Our very existence depends on a delicate balance between too much and too little
On Succot and the Fragility of Nature
Broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, 28th September 2012
For Jews, the festival season is well and truly on us. We’ve just celebrated the New Year and the Day of Atonement, and next week we have Succot, known in English as Tabernacles.
It’s difficult to explain Succot in Britain, especially this year, because it’s a festival of prayer for rain, whereas here we’ve had all too much of it, including the floods still doing damage in York, Liverpool, and Wales. But in the Holy Land, where the Bible is set, rain was – and still is – the scarcest resource and without it there’s drought and famine.
So on Succot we take four kinds of things that need rain to grow: a palm branch, a citron, and leaves from a willow and myrtle tree, and holding them we thank God for rain and pray for it in the Holy Land in the year to come – even if we happen to be living in the soggiest of climates. Succot is, if you like, a festival about the fragility of nature as a habitat hospitable to humankind.
The natural world is something science and religion both speak about in their very different ways. Science explains; religion celebrates. Science speaks, religion sings. Science is prose, religion is poetry and we need them both.
Science continues to inspire us in the way it reveals the intricacy of nature and the power of the human mind. Rarely was this more so than earlier this year, with the almost certain confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson, which someone with a sense of humour called “the God particle” on the grounds that it exists everywhere but it’s so hard to find.
But science can sometimes make us think we’re in control, which is why we need moments like Succot to restore our sense of humility. We’re so small in a universe so vast, and our very existence depends on an extraordinarily delicate balance between too much and too little, whose symbol is rain. Too much and we have floods. Too little and we have drought.
So as well as knowledge we need wisdom, and the better part of wisdom is knowing that we are guardians of a universe we can easily endanger and which we still don’t fully understand. Perhaps it’s not crazy, once a year, to lift our eyes toward heaven, the way we do when we’re praying for rain, and remember how dependent we are on things beyond our control.
The more scientific knowledge and power we have, the more humility we need.