On Chaos and Creation
When I first came to India I was afraid to cross the street. I would wait on the side of the road for a break in the cars that never seemed to come. Everyday when I got home from work I would immediately shower away the collected dust and retire to my air conditioned bedroom. I only ate food I thought was clean enough and made sure to wash my vegetables in filter water before I cooked them. I took my malaria pills dutifully every night.
And then things started to shift. I’m not sure if there was a moment when this became my home, or if everyday I settled further and further into India. A few weeks ago I saw two middle-aged Americans stranded on a boulevard in the middle of one of the busiest intersections in Mumbai. Without saying anything I grabbed the woman’s hand and guided them through the throngs of multi-laned and multi-directioned traffic. Last week at a Shabbat dinner we sang the Bene Israel tune of the song Tzur Mishelo. When a friend asked how I knew the tune, it hadn’t even occurred to me that I had adopted this whole new set of practices and traditions. It wasn’t even conscious - just that I used to sing the Ashkenazi version, and now I sing the Bene Israel version. That’s how it goes.
Over the last week I had the pleasure of accompanying a delegation of American Rabbinical students on their tour of Jewish India. They asked me the questions I get all the time - how do you live here, how did you adapt - and it made me realize over and over how I don’t feel like a stranger here anymore. I feel like this is my home. And that in 77 days (but who’s counting) I won’t be going home, but uprooting my new life in my new home.
I befriended one of the American girls from the delegation. Wednesday morning we woke up at 5:30 am and headed to the Sassoon Docks in South Mumbai. I had visited before in the late afternoon, but even two years in India had hardly prepared me for the madness that we encountered. Every morning at dawn fishing boats start pulling up and unloading their goods. It’s Mumbai’s largest wholesale fish market, with maachiwallas (fish sellers) from all over the city bargaining for the best.
The crowds were intense. Life-hardened women, wrinkled from the sun and the labour, balanced large plastic baskets on their heads and pushed us out of the way as they passed through the tiny walkways. Blood and guts and lost little fishes squelched under our feet as we explored. The entire place reeked of fish, but was surprisingly picturesque amongst the colourful fishing boats and early morning sunshine. The crowds were too much, even for me with my new tolerance of peoplecrush that comes with living in a city of 24 million people. I made my way towards the end of the dock and the live fish auction, while my friend made a speedy beeline to the nearest Starbucks.
I’ve come to love this chaos. It seems crazy and mad and at times even unbearable - the stench, the crowds, the pushing, the fish juices seeping into my sandals and slowly warming in the late summer sun. But then there are times when all of the chaos comes to make sense, where a single moment causes equilibrium and brings it all together - the shy smile of a young fishergirl as she crouches shelling prawns on the ground; the swoop of the egrets flying over the fishing boats and coming to rest on the rims of trash bins; the serenity of being surrounded by so much motion and just letting it encompass you.
Way back during the story of Creation, it says that the mass that we call our Universe was created from tohu u’vohu - utter chaos. G-d took this chaos and formed it into something tangible and physical that we can interact with. But at the same time as the physical world, He also formed many parallel spiritual worlds - worlds which correlate to the physicality that we experience, but also exist far beyond it.
Next week we’re celebrating the holiday of Shavuot. Largely overlooked by much of American Jewry, Shavuot is one of the three major harvest festivals in Judaism, and commemorates the Jews receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai. There’s a midrash that says that when the world was created, G-d used the Torah as a blueprint with which to design it. The Ten Commandments, which were revealed on Mount Sinai, were key to this structure. It’s said that the Ten Commandments are a sort of Table of Contents, through which we can make sense of the entire Torah and by extension the whole world.
The Ten Commandments are split onto two tablets, with the first five commandments on the first, and the second five on the second. The first five commandments refer to mitzvot (commandments) between humanity and G-d, and the second five refer to mitzvot between humanity and other people. But the sages teach that the commandments can be further broken down to link the commandments that line up with each other horizontally. Meaning that the first commandment on the left tablet and the first commandment on the right tablet correspond to each other.
The first commandment on the left tablet is to acknowledge that there is a G-d. The first commandment on the right tablet (the sixth commandment) is not to murder. At first these seem unrelated. But the sages teach that when we murder someone (physically, but also in a more metaphorical sense), we’re pretending that someone doesn’t exist. When we’re frustrated with a relationship in our lives and we cut that person out, it’s as if we’re destroying our relationship with that person. So too, by not acknowledging G-d in the world we’re destroying that relationship as well.
Each of these levels of commandments draws together the physical side of the commandment with the spiritual side of the commandment. Not murdering is the physical aspect, acknowledging G-d is the spiritual aspect - two sides of the same coin. And the same goes for everything in life - the food we eat, the things we say, the things we do, they all have both physical and spiritual parallels. When we speak about the Creation of the world, we’re speaking about a physical planet, but we’re also speaking about the coming together of infinite energy.
Standing alone in the middle of the fish market I was inundated with physical chaos - people everywhere, fish everywhere, no personal space. The physicality of the situation was overwhelming and hard to take in.
But then I thought of the spirituality of the fish market - the tradition of returning to the same place day after day, of men and women working hard to support their families, of the food chain and the sustenance that we gain from the physical world. I thought of the fact that on this small slab of concrete protruding off the East coast of Mumbai, thousands of people had come together for one purpose. I thought of the agrarian origins of Judaism, and how at this time in many years past, thousands of Jews were converging on Jerusalem, bringing their produce to the Temple, and celebrating the good land the L-rd hast given them. I thought of the fact that I had been absorbed into the mass of fisherfolk, just like I've become absorbed into this amazing community that's so different from my own and yet so similar.
Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Sameach!