(NOTE: Podcast version of the words below is available at the bottom of the page.)
Last summer, I was at the Grind Café, on Main Street. I was sitting near the window, trying to get some writing done. But I got distracted by a loud buzzing. A bald-faced hornet was trying to get back outside. It flew, rested, flew, rested, and then crawled down the side of the table.
This hornet was large, for a bee. About ¾ of an inch long, with a black armoured body, and a clownish white face. Normally I avoid hornets, but I had just read that wild hornets are an important part of the natural environment. In fact, they can be considered beneficial to humans. Some species pollinate flowers and eat aggressive yellow jackets.
So, I leaned over the edge of the table and I looked directly into the hornet’s face. And I said, “Hi, beautiful! The window isn’t safe. Here, climb on my notebook.” Immediately the hornet crawled onto the table and made a beeline (so to speak) for the notebook. Then, it settled on the middle of a page and waited.
At that time, I didn’t know much about bald-faced hornets. So I said, “I don’t know where you live. You’ll have to tell me.” I carried the notebook outdoors, to the nearest quiet street. I showed the hornet a flower. Not interested. Grass. Not interested. Soil. Nope. Finally, I brought the notebook to a tree trunk. “Yes, that’s right!” the hornet said – in body language. It walked off the notebook and quickly climbed the tree.
Why did I help? I depend on the hornet. It should be able to depend on me. I’m a conscious thinking creature, and I should assume the hornet is, too. Because that’s what God created: a world of interdependent, conscious creatures.
So says the Biblical creation story, Genesis chapter 1. Especially if you read it with the help of midrash. Midrash is a Hebrew word that means “deep inquiry.” It refers to interpretations and legends developed over centuries of Jewish tradition. Some stories in midrash are as old as the Biblical text itself. So, in synagogue and Hebrew school, we study midrash along with Torah.
Let’s study some midrash now. And inquire deeply into the creation story.
On the first day of creation, says the Bible, “God called the light ‘day’ and the darkness God called ‘night’.” That’s your standard, literal English translation of the Hebrew. But every translation is also an interpretation. And according to this one, God makes something, steps back to look at it, and then gives it a name.
But – stop and think. Does this translation make sense? God just said, “Light, come into being!” God already named the new being “light.” Why would God also name it “day”? Light and day aren’t even the same thing.
So, here’s another, equally literal translation, “God called to the light ‘Day!’ And to the darkness, God called ‘Night!’” According to this interpretation, God creates something, and then speaks directly to it.
A midrashic legend describes this first conversation. God says, “Hey light, I’d like you to work during the day. And dark, I’d like you to work at night.” And the creatures consent. With their consent, “it was evening, it was morning – a day.”
What a challenging midrash! In our everyday perception, light isn’t a being. It’s an energy, that comes and goes. It’s insubstantial. Scientists can’t figure out whether it’s a wave or a particle. And dark is so subtle, we think it’s just the absence of light. But from God’s perspective, light and dark are conscious beings. If we develop spiritual perception, we can see that, too. We can understand why God talks to them.
And why God keeps on talking to them, day after day.
On the sixth day, says Genesis, God is ready to create human beings. According to the Bible, God says, “Let us make a human in our image, in our likeness.” Now the Biblical universe recognizes only one Creator, so you might wonder. Who is God talking to? Who is us? Whose image is our image?
One famous midrashic legend says: God is talking to everyone created so far. Light, land, plants, stars, birds, fish, insects, and mammals. “Help me,” God says to them. “Help me design someone who is a little bit like each of you. Someone who will recognize you. Who won’t regard you as a stranger, or as an alien Other. And then, let us all work together to sustain this new creation.”
Another midrash agrees: humans were created last, because we are the least self-sufficient creatures on the planet. We depend on everything that was created before us.
Don’t be surprised if this reminds you of local Indigenous wisdom. The Hebrew Bible is an Indigenous text of the ancient Near East. It’s woven from oral stories about life on the land. In these stories, human life depends on donkeys, ravens, eagles, wasps, and medicinal plants. No wonder the very first story, creation, presents a philosophy of sustainability.
Even today: Worms till our soil. Bees pollinate our food. Moths spin our fabrics. Mosquitos feed the fish we eat. Flies process our garbage. The distinguished insect biologist Edmund O. Wilson calls this work “free ecosystem services.” And he calculates the value of this free labor as equal to the gross domestic product of all human countries, combined.
Without insects, Wilson says, flowering plants and herbs would become sterile. They would disappear. So would birds and vegetarian animals. Bacteria would multiply in rotting material. At first, ferns, conifers and wind-pollinated grasses would spread. But soil quality would deteriorate, and these plants would also disappear.
And then, in Wilson’s own words:
Amid widespread starvation during the first several decades, human populations would plunge to a small fraction of their former level. The wars for control of the dwindling resources, the suffering, and the tumultuous decline to dark-age barbarism would be unprecedented in human history. Clinging to survival in a devastated world, and trapped in an ecological dark age, the survivors would offer prayers for the return of weeds and bugs.
We depend on other creatures. Even creatures as small and scary as a hornet. Let’s pray for the wisdom, the spiritual perception, the scientific insight, the indigenous knowledge, and the political will to sustain them — so that they can depend on us, too.
Presented as a Earth Day sermon at Canadian Memorial United Church and Centre for Peace, Vancouver, BC, 2018. Photo credit: Laura Duhan-Kaplan. Re-upping for 2019: When the reading of Genesis is the same week as Vancouver Climate Strike 2.