Taking a walk on the beach yesterday because October is still summer in SoCal, I watched as thousands of flies swarmed over the kelp that had washed up on shore. As my feet swept close, the flies would shuffle about, only to settle once again on the languid seaweed. Just past them was a small flock of sanderlings, moving in and out of the surf in a similar way that my own children, only yards away, were doing, much to their own delight. My eyes gazed past birds and flies and on a young woman, who had moved some distance down the beach away from her family who themselves were warming their bodies upon their blankets. She had created space for herself, I could see, so that she could play music and practice using the hula hoop. She would spin, throw the hoop in the air and catch it on her body, all the while as her phone belted out dance music. I smiled as I saw her, spinning on the beach, not because she was excellent at her art, far from it actually, but because she was in the flow, enjoying life. My eyes darted from her to the flies and to the sanderlings, all in their own place, sometimes competing for space, but all flourishing in proximity under the golden sun.
The beach is just one sliver of life. Tucked into every fold of the earth and stuffed into every crevice of existence on our planet there is an impulse for life. From the depths of the Mariana Trench where the cracks in the earth’s crust give safe harbor for the delicate xenophyophore, to the heights of the stratopause where fungi find just enough air and warmth to spawn at the very edge of space, life surges into existence. Even at the most extreme of conditions, whether it be eight miles below the surface of the sea or twenty-five miles above it, there is a pulsation that all living things share, an urgency to flourish.
What makes us unique as human beings, however, is that our flourishing spans more than one lifetime. We are the only species on the planet that builds on the past to create the future. Bees, for example, create hives to live, but the bees of today do not build more technologically advanced hives than they did a million years ago. There are no bee elevators, or bee trains; there are only bee hives. Similarly, ants build colonies, but even with their power of collectivity, when a klutzy foot stomps upon their mighty hill, they don’t convene a meeting to discuss how to build a foot-proof structure, they go about building it as it was before. Only we, over our history of thousands of years, have used the collected wisdom and passed it on. A one-hundred story building is only possible because long ago someone learned to build a two-story one. Rockets are only possible because many people figured out how to work metal, learned the aerodynamics, discovered the secret to containing explosions, and did the calculations, learned from centuries of calculation of navigation by the stars to now learning to navigate to them. That’s what makes the young woman on the beach different from the kelp fly and the sanderling. She was using technologies such as music, the phone, even the hula hoop, to something never yet created into the world – her dance, her art, and perhaps her future as an artist and her future as a human being.
Deeply embedded in our pulsations for life is our unique ability to use the past to create the future.
It is this gift of creativity that draws us above the bee and the ant, and pushes farther than any fly or sanderling, but the gift is dangerous too. We can be equally creative in our destruction of the world and each other as we are in creating it. At every stage in our history, new art and technology can be used for both good and evil. I recall learning that during the Holocaust, companies outbid each other to discover what was the most efficient and effective way to collect data, move trains, and murder millions. When we found that steel was better than bronze, we used it to build stronger buildings and stronger swords. When chemicals were found to be effective pesticides to kill unwanted bugs, they were also found to be equally effective against unwanted people. When the internet was born to share creativity and ideas instantly, misinformation spread equally as fast. The challenge of wisdom is when we confuse our powers to create and our powers to destroy.
In the Book of Genesis, we find two stories in this week’s Torah portion, Noach. The first is the story of the flood, where God regrets creating the world, because humanity has taken God’s creation and filled it with corruption, violence, and hatred. (Genesis 6:12) The Rabbis tried to understand the depth of Divine disappointment; it was the depths human beings were willing to go to commit destruction upon each other and upon the earth. (Sforno, HaEmek Hadavar) A similar theme is found in its second story, the Tower of Babel. In only nine verses, the Torah teaches us how the power to create can also be the power to destroy.
The generation of Babel learned a new art – the drying of bricks – and used those bricks to build a mighty tower. (Genesis 11:3) God appears upset, however, at the project and conspires with the angels to destroy the tower and scatter the builders both physically and socially by casting different languages upon them. (Genesis 11:7) While at first blush there is nothing wrong with building, it might seem capricious that God would want to confound human ingenuity and creativity. The Bible, however, always has deeper motivations and when taken with the story of the flood we can see why.
The purpose of the tower and the city, according to Torah, was so that its inhabitants could demonstrate the full power of creativity and build a reputation for themselves. As part of their pulsation for life, these builders wanted to be unconstrained, building wildly and only for themselves, without deference to God or to other peoples. (Genesis 11:4) The height of the construction of the tower is the hubris of destruction itself. When you build only for yourself, without an understanding of how your work affects others, you slide from creation to destruction.
As with the flood, it’s this hubris that God wants to constrain, and hopefully teach that with the gift of creativity comes the responsibility of empathy. God wants to slow creativity enough, so that “not everything they propose will be in their reach.” (Genesis 11:6) Not every carnal fantasy should be fulfilled, and not every thought should manifest itself in a final solution.
God dampens creativity in Babel and stops creation altogether in the flood to make room for morality in order to show that as wonderful as the pulse for life is, it must be tempered for the cornerstones of justice.
The constraining of creativity is what gives birth to morality.
The Book of Genesis is about the origins of things, people, places, and most importantly, ideas. Ideas about how to be human, how to live in an uncertain world, and how to live with each other. In both the Flood story and the Babel story, we take our creativity too far by marring the earth, attacking each other, and building a world only for ourselves. It’s this type of self-centered and fantastical behavior the Torah seeks to correct. If we are to flourish on this earth, we must know our place, whether it’s the starling dancing in the surf, the fly swarming upon the kelp, the dancer spinning on dunes.