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The Torah of Deep Time

A Rosh HaShanah Sermon 2023/5774

Delivered at Temple Beth El of Portland, Maine

Exactly ten-and-a-half years ago, I got on a plane to Boulder with my then-fiance Yotam to meet his father and stepmother. I was excited – we would be staying in the sprawling house where Yotam had spent his teenage years, with a view of the Rockies rising starkly out of the plains to the west. I was also excited because I was going to spend the week with Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who happened to be my future father-in-law, as well as my own father’s teacher.

Reb Zalman’s expansive, ecstatic, and egalitarian Judaism had been my Jewish home since I was born in 1982. That’s when B’nai Or of Boston, a tiny Jewish Renewal congregation founded by my parents (Lev and Joyce Friedman) and their friends, held its first Rosh Hashanah services. In a very funny tangled family tree, my father had studied with Reb Zalman before I was born, and then went on to lead B’nai Or of Boston for many years. Memories of my dad leading services when I was a child made me want to be a rabbi. Four years into my rabbinic training, my father was inspired by me to go to rabbinical school and finish formal ordination, which he had never completed. A few months later, I met and fell in love with Yotam, Reb Zalman’s youngest son.

Going to visit Reb Zalman as my future-father-in-law, I felt embedded in a chain of Jewish belonging. The chain stretched back in time from me to my father and mother, to Reb Zalman, to the Hasidism of pre-war Europe. The chain stretched forward to me and Yotam, and our God-willing future children.

We arrived in Boulder for Pesach, and gathered around a full seder table with Reb Zalman in his giant wooden chair. At one point, the rebbe leaned forward with a glint in his eye, and announced he was going to recite the Last Rites of Bokonon for us.

Yotam retreived a dog-eared copy of Cat’s Cradle, the iconic novel (and critique of organized religion) in which Kurt Vonnegut describes a fictional faith called Bokonism. Reb Zalman easily found the page he wanted. He looked around the table, held all of us in rapt attention, and recited the following. (To understand what I’m about to read you just have to know two Bokonon words – a wampeter is the purpose of a person’s life, how they are meant to serve God. And a karass is the group of people who share your wampeter. Take a moment to reflect on your own wampeter, if you have an idea of what it is… and a moment to note if you’ve been lucky enough to meet others in your karass.)

The Last Rites of Bokonon

God made mud.God got lonesome.

So God said to some of the mud, “Sit up!”

“See all I’ve made,” said God, “the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars.”

And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around.

Lucky me, lucky mud.

I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.

Nice going, God.

Nobody but you could have done it, God!

I certainly couldn’t have.

I feel very unimportant compared to You.

The only way I can feel the least bit important is to think of all the mud that didn’t even get to sit up and look around.

I got so much, and most mud got so little.

Thank you for the honor! Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.

What memories for mud to have!

What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met!I loved everything I saw!

Good night. I will go to heaven now.

I can hardly wait…To find out for certain what my wampeter was…

And who was in my karass…And all the good things our karass did for you.


I can still hear the way Reb Zalman recited it – his gentle tone, the slight Yiddish/German accent, the impish twinkle in his eyes, the extraordinary tender reverence he always had when talking about God as a beloved, as a friend. None of us knew it at that seder, but 14 months later, Reb Zalman – Yotam’s beloved Abba — would lie down and go to sleep a month shy of his 90th birthday. I am certain he was celebrated in heaven, for having done a remarkable job helping his karass fulfill their wampeter.

This special Pesach visit with Reb Zalman over a decade ago wove me more tightly into my particular family chain. But when I heard the Last Rites of Bokonon for the first time, the repetition of the word mud also reminded me that I belong to a much, much longer chain. I’ve come to think of this as the Torah of Deep Time – the comfort and perspective that comes when we remember that we are not only part of our individual lives, our family’s ancestry, or the Jewish people. We are also part of the life of our species, the evolution of life, and the even longer life of the Earth. עיץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה – She, Torah, is a Tree of Life to those who hold fast to her. And the Tree of Life itself – the tangled evolutionary tree — is a form of Torah.

