A few weeks ago I was chatting with one of our ninth graders about the classes she’s taking in school this year, and began to recall some of my own studies from that age. Ninth grade science was biology, and what I remember most is how the more I learned, the more I found myself in awe of how life works. That sense of awe has never diminished in me; if anything it has grown, particularly during my first pregnancy eight years ago, aware that cells were dividing and differentiating themselves to form another human being (all within my own body – amazing!).
And so, this summer as I read through our new High HolyDay prayerbook Mishkan HaNefesh, bookmarking passages I found meaningful, one in particular grabbed me. These words are by Lewis Thomas (1913-1993), taken from his book The Lives of a Cell:
“Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise. We are alive against the stupendous odds of genetics, infinitely outnumbered by all the alternates who might, except for luck, be in our places.
“Even more astounding is our statistical improbability in physical terms. The normal, predictable state of matter throughout the universe is randomness, a relaxed sort of equilibrium, with atoms and their particles scattered around in an amorphous muddle. We, in brilliant contrast, are completely organized structures, squirming with information at every covalent bond. . . .
“Add to this the biological improbability that makes each member of our own species unique. Each of us is a self-contained, free-standing individual, labeled by specific protein configurations at the surfaces of cells, identifiable by whorls of fingertip skin, maybe even by special medleys of fragrance. You’d think we’d never stop dancing.”
Before encountering the above excerpt, I was unfamiliar with Thomas. Curious about who he was, I found his New York Times obituary where I learned that he was a renowned medical doctor who held posts including president and CEO of Memorial Sloan-Kettering and dean of Yale’s and NYU’s medical schools. He additionally was known for his essays, books, and poetry.
Thomas was also a great lover of music (especially Bach). At the end of his NYT obituary is another passage from The Lives of a Cell, here in poetic prose, pondering the music created by all living beings:
“The need to make music, and to listen to it, is universally expressed by human beings. I cannot imagine, even in our most primitive times, the emergence of talented painters to make cave paintings without there having been, near at hand, equally creative people making song. It is, like speech, a dominant aspect of human biology.
“The individual parts played by other instrumentalists -- crickets or earthworms, for instance -- may not have the sound of music by themselves, but we hear them out of context. If we could listen to them all at once, fully orchestrated, in their immense ensemble, we might become aware of the counterpoint, the balance of tones and timbres and harmonics, the sonorities. The recorded songs of the humpback whale, filled with tensions and resolutions, ambiguities and allusions, incomplete, can be listened to as a part of music, like an isolated section of an orchestra. If we had better hearing, and could discern the descants of sea birds, the rhythmic timpani of schools of mollusks, or even the distant harmonics of midges hanging over meadows in the sun, the combined sound might lift us off our feet.”
How glorious! I am reminded of Psalm 98:7-8:
“Let the sea and all within in thunder,
the world and its inhabitants;
let the rivers clap their hands,
the mountains sing joyously together…”
Did any passages in particular bring meaning to your High HolyDay worship this year? I’d love to hear from you. Shanah tovah – I hope you have many occasions for wonder and new discoveries in this New Year 5778.