One night you have a dream. You are floating in the utter blackness of deep space.
An eternity seems to pass, but nothing changes. It’s just you and the velvety, dark, star-sprinkled sky.
Far off, in the remote distance, you notice a tiny disk of light. Squinting, you see it slowly unfurl into a spangled, spinning, puddle of stars. Somehow you know this is the Milky Way. For eons you drift toward this glowing, expanding mass.
Scanning its starry arms, you hope against hope that you can pick out an insignificant dot that you’ve known all your life as the “sun.” For some reason, you seem to be attracted to a dim pin-point buried in an arm about two thirds of the way out.
After drifting closer to the little dot for many millennia, you are finally so near you can see planets! You spot a tiny Saturn with rings, and then make out Jupiter with its red spot.
Your heart leaps to see a blue-green marble appear.
Slowly the spinning orb grows larger… continents and oceans become visible under a blanket of clouds. As you descend through the stratosphere, mountain ranges and deserts flash past.
Now, below, you see splashes of light—cities aglow by night. Orienting yourself toward home, you feel yourself slowing as you fall. Through some amazing miracle, you gently land on your own front lawn!
Then you wake up, go outside and look up at the night sky.
You realize that the scene you dreamt isn’t make-believe.
Unbelievably this is reality. Every night that you look up into the starry, black sky, you’re peering into the furthest reaches of the universe. You are but one single inhabitant out of billions in this world, and even the earth is a speck within the scope of the wider universe.
You are mind-bogglingly insignificant.
As obvious as this is, our smallness is not something people spend much time pondering nowadays. With each new Hubble telescope image and NASA mission in the news, you’d think that we’d be more dumbfounded with awe.
You might be surprised that the biblical world was much more aware of this reality than we are. According to Jewish biblical scholar James Kugel, the Hebrew Bible is permeated, like the rest of the ancient world, with a fundamental sense of humility and “smallness of self.”1 Human beings saw themselves as a small part of a larger system, at the mercy of forces much greater than themselves—vast deserts and oceans, wild animals, storms, droughts, plagues and natural disasters. Only by banding together could they hope to survive.
This sense of smallness is at the very core of Israel’s consciousness of God, and it forms the very essence of biblical worship. The psalms and prophecies overflow with imagery of the tininess of man and God’s utter magnificence in comparison:
Do you not know? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers. (Isaiah 40:21-22)
It does seem remarkable, doesn’t it? Technology has shown us in more detail than ever before the immensity of the universe and our microscopic existence within it, yet we have little sense of humility as a result.
We assume that as the centuries go by, our increasing knowledge is causing us to grow more intellectually sophisticated. But Kugel wonders whether modernity has actually dulled our senses to reality, one that biblical peoples had no problems experiencing. He writes that
…something, a certain way of perceiving, has gradually closed inside of us, so that nowadays most people simply do not register, or do not have access to, what had been visible in an earlier age.
We are the ones who are numb and insensitive, unable to feel awe and wonder. Rabbi Abraham Heschel concurs, declaring that modern Westerners lack an ability to appreciate the grandeur of God:
Greeks learned in order to comprehend. Hebrews learned in order to revere. The modern man learns in order to use…To the modern man everything seems calculable; everything reducible to a figure. He has supreme faith in statistics and abhors the idea of a mystery. Obstinately he ignores the fact that we are all surrounded by things which we apprehend but cannot comprehend; that even reason is a mystery to itself. He is sure of his ability to explain all mystery away.
The awareness of grandeur and the sublime is all but gone from the modern mind… The sense for the sublime, the sign of the inward greatness of the human soul and something which is potentially given to all men, is now a rare gift. Yet without it, the world becomes flat and the soul a vacuum.2
Our culture is so dazzled by its own brilliance that it’s blinded to anything bigger than itself. We’re like Cub Scouts on our first overnight camping trip. If we’d patiently wait out in the darkness, our eyes would gradually sensitize to nebulae and globular clusters and remote galaxies. Instead we’re goofing around with our fancy new flashlights and giggling inside our pup tents. When we finally look up at the sky, we can’t even make out the Milky Way.
1 James Kugel, The Great Poems of the Bible (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1999), 30-43.
2 Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man (New York: Ferrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955), 36.
Images are from Wikipedia.