Getting the Balance Right

Getting the Balance Right

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Image credit: https://www.wowamazing.com

When I was an “Honors English” undergraduate student at McGill University so many years ago, my concentration was mainly on theatre and drama, along, of course, with literature. History, too. I still remember how upset I was to learn about Armand Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. It was indeed a cruel message for a young girl who had entered university at 16 years of age, and who believed that, ideally, the role of the arts was to convey not only life’s beauty – and yes, its vagaries and sorrows — but also to inspire, and, in so doing, to reach for the essence of the divine. I didn’t know when I was a teenager that one day, much later in life, I would become a rabbi.

Who was Armand Artaud?

His thesis, a dramatic one indeed, was that nature is cruel, the ultimate cruelty, and that no matter what human beings build or create, no matter how much they think they have conquered the desert or the jungle, or the sea, no matter what great civilizations they build, nature will persevere in the end. Just as Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) postulates in the Bible, everything is ephemeral (a better English translation of the Hebrew word “hevel” than“vanity.” That is what Artaud’s plays purported to show: Eventually, it is only a matter of time, nature takes it all back. Like sand castles washed away by the tide, as we discover in childhood, to fragmented Torah texts or pottery shards or valuables secreted in tombs, or even whole cities unearthed centuries later, we learn that nature takes back by what is later revealed.

Artaud’s theories have seemed quite credible in the last weeks. Terrifying volcanic eruptions and lava flows that still continue at this writing have been raging in Hawaii. It’s easy to understand why the original inhabitants of the Hawaiian Islands invented a goddess of the mountain named Pele who needed to be propitiated so that she would not erupt.

My children and I walked on those same black lava beds when we visited Big Island some years ago, so the videos and oral reports of Kilauea’s eruption seem almost beyond belief to me today. True, red embers were visible through the fissures even then, and we were permitted to stay only a few minutes because of the sulphur gas constantly emitted. However, the capable rangers and the knowledgeable geologists had it all under control then. Each day they checked their up-to-the-minute scientific information and reconfigured where it was safe for tourists to be. When two of my children strayed too long, their throats were very sore the next day. In recent years, access has been more limited, I am told.

As if in response to Kilauhea’s fury, echoing volcanic disasters have erupted in other areas of the world. In Guatemala, surrounded by “the ring of fire” of its enveloping mountains, volcanic fury has also been raging. I visited there only last year, enthralled by the fact that this land, these mountains cloaked in mist just beneath their summits, represent the birthplace of the almost lost Mayan culture.

Why do people stay? Why do people choose to live near volcanos in various parts of the world – near Pompeii for example, in Santorini?  Perhaps it’s because inspiration couples with the possibility of destruction there. Perhaps it’s because somehow, in the enormity of what happened, what can still happen, it feels close to God.

Even now, as I watch the film clips of natural disaster still raging in Hawaii, I remember sitting in the mystical vortex between two crystal-embedded mountains there and hearing the mountains echo with sound, like giant radios. What were they transmitting? What messages have they still to convey?

And I remember walking (a little apprehensively, I admit)) through the long lava tube that cut right through the Kilauea volcano. Remarkably, nature had made it into a beautiful rain forest, filled with green plants and gorgeous flowers. Right there in the middle of the volcanic mountain, the rain forest had all the natural ingredients it needed to flourish.

In God’s world, creation coexists with destruction. Our task is to get the balance right.