How much has the world changed in the last 2013 years? How much has it changed in the last 5744 years? Is there anything that has existed for the entire timeline of recorded history?
My friend and colleague Rabbi David Seidenberg wrote recently that what is possibly the oldest living culture, the Australian aborigines, is about 60,000 years old (see his writings at neohasid.com). That’s pretty old, possibly as old as the earliest development of symbolic culture and language. For the rest of us, our religion, culture, traditions, laws, and rituals are a whole lot younger. Still, our cultural and religious systems provide a measure of stability and continuity over time. The Psalmist, in Psalm 20, reflects on what is temporary and what is permanent.
They [call] on chariots, they [call] on horses, but we call on the name of Adonai our God. They collapse and lie fallen, but we rally and gather strength. (20:8-9)
When you get down to brass tacks (what does that really mean, anyway), what do you find at the core? The Psalmist presents two contrasting world views, that of gashmiyut vs. ruhaniyut — materialism vs. spiritualism.
All material objects are temporary. Living creatures eventually die, and their (our) bodies disintegrate, slowly turning back into more basic elements.
I remember flying in and out of New York, looking at all of the buildings and thinking that even such enormous structures cannot last forever. I used to try to imagine Manhattan tens of thousands of years in the future, the buildings covered with vines, slowly eating away at the material, slowly crumbling. I never imagined that the end of the two most imposing towers at the South end of the island would be so dramatic as the one we witnessed in horror on September 11, 2001.
Gashmiyut, materialism – Horses and chariots, mortal beings and material objects, will all eventually collapse and disappear. Everything that we create will ultimately be destroyed.
Ruhaniyut, spiritualism – The existence of a Divine realm over and above us assures us that there is the possibility of a transcendent set of values and meaning for our existence. We can gather together in community and call upon the name of God, we can find strength in rallying together under a banner of a religious community whose purpose is to do good in the world.