Tag Archives: Spirituality

The Stars must be in Alignment


The stars must be in alignment. A few thoughts have come together, and they leave me with a sense of awe.

Recently, I was catching up on some of podcasts that I listen to with regularity. From time to time, the ideas that individuals share in these brief episodes grab my attention and expand the universe of my thinking. That happened as I listened to APM’s On Being with Krista Tippett. In the latest episode, she interviewed Natalie Batalha, a mission scientist with NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. Batalha descriptions of our life, our world, and our experience vis-a-vis other planets beyond our solar system were lyrical and spiritual. The most moving image she offered was the image of a mother and child looking up at the stars one evening. The mother points to a star. In one version, she says “See that star, there could be life like ours on some planet revolving around it,” In the more enlightened version she posits, “That star there has a planet that is just like Earth. It is a perfect situation for there to be life like ours.”

As I listened to Batalha, I saw the sky through that imagined child’s eyes. I perceived the stars up in the sky, just as they are in our sky. I saw planets revolving around those stars. Then, I caught sight of one of those planets, a planet just like Earth. There was dry land, and upon that land there was civilization, and there was community. Somewhere in that community I could see another mother standing with her child. They were staring into their sky as well, as the mother said, “Look up at those stars, and imagine planets just like ours revolving around them…”

Standing on the shores of the cosmos, we do not have to give in to agoraphobic tendencies. The cosmos is not so vast, and we are not so insignificant, that we could be like anonymous grains of sand on a seashore. Instead, we can recognize the interconnectedness of all things within the universe. We are integral elements that make up the majestic fabric of the cosmos. I like the way Batalha puts it on her own Facebook page, “Keenly aware that it took billions of years for the atoms to come together and make the portal to the Universe that is my physical self, I try to walk the earth each day with love and gratitude and wonderment. I hope to leave this world of ours a little better than I found it, and part of that plan is to open the eyes of humanity to the myriad other worlds that exist out there in this amazing Universe we share.” 

Isn’t her descriptive writing great?

Encountering Natalie Batalha’s interview on On Being was not just a blip on a radar. As I listened, I found myself connecting it to two other timely events: Asteroid 2012 DA14 coming within scraping distance of us and Nicolaus Copernicus’s 540th Birthday, which is today. Something in the stars is telling us to look up and pay attention. 

Last Friday, we became aware of 2012 DA14, a 50 yard long asteroid that weighed over 190,000 tons. It was originally discovered last year (and I love this coincidence: on February 23, my birthday), and it passed by at 17,239 miles from Earth. That is approximately two times the Earth’s diameter. In other words, this asteroid came very close to us. I am left wondering how often we pay attention to the universe beyond ourselves. The lesson of 2012 DA14 seems to be that we are not alone. We may not have encountered life on other planets yet, but the Universe as we know it has things within it that pull us out of our self-centered ways, and says, “Hey! The Universe does not revolve around you!”


That was something of which Copernicus was also aware. The 16th Century Polish mathematician and astronomer is credited with establishing the heliocentric planetary model. He noted, and was criticized for asserting, that the Earth and other planets revolve around the sun, rather than the other celestial bodies revolving around our planet. We take such a discovery for granted now, but this was a counter-cultural and counter-establishment perspective. Consider the tension that exists when our current presumptions about the way things work in our existence and what the frontiers of scientific exploration tell us. Lessons from Copernicus’s life still resonate, especially when we consider all of the other wild things out there in our Cosmos that we are called into relationship with.

Discovering other planets, asteroids scraping by, the assertions of earlier scientists expanding the horizons of our understanding–as we bring these into alignment, some may say they pose a risk to a religious or spiritual life. They don’t; they bring us closer. They are discoveries of that which is greater than ourselves, that which gets us closer to the Creative Power of our Universe. In the On Being podcast, Batalha described an experience she once had standing on the roof of an observatory, looking up at the dome of stars. In that moment, the dome was no longer just that. She became aware of her place, suspended in the three dimensions of our Universe. I was struck how she grasped for words to talk about this moment in her life.She touched upon the ineffability of the spiritual experience. She also noted the importance of that moment in her own life. In William James’s The Varities of Religious Experience, he describes moments like this as a mystical moment with noetic qualities. Moments such as these, which any of us can experience, are “illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.” 

I have an amateur’s interest in science, and I have a profound love for theological and spiritual thinking. In both arenas, I see an intersection. It lies in our longing for new discoveries, to uncover new layers of our reality. When we approach our Universe with curiosity; it gifts us awe. 

And I’m going out to buy a telescope.

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A New Podcast! The Busy Trap

I am so excited to share my sermon from last week as a brand new Podcast! I’m hoping that this is the start to recording our Shabbat messages and collecting them in one place. Please, if you have feedback, be sure to email me at nhirsch@templeshalom.

Without future ado, the podcast!

