The Breath of All Life …Our Connection

The Breath of All Life - “Nishmat Kol Chai,” Joey Weisenberg and the Hadar Ensemble (featuring Deborah Sacks and Mattisyahu Brown)

I first published this post June 25, 2020, then withdrew it. I don’t remember exactly why. Perhaps there was something that made me uncomfortable as I thought more about these themes. Perhaps it just seemed too long or needed editing. But my blog is really a thought-journal for me. That’s why I decided to republish now, a year later, to make it part of my ongoing record. 

The Breath of All Life . . . Nishmat kol Chai in Hebrew . . . has always been one of my favorite prayers. G-d’s breath animates all life. All life sings its praise and appreciation just by being. The prayer speaks to a unity of being, a reciprocity of being, relationship.

A few weeks ago I started writing a post about a story in the first three chapters of Genesis. In these chapters, G-d brings created beings to life by breathing into them. It was about the unity of all being expressed in this image of G-d’s breath. It was also about unique capabilities of human beings. These capabilities make them the best candidates for the job of caring for the world G-d created and the living beings in it. And of course it was about what all this says about the relationship between human beings and nonhuman animals.

This insight into the unity of all being is not exclusive to the Hebrew Bible. I suspect it is a basic truth known to humanity since we began to think and imagine, our unique human ability. The Navajos express these insights in this direct way in The Navajo Fundamental Laws of the Dine’. Read this section on Natural Law of the Dine’: “All creation, from Mother Earth and Father Sky to the animals, those who live in water, those who fly and plant life, have their own laws and have rights and freedom to exist; and the Dine’ have a sacred obligation and duty to respect, preserve and protect all that was provided, for we were designated as the steward of these relatives through our use of the sacred gifts of language and thinking…”

Until modern times, the insight into the unity of all being has been considered part of the world of faith and myth. Today, though, many deconstructin the artificial wall between faith and science. We can view them as different in process and form of expression but not necessarily content. As Neil de Grasse Tyson says, “We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically…We are in the universe and the universe is in us.”

As I worked on my post, Covid-19 dragged on with its devastating symptoms that make it so difficult to breathe. Masks proliferated — or were in scarce supply — with their filters and breathing vents. My sister died. Although it wasn’t Covid-19 that caused her death, we originally thought it was because she reported difficulty breathing. Weeks of protests began when George Floyd died crying out, “I can’t breathe,” as a police officer pushed his knee down on his neck. I am more aware than ever that breath is the great unifier of all life. Everything that lives breathes, humans, nonhuman animals, plants, trees, the planet, the universe itself. Without breath, there is death.

The idea that G-d animates all being with G-d’s breath, that all being is sacred, took on the nuance of this moment in time and history. And my post took shape differently than I originally planned. The fundamentals are the same, though. So while my post isn’t directly about Covid-19, my sister’s death or George Floyd’s murder by suffocation and the protests that followed, those events were inevitably in my mind as I thought and wrote.

Unity of Being

When animism was the dominant belief system, human norms and values had to take into consideration the outlook and interests of a multitude of other beings, such as animals, plants, fairies and ghosts…The Agricultural Revolution seems to have been accompanied by a religious revolution. Hunter-gatherers picked and pursued wild plants and animals, which could be seen as equal in status to Homo sapiens.

The fact that man hunted sheep did not make sheep inferior to man, just as the fact that tigers hunted man did not make man inferior to tigers. Beings communicated with one another directly and negotiated the rules governing their shared habitat. In contrast, farmers owned and manipulated plants and animals, and could hardly degrade themselves by negotiating with their possessions. Hence the first religious effect of the Agricultural Revolution was to turn plants and animals from equal members of a spiritual round table into property. Prof. Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

These words had a profound effect on me when I first read them. They expressed an intuition I had that I was not yet able to form into words. They began to shape my current biblical study project. We see this idea of equality of being expressed “in the beginning,” in the first words of Genesis. Before G-d’s word, there is G-d’s breath. G-d’s word differentiates being, but G-d’s breath brings life to all, is in all. All beings are sacred.

