Cold rushed in around my bare legs when I swung open the back door to let the dogs out at 4 AM. The moon wasn’t just a flat, curved silver horn, you could make out the dark craters on the shadow side, and picture the sun’s position just below the horizon making it shine. And the stars seemed to be almost raining down, giving depth to the sky.
Back inside in the warm comfort of bed I went back to worrying about computers. It seems we are giving over control of our lives more and more to computers, and I’m wondering what we’re giving up. On days when I’ve spent too much time among machines, staring at screens, reality has a certain flatness. I don’t notice that the moon is round, and frankly, I even don’t care if I’ve forgotten.
As each generation goes by, that connection to the natural world becomes less and less, to the point now that we don’t even know why that matters. And it’s important to ask why. A computer won’t know to ask that, to ask what is missing from our lives. All cultures have stories about the origin of creation. Religious or mythological cosmology, it turns out, is fundamentally different in different cultures. In the Jewish spiritual tradition, interpretations of texts commonly share the idea in the beginning there was nothing, the void, and then there was something - or maybe not.
I was challenged by one student of the Torah on the accuracy of saying even that – guess we can’t agree on anything – and I thought I’d had it hard writing in other cultures. It does depend on what you mean by beginning, void, and nothing, and, depending on which rabbi you ask, for different occasions they may give different answers.
Rabbi Howard Kosovske, now back in Salem, Massachusetts after spending a year in residence in Albuquerque with Congregation Albert, was asked to weigh in on if it is correct to say ‘In the beginning was nothing, the void, and then something.’ This is his response:
"About your question, you were right. In the first creation story (There is a second one in Genesis 2, but it’s older than the one that we read in Genesis 1), God speaks and the world comes into being. B’reishit, the text starts, at the beginning God creates the heavens and the earth. And yes, the earth, at the point it was created, was tohu vavohu (oftimes translated waste and void, but who knows what that seemingly onomatopoetic expression really means?), but before creation…nothing!”
Rabbi Kosovske went on: “Two other things: the Midrash asks, 'Why was the world created with the letter beit (first letter of the Torah)?' To teach you that just as the letter beit is closed at the top and the back and the bottom, so are we proscribed against trying to ponder what is above or below or behind. Rather we start with creation and move forward.”
And finally, he added this additional caveat: “Second, while we are on the subject, there is a strong Jewish tradition against ever saying the words, abra k’dabra, when performing magic tricks. The reason is that the expression, abra k’dabra, is a corruption of the Aramaic, avra ki’d’vara, meaning, I will create as He (i. e., God) created, that is, creating something out of nothing.”
Native Americans, generally speaking, have both beginning and emergence. Joining the discussion with Rabbi Kosovske, Navajo elder Frank Morgan was asked what Navajo creation stories say, and his response was, “The elders say, 'Hodeeyáá dáá’ . . . ,' which means something like 'From the time things came into existence . . . ,' so the understanding was that there were things there to initiate the beginning.” Morgan added, after reading Kosovske’s response, “I’m glad Rabbi Kosovske agrees.” Discussions of the Sephirot in the study of Kabbalah also have much richness to offer on the subject.
Hindus don’t even posit a beginning, or an end. They think in terms of cycles of creation and parallel universes. And, broadly speaking, Buddhists have flux and multiple universes.
Still, in all traditions, the point is, there is potential for something. A sense of hopefulness permeates life. Being able to ask the question, ‘What’s next, what’s missing from this picture?’ seems to be an essential, fundamental, creative act. And, it is something that computers, aside from pattern-recognition software we might supply them with, won’t be asking.
Would a computer even pose questions, unprompted? Isn’t that the real intelligent act – to ask good questions – and not necessarily ones where we know already what it is we’re trying to prove? And if you don’t ask the right questions, you won’t get the answers you need either.
A computer cannot be nostalgic for the smell of cookies baking, or a turkey in the oven, or leaves decaying into loam in the soil. And if the principal memories of childhood you have are being indoors playing computer games, there is going to be something fundamental missing. Those of us who spent their first five years without television have a deeper reality to draw on later in life for strength - perhaps not as wide a context, but a stronger one. A person with access to the Internet may know and be concerned that China is busy right now buying up water rights in other countries, but they may not care about the catastrophic drought going on here and threats to their own water.
Captain Kirk always ribbed Mr. Spock on Star Trek for being too logical. Spock would counter by saying something like, ‘What is the purpose of something illogical?’ Coyote, who introduced disorder into creation, upset the perfect calendar laid out by the Holy People and threw the stars into the sky haphazardly. Asymmetry is necessary to existence. Atoms would not even have come into being without an imbalance of particles at the sub-atomic level, as theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss explains in his book Atom. Things that are too perfect are lifeless.
Predictable fractal geometric patterns have been found even in the untamed branching of stream flows and the chaotic distribution of galaxies, which on the one hand is amazing. But, Coyote will be relieved to hear, the patterns peter out at the distance of super-galaxies.
But our profit-driven culture wants to sell us on a deathless, perfectly ordered existence, to fit us into a mold that desires only to be filled by a mass-produced plastic toy made in China, instead of something hand-made. If I am missing faith, I can at least sense its absence and hope to find faith. If I sense that some magical quality is missing from my life, I can at least hope to feel it again. This season every commercial is in some way about having a smart phone so you can get hooked up and sucked into buying other stuff with it.
The first time I saw the dark of the moon it was like waking up from a dream. Now I need to wake up from the computer simulations of life.
*please scroll to bottom of page to add your comments. This commentary was published by the New Mexico Jewish Link Jan. 2013, Vol. 43, No. 1, page 15, and is reprinted here courtesy JFNM.