Click here for a full list of CBE’s High Holy Day sermons, service recordings, and other highlights.


Oh, Beauty

We were supposed to be together today.
All together.
We were supposed to be looking back at a year and a half
of fear and grief
having reached the other side.
We were supposed to be returning to our lives, changed.

But that’s not what’s happening today.
The pandemic continues.
We are bone tired.
And some of us have lost hope.

Last year we were praying for a vaccine.
What are we praying for now?

In Talmud Berachot (32b)
Rabbi Ḥama, son of Rabbi Ḥanina, said:
A person who prayed
and was not answered,
should pray again, as it is stated:
“Strengthen yourself, let your heart take courage,
and put your hope in Gd” (Psalms 27:14).
Rashi says,
“Hope – strengthen yourself and don’t give up,
hope and hope again.”

You might expect that today
I will list what’s wrong in our world
And urge us to change it.
I could make a big list,
but not this year.
Not today. You already know.

Today, I want to offer you a glimpse of hope.
I want to give you a taste of beauty.
I want to write you a love poem,
a poem that makes you fall in love
with the world that birthed you
and to which you belong.

I want to write you a get-well-soon card
For us and the earth itself
–we’re so sick–
I want to give you words that heal.

I don’t want to bring fear; we’re already too afraid.
I don’t want to bring grief; there’s already too much grief.
In fear and grief we recoil, we withdraw.
What the world needs now is our love, our devotion.

In the well-known words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:
“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…
to get up in the morning and look at the world
in a way that takes nothing for granted.”

We’re in a moment of convergence:
what our souls need
and what the earth needs
are one and the same.

I want to help you fall in love with this world again.
I want us to fall in love with the life we’ve been given;
I want us to plant seeds in fresh soil,
to caress a new leaf and watch it grow.
I want us to walk under a cool canopy of branches
I want you to fall asleep on wet sand to the sound of ocean
I want you to be cradled on dark earth with roots reaching beneath you
to dream of your place among all the growing things,
how you belong here, alive.
I want you to fall in love with vine and tendril and shoot and blossom, and life itself
I want us to wake in reverence to the misty curve of blue planet
Seeing suddenly how we fit here.

I want to write a sermon that shows us a whole new way to live
I want us to believe that we belong in the land of the living,
to imagine that there is a future for us, through hellfire and rising tides,
that we are worthy of this earth and can live up to its promise.

And from there, from that deep belonging:
collective divestment
from the way that leads to death;
collective investment
in a way that leads to life.

For these Holy Days, we chose the theme Nashuvah,
Let us Return,
Nashuva is like Teshuvah, same root.
We return, but not to the way things were before,
We see how the way things were before wasn’t right,
wasn’t the best we could be,
We return with an aspiration, a yearning, a commitment,
to change.
Hashiveinu Adonai v’Nashuvah, we sing
Return us, Adonai, and we will return.

Resensitize us
to the beauty of our world,
Reorient us
to being alive in this living system,
Return us
to delight, pleasure, awe.

In Judaism, beauty is a window
into the mystery and wonder of Creation.
When we see something beautiful
we say Baruch Atah Adonai Elokeinu Melech ha’Olam,
she kacha lo b’olamo.
“Blessed are You, Adonai our Gd, Sovereign of the Universe,
for this is how it is in Your world.”

In Psalm 27 we say,
“One thing I ask of YH-VH, only that do I seek:
to live in the house of the Eternal all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty…”

In Ecclesiastes (3:11), we see in the ephemerality of beauty
the eternality of its Creator.
In contrast to the shallow Western association of
beauty with youth,
Torah (Leviticus 19:32) commands us:
“v’hadarta p’nei zaken. See beauty in the face of the old.”
We see beauty in persistence, in longevity.

According to the Talmud (Shabbat 133b),
we are to find a beautiful shofar,
beautiful tzitzit,
a beautiful sukkah,
beautiful parchment for a Torah scroll
written in beautiful ink with a beautiful quill,
and wrap it in beautiful silk.
This is called hiddur mitzvah.
We are to feed the hungry
shelter the homeless
visit the sick
as these acts beautify the world.
One reason, then, to do mitzvot, says Rabbi Elliot Dorff,
is to make life more beautiful.

Perhaps you found yourself, in this year and a half,
resensitized to beauty you never saw before.
You walked amongst trees, feeling their company
Your eyes lingered on a butterfly sipping nectar from a lush blossom,
slowly opening and closing its resplendent wings.
As Mary Oliver says:
“It was what I was born for—
to look, to listen, to lose myself
inside this soft world—
to instruct myself over and over
in joy and acclamation.”

There are wonders in this soft world
we’re only beginning to see.
One hundred and eighty biofluorescent species live under the sea.
These shimmering creatures emit light.
We do not know what purpose their light serves
other than beauty.

The iridescent mantis shrimp has twelve to sixteen types
of photoreceptor cells in its eyes
compared to our three.
It can see light and color far beyond our rainbow
Reminding us
that our eyes perceive
only a tiny fraction
of what is happening in our world.

