with theirs and with all of the natural world.

Today people go to great lengths and spend small fortunes pursuing all kinds of therapies and self-help technologies to find a connection to the world and to identify their life purpose. We’re so used to our purchasing power that we think we can go to market to acquire an identity.

But our identities are wrapped up in what we value, our relations, and how we spend our time. The practice of prayer in all traditions has helped to sustain people and taught them to live meaningful lives for thousands of years. When we take time for quiet prayer and reflection every day, we can get in touch with our deepest values, our true identity, and honor our bond with nature.

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