Hungry? I certainly am – and I’m sure that having to sit and listen to a sermon makes you think about food even more. Many reasons have been giving for the custom of fasting on Yom Kippur, as well as for all the other “afflictions” that the rabbis proscribed in this day, like not wearing leather shoes or bathing.One of the reasons I find most interesting is that on this day, the holiest of the Jewish calendar when the divide between the earthly and heavenly realms is blurred, we are supposed to emulate angels.
In the words of Rabbi Loew, the Maharal of Prague, who is celebrating his 400th Yahrzeit this September: “All of the laws that God commanded us on [Yom Kippur] are designed to remove, as much as possible, a person's relationship to physicality, until he is completely like an angel." Angels are devoid of physical needs, and we are thus encouraged to put aside our own physical needs for 25 hours. Similarly it is customary to wear white on Yom Kippur, so that we even look like angels. I’ve pondered on this concept and it’s really made me think – do I really want to be like an angel? Shouldn’t I just stick to being a good old human? According to the ancient and mystical book of Enoch (2 Enoch 30-31), our purported forefather Adam was originally created as an angel, but we certainly are no angels today.
In our mythical history, angels and humans didn’t really start off on the right foot. The Talmud (BT Sanhedrin 38b) tells us that God first created a group of angels and wanted to consult them on the creation of Adam. He asked them: Shall we make the human being in our image? (Which is, by the way, a clever rabbinic response to the obvious question that arises from the Torah’s use of plural when saying “in our image”) The angels, with some reservation, questioned Him: and what will his actions be like? To which God replied accordingly – giving exact detail of all future human short-comings. The angels then questioned God through a verse taken from the Book of Psalms: “What is the person that You have been mindful of him, the human that You shall take notice of him?” God, not pleased at their antagonistic attitude towards future humans, stretched out His little finger and consumed the angels by fire, and so He did to a second group of angels who had the same misgivings. Fried angel wings anybody? A third band of angels, a wiser one, told God: “What did the other angels accomplish? The world is yours, and You’re going to end up doing with it whatever you want!” Gosh, why ask in the first place then?
This pre-Genesis apprehension to humanity’s existence was echoed generations later in the House of Study, this time post-facto. The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) tells us that for two and a half years the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel argued – boy am I surprised! The existentially nihilistic House of Shammai contended that "it is better for the human being not to have been created than to have been created." The House of Hillel, the most cheerful of the lot, disagreed by saying that "it is better for the human being to have been created." Together, they finally reviewed the opinions and reached a consensus:”It is better for the human not to have been created than to have been created, but now that the human is already created, he should meditate on his actions”.
I wonder: Is it truly better for us not to have come into being, to have been a potential never manifest? Should we bemoan like Adam after his exile in Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay to mould me Man, did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me, or here place in this delicious Garden?” After some thought, I’ve come to realise that the House of Hillel were on to something at first. I know, I know - two and a half years of arguing and fatigue, but really they shouldn’t have thrown in the towel so easily.
You see, I’m quite chuffed at being human. We are from this world, yet bestowed with a divine spark that lets us connect to the sublime – to the spiritual, the intellectual, the abstract, and the aesthetic. Our curiosity always pushes us on a quest of eternal discovery. Our stubbornness doesn’t allow us to leave a problem unsolved. We have the ability to manipulate our surroundings, and often have the good desire to ameliorate them. And this is just the beginning! I will now point four areas where we can appreciate how remarkable it is to be human, supporting Hillel, justifying our creation: firstly, humanity’s stubbornness to perfect itself; secondly, the inner sense of morals we as humans all share; thirdly, each human being’s need to live in society and interact with others; and finally, I will point to the special bond that ties all humans to the environment around them.
One of the unique qualities of our humanity is our relentless drive to improve ourselves. The Chassidic commentator S’fat Emet (Lech Lecha 3) notes that another Hebrew term for the human being is mehalech, goer, because we are always progressing from one rung to the next. He claims that if we stand without embracing renewal, we will end up entrapped by our own dispositions. The angels, on the other hand, are said to be “standing” (Isaiah 6:2).They are static – facing no challenges yet denied the pleasure of overcoming them. Modern philosophers and scientists speak of transhumanism, which evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley in his book New Bottles for New Wine describes as humanity’s effort to “transcend itself – not just sporadically … but in its entirety, as humanity…. Man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.” He adds that ‘the human species will be on the threshold of a new kind of existence, as different from ours as ours is from that of Pekin man (the homo erectus, a predecessor of modern day humans). It will at last be consciously fulfilling its real destiny.” Some promoters of transhumanism seek to create the posthuman, a cognitively-enhanced being freed from disease and pain through the use of biotechnology and cybernetics. For now, let us leave that to the realm of Science Fiction. Nevertheless, this impetus we have towards the perfection of humanity brings us each day a step closer to the realisation of our tradition’s vision of a Messianic Age. We long for this time when suffering and conflict will be relegated to the annals of history.
Most remarkable amongst our human traits, is our innate sense of morals. Be it an outcome of eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge or the result of complex processes of Darwinian evolution, latent in all of us is a sense of what is right and wrong. Tradition says that angels are automatons without free will. Real shame we can’t get them to do our laundry! We on the other hand can delight in our personal autonomy, yet have been given the tools to exercise it ethically.
