Tag Archives: TEDWeekends

Beneath the Surface

(This post was written for Huffington Post’s “TEDWeekends” series)

We think we know our home planet. After all, we know its landscape. We know its contours. We know how to get from one place to the next.

But the truth is, what we know about Earth is really only about 30% of it — the terrestrial part of it. The other 70%, the ocean, may as well be an entirely alien planet to us humans. We can’t spend more than a few minutes there without at least some sort of breathing apparatus. If we go too deep too quickly, we can get crushed by pressure. And if we were to be dropped into the middle of a vast body of water without reference points nearby, we’d be completely disoriented.

Yet David Gallo highlights what is perhaps the most important and fascinating fact about the ocean, namely, just how surprisingly little we know about it:

[T]oday, we’ve only explored about 3 percent…of what’s out in the ocean. Already we’ve found the highest mountains, the world’s deepest valleys, underwater lakes, underwater waterfalls…And in a place where we thought there was no life at all, we find more life (we think) and more diversity and density than in the tropical rainforest, which tells us that we don’t know much about this planet at all. There’s still 97 percent, and either that 97 percent is empty, or just full of surprises.

We all have a tendency to make assumptions about how much we know. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls this cognitive bias “What You See Is All There Is.” We look at what is front of us, and assume that we’ve learned all we need to know about it. So, for example, we live on the land, and therefore, we think that’s where all the interesting things happen.

What we ignore — or at least forget — is just how much richness there is below the surface.

One of the wonderful ways that Judaism pushes us to “go deeper” is through its particular way of reading sacred texts, called “PaRDeS.” While the word “pardes” literally means “orchard,” what it really means is an acronym for four different levels of studying: “p’shat,” simple, “remez,” hint, “drash,” interpretation and “sod,” secret.

The PaRDeS method of reading texts forces us to go below the surface of what we initially see. Instead, each level invites us to discover more and more. In the words of Rabbi Dr. Norman Cohen, “The mystics of the Middle Ages understood the Torah to be an inexhaustible well that contains many levels of potential meaning, and all the reader needs to do is find a way to plumb its depth.” (Cohen, The Way Into Torah, 78)

When we look at texts in this way, we begin with the text itself — what is it saying on its own terms? Regardless of whether we agree or disagree, whether we like or dislike it, we do have to ask “What does it say on its surface?” But even though that is where we begin, it is not where we stop.

Instead, we next connect the text to other stories and sources: What other allusions does this text have? What else does it remind us of? After that, we ask, “What meaning can we draw from it today? How can we interpret this text so that we can find lessons from it?” Finally, we explore how this text can give us a deeper understanding of ourselves and our world.

The truly powerful things about the PaRDeS method is that also allows us to understand people’s own unique stories more deeply, as well. This idea, explained by Rabbi Dayle Friedman in the book Jewish Pastoral Care, works like this: the p’shat is the simple level of what is actually happening to someone, the remez hints at their emotional response, the drash turns into how they will create and construct meaning around what has happened to them, and finally, the sod is the intimate and often wordless connection between people and the world at large.

Whether it is the ocean, a sacred text, or another person’s story, too often, we assume that all we need to know about something is what we see on the surface. But David Gallo’s work gives us a beautiful metaphor: as we begin to realize just how much we don’t know, we begin to understand that there is an inexhaustible sense of mystery, wonder and amazement in this world.

Ultimately, the more we discover, the more we learn there is to discover. We just need to plumb its depths.

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What Truly is a “Miracle”?

(This post was written for Huffington Post’s “TEDWeekends” series)

Do we still experience miracles today? It all depends on what we think a “miracle” truly is.

Often, when we think of miracles, we envision the events that form the basis for many religious traditions — the parting of the Red Sea, Jesus healing the lepers, Mohammed rising up to heaven.

But we also use the word “miracle” in more everyday situations. When a family member recovers from an illness, we call it a “miracle.” When we narrowly avert a disaster, we call it a “miracle.” When we think, “If I had missed that dinner party, I never would have met my spouse,” we call it a “miracle.”

And perhaps the most common way we use the word miracle is in “the miracle of birth,” which Alexander Tsiaris’ TEDTalk, “Conception to Birth — visualized” shows us quite concretely.

Tsiaris’ work helps us see all the miracles that occur as each of us comes into this world, and he gives us several examples. As our body develops in the womb, our cells somehow “know” what to do: collagen, which is usually opaque, becomes transparent in the only part of our body that needs to be — our eyes. In only weeks, two parallel strands fold over each other like origami, and we develop our heart. During one phase of pregnancy, our cells grow so quickly that if that pace were maintained for the full nine months, we would weigh 3000 pounds at delivery.

All of the elements in pregnancy, the whole process, truly seems “miraculous,” and yet it happens thousands of times each and every day. So if it is so common, how could it be “miraculous”?

Tsiaris says it well at the beginning of the talk — when you see the journey from conception to birth, “you just have to marvel.” And that’s what a “miracle” truly is, at least in Judaism: something that makes us go “wow.”

Indeed, the Hebrew word for miracle, “nes,” really means a “sign.” It’s not necessarily a voice from the heavens, or even a deviation from the natural order, although those would certainly astound us. Instead, a nes is something that engenders a sense of awe and mystery.

In fact, there’s even a section in the morning liturgy called the “nisim b’chol yom,” “the miracles of the every day.” Each morning when we wake up, we are supposed to offer thanks to God for the most mundane realities — for being able to see. For having clothes to wear. For being able to walk. For having awoken from our sleep.

There are at least two purposes to the nisim b’chol yom. First, it is to remind us that many people don’t have a place to sleep, clothes to wear, or food to eat, and so we have a responsibility help fix that. But even more importantly, it’s to remind us just how likely we are to take our daily blessings for granted. The nisim b’chol yom, the miracles of the eeryday, are designed to create a daily sense of wonder. It’s less about thanking God than it is about giving thanks for the mystery

And that’s how I interpret Tsiaris’ line that there is “divinity” in the way we come into existence. I don’t think he means it in the sense of the “God of the gaps,” implying that if there’s something we don’t understand, “God did it.” Scientific knowledge will continue to move forward, giving us a clearer and deeper comprehension of how things work. Instead, I think he means “divinity” in the way Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel talked about the goal of religious living: “to experience commonplace deeds as spiritual adventures, to feel the hidden love and wisdom of all things.” (God in Search of Man, 49)

So even as we develop a deeper understanding of the way the world works, even as we understand the nuances of the complex world we live in, we can always reclaim our sense of wonder.

As Tsiaris’ video so powerfully shows, life truly is a miracle — and that’s a fact we should never forget.

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