Spiritual Geography

Once upon a time everything was one, vast body of water, flowing and surging with the wild energy of creation and destruction. Because there was nothing to hold anything apart from the mass, everything that came to be would cease to be as soon as it emerged. Or, because there was nothing separating one thing from another, nothing could be perceived for what it was. This state of matter without form, of being without existence, is called תהו ובהו (tohu va-vohu).

Then something happened –we could call that something “God”– and light became separated from darkness. In the light of this primal separation the waters became separated, one above and one below. Because separation implies difference, the two waters took on different characteristics, hitherto joined together, but now held apart. The great water above retained the character of light and nourishment, while the great water below retained the character of darkness and creation, and in between them the expanse of heaven.

Floating on the waters below is the land. It came into being when the waters below drew back, forming a place where they were *not*, and the land retains this character of negativity — it is watered by the moisture welling up from below, but it can continue to exist only so long as the waters below continue *not* to be where it *is*. At the same time, we and everything else that lives cannot exist without the flow of nourishing rain from the waters above, but if the expanse of heaven were to open up without restraint we would all be flooded into oblivion. Thus, we are all doubly dependent — and doubly threatened — on the waters that bracket our lives, forming and sustaning the space within which we are able to live.

Viewed in a certain way, God is the principle of the harmonious relationship that makes this precarious existence possible. Viewed in another way, God is the One who desires and mandates that this harmony should come into being. Either way, our task in this world is to build a house for God, a site wherein this harmony can be actualized. This site is the Temple. The Temple is built on a mountain — the meeting point between the earth and the heavens — and its foundations sink all the way down into the deepest waters below. Thus, while existing within the space we know and inhabit, it transcends this space, connecting us with what is above and below and knitting all three together into a whole that can only be described as Divine.

So long as the Temple is kept whole and free of defilement, the waters of heaven nourish us and the waters below the earth sustain us without overrunning their respective boundaries. If this divine channel is allowed to fall into disrepair, however, the balance is upset and we find ourselves at the mercy of a world whose forces we can neither predict or control.

This is one version of how the biblical authors imagined the world, but it can also be a way to think about ourselves and our relationship to the mysterious forces that shape our souls and give us the energy we need to be happy, healthy, spiritually awake human beings. Just like my ancient ancestors, I find myself standing on a ground that is really just a thin boundary separating everything I call “me” from what lies beyond. This “beyond” goes both ways. Internally, it is the complex muddle of emotions, dreams, spiritual insights and unconcious mental states that underly and inform my conscious self without being fully “of” it. Externally, it is the world in which I am bound up in a network of relationships that define my identity in ways I can influence but not necessarily control. Somewhere in between these two beyonds is where I have to build my Temple, working to establish a point of balance where I can be nourished and sustained without being utterly overwhelmed. This is the fundamental task of spiritual life.

Meditation on the Face of Your Neighbor

Find your neighbor. Not the person you came in with–someone else.

Turn and look at your neighbor’s face. Not into their eyes, not yet. Don’t smile, or nod, or perform any of the gestures we normally use to reassure each other and get past the nervousness of face-to-face contact. Just live with the nervousness. Pay attention to it. Look at your neighbor. Examine their features. They are doing the same with you right now, but that isn’t important. Just look.

To begin with, study your neighbor’s forehead–its contours, the curvature of the cranium sweeping upward to form a snug resting place for the brain. It’s a shape that’s so universally human and yet so unique to this individual person. Study its lines of care and laughter. This is where God placed a mark on Cain, to settle his fear that in his wanderings he would be recognized and executed for a murderer. Actually, we are all born with that mark–a sign written in blazing letters spelling out the primal commandment: “Do not murder.” Cain’s tragedy was that he wasn’t able to recognize that mark until it was too late. Let your eyes wander over the face of your neighbor. Search for that mark, the word of God, written to you on your neighbor’s face.

Take your time, but once you’ve had time to really take in the face of your neighbor, close your eyes for a moment and just hold the image of that face in your mind. See it floating there before you in all its silent expressiveness and vulnerability. Take a moment to contemplate the riddle of the human face, so perfectly contained in this one here before you–that the face is both a window and a mask. It expresses and at the same time conceals. Your neighbor’s face speaks eloquently of all they have ever seen and done, all the joy and the anguish, all the fear and the pleasure. And yet, at the same time, it conceals their essential being, marking the boundary between you and an inward experience, infinitely vast, to which you have no access, sealed off from you by the boundary of the face which says, “This far and no further.”

Open your eyes now and for the first time, or as if for the first time, look into the eyes of your neighbor. Take a moment now, both of you, to look into each other’s eyes. Let your face respond naturally. Take note of this experience. What passes between you, from one person to the other, through the eyes? The eyes have been described as a window into the soul. For some this window seems transparent. For some it seems nearly opaque. Right now, try to pay attention to what you see through the windows of your neighbor’s eyes. No matter how clearly you see, it is always across a distance, as though a great depth separated you, though you are standing just a few feet apart. This fundamental distance is not wrong or unnatural. It is simply the boundary marker that marks the separation between the I and the you, the self and the other. One of the most profound laws in the Torah is not to move the boundary markers placed by our ancestors. This is the beginning of ethics.

Reach across that boundary now with your hand. Take the hand of your neighbor in your own. Still you remain here on this side, your neighbor on the other. Through this gesture of clasping hands you are able to make contact here in the shared space between you. Reach out now with your other hand and take the hand of another, and that person to the hand of another, and so on until we are all connected. Here we all are, together.