This past weekend we had a little extra time so I decided to finally clean out some boxes in the garage. Along with some clothes and books now set aside for donations, I found an old box filled with photos of my wife’s childhood. in my hands were images of a life I never lived, but felt were mine all the same. I brought the old grainy photos inside and sat with Sarah on the couch as she flipped through them. Some were photos of a birthday party with her blowing out candles in her big pigtails. Some were from a Passover Seder all dressed up in a flower dress. There was a photo of a boy, who looks like my nephew, but is really my brother-in-law, holding on for dear life to a carousel horse in gleeful laughter. Picture after picture felt like a glimmer of familiarity: kids playing with toys amongst wads of wrapping paper crinkled on the floor, parents and friends lounging outside in the sunshine while someone was hitting a pinata. Young children holding their baby siblings in their laps. A smile. A giggle.
I texted the photo of the boy to my sister-in-law who runs an early childhood center in New York City. I wanted her to see the picture of her husband as a boy and to enjoy how their son who is now about the same age as he was in the photo, looks identical to him. She texted back some laughing emojis.
Amidst all this nostalgia, and off the cuff, I asked her, “Do you remember the last time the world felt okay?”
She replied to me, “Nope.”
I think I cried a little at the moment. It’s hard or maybe even impossible to remember when the last time everything felt fine. I’m not talking about feeling “amazing” or even “great.” I’m talking about settling for “fine.” It seems for years now, we’ve been sucked into the maelstrom of human existence. Whether it’s been hurricanes or earthquakes, or terrorism, or social unrest, long before the pandemic started we’ve become totally aware of how displaced the world feels. And now, as we’ve experienced five months of global pandemic with no end in sight, the world just doesn’t feel okay.
I do take solace, though, in knowing that we are not the first by any means to have felt this way. For thousands and thousands of years all of humanity would look out at the uncertainty of existence and feel displaced. From our earliest bipedal ancestors to the feudal workers under a tyrannical lord, the experience of living every day was anything but steadfast. It was not until the modern world that brought innovation in science and technology and democratized knowledge that a new form of stability was broached. In just two hundred years, we built towers into the sky, illuminated the night, and mapped the genome. Much of that success, but not all, was promulgated by the throwing out of old, magical notions of God and religion. A new world order was at hand, seeing the world only for what could be proven empirically and tested by rationality. Much of the poetry of human life, of seeing the world as it unfolds and wanting more gave way to the dryness of the vast mechanical and material world.
And yet here we are, with all our technology, stuffed up inside our homes mortally afraid to leave or irrationally defiant when we do so. In moments like these, where our lives feel unmoored and dislodged from any semblance of being okay and when yesterday and tomorrow are too hard to think about, it’s time we look both to the stars and upon each other and allow ourselves to be enchanted. It’s time to take another look at religion.
While no formal religion can say that it has always been a force for good (certainly when it’s tied to political power, or the fiendish proclivities of sociopaths), the religious words and songs were the very first poetry ever authored by the human soul in the face of uncertainty. According to scholars the first poem ever written is the Tale of The Shipwrecked Sailor, a tale about a traveler who journeys through the cosmos and comes home with both moral and material gifts. The lesson being, that even in the chaotic journey fraught with tragedy and uncertainty, there is meaning to be found, and it is that meaning, the poetry of life, that confers upon the traveler the greatest of gifts.
The Torah knows this insight as well. In this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, Moses takes a people born into the wilderness, never experiencing their past and having yet to know the prosperity of a homeland, and says to them, “See this day I place before you a blessing and a curse.” (Deut. 11:26) What follows are a series of commandments that if followed would bring the individual and the nation together in prosperity. Ideas such as pulling down altars to false idols, (Deut. 12) be careful not be lured by charlatans , (Deut. 13) the laws of kashrut, (Deut. 14) and the commandments to take care of the poor according to their needs and not your own. (Deut. 15).
Regardless of what Moses chose to teach at this moment, what remains paramount is the disposition towards the world. He opens this Torah portion with the word, “See.” Moses says, for you to look out upon it, the vista of your life, and see that there is a path that stands before you. Life is more than just a series of happenings; to experience life in its fullest, you live through poetry in addition to prose. A world of blessings and a world of curses are only as real as we allow them to be. When Moses stood to address his nation, their life was not any more or less certain as our own. Spirituality and religion give us the opportunity to make meaning out of this chaotic moment. Religion was born in the crucible of chaos. It is our response to the impermanence and inscrutable part of our lives. It asks us to see the world differently, through moral and poetic lives that can change the world for the better. And while we have spent much of the last centuries leaving God behind to find redemptive truth on other heights, this is a moment when we can open our eyes and see that the Divine has been waiting patiently right here all along, ready to incorporate what we have learned in our journeys onto the greater path forward.
Out of this world a better one can be built, one that will feel okay, one that redeems us from the darkness. But the first thing we must do is see the poetic path and pursue the blessings as they come.