In his book The Gates of the Forest the Jewish writer, professor, Nobel Laureate, and Holocaust survivor, the late Elie Wiesel, tells this intriguing tale:
“When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shen-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go to a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted. Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Megid of Mezrich, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say, ‘Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I’m still able to say the prayer,’ and again the miracle would be accomplished. Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more would go into the forest and say: ‘I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.’ It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished. Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: ‘I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this must be sufficient.’ And it was sufficient.
“God made man because he loves stories.”
I’m assuming Dr. Wiesel took this tale from his vast knowledge of Jewish lore. As noted, I find it intriguing. I think the message Mr. Wiesel was looking to convey with it is that beyond ritual, beyond the practices or the contents of any one faith—meaningful as these things are to so many people—it is ultimately our stories that save us.
By “save us” I mean it is stories that give us some sense of location, some sense of place, some sense of who we are and why we exist within the Larger Mystery that surrounds and enfolds us. It is the stories we hear, and then pass on, that give us our identity.
The family stories we learn—sometimes going back over generations—let us know what it means to be a “Smith” or a “Jones” or an “Edington…” you can supply your own family name here.
The biologically factual reason as to why we exist a pretty simple one really: It’s because our parents procreated us. But what gives us our understanding of what it means to be a part of the families in which we find ourselves is a Story. We take a certain portion of our larger, overall human identity by understanding how we fit into an ongoing family Story, and what it means to be a part of that Story.
Now, expand this idea beyond the stories that give us our family identity to the story—or stories—of our greater human family. This is what Vicki was doing in many of the Story for All Ages times she’s shared in our services this year. She related stories that have been told in various cultures, in various societies, in various faith traditions that give the people of those cultures, societies, and faith traditions a sense of who they are and where they belong in the greater scheme of things.
What has happened more recently—and by “more recently” I mean over the past few centuries out of the 4 or 5 million years that we humans, in one form or another, have been around—is that we’ve figured out many of the facts, the scientific processes, that tell us how we got here. This is information we vitally need for more reasons than I need to get into now.
OK, we’ve got the facts—most of them by now, I would guess—so what about the stories? I would submit that we need them too. There is a fear, unfounded as it is, behind the fundamentalists’ opposition to the teaching of evolution. It’s the fear of the loss of a Story. They make it a zero-sum game: If we accept everything from the Big Bang up to our evolutionary emergence as human beings on this planet, then we lose our stories. That’s the fear. It is the same fear, in fact, that got Galileo in trouble with the Catholic Church back in the 17th century.
But even as we need the facts as to how we got here, we can still make good use of stories to help us understand the “why” of our being here; and to help us better understand what our right relationship is with our Earth. On this note I’ll wrap up with our theme for today about the Miracle of Creation and of our right relationship with the Earth.
As I pointed out in a sermon in last fall, the early chapters of the Book of Genesis contain two Creation Stories that are simply grafted together. In the first Story there is a very structured, orderly, day-to-day, creation process with the Creator ushering in the human creature as the final, crowning act. And this human creature is given a mandate to “have dominion” over the earth.
Then there’s a Second Story. It begins with the fifth verse of the second chapter of Genesis. In this Second Story the Creator, as the text puts it, “plants a garden”, and creates human beings to tend and care for this garden. The Story gets a little weird after that, what with a talking snake and all. But the Story of us, as humans, being placed on Earth to tend a garden is a valuable one. Tending is not the same thing as “having dominion.” To tend a garden means working with the earth, and respecting its processes, even as we look to it to nurture and sustain us. For the sake of our planet, and of our well-being on it, we need to keep this Second Creation Story before us.
Our right relationship with the Earth then, as this Second Story suggests, is one wherein we join with “all things living” to “sing and rejoice.”
Let’s sing that together.
January 21, 2018