A couple of months ago, a New York Times article caught my eye: “Breeding Nutrition out of Food” (click here to read it).
Apparently, before agriculture, veggies were bitter, but they were much more nutritious. We have bred out a lot of the bitterness, creating the soft, sweet and juicy fruits and veggies we now enjoy, but leaving out the deeper value in the plants.
It struck me as a metaphor for so much of our world. We have the sweetness of so much freedom of urban, modern life, yet we yearn for the nourishing community of the farm and village. We enjoy the delicious convenience of electronic communication, but we wonder whether the next generation is losing the ability to negotiate the awkwardness, surprise and depth of real, in-person interactions. (See, for example, this recent New York Times article.)
We have so much information now. The scalpel of scientific method, doubting everything, has obviously brought much good into the world. But we also must heed Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words: “As civilization advances the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish for want of information, but only for want of appreciation.” Degraded air, water and land, mass extinctions, global warming and so many other symptoms of human manipulation and exploitation of our life support system has started to show us that Heschel’s statement is true. We may destroy ourselves for a lack of appreciation of what we have.
There are people who want to look at history as a line: going from the bad old days to the enlightened present and on into the future. Recently, I heard Harvard professor Steven Pinker talk about how, surprisingly, there is much less violence now than at any time in the past. In fact, humans have been getting less and less violent throughout our history. He brought a lot of very convincing data and he also trotted out the usual examples of Biblical death penalties (for “picking up sticks on the Sabbath” and slaughter and derides the Bible as “supposedly the source of our moral guidance.” But, while I agree with his critique of the violence in the Bible, I also wonder if there has ever been a more profound and influential idea for bringing human rights and dignity into the world than the biblical idea of tzelem elohim, that we are all created in the image of God. Based not on science or pragmatic concerns, but on wonder and a sense of holiness, it says that every human life is equal in its infinite value and uniqueness. As this idea has worked its way through human history, it has been expressed in more and more expansive and equitable ways, but no modern idea has really replaced or improved upon it.
There is an arc of history. It is not linear — it is not a question of going from bad to better, but of spiraling back around to where we were, letting go of what no longer works and bringing with us the lessons learned on the way.
We are in a critical time of this turning: whereas for most of human history we were engaged in a struggle to conquer the world of nature: to rise above all our limitations and expand our power, we are now starting to remember the importance of connection to nature, living with balance and appreciation for the gift of simple things. Yet, now we can come back to this connection with the earth not from lack of technology and resources, but through our own choice to live in harmony instead of fighting for mastery.
And, this is like the story of an individual life: We all start out with an original purity and sweetness. Just look into the face of any infant. It is the pure beauty of the soul shining though. In the womb we were completely connected to our mother and our consciousness remembers that deep joy of being enveloped and protected. But as soon as we are born we start the journey toward independence. Little by little we leave the comfort and connection of our parents and test our own skills against the great wide world. But, at a certain point, we start to feel the pull toward re-connection. We want to find a partner, build a home. We return to connection, but this time not out of dependency and weakness, but out of conscious choice.
Especially as we come to this time of the year, when the High Holidays are almost upon us, we are called to return. We are called to come back to our true selves, to the vibrancy and joy in life that we vaguely remember having before life got complicated, before bad habits, compromise, or disillusionment took its toll. As it says in the end of Psalm 92 which we sing on Friday nights: od yinuvun b’seiva, d’sheinim ve’ra’ananim yehiyu “they will still bear fruit in old age, vigorous and fresh will they be.” We can come back to our essence, return to the true selves — not the immaturity and dependence of youth — but rather to a new place that is as vital as youth; spiraling back to our beginnings, but at a higher plane.
Like human history, our lives are not a straight line, but in a complex spiral of return and growth. Constantly moving forward, but leaving nothing behind.