In the biblical story, we are part of a sacred living unity through the breath (ר֨וּחַ) of G-d. There is a trilogy of words associated with this idea:

  • nefesh (נֶ֥פֶשׁ – soul, or better, living, breathing being)
  • hayyim, hayah (חַיִּ֑ים ,חַיָּֽה – life, living being)
  • ruach (ר֨וּחַ – breath, wind, breeze, sometimes translated soul or spirit)

When G-d begins to create, G-d’s breath moves across the water. It does the same when it renews creation after the flood:

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

When G-d began to create heaven and earth—

וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃

the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from G-d sweeping over the water— (Gen. 1:1-2)

וַיִּזְכֹּ֤ר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־נֹ֔חַ וְאֵ֤ת כָּל־הַֽחַיָּה֙ וְאֶת־כָּל־הַבְּהֵמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אִתּ֖וֹ בַּתֵּבָ֑ה וַיַּעֲבֵ֨ר אֱלֹהִ֥ים ר֙וּחַ֙ עַל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וַיָּשֹׁ֖כּוּ הַמָּֽיִם׃

G-d remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark, and G-d caused a wind to blow across the earth, and the waters subsided. (Gen. 8:1)

The commonality of vocabulary signifies commonality of meaning. Nonhuman animals, like humans, are basar (בָּשָׂ֣ר – body, flesh, even “carcass”). When flesh is animated by the breath of G-d, ruach, that flesh becomes nefesh, a whole, breathing, living being. The Hebrew word nefesh refers equally throughout the biblical text to fish, birds, land animals and human beings:

וַיִּיצֶר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה וַיִּפַּ֥ח בְּאַפָּ֖יו נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים וַֽיְהִ֥י הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה׃

the LORD G-d formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being. (Gen. 2:7)

כֹּ֡ל אֲשֶׁר֩ נִשְׁמַת־ר֨וּחַ חַיִּ֜ים בְּאַפָּ֗יו מִכֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר בֶּחָֽרָבָ֖ה מֵֽתוּ׃

All in whose nostrils was the merest breath of life, all that was on dry land, died. (Gen. 7:22)

Through breath, all being is interconnected, a unity. All of life, plants and animals, the heavens and the earth, along with humans, sits at the spiritual round table. This is a world in which it’s possible to encounter G-d walking in the Garden at a “breezy” time of day. It is a time and space when G-d’s breath (ר֨וּחַruach) fills the air:

… וַֽיִּשְׁמְע֞וּ אֶת־ק֨וֹל יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהִ֛ים מִתְהַלֵּ֥ךְ בַּגָּ֖ן לְר֣וּחַ הַיּ֑וֹם

They heard the sound of the LORD G-d moving about in the garden at the breezy time of day; (Gen. 3:8)

So Genesis describes a world in which all of life is sacred, every creature a sacred being brought to life with the breath of G-d. Our profound connection to all being is the basis of faith for many, and respect for life is a corollary of that faith. It is a recognition of G-d’s breath in all, an understanding that we all sit as equals at the spiritual round table.

Diversity Of Being

Modern cosmology reflects an interaction of opposites with life originating in the balance between them, moving toward increasing diversity and complexity: gravity pulls inward toward density, and dark energy pushes outward toward expansion of the universe and increasing complexity of structures. Life is a particularly intricate natural structure that arises under the right circumstances, between order and chaos.

The Hebrew Bible reveals this same insight by presenting opposite ideas and telling a story that weaves in and out between them, seeking a balance. The idea of unity and equality of all being is one half of a set of opposites. It is in a delicate yet powerful interaction with another idea, diversity and particularism. Just as Genesis 1-3 tells a story of sacred unity, all being animated by the breath of G-d, it also tells a story of sacred diversity, created with G-d’s word. These two ideas, unity and diversity, are opposite but not oppositional, not a binary. They represent an interaction. Life happens in the balance between the opposites.

