In honor of Rosh HaShanah, a post from Rabbi Nina Cardin (http://blog.bjen.org/) dated September 27th, 2011:
When the rabbis-of-old mused about the nature of the universe, their telescope was the Tanakh (the Bible), their philosophical society the pathways of Yavneh and Babylon.
Without advanced technology, with no peering devices beyond their own eyes, they used the latest – which is to say the earliest – source of knowledge they had, the texts of their tradition.
They asked: "On what does the earth rest? How does it stay up, stay put, stay stable? What supports it?" (Even framing the question was a leap of faith, what with the physics of globes and planets and space and gravity being such a grand mystery. Which it remains today, even with all we know.) For answers they turned to the words in the Bible.
"The world rests on its pillars," they answered, "for it says: 'God shakes the earth from her place till her pillars tremble.'" (Job 9:6)
But if so, the more curious wondered, what do the pillars rest on? "Upon the waters," they replied, "for it says: 'He spread forth the earth upon the waters.'" (Psalm 136:6)
And what do the waters rest on? "The mountains, for it says: 'The waters stood above the mountains.'"(Psalm 104:6)
And the mountains? "On the wind, for it says: 'For, lo, He formed the mountains and created the wind [which supports the mountains] . (Amos 4:13)
The wind in turn, rests upon the storm, for it says: "The storm gives the wind its substance." (Psalm 148:8)
The storm, in turn, rests upon the arm of the Holy One, blessed be He, for it says: "And undergirding [all creation] are God's everlasting arms." (Deuteronomy 33:27)
Finally, Rock Bottom (tzur olamim); a place that requires no other place; a support that requires no other support.
Ever curious, and eager to be more precise, the rabbis circle back to the beginning of this cascade of speculations, and wonder just how many pillars, in reality, held up the world? Some said twelve, one for each tribe. Others said seven, as in Proverbs 9.
But these answers did not satisfy R. Eleazar b. Shammua. He sought not the physical, but the metaphysical truth of existence. Material integrity allows the world to exist, he conceded. But it is spiritual integrity that enables it to thrive.
So, he asks, what is the spiritual foundation of the world? He answers, "The world rests on one pillar, and its name is ‘Righteousness’, for it is said: ‘The righteous form the foundation of the world.'" (Proverbs 10:25)
Rosh Hashanah is when we celebrate the birthday of the world. It is an appropriate time to speculate on what holds it up and what keeps it going.
It is humbling and exalting to imagine that the righteous tasks we do, both large and small, day in and day out, form the foundation that keeps this world going. But be certain that they are, for in truth, nothing else can.
Shana tova. Have a happy, healthy, peaceful and prosperous new year.
And may it be filled to overflowing with righteous tasks.
(Based on the Talmud, Hagigah 12b)