We are born into a world that works.

We have a family that looks after us, a roof over our heads, school to attend. More broadly, the wider society around us ebbs and flows, seemingly without any need for our input. The markets rise and fall, governments pass laws, businesses come and go. It’s easy to view our world, as it is today, and feel like an outsider, disconnected. Indeed, many people feel just that - separate and alone from the people that surround them, from the food they eat, from the earth they walk each and every day. But this is all an illusion, one that is easy to fall prey to if we’re not paying attention.

The "Green Spaceship"

Generally our world is thought of as hospitable to human life, whereas other planets and habitats might not necessary be so. But consider for a moment - what would happen if you were to spend a night outside in the English countryside in the middle of winter? What if you had no warm clothes in which to wrap up, or a tent in which to seek shelter? Suddenly, our world seems far less hospitable.

This, in fact, is true of the entirety of our world; were it not for human invention and intervention, our world would not be a hospitable home in which Humanity could thrive - at most, it would be a nasty, brutish place, where only the strongest could survive.

Indeed, this is the lot of many other species who occupy our world, and is the mechanism of evolution. Life for our co-occupant species is a race to avoid death, to discover the newest trick to quell hunger or quench thirst. Not so for us Humans. Today, we so take for granted the idea of shelter and warmth that it is an afterthought for much of our race, a basic human right. We've relegated the very life-struggle of every other species on the planet to the bottom layer of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.


When we look around at our world, at the structures and the society surrounding our every moment, we are looking at ourselves. This is the achievement of Humanity, this every increasing complexity, this ever burgeoning body of knowledge about our universe, about Creation. But it still leaves us with a quandary - where do we find ourselves - our unique, local selves - in this vastness?

The consciousness of the world

The Torah contains an odd contradiction in the first chapters of Bereishit which may help us to answer this question, and simultaneously allow us to explore another basic element of Jewish life - tefillah, prayer. In the Torah’s first telling of the story of creation, we read of the plants asgrowing and sprouting on the third day, “And God said, "Let the earth sprout vegetation, seed yielding herbs and fruit trees producing fruit according to its kind in which its seed is found, on the earth," and it was so.”

However, when the Torah retells this story in the second chapter of Bereishit, from the perspective of the sixth day, we find something odd: “Now no tree of the field was yet on the earth, neither did any herb of the field yet grow, because the Lord God had not brought rain upon the earth, and there was no man to work the soil.” Well, which is it? Did the vegetation sprout on the third or sixth day? Rashi, anticipating our question, answers with something remarkable, “Because there was no man to work the soil, and no one recognised the benefit of rain, but when man came and understood that they were essential to the world, he prayed for them, and they fell, and the trees and the herbs sprouted.” According to Rashi, it was the recognition of the necessity for the rain which prompted him to pray for it, and then for it to fall.

Recognition, awareness - why is this the key to rainfall, the key to the world working as it should, the key to tefilla?

Human beings create. We take raw materials provided by the Earth - heavy metals, stone, etc. and create houses and structures. We take raw materials provided by the Earth and fashion them into what we need them to be, to fill gaps in the world that we recognise need to be filled. This recognition is prayer. When we stand before Hashem in true tefillah, we are fashioning the raw materials in our lives into a narrative, into a picture of a universe, and we say to God, “God! This is how I see the world, and this is what’s missing. Please help to complete your creation.” All that we need in our lives is there, we must simply learn to fashion the raw materials into what it is that we need.

But, you’ll say, anyone can do that! What’s special about me? Why must I pray? How do I fit in?

Every breath you take is unique in the history of Creation

Consider this: going back to the beginning of creation, 15.7 billion years ago, until this very day, and stretching far forward into the future when the universe collapses in billions of years, there will never be another you. The circumstances that have led to your existence, from the macrocosmic machinations of the universe to the microcosmic choices that every human involved in your past has made until today, it is statically impossible for you to exist again. This leads to an astounding conclusion - within all the vastness of the known universe and the plethora of phenomena occurring by the picosecond, you are entirely unique.

Every breath you breathe, every step you take, every thought you think, has never been, nor ever will be again. There will never be another you. There will never be another who comes from where you come from, who has experienced what you’ve experienced, who looks at the world the way you look at the world. You have a completely unique opportunity to fashion the world the way you see it, an opportunity that will never come around again in the history of the known Universe. Your life is in your hands.

Tefilla is your telling of that story. It's you, as a piece of the universe, waking up and talking back to it's Creator, to God. It's the culmination of the entirety of the evolutionary process in you, in this moment, in these words, in this relationship. "Everyone should say, 'for me the world was created.'"[1]

Tefilla requires an awareness. An awareness of the universe around us, an awareness that calls us to become what nothing else in the universe is capable of becoming - a human being that knows, and that can act with that knowledge, that can use that knowledge to affect not just him/herself but the entirety of the cosmos, who can generate new knowledge, never before seen in the history of humanity.

Hitting the reset button

But we can so easily become distracted. We can so easily forget that we are part of this universe, its living, breathing consciousness. Behind our stone walls and our brick houses, we lose connection to the Earth from whence we came and to which we will return. “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”[2] Many see this verse as nihilistic - we are but chemical scum on this earth, temporary beings whose life has no real meaning. I think we can now understand it in a more positive light - you are part of this universe! You are stardust; within you are elements that existed at the moment of creation. Yes, you will relinquish this bodily form, but while you are here, you are an incredible creation - a walking, breathing, thinking piece of the universe.

Einstein once said, “A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Sukkot gives us an opportunity to reconnect with our Universe, with Creation, and with our Maker. On Sukkot, we leave the dividing walls of our homes behind, venturing out into the unknown, remembering the world. As Rashi explained, the world doesn’t work without Humans, without our awareness and our ability to create out of the raw materials of our creation, but we must never forget the brit of which we are a part. “Lest you eat and be sated, and build good houses and live in them … and you will say to yourself, 'My strength and the might of my hand that has accumulated this wealth for me.' But you must remember the Lord your God, for it is He that gives you strength to make wealth, in order to establish His brit which He swore to your forefathers, as it is this day.”[3]

It is God who provides us with the wherewithal to create, but it is we who must fulfil our end of the brit, and become partners with God in Creation.

  1. Mishna, Sanhedrin 4:5 ↩︎

  2. Bereshit 3:19 ↩︎

  3. Devarim 8:12, 17-18 ↩︎