Looking more deeply at the diversity theme in Genesis 1-3, we see that Genesis tells its story by describing a six-day process crowned with a seventh day of rest. In this process, creating is diversifying as God separates and distinguishes parts of creation. Each day God brings a different part of the world into being, more “structures,” to use the scientific term. The biblical word that signifies differentiation is from the root בָּדל (b-d-l, separate):

וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָא֖וֹר כִּי־ט֑וֹב וַיַּבְדֵּ֣ל אֱלֹהִ֔ים בֵּ֥ין הָא֖וֹר וּבֵ֥ין הַחֹֽשֶׁךְ׃ 

G-d saw that the light was good, and G-d separated the light from the darkness. (Gen. 2:4)

The thought that there is a unity of all being is a basic insight humans are privileged to have, that they access through a process of imagination. But the diversity of the cosmos, the diversity of creation, is an equally compelling, counterbalancing insight. All beings are not the same. We don’t look the same, think the same, act the same, or have the same gifts and talents. Each part of creation, each species, each individual being, has its own unique characteristics perfectly suited to itself. It must — otherwise it would not be able to survive in its moment in time and space.

Many years ago I learned a beautiful prayer, Nishmat Kol Chai, “The Breath of All Living (praises your name)…” I once received a gift, a framed version of it, calligraphed by a friend of mine. I’ll share the words that make up the body of the prayer:

Though our mouths were filled with song as the sea
And our tongues with joy as the multitude of its waves
And our lips with praise as the wide expanse of the firmament
Though our eyes were radiant as the sun and the moon
And our hands were spread forth like the eagles of heaven
Though our feet were swift as hinds
Yet should we be unequal to thanking Thee
O Lord our G-d and the G-d of our fathers
For one minutest measure of the kindness Thou hast shown
Unto our fathers and unto us.

The imagery of this beautiful prayer struck my imagination. This is a liturgical hymn to creation that picks up on the biblical theme of sacred diversity. It is a song that reflects on our beautiful particularity, each individual, each part of creation, each species, with its own song of praise to sing. “The breath of all living,” of every living being, nishmat kol chai, sings a song of praise and joy, each living being in its own unique way, simply by living according to its nature. “All living” incorporates not only humans but the natural environment and nonhuman animals. What an extraordinary image — every living being, all life, praises G-d just by living in the world and being its unique self.

Browsing the internet one day, I found this beautiful version of the prayer. It made me wish I could express myself this way. But I reminded myself that just as each species is unique, so is each individual within each species. The diversity of all being like its unity is limitless, infinite: The Breath of All Life – “Nishmat Kol Chai,” Joey Weisenberg and the Hadar Ensemble (featuring Deborah Sacks and Mattisyahu Brown)

And there’s this: “Song of the Grasses”, lyrics by Naomi Shemer. I chose this version because it includes the translation with the music. There are many beautiful renditions in YouTube, though. Search on Shirat Ha-Asavim or “Song of the Grasses”: Song of the Grasses, sung here by Shuli Rand.

But in case you don’t stop to listen to this beautiful music, here is the English translation of “The Song of the Grasses”:

Do know that each and every shepherd has his own tune? Do know that each and every grass has its own poem? And from the poem of the grasses, a tune of a shepherd is made. How beautiful, how beautiful and pleasant to hear their poem! It is very good to pray among them and to serve the Lord with joy. From the poem of the grasses, the heart is filled and yearns. And when the poem causes the heart to fill and to yearn to the Land of Israel, a great light is drawn and goes from the Land’s holiness upon it. And from the poem of the grasses a tune of the heart is made.

The Necessity of Freedom – The Exodus

Life develops in the space between oppositional motifs: unity and diversity; undifferentiated darkness and void and a dazzling array of differentiated being; freedom of choice and determinism. The story in the Hebrew Bible unfolds between opposites.