At the Harvard Cognitive Evolution Laboratory, researchers conducted a study on moral sensitivity using 1500 subjects from diverse backgrounds and parts of the world – both people of faith and atheists, including those living in traditional societies like the Kuna Indians of Panama. Using questions posing complex ethical dilemmas, they found that between 90 to 97% of respondents gave exactly the same answer. When asked to justify their response, the vast majority failed to give a coherent answer. It was just plain instinct. They conclude by saying that “this study begins to provide empirical support for the idea that like other psychological faculties of the mind,.. we are endowed with a moral faculty that guides our intuitive judgments of right and wrong”. They nonetheless end by warning us that “our evolved intuitions do not necessarily give us the right or consistent answer to moral dilemmas. What was good for our ancestors may not be good for human beings as a whole today, let alone for our planet and all the other beings living on it... In this respect, it is important for us to be aware of the universal set of moral intuitions so that we can reflect on them, and if we choose, act contrary to them.”
And this, in a way, is somewhat similar to the approach that we as Progressive Jews take in forging our set of values. We look back at the principles through which our ancestors guided their lives, and either apply them or modify them according to the sensitivities of the world we live in today. It is not an easy process, it requires utmost sincerity and awareness, but without proper morals to guide our society, we are not too far away from our ape predecessors.
Another one of our invaluable characteristics as humans is that we are social by nature. We utilise advanced systems of communication for our self-expression and to exchange ideas. We create complex social and family institutions and organise into collectives. But most importantly, we are drawn to care for and ensure the well-being of others. As Albert Einstein so eloquently put it:
Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a
short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a
purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one
thing we do know: that we are here for the sake of others; above
all, for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness
depends; and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate
we are connected by a bond of sympathy.
Angels are supernatural entities, and by definition are divorced from nature. Our destinies, on the other hand, are inextricably linked to the environment around us, as traditional cultures have always understood. The Hebrew term for the human being, Adam, comes from the word Adama, meaning Earth. Many ancient myths from civilisations all over the world, including our own biblical narrative, claim that the first humans were fashioned from clay – primeval golems imbued with life-force. Psychoanalysts argue that clay creation myths stem from unconscious fascinations with faeces and excrement, but I doubt you’d want me to speak about that on Yom Kippur, so we’ll leave that for later.
On a more interesting note, Prof. Graham Cairns-Smith from the University of Glasgow controversially argues that clay crystals were the dormant matter from which simple organic life forms evolved. So, hey, what’d you know – it could be that we really do come from clay after all! In any case, these clay stories about human origin can convey an important message. We were born from the Earth and thus share an inseparable link to it. When we harm the Earth, we are effectively harming ourselves. This is most clearly evident in rabbinic recollections of a mythic being called the Adne Sadeh (Tanchuma Intr. 125), a proto-human created before Adam. He had all the physical characteristics of a human being, with one exception. A long navel cord connected him to the earth. It could extend up to a mile, allowing him a wide radius of movement, but if the cord was ever to snap, he would die instantly. In this case, rabbinic imagination was much more explicit – if we sever our ties to the Earth, our metaphoric mother and source of our nurture, we have no future. The Torah (Gen. 2:15) tells us that “the LORD God took the human and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and guard it”. L’ovda, “to work it” in Hebrew can also be translated as “to serve it”. We as humans are thus duty bound to be the guardians of our environment, and if we fail at our task the disfavour is to our own selves.
Taking all this into consideration – who would want to be an angel? We as humans have been given precious gifts. We can’t stand idly in complacency, yet when we seek to progress our potential is limitless. We have been burdened with heavy responsibilities, yet are able to revel at their fulfilment. We face the danger of having sovereignty over our actions, yet have an innate conscience as a wherewithal to make the right decisions. We have no choice but to co-exist with others, yet our power to love can make us into one. We have to till the earth for our survival, yet can derive infinite sustenance from her when we do so with respect. How great it is that we were created. House of Shammai – I think you got it wrong!
Having said that, as humans we are frail, marred by grave short-comings which lead us time and time again to err. Our inner drive to improvement is often fettered by our complacence and our procrastination. We have an intuitive conscience which tells us what is right and wrong, yet we sometimes prefer not to hearken to its call. As social beings, we seek other human beings to form emotional bonds with. Sadly though, we sometimes seek others to harm and abuse them instead. We are connected to the Mother Earth from where we came, yet at times like young spiders we devour the womb that sheltered us. Angels, on the other hand, don’t make the same grave mistakes as we do. True that they are not tempted, yet they don’t stray from the path either – shouldn’t they take the upper hand? Maybe so, but only if there wasn’t a Yom Kippur, only if the world didn’t provide humans the possibility to correct their mistakes and emerge stronger.
Returning to what I said earlier, I actually don’t think Yom Kippur is at all about being an angel. It is about being human, about celebrating who we are. Yom Kippur acknowledges that we are human and that we make mistakes. Yet mistakes are not our end. Our fate is not set in stone, and we don’t need to settle for a stagnant and truncated state of being. Yom Kippur helps us see that there is a beyond, that there is a destiny we as humans need to fulfil. We will stumble along the way, yet rise nonetheless. Today is the day of our renewal – the renewal of our spirits and of our purpose.
Let us use this time to think of where we are headed, and if we need to, let us change our course. All of us carry a map deep inside, downloaded into our human make-up. And if we do get lost, let us turn to our fellow human beings, for we are all treading the same path together. Each day we are taking a step towards the realisation of our potential as individuals. It is indeed great to be human, and this day we can see it clearer than ever.