Thriving in the Thermal Vents - Yom Kippur 5781

In 1991, researchers remotely piloted robots to search the eerie environment of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. And they found something quite unexpected on the ruined walls of the No.4 Nuclear Reactor: life. Black fungi were growing happily amidst the radiation. And I say ‘happily’ for a reason - they were growing toward sources of radiation, because they were absorbing the radiation and using it to grow. 

It seems that every time we assume that life cannot survive in an environment, we are proven wrong. Bacteria live in the toxic vents of the deep ocean floor, under such high pressure that the water boils at 340°C. Extreme heat and cold, extreme pressure, the vacuum of space - you name it, it seems that life can find a way. 

The radiation-hungry fungi of Chernobyl have been on my mind recently, largely because I’ve been wondering about the difference between surviving and thriving. Life, after all, is very good at surviving. It’s written into the code of living things: we have an urge to survive. But the fungi of Chernobyl are not simply surviving, they are thriving. 

There have been periods of time in these last six months in which the focus has been on survival. Sometimes this is literal, and sometimes it is emotional and spiritual. Some lucky people have thrived, of course - but it seems to be more the exception than the rule. 

And though I usually consider the reminders of mortality and chaos of the High Holy Days liturgy to be the spiritual highlight of my year, I’ve been anxious about it this year. I have been anxious that it might just be too much to say ‘who will live and who will die; who by fire and who by water’. 

But of course, we are not the first generation to be experiencing this intense liturgy in the midst of a pandemic. These are age-old questions, and Jews have never been shy about addressing difficult questions. I would like to share one such response with you, which was taught to me by my colleague Rabbi Keilah Lebell. This response has been recorded in a drashah written by Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven, otherwise known as the Ran. 

The Ran lived in the 1300s in Spain, at the height of the Black Death. This was a difficult time to be a Jew, not only for the threat of the deadliest pandemic in human history, but also for the threat of antisemitic violence that stemmed from the panic. It was a very dark time. 

And the Ran wrote directly about life during the plague, and its relationship to spiritual survival. He wrote: 

When the world proceeds according to its usual way, and the world’s goods continue, the imagination gains strength.’ He writes that we fall prey to delusion. We imagine ourselves powerful, and it is difficult to attain awe of God and humility. But when we are shaken to our core, according to the Ran, that is when the lies we tell ourselves fall away. That place of being shaken, of being vulnerable, is fertile ground for truth. ‘When things are bitter,’ he writes, ‘a person cannot continue as they did before. They can no longer be enticed by delusion. As a result, they have a clearer perception of the truth, and they seek out God… to return (lashuv) to God.’

In what feels to me to be startlingly counterintuitive, the Ran claims that in times of tragedy, teshuvah - returning, repentance - can thrive. And I think it’s important to note that the Ran does not claim that the plague was justified by this. He refers to the plague as ‘The Evil’. But he impresses that evil and darkness can be places for growth. 

I’m reminded of Jonah in the tomb of the fish, sinking and sinking and sinking, down into the darkness. And somehow, there, Jonah finds an ability to grow.

The teaching of Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven, and the lesson of the fungi of Chernobyl, have been vital to my experiences of the Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe. It is possible, they both say, for a landscape that looks barren - even a terrain that seems toxic - to be unexpectedly fertile ground. 

G’mar chatimah tovah. May we all be sealed for a good year. 


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