There are corollaries to these parallel ideas of unity and diversity. One of these is the necessity of freedom. The songs of praise that life sings can only be uttered from within a state of freedom, a space where each is free to live its life, expressing itself in its own unique way.

The Hebrew Bible places a high value on freedom. Why? Because in being who we are, we serve creation. If we are G-d-believers, we serve the G-d of creation according to our nature. But how can any part of creation fulfill its potential, serve creation, if it is not free?

The story of the Exodus elaborates the freedom theme. The Israelites, who had to become free in order to serve their G-d, the G-d of creation, are emblematic. They even had to be freed from their slave mentality by wandering through the desert for forty years! Praising G-d with their unique song required freedom for every individual, freedom in body and mind.

בְּהוֹצִֽיאֲךָ֤ אֶת־הָעָם֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם תַּֽעַבְדוּן֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים עַ֖ל הָהָ֥ר הַזֶּֽה׃ 

And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship G-d at this mountain. (Ex. 3:12)

But the freedom theme doesn’t apply only to humans. Nishmat Kol Chai echoes the biblical text in extending freedom to other beings. This verse from Exodus ordains the Sabbath observance:

וְי֙וֹם֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔֜י שַׁבָּ֖֣ת ׀ לַיהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑֗יךָ לֹֽ֣א־תַעֲשֶׂ֣֨ה כָל־מְלָאכָ֡֜ה אַתָּ֣ה ׀ וּבִנְךָֽ֣־וּ֠בִתֶּ֗ךָ עַבְדְּךָ֤֨ וַאֲמָֽתְךָ֜֙ וּבְהֶמְתֶּ֔֗ךָ וְגֵרְךָ֖֙ אֲשֶׁ֥֣ר בִּשְׁעָרֶֽ֔יךָ 

but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your G-d: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. (Ex. 20:10)

Why does the verse specifically mention cattle, a nonhuman animal? Because just as the Israelites required freedom from slavery to worship G-d in their unique way, all creatures require freedom to praise G-d through their natural and unique way of being in the world. Freedom from labor one day a week for all living in the Israelite world applies emblematically to all being.

Another corollary to the contrasting themes of unity and diversity of being is that freedom has limits. Some of these limits are simply a natural part of living in the world. We all have to sustain ourselves, do the work of living. It’s not realistic to imagine we can be totally free — but the Sabbath provides a space in time for freedom. It extends to cattle, by extension to all domestic (working) animals.

There are other limits on freedom. Exercising one’s freedom can impact the expression of another’s, even completely eliminate it. If every living being is part of a whole, then if any individual being is unfree, wounded, abused or diminished, it necessarily affects the whole — and if any neglects consideration of “the other” in enjoying personal freedom, it impacts the whole.

The freedom theme unfolding between the contrasting themes of equality of being and free expression of diversity points to the need for stewardship. This steward’s job is to make certain that each part of the whole gets its fair share of space, its freedom within limits. The Hebrew Bible captures this idea with the image of a gardener.

Limits and the Necessity of Ethics – Tending the Garden

The job assignment for the human being is gardener in creation, which the first chapters of Genesis tell us:

וַיִּקַּ֛ח יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ בְגַן־עֵ֔דֶן לְעָבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשָׁמְרָֽהּ׃ 

The LORD G-d took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it. (Gen. 2:15)

What a beautiful idea, that our purpose as human beings, our job, is to tend and nurture the garden of creation. But what does that mean? What does a gardener do? Of course a gardener tends the garden in such a way that everything in it grows to full potential, yields a rich harvest. If the breath image tells us of unity and equality of being, the garden image tells us of diversity. Creation is a vast array of unique beings, and our job as gardeners is to ensure that conditions are optimal for all to grow to fruition. This involves nurturing not only everything growing in the garden but the earth itself.

