It was a great time to get away from the city. Pesah seder, freedom, Israelites in the wilderness – all that was in mind. We flew out west to celebrate our thirtieth anniversary, together with our boys.
I’ve loved Colorado since my first visit as a ten-year-old. The beauty and majesty of the mountains stirs something in me, an awe at the grandeur of creation and a modesty regarding my insignificance in the face of it. Being away from the hubbub of the city and the demands of work also free me to think, to let my mind wander, to reflect – all of which are fruitful experiences for me and things I enjoy doing. This time was no different.
There are three potential spiritual relationships between humanity and nature.
The first relationship is a denial of the reality, or at least the importance, of nature – be it the natural world in which we are situated or the material reality of our own bodies. Ascetics take this approach. They minimize the needs and pleasures of the body and the goodness and beauty of the natural world and its order in favor of, as they see it, a sole focus on “the spiritual” – the spirituality of emotions, values, ideas. For these people, meaning comes only from this immaterial dimension. They degrade the body and its pleasures. They seek a connection to the Divine via a transcendence of the materiality that is not the Divine.
The second is to affirm the reality, and hence the significance, of the material world. There is nothing real, nothing of value beyond the things that we can touch and see and hear and taste. At its best, this is what the modern scientific and technologic revolution has brought us: a method for understanding the laws that govern physical objects and then an ability to manipulate the world in order, for example, to build skyscrapers and cure fatal diseases.
At its most extreme, these folks celebrate the “stuff” of the world and deny that there is any reality that transcends it, that is not material; this is the world of Epicureans, Marxists and capitalists alike, scientific materialists. Eat, drink and be merry, for we’ll all die tomorrow. There is nothing – mind, heart, consciousness, love – that cannot be described/explained mechanically. Some, like Spinoza and (some) Jewish mystics conflate the world with God; Deus siva natura, they are one in the same. Often, these folks try to become “one with nature.”
The third relationship – the one to which I subscribe and which I believe is firmly rooted in our Torah tradition – is a relationship that values both the material and the immaterial and lives with a dynamic between them, each working with the other in the search for meaning and purpose. We have a foot in each world or, as some put it, we live with our feet on the ground and our heads in the heavens.
The first several chapters of Genesis/Bereshit, the beginning of the Torah, are taken up with, amongst other things, describing where humanity is in the order of things. Are human beings just like all of the other animals, part and parcel of those things created? Or are human beings somehow like God, in some way more than simply a created thing?
Adam and Eve appear to be just one of those things created, until they are given charge over everything else. They, unlike plants, can name other things. They, unlike animals, are self-aware. Their superiority, if it is that, is identified by the Hebrew word “moshel.” There is disagreement as to what the word means: some say “dominion”; others say “stewardship.” In either case, these first humans are both a part of creation and apart from creation.
Jewish law affirms the body – its needs and its enjoyments – while setting limits to its place. While nothing should be withheld regarding its needs – life is paramount – its enjoyment should be within reason. Some commentators argue that denying ourselves pleasure – in sex, with wine – is itself a sin. They are joined by other commentators, such as Ramban, who say that even living within the law one can be a barbarian; as Ramban puts it, no one should think that just because, e.g., drinking wine is ok that it is ok to drink excessively, continually. The purpose of life, he writes, is to “be holy, for I, Adonai, God, am holy.”
Just outside of Arches National park, the four of us went off-road in a UTV – a four-wheel, cage-protected, low-to-the-ground vehicle – that allowed us to explore rugged terrain and back-of-the-mountain scenery that we otherwise would not have seen. We followed our guide in his ATV and, in turn, were followed by a younger couple in their two-seater.
We had chosen, shall we say, the less challenging of the routes. The couple told us of their adventure the previous day, up and down very steep inclines, traversing roads not worthy of that name due to their unfinished nature and the very narrowness that threatened to allow them to topple hundreds of feet to their death, and racing along at breakneck speeds.
We let the boys take turns driving. It was not cowardice, I assure you; I simply wanted to let them have the fun.
As I sat in back, rocketing across the flats and bouncing down the inclines, I wondered: what’s the attraction? What is it about these daredevil activities that draws us to them? The day before, we had considered going up in a hot-air balloon at daybreak or a helicopter ride over the canyons, deciding not to because of the expense. During that conversation, Benj and I recalled our zip-line ride a couple of years ago over the Royal Gorge, some 1,200 feet over that beautiful canyon.
There is the thrill. The desire that some of us have to be a daredevil.
And what is that? It is to challenge nature. To experience being something more than bodies governed by the laws of physics and the interactions described by chemistry and biology. The freedom we feel is that – a transcendence of that which usually binds us to earth.
It also is to show our power – the power that is ours independent from nature, even our power over nature.
It is a declaration: I am not at one with nature. I am – or at least, have the potential to be – something more.
But nature, itself, is mute. I looked up. The grand arches and pinnacles, balanced rocks and fins are silent sentinels before our flexing of our puny power (not to mention puny ego). If they could speak, they might say: in another year, or two, or ten – we will be here and you will not. Just as we watch your little adventure today we will watch your children’s tomorrow, and their children’s after that. You all come and go. Eventually, you will return to us. Ultimately you can never own us.
Likewise, one wrong turn of the wheel, one miscalculation of the terrain can lead to death or destruction. The rocks, the canyons care not whether or not we are loved, whether or not we are good people. They care not how much is in our bank account or the college we attended or the company we kept. You hit the rock wrong and your body does exactly what a body does: your arm breaks, your head splits open, your heart stops, irrespective of the spirit that your body houses.
To stare at the mountains can remind us of our finitude, our mortality, our impermanence, our insignificance. Need I go on?
When our natural bodies die, do our spirits live on? The rabbinic tradition maintains that it does. This is not a heaven and hell, per se; after all, what are those really but the projection of our material world into the realm of the immaterial? Still, the rabbis believe that there is something undying called the soul and that is what links us to the divine. They imagined a day in the future when death will be overcome and the decay of our rotted bodies reversed such that we are resurrected; we come back to life.
Objective truth? Mysterious metaphor? I don’t know. As they say, no one has been there and come back to tell. The resurrection is to take place in some future that is so far off that it is not even worth imagining, much.
In the meantime, I choose to live my life in that difficult, but worthwhile intersection of the material and the immaterial, in which what I do with the material world should be directed by the immaterial values that I hold to be true, a world in which pleasure is permitted but I am reminded that my higher purpose here on earth is not to experience heaven prematurely by amassing things and experiences but to ensure that someone else does not experience hell because of the deprivation of those same things.
I might not live forever, but I can hope that those values – and the good that I have done by living them – will.