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The Goldilocks Planet (VaYechi)

01/31/2023 03:09:55 PM


Rabbi Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon

Astronomers sometimes describe our planet's distance from the sun as being in the "Goldilocks Zone" to support life. If we were much closer to the sun, all of our water would have steamed away. Much farther out, and our oceans would be blocks of ice.

As the Goldilocks planet, earth is a cozy, just-right kind of place. In a vast universe of cold, dark rocks, here life flourishes.

Except, that's not how we experience it.

Just ask the farmers in Sacramento Valley, who often in the last few years have had to choose between taking showers and watering crops. Or ask the 20 motorists who were stranded by flood waters in Sacramento Valley's highway 99 this week, three of whom died.

Does anyone remember the end of the story of Jonah - the guy who got swallowed by a whale? At the end of the story, Jonah is so frustrated by everything that's happened, he goes out into the countryside, plops himself down, and prays for God to take his life. 

He almost mocks God with his language.

כִּ֣י יָדַ֗עְתִּי כִּ֤י אַתָּה֙ אֵֽל־חַנּ֣וּן וְרַח֔וּם אֶ֤רֶךְ אַפַּ֙יִם֙ וְרַב־חֶ֔סֶד וְנִחָ֖ם עַל־הָרָעָֽה׃

"I knew that you are a gracious, merciful, patient, overly compassionate, forgiving God" - he says.

This is the Goldilocks language we use to describe God throughout our prayers. El rachum v'chanun - merciful and gracious God

מְכַלְכֵּל חַיִּים בְּחֶֽסֶד

Sustains life with compassion. 

And so forth. Our beautiful, wonderful, green, abundant world is the gift of a compassionate God.

But Jonah then says - 

וְעַתָּ֣ה יְ-הֹוָ֔ה

"And now Adonai"

קַח־נָ֥א אֶת־נַפְשִׁ֖י מִמֶּ֑נִּי

"Take my soul from me"

כִּ֛י ט֥וֹב מוֹתִ֖י מֵחַיָּֽי׃

"Because my death is better than my life"

So God makes a gourd vine grow up over Jonah to shield him from the sun. And Jonah relaxes and feels great. Seems to forget about all that righteous anger and failures and prophecy stuff.

And the God sends a little worm to destroy the vine, the vine shrivels up, a hot wind blows, the sun beats down, and Jonah wants to die again.

I love the way this little vignette at the end of Jonah's story captures the essential frailness of humanity. And not just humanity - all biological beings. Every species has its habitat, its own Goldilocks conditions. We can't be too hot. We can't be too cold. We can't be too wet. We can't be too dry. If you put a Joshua Tree in the Amazon, it would drown. If you put an Amazon tree frog in the Mojave desert, it would shrivel. 

Only modern humans, with our powerful brains, have managed to make practically this entire planet our habitat.

But we are discovering that the Goldilocks planet isn't as gentle as all that, and we can't help but wonder how long it will tolerate us. Our planet has already been through 5 periods of mass extinction, long before the first great ape opened its eyes.

Most mass extinctions were long, drawn-out affairs, by human standards, occurring over tens of millions of years.

But the worst one, often called "the great dying" - 96% of species went extinct in just 60,000. That was 250 million years ago.

And 66 million years ago, a meteor took out 76% of species - most famously the dinosaurs - like that.

 And now, a new, terrifying possibility - one very brainy species, in our efforts to find our own Goldilocks comfort zones everywhere - may be driving the next mass extinction.

Today, we finish reading the book of Genesis (for this cycle, at any rate.) The book started with an orderly creation - the story of a powerful God taming the chaos. That was followed closely by the Garden of Eden story, about the human thirst for knowledge and power blowing-up any possibility of quiet comfort. 

The book of Genesis ends with death - the death of our patriarch, Jacob, and his son, Joseph.

Although the name of this final Torah portion is Vayechi - and he lived. Similar to the portion about Sarah's death, which is named Chayeh Sarah, the life of Sarah.

A defining characteristic of life - all life - is that it seeks to preserve and perpetuate itself. We human beings - the brainiest of all living creatures - seek to perpetuate and preserve our lives even in the abstract, even after death. The story of Jacob's death, is the story of how he kept his memory alive - projecting his influence deep into the future.

But we human beings, we who understand so much - what is the emotional and spiritual response, when having suffered for so long from drought and fire we are suddenly overwhelmed by flood?

As with any spiritual question - the simple, neat answers are really not answers at all. 

In fact, often the only truthful spiritual answer is a story - a story with nuance, and no simple lesson.

Many California Jews this week have been thinking about Choni the Circle maker. A short version of Choni's story appears in the Mishnah, the second century compilation that is the beginning of rabbinic Judaism. Here's how it goes:

It happened that they said to Choni the Circle maker: "pray that rain will fall."

He said to them: "Go out and bring the Passover ovens indoors, so they won't be damaged by the water."

He prayed and the rains did not fall. What did he do? He drew a circle and stood inside of it. And he said before God: "Master of the Universe, your children have turned to me, for I am like a child of your household. I swear by Your great name, I will not move from here until you have mercy on your children." The rain started to trickle. He said: "This is not what I asked for! Send rain to fill the wells and cisterns and reservoirs." It started to rain furiously. He said: "This is not what I asked for! Send rain of desire and blessing and benevolence." So then it came down in a normal way, but there was so much that the people of Jerusalem went up to the Temple mount because of the water. They said to him: "Just as you prayed for the rain to fall, now pray for the water to go away." He said to them: "Go check if a particular stone has been washed away."

The implication is that Choni refused to pray for the waters to recede - but the mishnah does not explain why.

The Talmud records a more detailed version of the story. The Talmud was written down a few hundred years after the mishnah, but often quotes much older texts, and the Talmud's Choni story has elements that actually may be older than the Mishnah's version.

In the Talmud's version, Choni explains: "I have been taught that one should not pray because of an abundance of good." In other words, it's fine to pray for the rain to come. And it's even ok to pray that the rain not fall in a dangerous torrent. But water is precious, and once it is here, you don't pray for it to dry up.

Only, in the Talmud's version, after Choni explains that it is not proper to pray for the water to go away, he then tells them: "bring me a gratitude cow" - a sacrifice for God. And he lays his hands on this cow, but rather than expressing gratitude, he expresses the frailness of humanity: "Master of the Universe", he says, with his hands on this supposed gratitude animal, "Your people can't handle much good or much bad. You got angry at them, they can't take it. You gave them an abundance of good, they can't take that. Please stop the rain and give the world a respite." And the rain stopped, and the people went out to gather mushrooms. 

In the midst of our California drought, who among us hasn't felt frustrated when a little rain did fall and ruined plans for the day. And then felt guilty for feeling frustrated?

And as many of us holed up this past week to avoid driving in the floods, opting for video calls instead of commutes - we experienced flashbacks to the trauma of the pandemic, and gratitude that the reservoirs were filling, and fear of the destruction the floods might bring, and disappointment that it was still enough snow to close most of the ski lifts and complicate the trip to and from the mountains...

It’s all very confusing.  As life & death are confusing. As it was for Choni and Jonah. As it was for our forefather Jacob. And as it certainly was for Adam and Eve in the garden, and even more so when they left the garden.

Planet earth is not a Goldilocks place. It is certainly not paradise. It’s wild and often unpredictable, and despite all of our progress, it is still untamed. And it is wondrously, awesomely, terrifyingly beautiful. 

Mon, March 4 2024 24 Adar I 5784