Yes, it is a beautiful, calming, peaceful image, an imagined reality that expresses a unity of all being — and an equality of being. All beings are vegan. There is no death. G-d’s breath is in all being, all living creatures.

But the creation story in Genesis 1-3 doesn’t leave us there. There is a real-life challenge embedded in the idea of gardening. Gardens grow weeds that choke out other growth, and plants need pruning to fulfill their potential. That, like human beings at the top of the food chain, is an objective reality.

So this image of human beings as gardeners points to the necessity of making value judgments and decisions and choices. Why are human beings given this task in creation? What qualifies us for this job? And here I return to the idea of the uniqueness of each living being, our sacred diversity.

Our Job Qualification: Imagination — A Technology for Making Choices Between the Opposites

Fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately.

Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers…Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.”Prof. Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (The Tree of Knowledge)

The Hebrew Bible points to unique particularities within a unity and equality of being. There are three environments, each differentiated from the other: the seas, the heavens and dry land. A dazzling variety of living beings populates each environment. Nishmat Kol Chai reflects the idea that each different part of creation, each living being, sings its own song of praise.

But what specifically, makes human beings unique? What makes us a good choice for the job the text assigns us, that of the gardener in creation? How does that fit with the instruction to “rule” and “subdue,” and what do those words mean in this context? What does it mean to be “in the image” of G-d?

Harari provided me with the first answer that really resonated with me. What differentiates human beings from other living beings is our ability to imagine, to create pretenses or stories and to persuade others to believe them. This ability in turn enables large-scale, flexible cooperation. It is an objective reality that we dominate creation — and it results from our unique abilities. Creating imagined realities and persuading others to share in them so we can cooperate in a unique way brought us to the top of the food chain.

The Hebrew Bible describes an objective reality when it sets human beings to rule creation. The text itself, though, the story it tells, is an imagined reality.

So what, exactly, is the imagined reality the Hebrew Bible presents with regard to our relationship to other beings? How are we to understand the many passages representing violence and bloodshed, hierarchies and dominance? Do the words “rule” and “subdue” support claims that we are meant to dominate other beings? That we are superior to them?

What Does It Mean to “Rule” and “Subdue”?

To get a glimpse of textual nuance even in what seem to be direct statements of hierarchy and domination, I’d like to take a look at the vocabulary in three verses, Genesis 1:26-28. These verses are often cited to justify hierarchies and human dominance — over nature, over other living beings, even of one group of humans over another:

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ וְיִרְדּוּ֩ בִדְגַ֨ת הַיָּ֜ם וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֗יִם וּבַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּבְכָל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וּבְכָל־הָרֶ֖מֶשׂ הָֽרֹמֵ֥שׂ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

And G-d said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” 

וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃ 

And G-d created man in His image, in the image of G-d He created him; male and female He created them. 

וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֮ אֱלֹהִים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

G-d blessed them and G-d said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.” (Gen. 1:26-28)

In these verses, G-d tells human beings they are to “rule” creation — and in case we missed it in vs. 26, we read it again in vs. 28 with emphasis — to “master” creation. And sandwiched between this set of statements, in vs. 27, we learn “G-d created man in His image, in the image of G-d He created him; male and female He created them.” The text seems to tell us that the phrase “in the image of G-d” has relevance to our job assignment, in particular the tasks of ruling and subduing.

I explored the meaning of these phrases in other posts: Creation — Equality of Being, Abundance for All, and Everything Has a Place, Everything in its Place. Here, though, I just want to focus on three terms.

Va-Yirdu (וְיִרְדּוּ֩), translated “rule,” from verses 26 and 28, comes from the root y-r-d, which means go down, descend. This imagery contrasts with what most of us think of when we hear the English word, “rule,” which connotes superiority, being higher. The nuance in the Hebrew word gives it a different feeling. Humans are G-d’s representatives in creation — they go “down” from the imagined place where they receive G-d’s instruction. They are part of creation, home rule, in a sense, representing G-d. As part of the local environment, they will feel connected to it, feel its pain. Their fate connects to its fate.