The golden crowned-kinglet
is a bird
that weighs less than two-tenths of an ounce
and its song is pitched so high
that many human adults cannot hear it.
However, experiments have shown
that we can sensitize our ears
to hear the golden crowned kinglet and other sounds in nature
that are currently beyond our range.
If you get very quiet and listen,
you can even hear the sound of flowers growing.
The hyacinth with its close-packed blossoms and glossy leaves
makes a sharp juicy noise when it stretches.
A sensitive listener can feast on many tiny sounds, even the wind.
Psithurism is the word for the sound of wind whispering through trees.

And what about the trees?
German forester Peter Wohlleben
writes about the hidden life of trees.
Trees form colonies with one another,
Sharing nutrients, caring for those who are ill or weak.
Trees communicate through electric impulses and chemicals
that travel across the fungal networks in the soil between their roots.

Trees have a sense of balance —
if its crown is tilted, a beech tree will grow
special wood to turn it upright.
And plants can….hear.
Pea roots grow toward the sound of rushing water
even when that water is in a pipe.
And when a recording
of munching caterpillars
is played near sunflowers,
they release defensive chemicals.

There are even some scientists
who theorize that plants see
and have consciousness.
The cuticle layer of leaves
is not only able to absorb light but to focus it,
which is not necessary for photosynthesis, only for vision.
Charles Darwin proposed that root tips act as brains.

Scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer is
a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation,
and author of Braiding Sweetgrass:
Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.
She tells the story of her first day of college.
Her advisor peered over his glasses and asked,
“So why do you want to study botany?”
“I told him that I chose botany because
I wanted to learn about why asters and goldenrod
looked so beautiful together….
I wondered, why do they stand beside each other
when they could grow alone?
Why this particular pair?
Why is the world so beautiful?
It could easily be otherwise:
flowers could be ugly to us
and still fulfill their own purpose….
[My advisor] laid down his pencil
as if there was no need to record what I had said.
“Miss Wall,” he said, fixing me with a disappointed smile,
“I must tell you that that is not science.”

It turns out that that is science.
Asters, which are purple,
and goldenrod, a deep yellow,
grow together because their colors are complementary
(remember the color wheel?)
so butterflies and bees find the combination
particularly beautiful.
This means that they grow near each other
to get more pollination visits.
And it means that beauty happens
between us and among us.

Richard Prum is an ornithologist
and evolutionary biologist at Yale.
In his lifelong study of birds,
Prum has been drawn again and again
to a simple question:
Why are birds so beautiful?
Why does the peacock have its astonishing display?
Why does the Blackburning Warbler have its stunning
yellow orange throat
and the Great Argus
3D gold spheres on its secondary wing?
Why does the Club-winged Manakin
produce a tonal song by vibrating its wings?
Why does the Satin Bowerbird
decorate its court with royal blue objects found in the forest?
Why does the Vogelkop Bowerbird display
an array of carefully-curated,
stones, flowers, feathers, fruits and berries?
Why do groups of Blue Manikins
perform spectacular cartwheels together?
Why is there so much beauty?

In his book, The Evolution of Beauty
Prum demonstrates that beauty
does not provide any advantage for survival.

Beauty does not have any correlation
with the quality of the genes that are passed on
from the perspective of natural selection.
Beauty is not a predictor of an adult’s capacity
to care for or protect the fledglings or eggs.
Beauty serves no function,
other than beauty itself.
Birds and all creatures evolve to be beautiful,
to create beauty for ourselves and each other.

In the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible
the beloved is compared to the earth itself.
Not only is the beloved beautiful, but so is the world:
“Ah, you are beautiful, my darling, Ah, you are beautiful,
With your dove-like eyes! …
Like an apple tree among trees of the forest,
so is my beloved among the youths.
I delight to sit in his shade,
And his fruit is sweet to my mouth…
My beloved is like a gazelle
Or like a young stag.
There he stands behind our wall,
Gazing through the window,
Peering through the lattice. …
Arise, my darling; my beauty, come away.
The blossoms have appeared in the land,
the song of the turtledove is heard.
The green figs form on the fig tree,
The vines in blossom give off fragrance.
Arise, my darling; my beauty, come away.”

Our story starts in Eden
and returns there too
Where once upon a time we lived
Among all the beautiful growing things
the grasses, the trees, the animals.

We once knew,
as Rabbi Nahman describes:
to go outdoors each day
among the trees and the grass
Among all the growing things
And there be alone and enter into prayer
To talk with the One to whom we belong.
And there we express everything in our hearts
And all the foliage of the field,
all grasses, trees, and plants
awaken at our coming,
to send the powers of their life
into the words of our prayer,
so that our prayer and speech are made whole
through the life and the spirit of all growing things,
made one by their transcendent Source,
Then we pour out the words of our hearts like water,
and lift up our hands in worship,
on our behalf,
and on behalf of our children,
and on behalf of all growing things.

Once upon a time we knew how
and one day soon
we will again.
We were born to inhabit this earth,
we are of it;
we belong in this biosphere.

But we have two modern stories
that make us believe
that we do not have what it takes
to live in balance with our earth.
Neither of these stories is true.

