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 אבן שתיה, the foundation stone of the world. When David disturbs the stone, the waters of the t'hom תהום, the abyss, rise up through the breach King David has made, threatening to destroy the world. Only by casting a pot shard on which God's name is written into the rising waters can David quell waters from bursting forth from the abyss.
This midrash is a story about how human hubris combined with ingenuity can unleash terrific destruction. About 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 about how we can bring healing--by reconnecting to God and to the earth. What is a pot shard? A piece of Earth, modified by the technology of fire, but made from the very substance that (according to Genesis) we are made of. A broken piece—broken like our bodies will ultimately be broken—and yet still holy.
Maggid David Arfa pointed out to me how deeply this midrash connects to what happened in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Human hubris led people to believe that we could pierce the ocean's deepest depths and still control what happened, and it led to the worst overt environmental catastrophe of our lifetimes. (I'm excluding global climate disruption, which will ultimately unfold on a far larger scale.) But the midrash also applies 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 can flow and be extracted. Often the chemicals used, along with the chemicals brought up from the earth, will make their way into essential water supplies, into people's wells, etc., and the injected slipperiness can actually cause earthquakes.
While lighting a faucet stream on fire is dramatic, even more dramatic is the wasting of billions of gallons of water. What water comes back up from the well is dangerously polluted, but a large percentage of the water pumped into a fracked well remains beneath miles of rock. That water is permanently deleted from the ecosystem, and it will never again nurture life, at least not until the Earth's crust gets recycled over millions of years. All this to get at more oil when we cannot safely burn the oil reserves already discovered.
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 the Temple 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, each one bringing the waters up 1000 cubits until they rest just 100 cubits below the surface of the earth. The shard of pottery David uses is like the technology we use to try to control the mistakes we make—it cannot predictably right what is wrong. Too many times we saw this happen that in the Gulf of Mexico crisis. We will see it happen many more times when we begin to use technology to try to control climate change.
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 Tish'a B'Av, immerse ourselves in the poetry of grieving. We grieve the Holy Temple, because it represented the will and devotion to bring more life into the world, to nurture all of creation. But God also says, "Build me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them", or as the midrash inteprets, within our hearts. 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, dance, 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 fracking and for what happened in the Gulf of Mexico. You can use one of neohasid's prayers for creation to help with this. And I pray that our grieving and our poetry will give us the strength to continue our struggle to live in a good way that will bring more life to the planet and not diminish life.
Design in progress © Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg 2006