V’kiv-shu-ha (וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ), translated “subdue,” from verse 28, contrasts with another word-picture in Gen. 1:25, רֶ֛מֶש (remes – creeping, moving, swarming, crawling creatures):

וַיַּ֣עַשׂ אֱלֹהִים֩ אֶת־חַיַּ֨ת הָאָ֜רֶץ לְמִינָ֗הּ וְאֶת־הַבְּהֵמָה֙ לְמִינָ֔הּ וְאֵ֛ת כָּל־רֶ֥מֶשׂ הָֽאֲדָמָ֖ה לְמִינֵ֑הוּ וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים כִּי־טֽוֹב׃ 

G-d made wild beasts of every kind and cattle of every kind, and all kinds of creeping things of the earth. And G-d saw that this was good. (Gen. 1:25)

As we know from a number of verses in the Torah, those creeping, swarming beings are essentially uncontrollable. In fact, the text compares human beings with swarming creatures in contexts where they seem to be similarly uncontrollable. Subdue cannot, therefore, mean control or dominate. It cannot mean forcing other beings into a mode contrary to their natures, a “perfect” arrangement. It also can’t represent human superiority over other living beings, that is, a hierarchy of being.

Instead “subdue” suggests to me that human beings as gardeners exercise their unique capability. According to Harari, this means our ability to create an imagined reality. That imagined reality brings us closer to a world in which all of life sits at the spiritual round table. All living beings participate as equals in a unity of being expressed in freedom, justice and compassion. I think this is how the phrase “image of G-d” clarifies the meaning of “rule” and “subdue.”

B’tzalmo (בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ) means “in the image.” With this phrase, we know immediately we are in the realm of an imagined reality. We read, “…in the image of G-d He created him; male and female He created them.” How can it be that together, male and female are created in the image of G-d? That G-d is simultaneously male and female? Why bring this imagery now, between two statements that seem rather to be about humans “ruling” and “subduing” creation?

The male / female imagery implies a physical resemblance between humans and G-d. The paradoxical nature of the image indicates a symbolic meaning, perhaps picking up on the theme of diversity in unity. But there is more. Sandwiched between two directives to human beings that they are to “rule” and “subdue” is the phrase, “in the image.” This placement is not accidental. It clarifies the meaning of “rule” and “subdue.”

How so? Gardening, the job we were hired to perform in creation, is a task that requires value judgments and ethical decision-making. What if “in the image” refers to the unique characteristic we have as human animals, the ability to live in a dual reality? As Harari points out, we humans are unique in that we live in “the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations.”

Ethics — Between the Poles

Ethics reside in the realm of imagined reality, something else Harari points to in Sapiens. As he says, there is no objective evidence for any moral system. Yet gardens require a gardener who can make value judgments. On what basis do we make value judgments? How do we make decisions in physical reality about what is taking more than its share of space and nourishment, what needs more? What contributes to the whole and and what puts it at risk? What lives and what dies? We make those decisions in the framework of ethical codes.

Effectively, through its position in the text, “in the image” defines what it means to “rule” and “subdue.” As gardeners, as we rule and subdue creation, we do it through the ethical codes and decision-making that are part of an imagined reality. We alone among living beings have that ability. According to the Hebrew Bible, it is what makes us godlike. Our ability to create stories (and its corollary, to be persuaded by them) is important in the biblical framework and is the unique requirement qualifying us to be the gardener in creation.

Probing the meaning of the phrase “in the image of G-d,” reveals that “rule” and “subdue” point to something entirely different from hierarchies, dominance and superiority. Rather the phrase recognizes that human beings have the necessary qualifications to do a particular job in creation. Our unique capabilities for ethical decision-making means we are uniquely responsible.

