Friday, June 29, 2012


"Without a wish, without a will,
I stood upon that silent hill
And stared into the sky until
My eyes were blind with stars and still
I stared into the sky." -Ralph Hodgson

~ Serbian proverb

Each of us experience a moment in our childhood where we learn a truth that haunts us for a long time. For me, that experience was when I found out that our sun is a star.  I had a hard time accepting that this wonderful, bright thing - my Sun - was like all other shining stars in the night sky. Worse yet, I was soon to learn that stars have finite lifetime.  Devastating.  I remember thinking: You mean, one day the sun will die? It will dim, and there will be darkness?  I suppose most children are frightened by the concept of an exploding sun.  But for me, whether the sun will extinguish by dimming or by dying in a fiery, catastrophic, deflagration was irrelevant. 
When I remember how scared I was, I think about how I should broach this subject to my child in a few years.  To say "nothing lasts forever, even the sun" will not do; and I would not want to watch her little heart break like mine did.  As I look back, my underlying fear was that the sun dimming meant the world ending: no human, no pets, no plants . . . no life.  Explaining that this won't happen for billions of years will be no help, for a child cannot imagine what billion years mean.

Instead, being truthful in an extraordinary way is the route I'll take.  Perhaps Joni Mitchell took poetic liberty when she sang "we are stardust."  But we are.  Think about how beautiful all the stars are and how each one of us has a little shining star inside.  Instead of how we came to be, I will focus on the magical stuff that makes us up.  And instead of the bigger picture, I’ll take the microscopic view.

I may be treading on a delicate issue here, but since this post is not meant to pit creationism vs. evolution, let me put my views on the table: I believe that the creation story should be taken as an allegory and that each day does not equal 24 hours of time.  For me there is no disagreement between the Genesis stories and what astrobiology explains about Earth’s formation.  To the contrary, the creation story in Breishit (Gen 2:7) about G-d forming man from dust is impressively close to the mark, considering that it was written a long time before we knew anything about the formation of planets. 
Whatever your theistic views are, science has shown that the same elements that make us up - atoms like carbon and oxygen - are also expelled by dying stars when their supplies of hydrogen fuel are consumed.  These elements are expelled when a star explodes and accumulate under the force of gravity into molecular clouds that ultimately form into planets.  The dying stars release carbon, which combines with hydrogen to form organic compounds in space.  Those organic compounds are the precursors of amino acids, which in turn make up the proteins of all living organisms including humans.    Other elements on earth are also created in the heart of the stars, from gold, lead and uranium, forged in a dying star's supernova explosion, to the iron in our blood, and the calcium in our bones.
In fact, on 28 September 1969, thirty-one years to the day before my daughter's birth, the Murchison meteorite fell as a bright fireball in Victoria, Australia.  This meteorite contained fatty acids, sugars, all five nucleobases, and over 70 different amino acids.  Only 21 amino acids are found in the human body.  As late as the eighteenth century, western civilization saw meteorites and comets as messengers; in a sense they are, delivering stardust materials to the Earth.  
We may be of stardust, but there is more.  We are golden.  We are more than the elements and atoms that make us.  Our skills, compassion, shrewdness, uniqueness, and tenacious spirit show us that.  “Luminous beings are we; not this crude matter," said Master Yoda.  Still, I am happy that we are made of star stuff.  The death of a star, a death that is in our own sun's future, brings a promise of other worlds and other races.  While this will not happen in my lifetime or my child's lifetime, there's a sense that when our sun stops shining, this wondrous gift of life may not cease to exist.  Instead, our sun's demise may be a catalyst for some unfathomable life to come.  And those luminous beings will be made of that same stardust that you and I are made of.  So when the time comes for that truth-about-the-sun discussion, I can tell my daughter to look to the stars to see magical stuff and the promise of more good things to come.  Or I can tell her to simply look inside.

Joni Mitchell, Woodstock

Note: This article is published in the July issue of the Chronicles, Etz Hayim's monthly newsletter. On July 4th, enjoy the fireworks, but when the smoke clears up, stay awhile, and gaze at the stars, or "up above" as Tamar likes to call them. I know I'll be doing just that while camping in Maine. Enjoy and stay safe everyone!

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