The very Earth Quaked and Trembled
“The very earth quaked and trembled”: this is how the Bible describes the revelation of the God of creation at Mount Sinai. The words read today like an account of the aftershock from North Korea’s nuclear tests.
We are halfway through Elul, the Hebrew month of preparation for the Jewish New Year, when every living being stands before God in judgment. A powerful medieval meditation recounts how the books of life and death are opened, for “on the New Year it is written and on the Day of Atonement it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water”.
I’ve never understood these images literally. Rather, they are a haunting reminder that our existence is frail and our fate unknown. Life is a brief opportunity in which we are accountable for every choice we make, between kindness and cruelty, life and death.
This year the picture of the world trembling before its fate feels like no metaphor. God “suspends the world over the substance-less void”, wrote an anonymous medieval author, in praise of the God of creation. Today the description reads ominously, like the strapline to a book of destruction, the caption to an image of potential annihilation.
It is hard to escape the feeling that the world has become rapidly more dangerous. It is not just the threat of nuclear conflict. It is also the reckless rhetoric of aggression from so many of the world’s leaders. It is the impact of climate change in devastating flooding and subsequent drought and erosion, destroying the livelihoods of villagers from Africa to Nepal. It is the anger, fear and frustration behind new waves of racism and xenophobia.
After witnessing the Trinity atom bomb test in July 1945, Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the Manhattan Project, recalled the line from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
A blunt choice faces humanity: which God do we worship, the God of life, or of death? This isn’t just an issue for the rulers of North Korea, China and the US. Nor is it a challenge only to those who drive vans into crowds, purportedly in God’s name. It is the existential question confronting each of us.
We are all choosers. Every interaction offers a choice between compassion or contempt for life. Nothing is too small to matter. I watched a queue of people entering a coffee shop flustered, but leaving calm. The man on the counter had greeted them all with a kind word, and this made all the difference.
A sneer, a racist tweet, blindness to another person’s tears, running over an animal as if it was dirt: there are endless opportunities for scorn.
The 12th-century philosopher Maimonides wrote that the scales of our life are always in the balance, so we must regard our every deed as decisive, for good or bad. Perhaps rarely in history has this been so true for life itself, for the very destiny of creation.
I do not believe in a God in Heaven who inscribes our fate in some vast celestial tome. I do not believe in a God of cruelty who seeks any creature’s harm or death. I believe profoundly in a God whose presence flows through all life and who calls out in the breath of the wind across the forest, the cry of the seabirds, the voices of children, in every living being. What God says in that ceaseless, wordless articulation is simply: “Respect me, cherish me.”
We don’t all have equal power. Some have incomparably more capacity to affect the fate of the world than others.
However, we all have the opportunity, and responsibility, to enhance the lives of others, eschew and expose cruelty, and instil respect for all living beings.
Across the world the books of life and death are open. Consciously or unconsciously we write in them all the time. What each of us writes becomes the meaning of our individual life. What humanity writes will become the destiny of life itself, for destruction or creation.
Jonathan Wittenberg is the senior rabbi for Masorti Judaism