In case we didn’t get that point in the first three chapters of Genesis, chapter four tells a story of the sad results of an unrestrained hierarchical view of things. By the time we reach the story of Cain and Abel in chapter 4, we are fully enmeshed in hierarchies and objectification, a world in which some are chosen and others are not, living beings have economic value, and violence and aggression rule. We are still in that world. We will continue in it as long as we treat any living being as “less than” another. In the words of Martin Buber, as long as the balance of I-It relationships outweighs I-Thou relationships.

Human life on this planet has an amazing history of insights into the nature of things, a function of our imaginative capability. Using the power of imagination, we perceive through both faith and science the sacred unity of all being — and our particularity of being, each part of creation with its own unique characteristics.

But we humans also often imagine that we are meant to dominate. That our role in creation allows us to destroy. We choose to create hierarchies that rationalize violence toward the planet, toward other species, toward our fellow human beings. We choose to enslave others, deny their natures and roles in creation, and approach them as utilitarian objects here on earth to serve our needs.

The Hebrew Bible shows us what it means to live in a dual reality. We see competing imagined realities in play. And we are regularly reminded of the imperative to choose. Choose what? “Choose life, that you may live.” Not the least of that imperative is that we might make better choices tomorrow, that we might be better gardeners.

Change & Finding Our Story

These last weeks and months of events so significant for our future demonstrate to me that we are in a moment of profound transition to a new story. Unprecedented changes are on the horizon, and we need a framework for ethical decision making in this new environment. Or perhaps we’ll discover the eternal nature of an “old” story, understood in new ways.

I watched a TV series that reminded me of how painful and difficult life’s decisions can be. It also made me think about many things Harari says — and it made me think of the role of religions, ideologies and cultures in shaping the decisions we make and how we make them.

“Humans” is a three-season series available on Amazon Prime. It explores the world Harari imagines when he considers a world in which AI beings evolve to the point where they are potentially capable of replacing humans at the top of the food chain, becoming the dominant beings in creation. As Harari says in Homo Deus, to know what happens when another “species” than our own rises to the top, we need only look at how other species have fared under human domination.

The series is not dystopic. It examines with some nuance and complexity the developing relationship between diverse humans and increasingly diverse “synths,” human-created AI beings who serve humans but along the way develop consciousness. Of course these AI beings are more rational than humans. But in developing consciousness, they not only learn to interpret human emotions better than humans themselves but can themselves feel emotions which, like humans, they manage in diverse ways.

Without sharing spoiler details, the series climaxes when a main character, a champion for synth rights based on her experience of personal involvement with synths, must make a choice between her deep feelings, beliefs and ethical commitments — and her powerful evolutionary instincts. It is not a black-and-white decision. Imagined reality and objective reality struggle. This character struggles with an impossible dilemma. But a choice must be made, and it is agonizing.

So I wonder, what would life be like if — in every moment — we were were fully aware of the central paradox of our existence: living life requires decisions that more often than we like to imagine involve taking life. This basic reality is true even living on carrots. It’s a hard way to live, to start from the premise that all of life is sacred and that it is our sacred task to “rule” over it in a way that allows each part to fulfill a sacred purpose, to sing a unique song of praise.

In fact, it would be almost impossible to make these decisions anew in every moment. So we rely on imagined realities, sets of ethical codes embedded in religions, cultures, constitutions. They become second nature to us so we don’t often have to think about them. Or we imagine our ethical codes to be immutable, fixed for all times and places, which removes from us the burden of making decisions moment by moment.

In fact, this is what the text of the Hebrew Bible proposes: an imagined reality with an ethical code focused on freedom, justice and compassion. Objective reality in the text represents actual human behaviors. Imagined reality represents a potential world that human beings participate in imagining and implementing.

In our time, it feels as though life is changing in ways and at a pace unprecedented in human history. What happens if the earth cannot produce abundantly due to a changing climate? What if there is worldwide starvation far beyond what we see today? If many human beings become “the useless class,” as Harari imagines the possibility? What happens if we develop the capability to extend life indefinitely? Or if “synthetic” beings develop consciousness and threaten our human position at the top of the food chain? Or on a smaller scale, if the United States is no longer in control of its own destiny, we are taken over by a hostile power, external or internal to us? None of these events is completely outside the range of possibility.