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Having that Conversation – Prescribing Medication to End Life

I think I hit a nerve… So, I want to invite us to talk about it.

Two days ago at our Yom Kippur morning service, I offered a d’var Torah on that morning’s Torah portion, Nitzavim. In that Torah portion we are called upon, just as we are throughout Yom Kippur, to weigh carefully the balance between life and death, and we are called upon out of the tradition to “choose life.”  I offered that we–as Jews–are a life-affirming people.  I connected that idea to the current question we are facing in our Commonwealth, a ballot initiative we on which will be voting in November, known as Question 2: Prescribing Medication to End Life.

I am afraid that from this we each walked away with different conclusions about what I was trying to say, when in reality it was not a conclusion I was seeking, but a conversation.  We are a community that comes together from so many backgrounds and varied experiences. Torah comes from those experiences, and it comes from our texts as well.  It was my intent to invite us to a conversation on this particular question, and invite us to each consider the Jewish perspective on Question 2.  In hindsight, a three-minute d’var Torah in the middle of Yom Kippur was a challenging venue to ask for a conversation about such a difficult topic.  How can it really be a conversation when the communication in that forum is only one-way?

So, let’s talk about this. Join me and others from Temple Shalom on October 25, 2012 from 7:30-9:00 PM to take part in this important study session.  We will have the opportunity to study the Jewish texts and tradition that involve themselves with Question 2.  No matter how we choose to vote on Question 2, let us also involve Torah in our decision making process.

Rabbi Gurvis and I were both signers on a letter inviting our reform Jewish community weigh our Jewish values into our decision.  To quote our letter, “Jewish tradition gives guidance, not absolutes, regarding end-of-life decisions.  We affirm that individuals may interpret Jewish teachings in a variety of ways in a number of different circumstances, and that every circumstance brings different considerations. Individuals may interpret Jewish teachings in a variety of ways in a number of different circumstances, and that every circumstance brings different considerations.”

As each of us weighs this issue, trying to figure out how to cast our vote, there are many aspects and issues to take into consideration.  When we sit down together, let’s study the various perspectives out of our tradition, and have honest and faithful conversation about this critical issue.

Please RSVP to the study session today!

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A Springsteen Spirituality

As a capstone to the vacation I took this past week, I got to see Bruce Springsteen in concert.  This was not my first Springsteen concert, and I’m hoping it won’t be my last.  It was an incredible rock concert.  I understand why people go back year after year after year.  And you know what is unquestionable in my mind: Springsteen fosters spirituality.

I came to this realization looking around at the crowd. Thousands of people, their arms outstretched, their eyes looking upward and toward the stage, singing out lyrics like “Come on up for the rising…” Since when do we have a crowd of people join together in song except in concerts and worship experiences? I was moved, and it was clear others were too.

The spiritual moment is not simply serendipitous; Springsteen ushers it along. Watching him perform on the stage, what he does to conjure up this feeling of collective effervescence is purposeful. Throughout the concert he made references to to it being a revival, inviting us to join in song together, even closing his eyes as he invited the crowd to sing out on its own, letting the waves of communal singing wash over him, just as he’d been taking his music and sending it toward us. I’m not a Springsteen expert, but from what little I know about his bio, from his lyrics, as well as shown by the small crucifix earring he wears, I would guess that the experience at one of his concerts is spiritual for him as well.

All of this leads me to wonder, at what point did the majesty of music shift from congregational halls to concert venues? When did art leave the purview of the religious and move into the realm of the secular? In truth, that’s not a fair question, because art really hasn’t left religious life. It isn’t so black and white. Those in the religious community have continued to push the boundaries, think outside the box, and borrow from traditions that emerged in the secular realm. And, listening carefully to rock ‘n roll, we will hear gospel tunes and spirituals.  A mutual relationship has remained, even if in our minds we draw further delineation between the religious and secular art worlds.

Taking a page from the visual arts, I’ve often thought that modern painting really picked up where Baroque artists left off. In my mind some of the best paintings of religious images, by artists like Caravaggio, connect with art as wild as a Miro or Pollock. Any time an artist picks up his brush, or strums a chord, he is tapping back into that tradition that uses personal expression for potential spiritual expression, no matter the religious or secular language in which the artist cloaks his work.  That’s the mutuality that I am talking about.

Springsteen knows he’s doing this, as well as any artist. It’s intentional, and it’s even in the marketing. Yesterday, I drove past a T-car with banners for the concert I was at. The taglines on the banners used religious language, “Take the T to the Promised Land.”  Tell me what that’s really about? Springsteen is fostering a spiritual experience for his concertgoers, and he does a masterful job at it.

I see this as a good thing, it pleases me to experience Springsteen in the spiritual realm.  It’s a nice challenge to those of us who strive to access something spiritual in our religious communities. The concert was a great reminder that it’s great when that spiritual encounter happens in one place in particular, like during a worship experience, but that we also need to be open to the spiritual everywhere.

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