Good Life

Clergy column: God’s message is true, whether people pay attention or not

The conclusion of Deuteronomy has Moses searching for words to summarize his message — words that the people will remember forever, and he chooses an interesting kind of literary image. The Israelites, he suggests, are not the only ones hearing God’s words. In Deuteronomy 32, he says, “Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; let the earth hear the words I utter!” And in Deuteronomy 30, he declares, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day ... ” This message is so important that even the natural universe is listening; you should listen, too.

It’s an interesting approach to the old conundrum, “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it still make a sound?” According to this biblical sensibility, hearing by humans — or, actually, humans paying attention — does not affect the truth or the applicability of God’s message. It’s true, it applies. We need to pay attention.

There are many other examples of this kind of rhetoric in the Scriptures. In Exodus 19, we read about how even the mountain was overwhelmed by God’s presence: “Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently.” In Psalms 96 and 114, we read about the earth “trembling at the Presence of the Lord.” In fact, Psalm 114 tells us that the topography in general was awestruck at God’s deeds: “When Israel came forth out of Egypt, the House of Jacob from a foreign people, Judah became the place of God’s holiness, Israel the place of God’s power. The sea saw it and fled; the Jordan turned backwards. The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs.”

Psalm 96.11 speaks of a kind of cosmic chorus — all of which is participating in worshipful praise: “Let the heavens rejoice and the earth exult; let the sea and all within it thunder, the fields and everything in them exult; then shall all the trees of the forest shout for joy ... ” Similar is Psalm 19’s description: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky proclaims God’s handiwork. The days themselves repeat the praise; the nights as well tell this truth.” If everything else is paying attention to God, and everything else is singing praise to God, should we not join our voices to this universal song?

If God is the totality of existence, and if all existence trembles with the spiritual energy of God, are we not bidden to give up the misperception that we are separate from God and can live life away from or outside of God? This is the invitation I see in Leviticus 19’s “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The Torah is telling us that holiness — the way of Torah — is the essence of God and that it is embedded in creation. It is therefore the intrinsically natural way for us to live.

The mystical union of humans with God has been compared to a drop being joined to the ocean. There is a separateness to the drop’s existence, but it is also part of the greater presence — a presence in which it approaches infinity. This is how I feel when I perceive God’s invitation to be holy — that I am bidden to be my true divine self and bring forth the divine in whose image we were all created.