Spiritual Luster and Equations: A Profound Moment

by Thomas Perloff, presented at August 12 Shabbat Service

Before sharing a profound moment, I would like to provide some background.      

First, I am a numbers guy. In high school, I won the math prize. In college, I majored in economics. In graduate school I pursued economics and was steeped in econometrics, graphs and statistics. For thirty-some years I worked in the low margin foodservice distribution business, where, if you didn’t pay close attention to the numbers, your business was not sustainable.

Second, I think spirituality is a personal, not a collective, phenomenon.       More specifically, as Fred Strober and Rabbi Kuhn have described in Bulletin articles, over the last few months, a couple of dozen members of the congregation and our clergy have been involved in a visioning process. The fruits of this labor will be rolled out over the next couple of months. A succinct expression of the vision is: Rodeph Shalom’s mission is to create profound connections.

An early draft of this mantra was: “to create spiritual connections.” I was one of the participants who felt uncomfortable with this construct because I believe spirituality is an individual concern–not an institutional mandate. Additionally, I felt the wording left out the intellectual or questioning characteristic of Reform Judaism. In fact, I kind of liked the vision that Rabbi Kuhn coined half in jest: “wrestling with God on Broad Street.”

Next the group tried “creating meaningful conncetions.” Some of us were comfortable with this, but others felt that it minimized the affective side of worship and the importance of developing inter-personal relationships.

Then, with Lloyd Brotman as our catalyst, the discussion centered on: creating profound connectionsnot as a compromise, but as a combination of the various constructs.

The third piece of background is that my wife, Carol, grew up in Hamilton, NY.  Hamilton is a beautiful, if often snow covered, village and is the home of Colgate university. The population of Hamilton is 3,826, which includes over 2,000 Colgate students (I do know that there are 2,825 Colgate students, but I am not sure how many of them live in the village of Hamilton). To give you an idea of how small the town is, Carol and I have a running debate over the number of traffic lights in Hamilton. Carol claims there are six. I claim there are only two, because five of them are at one intersection.

With this as background: four years ago we were visiting Carol’s dad in Hamilton. One fall evening after everyone was settled in, carol suggested that we grab a blanket and head over to the golf course. Now we haven’t been teenagers for a long time, but I figured, “what the hey.” So we found a blanket and walked over to the nearby golf course. We found a level tee; spread out the blanket, laid down and looked up. From horizon to horizon the night sky was filled with a galaxy of stars. My proverbial jaw dropped. The sky was our own natural planetarium. Of course I had seen a starry night, but never so clear, never so quiet, never so all encompassing.

After a few minutes, my mind started to wander. Was this the night sky that David had seen in the Judean Hills? Was this the view my ancestors had in Russia or Carol’s in Norway? One complexity with time travel, though, is that you can go forward as well as backwards. Would our grandchildren look at a similar night sky and reminisce about us? I wasn’t ready to deal with that thought.

Then I pondered: does this breath-taking view of nature demonstrate there is an ineffable creator? Perhaps, but I remembered the astronomy course I had in college—there are equations that explain the brightness of the stars and the distances between them.  All of the sudden, the spiritual luster dissipated.

What did resonate with me was the universality of the night sky. Ignoring time zones, I imagined that people in Syria (I have no idea why I picked that locale) were looking at this same visage. How can we all see this heavenly expanse and not perceive our commonality? How can we view such a wonderous night sky and not sense wholeness with the natural world? How can we obsess about destroying our neighbors?

In this context, I was struck by a quote in Senator Mark Hatfield’s obituary this week (for those of us whose youth was defined by questioning the Vietnam War, Senator Hatfield was a faith-based icon) Senator Hatfield was arguing for a ban on nuclear weapons when he noted: “I see all life as a part of god’s creation and I think it’s rather presumptuous of humankind to consider that it has the right to destroy creation, to destroy all life.”

After a few more minutes, Carol and I stood up and quietly walked back to town. Now whenever we are in Hamilton and the skies are clear, I am the one who suggests that we grab a blanket and head up to the golf course.