First, we say that our genetic instructions
are geared toward survival of the fittest.
Perhaps, we fear, we are designed
to dominate and destroy,
to bend the world to our demands
regardless of our impact on the rest of life,
eventually snuffing out our own.

This is wrong.
Fit does not mean strongest, most powerful, most dominant.
Fit means adaptive.
We have evolved to adapt.
We are specifically designed to adapt
to changes in our environment.
Mask-wearing is adaptation.
Vaccination is adaptation.
Investment in clean energy is adaptation.
Ceasing harmful industry is adaptation.
Restraint in resource use is adaptation.
We have never before been able to adapt
so quickly
and we have never needed
that speed and purpose
more than now.

But even this is not the whole story.
Because Darwin had not one
but two theories of evolution.
The second, Aesthetic Evolution through Mate Selection,
was rejected in its time,
for positing female sexual autonomy,
and many of us have not learned that
Darwin said that species evolve through
“a taste for the beautiful,”
that all animals shape evolution,
by choosing what we find attractive.

There are billions of beauty standards on the earth.
We and all creatures decide what is beautiful,
mutually designing our evolution through our choices.
Every living thing was chosen.
Every living thing evolved the way it did because
someone thought it was beautiful. Many someones.

To summarize Darwin:
We survive by adapting,
And while we are alive,
We evolve by delighting.

Can you see the beauty in your own face?
More than 100,000 generations of homo sapiens
have evolved to make you that beautiful.
Can you see the beauty in the faces of your neighbors–
two legged, four legged, six legged, winged, rooted–
on your block, in the park, in the forest, on the street corner —
Can you hear the beauty in the voices nearest you — chatter chirping song?
Did you forget to look up today at the beauty in the light in the leaves in the sky?
Did you forget to look down and take off your shoes in the grass?
Did you forget to go outside and touch the bark
and lean your body against a trunk?
Did you forget that all of these are your cousins?
We are kin, we are of them, we are made of earth.

Our second misconception
is that we have nothing to offer our ecosystem.
Dr. Wall Kimmerer surveyed her students
who said that humans are bad for planet earth,
pointing to clear cutting and mining,
toxins in air and water,
species extinction and climate change.
Most could not think of a single benefit
that humans offer the living systems around us.
Can you?

Early colonists in the Americas were stunned
by the plenitude they found here,
attributing the richness solely
to the bounty of nature.
But in truth, Native American practices
were responsible.
Settlers didn’t understand
that the abundance was created
in partnership with humans.

In the Great Lakes wild rice harvest,
the new arrivals were puzzled when
(quote) “the savages [sic] stopped gathering
long before all the rice was harvested,”
assuming that the Native Americans were lazy.
But the indigenous people knew
not to take more than 50 percent of the harvest,
and science has now backed up their knowledge.

Kimmerer explains that “if we remove 50 percent of plant biomass,
the stimulus of compensatory growth
causes an increase in population density and plant vigor.”
However, “In the absence of disturbance [of plants],
resource depletion and competition
result in a loss of vigor and increased mortality.” (p. 165)
In other words, many plants need human intervention in order to thrive.
“By our use of their gifts,
we and the plants both prosper
and life is magnified.” (p. 185)
This is an Honorable Harvest.

In Potawatomi, Kimmerer’s indigenous language,
all living things: bodies of water, rocks, plants, animals,
are verbs: “to be a tree”, “to be a flower”
They are not objects but subjects.
Rather than ask “What is it?” or “How does it work?”
We’d ask “Who are you? What can you tell us?”
We’d listen to growing things,
looking for threads that connect us all.
Kimmerer asks, “Can we imagine a democracy of species,
not a tyranny of one?
Can we acknowledge intelligences other than our own,
teachers all around us?” (p. 58)

We can live out the Song of Songs,
We can restore Eden.
This would be our version of Nahman’s prayer,
This would be the new form of hiddur mitzvah,
acts that make life more beautiful.

If we always asked:
Is what I’m doing
depleting or magnifying life?
Is what we’re doing
diminishing or enhancing beauty?
And then, if we listened.

We have known, we can re-learn,
how to benefit the earth as it benefits us.
We have known, we can re-learn,
how to adapt to be in mutuality,
a symbiotic relationship,
in which we and all living things
and life is magnified.

This is our prayer this Rosh Hashanah, 5782,
this shmita year in which Jews allow the earth to rest:
Please, Gd,
Adapt us to our changing earth.
Sensitize us to its beauty
Help us fall in love with each other and the life we’ve been given
–vine and tendril and shoot and blossom–
Make us plant a new world in fresh soil,
caressing leaves and watching them grow,
Cradle us on dark earth with roots reaching beneath us.
Let us dream of our place among all growing things,
seeing how we belong here, alive,
how we fit,
Wake us up in wonder at the misty curve of blue planet.
Restore in us reciprocity with life itself,
So that we live in love and reverence
of all the magnificent beauty.

Baruch atah Adonai Elokeinu Melech HaOlam, shekacha lo beolamah.
Blessed are You, YH-VH our Gd, Sovereign of the Universe,
for this is how it is in Your world.