Earth Etude for Elul 22 – The Wonder of Life
by Maggid David Arfa~
If I had influence with the good fairy… I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life. —Rachel Carson, Women’s Home Companion Magazine 1956
Awareness of a mystery is shared by all…, yet, as we have seen they usually mistake what they sense as being apart from their own existence, as if there was only wonder in what they see, not in the very act of seeing, as if the mystery were merely an act of observation….The mystery is not apart from ourselves, not a far off thing like a rainbow in the sky, the mystery is…not a something apart, but a dimension of all existence. —Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man, 1955
I heard a young activist disparage an activity that helped us get in touch with our sense of wonder. He said the world is burning! We must stop the burning. He implied that ‘sense of wonder’ moments are a luxury; lovely, yet irrelevant. He had no patience to remember and share wonder. Sigh.
I have been so enlivened by so many moments of awe and wonder. Haven’t you? Small, simple moments- a warm summer night canoeing on a calm lake surrounded by stars; sitting pondside among colorful dragonflies and swaying cattails, mesmerized by a Great Blue Heron on the hunt. We all have dozens and hundreds of such moments that linger over the decades, don’t we? But I’ve been plagued by nagging doubt- is it Jewish? I’m so inspired by Rachel Carson and the great American tradition of natural history writers and poets that write their wonder and remind me of the vastness of which I belong. But is it Jewish?
A story from Elie Wiesel: Yaakov Yitzchak, the young Seer of Lublin, used to skip school. It made his teacher mad. He followed him. The teacher saw that the boy was going to the forest to daven mincha– to say his afternoon prayers. The teacher’s heart softened, he showed himself and called out, “Yaakov Yitzchak – don’t you know God is everywhere the same? We daven mincha at school. Why come out here?”. Young Yaakov Yitzchak replies, “Yes teacher, I know God is everywhere the same- but I’m not!”
Elie Wiesel tells this story in Four Hasidic Masters and their Struggle with Melancholy. I love this story also for what comes next: As I remember it, Yaakov Yitzchak became so distressed by the senseless violence and suffering found in our world, that he stopped looking and used his sight only for study. For seven years he stopped looking at the world. I feel the news of the day can still inspire this severe impulse.
Elie Wiesel doesn’t say it, but I can imagine his time in the forest, his experiences of awe and wonder, helped him to open his eyes to the world once again. When feeling overwhelmed by the multitude of senseless rips, tears and suffering; filled with world weary weeping, anger and disgust; our experiences of wonder can remind us that all is not despairing. The world needs help, yes, lots of help- and our reset can happen within awe and wonder. As Wendell Berry reminds us, “When despair for the world grows… we can lie down where the Wood Drake rests… and come into the peace of wild things…”
It’s clear to me this is all deeply human, but is it deeply Jewish too? After all, one story is just a thread and ‘a thread does not make the cloth’. My doubts fell away and I realized, yes, this IS deeply Jewish when I found the immigrant theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel. He was rescued from the clutches of the Shoah, the holocaust, and in response, he wrote books filled with chapter after chapter exploring wonder as theological grounding! I couldn’t take my eyes off the page. Listen to this:
Endless wonder unlocks an innate sense of indebtedness. Within our awe there is no place for our self assertion. Within our awe we only know that all we own, we owe. The world consists not of things, but of tasks. Wonder is the state of our being asked. The ineffable is a question addressed to us.
Amazingly to me, he was writing just a few years after the horrors of the Shoah where many of his family and millions of others were murdered. He wrote boldly of wonder as a fundamental human experience; whose cultivation is so important we risk losing our humanity and civilization itself if we do not activate our ‘will to wonder’ and respond in fullness. Wonder as tikkun, as antidote and remedy to the Shoah itself! It doesn’t get more authentic than this.*
This primal wonder beckons us. In the words of AJ Heschel:
Our sense of wonder, the sublime mystery of living becomes the doorway, the gate of our faith; a foundation stone that allows for our realignment to wholeness, engulfing even our own self assertion. Yes, the world is burning AND the world is a castle of light. When despair for our world grows, and we become overwhelmed with the news of the day, let us remember that awe and wonder are still here- calling us back into relationship, asking us: how will you respond to this new moment, this new day that is here.
* I heard a teaching from Rabbi Sheila P. Weinberg, who heard from Rabbi Art Green that indeed nothing is more Jewish than the question, “Am I Jewish enough”. Even the most ultra, uber traditional Rabbi you can think of has an aunt, wagging a finger, saying, “you can do better!”. Thankfully, the depth of spiritual encounter that came to America from Europe reminds us that doubt is a healthy part of our journey.
Click here to read Rachel Carson’s entire article for Women’s Home Companion. A true beacon in the night. https://training.fws.gov/history/Documents/carsonwonder.pdf
David Arfa, Maggid (Mah-geed/Storyteller) is dedicated to Judaism’s storytelling heritage and ancient environmental wisdom. He identifies as a ‘Sense of Wonder’ Jew and leads Shabbat-inspired contemplative strolls at his local High Ledges Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary. David has also produced two CD’s, ‘the Birth of Love: Tales for the Days of Awe’ and the Parents Choice award winner, ‘The Life and Times of Herschel of Ostropol: The Greatest Prankster Who Ever Lived’. His live performances include the full length storytelling performance, ‘The Jar of Tears: A Memorial for the Warsaw Ghetto Rebbe’. The rest of the time, David is Director of Education at Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, volunteers with Franklin County Hospice and has completed two CPE units totalling 800 hours of clinical pastoral education. CPE is a nondenominational, nationally accredited clinical training program for spiritual care providers. His programs and performances can be found at www.maggiddavid.net.