I don’t usually enter this parking lot, but I did that day in late January. We had had one storm after another, heavy snow covered the ground, and it was cold. Movement in the trees caught my eye. I stopped to look. A robin! What was it doing here, now? Another robin! And then another, and another, and suddenly I saw a whole flock of 30-40 robins feeding on dried berries clinging to a small tree and in the snow beneath it. Amazed, I watched as they foraged for food in the middle of winter. My childhood tells me that robins are supposed to arrive in the spring, and here was not just one, but a whole flock of them busily surviving the harshest winter in years.
In this week’s parashah, Moses gathers the community of Israel together, va’yakhel. It is both a physical and a spiritual gathering, for he brings them into community to hear the words of HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One of Blessing, beginning with the reminder to rest and observe Shabbat.
What if I had seen just one bird instead of so many?
The verb kahal is about gathering together with intentionality, which in Biblical times could have meant either to hear the word of God or to prepare for war. Two very different kinds of gathering, yet in both cases, the group creates a different energy from any one individual.
The artist, Paul Klee, in describing a variety of shapes such as a square, a trapezoid, and a rectangle in his book Pedagogical Sketchbook, points out that “in the process of being created, these figures have linear character, but once completed, this linearity is replaced by planarity.” (p. 18) In other words, the drawings go from being one-dimensional to being two dimensional.
And so it is with us, and with the robins, as well. By gathering in a group, we change both physically and spiritually. In a group, we have the power to go to war or to hear the word of G!d, or if you are a robin, to survive the winter – or at the very least, to deeply impact a woman who sees you in January. For both human and robin, gathering together creates changes; we go from being one dimensional to being two dimensional.
But there is a third dimension, too.
In the introduction to Mother Earth, Judith Boice describes that on her journeys as a photographer and lover of the planet, she came more and more to speak of “Earth” and less of “nature.” “Too often in our culture, the word ‘nature’ refers to all that is not human or human-made. We tend to view nature as something separate from our daily existence, a passing amusement for weekends and extended holidays. We lose sight that we humans are part of the whole creation.” (p. vii)
It was not just that I saw a flock of robins that was awesome. It was the robins in context of snow and cold and winter. It was the robins in relationship to the Earth. It was my three-dimensional experience of the robins.
When we consider our gathering together in connection to the Earth, then our gathering becomes fuller and richer. It, too, becomes three dimensional, it becomes more meaningful. It becomes awesome. To paraphrase a quote from Gilean Davis found in Mother Earth, “In coming close to earth, [we] come close to heaven.” (p. 126)
What about a fourth dimension, time?
Considering time brings us closer to the original creation. Yet, the creation connection is double-edged. In a discussion of arrows, Paul Klee writes “that nothing that has a start can have infinity.” (p. 54) The line may go forward indefinitely, but it cannot be infinite in both directions, and creation reminds us that neither we nor the robins have always existed. By the Torah’s mythical telling, the robins, and all the winged birds, came into being on the fifth day and we humans on the sixth day. Science also tells us that the birds were around before homo sapiens. The two versions agree that we both had a start. Therefore, we cannot have infinite existence.
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What about the future? Can we go on indefinitely? Like the line of the arrow that you or I may draw, probably not. And yet, of course, we cannot know how long humankind or robinkind will exist. So, with whatever time we have remaining, when we gather together in two dimensions, may it be to hear the word of Ain Sof – The Infinite One – and not to prepare for war, and may our consciousness of our connection – each and every day and minute – to the Earth transform our two-dimensional gatherings into three dimensions. Even when we are alone – when we are asleep in our comfortable beds, when we sit in front of our computers, when we are surrounded by buildings and pavement, when we stand in total darkness, no matter where we may be – may we remember that our connection to the Earth remains present. And may our ability to stand in three dimensions ensure our on-going existence into the fourth.
Rabbi Katy Z. Allen
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