But consider the experiences of catastrophic change reported in the Hebrew Bible. Yes, the world was smaller, more local, but it was the entire world to those represented in the text: Abraham and his family leave their home for an unknown world. After settling into a semi-nomadic existence in their new home, a lush and fertile land, they suffer a drought that sends them to Egypt for food where they descend into harsh slavery.

The Israelites are freed, wander through a desert for forty years, establish a kingdom and all the apparatus of state that goes with it, endure a civil war and division of their nation, watch as the northern kingdom is conquered by a powerful Middle Eastern empire, then suffer through that empire’s successor conquering their own southern kingdom.

The Judeans are exiled to alien places and cultures, return in some way and begin a painful and difficult struggle to rebuild. The reestablished nation is enmeshed in bitter sectarianism, and they are unable to cooperate to solve the problems that face them, unable to build the society they are tasked with building. There is a devastating defeat at the hands of the Romans and a second demolition of the nation and culture, brutality, and dispersal once again into alien lands… not easy circumstances to live through individually or as an historical group.

I think this is the beauty, artistry and power of the Hebrew Bible. It presents neither a Pollyanna view of life nor a despairing view. Life unfolds between objective reality and imagined reality. The story singles out the unique characteristic of human beings that might allow them to find solutions and make the kinds of choices that could create a better world, the one way in which humans are godlike. It doesn’t hide the terrible mistaken choices we make along the way or contradictory choices — but it continues to point to our ability to be mindful and to imagine and reimagine our ethics in a world that changes.

Our Sacred Task

Adjusting our imagined reality is never quick or easy. It is painful. It destroys worlds . . . but offers an opportunity to create better worlds. I believe the Hebrew Bible emerged from one of those times in history that required a new imagined reality, a new story, one that could inspire building a better world. I believe we are in one of those times now. What story will we choose? What reality will we create? How will we participate in reimagining received traditions? What will we do with objective realities of our past, things we have done, the consequences of our choices, and how will they fit into our imagined reality going forward?

In the sacred space described in Genesis 1-3, human beings are given a special role, to act as gardeners, nurturing the amazing diversity in the garden of creation — with all the hard choices that imagery suggests. The human adventure in that story was courageous and insightful — and at the same time, foolish, self-absorbed and short-sighted. Yet humanity continued forward in the face of devastation, trying to find a path to make a better world, living between the opposites, we might say: “Life is a particularly intricate natural structure that arises under the right circumstances, between order and chaos.”

What supports opposite and seemingly contraditory themes in the text is a fundamental recognition of interconnection. This is not hierarchy, but a respect for all being. It is a reflection of an intuition Harari ascribes to hunter-gatherers. It is the knowledge that all being, life in all its diversity, sits at the spiritual round table.

We humans are the only beings who can cooperate with many others to put an imagined reality to work. Following the first three chapters of Genesis, the idea of a sacred community striving to create a space, a world in microcosm, of freedom, justice and compassion, becomes the dominant theme in the remaining 926 chapters of the Hebrew Bible. Lots of wrong choices, brutality and devastation along the way, but the effort continues.

Our unique human capability is to create imagined realities, persuade others to share in those realitIes, and cooperate with others to put these imagined realities to work in the world. The Hebrew Bible offers a story that we human beings are the gardeners in creation. Fulfilling that job wasn’t easy for the Israelites — in fact they often failed at it. But they continued to try. They reimagined how to make the world better in the face of catastrophic changes and the consequences of their own bad choices. I still like to imagine that in our own time we can take on the role of gardener. I envision us assisting each part in the whole to fulfill its nature, flourish, and contribute to the well-being of us all. We alone among living beings can fulfill this sacred task that allows G-d’s breath to flow through creation.

Ideas? Would like to hear from you!