On the High Holidays, we remember that we are the lucky mud, the lucky carbon, that got to sit up and look around. We remember that our time as sitting-up-mud is finite. At the center of Musaf service on the High Holidays, we chant אדם יסודו מאפר וסופו לאפר. “A person’s origin is dust and end is dust. We are a withering grass, a shriveled flower.” We remember that the response to our finitude should be gratitude, kindness, and reverence. But we also remember that there is something beyond the finitude, an ongoing Becoming of which we are part. “But You, God,” we chant. “Your years have no end, Your time has no measure… You have linked Your name with ours.” In other words, on these holy days we also remember that as sitting-up-mud, we are part of the rest of mud, which will endure beyond our brief muddy lifespans. The carbon cycle, the biosphere, 3.8 billion years of evolution. The Torah of Deep Time - the process of the universe becoming, which we might call God. It lives in us, and we in it.

In Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition my teacher Rabbi Dr. Art Green writes the following: “As a religious person I believe that the evolution of species is the greatest sacred drama of all time. It is a tale – perhaps even the tale – in which the divine waits to be discovered. It dwarfs all other narratives, memories, and images that so preoccupy the minds of religious traditions, including ours… There is a One that is ever revealing itself to us within and behind the great diversity of life. That One is Being itself, the constant in the endlessly changing evolutionary parade.”

In Rabbi Green’s theology, and in mine, nature in general – and evolution in particular - is the process through which the One we call God comes to know itself. And this process is מלך, melech, the Sovereign whom we crown on Rosh Hashanah. Melech is the organizing fertile force at the center of the Kingdom, of which we are a humble muddy part. Crowning melech as sovereign is an act of acknowledgement that we belong not only to our individual lives or family chains, but to the long enduring tangled chain of evolution which has co-evolved and co-created the biosphere throughout massive revolutions, extinctions, and catastrophes, adapting and surviving all the while.

So what? Why does it matter?  

The Torah of Deep Time is particularly important now because we are living through a massive upheaval that is in many ways a rupture. Evolutionarily speaking, our species arose a hot second ago. Then in an evolutionary nanosecond we’ve evolved the technology to change our lives and the earth’s biosphere. Climate change, the internet, AI, nuclear weapons, not to mention 24/7 news streams, social media, and an extractive economic system that exiles us from nature, animals, and other people. It’s all… a bit much. The biology of our brains and bodies hasn’t changed in the 300,000 years since Homo sapiens came on the scene. So, it makes sense that the modern world is disorienting and frightening. We are not evolved for it.

The upheaval ignites burning questions. What will become of humanity? What do we owe each other? How do we care for our families? To whom do we belong? What is our role here? For most of human history, these questions actually had clear answers. We belonged to our families, bands, and kinship circles. We were responsible for these kinship circles, and they for us. We also evolved in close relationship to the land – lands where we hunted, gathered, and later farmed, lands where we buried our ancestors and worshipped by their graves, lands where we knew the ecology intimately and felt ourselves kin to the more-than-human world. It’s not that kinship societies were or are some idyllic eden – they’re not – but it is true that we evolved in a context of thick social and ecological belonging that most of us in the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic) modern world do not have. This lack of belonging adds to our spiritual malaise as the world races towards an uncertain future. We feel untethered, unmoored, floating, adrift.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Wali Khan, a Pashtun politician in Pakistan, said the following in 1972, during a time of unrest: He said, “I have been a Pashtun for 6,000 years, a Muslim for 1300 years and a Pakistani for 25.”

Khan does not say his family has been Pashtun for 6,000 years – but that he has been Pashtun for 6,000 years. His poetic phrasing expresses that he is not an individual human alive for a fleeting moment. He is a being that encompasses much larger entities. (I learned about Wali Khan in The WEIRDest People in the World)

Inspired by Wali Khan from Pakistan, I wrote out my own version.

I have been Shoshana for 40 years

I have been American for 100 years

I have been Jewish for 5,000 years

I have been Homo sapiens for 300,000 years

I have been human for 4 million years

I have been a mammal for 200 million years

I have been a vertebrate for 500 million years

I have been an organism with nuclei in my cells for 2.5 billion years

I have been an Earthling for 3.8 billion years

I have been stardust for 14 billion years

What have you been?

What happens in your heart as you contemplate and feel these layers of deep ecological and evolutionary belonging?

Part of the power of Jewish identity is that the Jewish people have survived so much. We draw from this resilience in times of personal and communal crises. But there are additional layers of survival, resilience, and belonging that also live in us. This is the Torah of the evolutionary Tree of Life. It’s the Torah of the Earth and the mud and carbon cycle. It’s the Torah of crisis, change, upheaval, and adaptation at the level of species and the biosphere itself.

