Baal Shem Tov, or Besht — the founder of Chasidism —
Breaking Open the Abyss – on Tisha B'Av and Environmental Destruction
There is a midrash that tells of King David going to dig the foundations for the Temple, which is built according to aggadah on the even sh'tiyah, the foundation stone of the world. When David disturbs the stone, the waters of the t'hom, the abyss, rise up through the breach King David has made, threatening to destroy the world. It is only by casting a pot shard on which God's name is written onto the waters that the waters quell their bursting forth from the abyss.
To me this is a midrash about how human hubris combined with ingenuity can unleash terrific destruction. How we plumb the depths using power without the ballast of wisdom, and crack open unknown and unconscious forces--forces of divine power and of Earth's origins. And how we can bring healing--by reconnecting to God and to earth. What is a pot shard? A piece of Earth, a connection to technology that is Earth-centered, to art that is made of the very substance that (according to Genesis) we are made of. A broken piece--broken like our bodies will ultomately be broken, and yet still holy.
Magid David Arfa pointed out to me how deeply connected this midrash is to what happened in the Gulf of Mexico. Human hubris that we know how to pierce the ocean's deepest depths led to the worst overt environmental catastrophe of our lifetimes. (I'm excluding global climate disruption, which could ultimately be on a far larger scale, when it unfolds.) But the midrash applies equally to "hydrofracking", the practice of injecting vast amounts of water and chemicals into rock formations in order to crack them open so that oil and natural gas will flow faster. Often the chemicals used make their way into essential water supplies, people's wells, etc., and it also wastes millions of gallons of water, permanently (unlike other kinds of waste which at least send water back into the water cycle).
At least King David had in mind a holy task, however inappropriate it was for him to carry out that task. Building the Beit Hamikdash, the Temple, was ultimately meant to increase life in the world--that is the essence of what makes it holy. But our drilling for oil can only damage life, both in its production and its use.
When King David throws the shard upon the waters, they retreat 16,000 cubits--too low to nourish the land. So he sings the fifteen Psalms called Shir Hama'alot, songs of ascent, to bring them up again to 1000 cubits below the earth. The shard is like the technology we use to control the mistakes we make--it cannot predictably right what is wrong. Too many times have we learned that in the Gulf of Mexico crisis. In the midrash, poetry somehow brings what is needed to heal the situation.
I don't know how poetry can heal environmental disasters, but it can heal hearts that have become hardened. This is what we do on Tisha B'Av, immerse ourselves in the poetry of grieving. We grieve the Holy Temple, because it represented the struggle to bring life into the world, to nurture all of creation. But God says, "Build me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them." The greatest tool that can teach us to nurture life instead of destroying it is within us, our hearts.
The midrash about King David may also be read as a parable for how we encounter our feelings of grief. If we open ourselves up to feeling the true magnitude of suffering in the world--both in what we are doing to Nature and what people are doing to each other--then our feelings threaten to overwhelm and drown us. But in order to survive, we suppress those feelings so far down that we become spiritually dry, unable to access the emotional resources we need. What we can do is sing--i.e. pray, meditate, actually sing, etc.--in order to bring those feelings up slowly to the surface, so that we can be watered without being inundated.
I wish us all the chance to grieve well the loss of the Temple in this spirit, and to grieve for what has happened to the planet and what may yet happen, knowing that indeed we are culpable, as we are culpable for franking and for what has happened in the Gulf. You can use the neohasid prayer for creation to help with this. And I wish that our grieving and our poetry will give us the strength to continue the struggle to live in a way that brings more life to the planet.
Design in progress © Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg 2006