This weekend Jewish congregations around the globe will once again resume the weekly out-loud public readings of the Torah (Five Books of Moses, aka Old Testament) from the beginning, Genesis. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” the Torah opens. The statement is simple but jarring. Every year at this time we are confronted with our humblest of beginnings. Not our personal beginnings but the earliest explosive cataclysmic beginnings of a universe so vast as to be incomprehensible.
Geologists estimate the age of our planet Earth as 4.6 billion years old. Yet multicellular life did not make its appearance for almost 4 billion years. John McPhee, pulitzer prize winning non-fiction author of Annals of a Former World, a 660 page collection of five books published under one title for the first time in 1998, writes succinctly: From an interstellar gas cloud, evidently, the solar system began to form about 4.56 billion years ago. The first eleven verses of Genesis cover more than 4 billion of those years – the entire Precambrian and the first one hundred and fifty million years of Phanerozoic time (p. 630).
In his five separate books written over about 20 years, McPhee accompanies leading geologists along as they explore and explain the geology of the United States. McPhee’s plum line is Interstate 80, which starts near the basaltic columns lining the Hudson River just north of New Jersey’s George Washington bridge and following it as it crosses the mid-portion of the country )what he refers to as “the craton” and continuing from East to West ending in or about the San Andreas fault which runs right through San Francisco. McPhee queried one geologist and asked him how he reconciled his professional work that dealt in hundreds of millions and billions of years with his daily life which operates on minutes and hours, days and weeks. The rock scientist explained that his was indeed a schizophrenic existence.
We focus on the now, because, after all, that is where we live our lives. The present. Our sense of history spans decades, and in some cases, centuries and once in a while, a millenium or two. “Classic rock” music goes back only fifty or so year, making a mockery of the word “classic”. But, rock music is not that old. The rocks that are the actual foundations of our cities, the bedrocks under the dirt holding our homes up, are, however, beyond ancient. I don’t think we have a word to capture the span of ‘billions of years ago’. “Ancient” is lacking. “Old” is not even a consideration.
The woods are an antidote to the “now-ness” of mundane living. In the forest, or mountains, or wadi, whether hiking or running, you travel among the extraordinarily ancient rocks, some sculpted by water running intermittently over thousands of year, between boulders carried and left behind by advancing than retreating glaciers, and summit mountain tops rounded by tens of thousands of years of erosion, shaping the land bit by bit. Out there is where we are confronted with our planet’s unfathomable past. And at least once a year, Judaism reminds us all that our lives area a fleeting nanosecond in God’s intergalactic time scale. But soon enough, within minutes of the opening of Genesis, we will begin reading about the exploits of Man and Woman, as they begin to build their lives, in the slow motion that sometimes seems so real. In fact, we make our appearance just 16 sentences later, and mankind remains the focus from then on.
Our challenge is to synthesize these two schizophrenic realities, and make some sense of the now.