Deuteronomy 30:13 famously tells us that the Torah is not far away in the sky or across the sea, it is in our mouths and hearts. Inspired by Rabbi Green, I like thinking about that verse in the context of the Torah of Deep Time because the Torah of evolution lives quite literally in our mouths and hearts. Like the primeval Earth, our bodies house trillions of bacteria and archea, tiny organisms that do not share our DNA but that outnumber our own body cells and without whom we could not survive. Primeval Earth is right here, inside our bodies. And the next big leap of a billion years later is in us too – our own cells have nuclei and mitochondria and can breathe in an oxygen-rich atmosphere, unheard of in the earliest Earth. Then, like the fungi, animals, and plants we have differentiated cells with different jobs. And like the later animals we are social creatures who communicate with others in our species. All of these big revolutions in life happened over the course of billions of years, but they are also not ancient history – they are present inside our bodies. You are a breathing evolutionary Tree of Life. With every breath you take, you express an unbroken chain of adaptation and survival, going back 3.8 billion years.

When I contemplate the Torah of Deep Time, I feel much less fear in the face of the modern world. In fact, I feel tender and open and brave.  I don’t know what will become of me, or my family, my country, my tribe, or my species given the challenges we face. None of us know. But I do know that life before me has survived calamities – climate change, asteroids, biochemical shifts in the atmosphere that provoked major crises for life at the time. I don’t have naive hope that this means anything specific about my life, or my species’ life. But I place great hope in the continuation of life itself, however it evolves. And whatever happens, the mud that I am now is part of the collective mud that will get to sit up in the future.

I love this theology because it’s a place where science and Jewish mysticism agree with each other without my having to squint my eyes. This all hinges on the amazing fact that יהוה YHVH, the name we pronounce Adonai, has nothing to do with the word Lord. It is rather an impossible conjugation of the Hebrew verb To Be. Rabbi Green translates YHVH as Is-Was-Will-Be, or Beingness itself. To say we are part of that God is not faith. It’s physics!

Speaking of which, physicists recently detected the underlying hum left over from the ּBig Bang. It is still vibrating in every atom of the universe. “The whole universe is humming,” wrote Adam Frank in his June article in The Atlantic reporting on the discovery. “Actually, the whole universe is Mongolian throat singing. Every star, every planet, every continent, every building, every person is vibrating along to the slow cosmic beat.” It’s in your own body. Put a hand on your heart and contemplate that – there is a hum from the Big Bang right there. Talk about Deep Time. When I read Frank’s piece in The Atlantic, I loved the online comments that said essentially “Congratulations. Western science just proved what indigenous and mystical ways of knowing have been saying for millennia.” We are part of unfathomably bigger stories than our own lives. These stories are in our cells, and literally vibrating in every atom of our bodies. Science says it now. Mysticism has always said it. Indigenous wisdom has always known it. This is the comfort of deep belonging. This is the Torah of Deep Time.

As Jews we retain the powerful kinship circle practice of naming our common ancestors. We call on the names of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah three or more times a day in traditional prayer. Inspired by this, one of my favorite devotional practices is to contemplate a framed poster I have called a History of Existing Life. My finger follows the trunk and branches, tracing my deep time ancestral lineage: Eukaryota, animalia, cordata, mammalia… Of course, it is not until the very top of the poster, a hairsbreadth from the edge of the frame, that primates like me appear, one more shape in a long line of lucky mud.

Yotam’s and my son, Reb Zalman’s grandson, is almost six years old now. He loves an old photo we framed for him – a picture of both his grandfathers from forty years ago – my young father’s arm around his much older teacher, both of them grinning ear to ear.  When I look at my son’s face, I see those grins smiling back at me. Facing an uncertain future of fires, floods, and social upheaval, I make sure my child is snuggly tucked in a matrix of familial belonging. But I don’t stop with orienting him to his place in our family, or even the Jewish people. I teach him, too, that he is part of the great unfolding story of the Earth. We kneel together by the poster of the History of Existing Life, and he traces his finger up from the roots until he finds his species on a branch. We walk together among the living trees, learning their names and speaking to them as kin. We study the carbon cycle, and marvel at the stretches of time that live inside of our cells – our eyes wide with awe, our mouths filled with thanks. Lucky us, lucky mud.

An individual person, their beginning is dust and their end is dust. But we are your people and You – unfathomable process of becomingness – are our God. May we as individuals, and collectively as Jews, humans, and Earthlings be written into the Book of Life, even as we know – no matter what – that we are part of the Tree of Life.

L’Shanah Tova!



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