Archive by category "Exploring God's World"

The Meeting of the Waters

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

The Amazon River in Brazil boasts 2,500 varieties of fish. I wouldn’t recommend putting a hand in its opaque, café au lait colored waters, however. They’re not the crystal clear waters of the Bahamas where you can see right down to the white sand.  While these waters of the Amazon derive their color from the sandy banks and dense plant life that surround them, they are treacherous. Forget swimming if you are not a native. In fact, the Amazon River abounds with flesh-eating predators. There are, for example, fearsome black caimans with large heads and avaricious appetites (often 20 feet long, they have been called “alligators on steroids”); they’ll tackle anything as food, a leg here and an arm there, they’re not specific). Numerous other dangerous water species abound — ever-hungry fish or reptiles that would be be happy to take a chunk out of visitors to their territory (Source: Matthew Wells, “10 terrifying Creatures of the Amazon”).

Among them are the green Anaconda, reputed to be the largest snake in the world (29 feet long), who prefer the shallow waters where they can constrict and suffocate their victims; the Arapaima, with scary armored scales – and whose tongue also has teeth; Giant Otters, often referred to as “river wolves”; Bull Sharks whose powerful jaws make them one of the most feared attackers; Electric Eels who really kill their prey (hopefully not you!) with jolts of electricity; and Piranhas, primarily scavengers known for their feeding frenzies when they are really hungry. The most insidious fish, however, are the Candiros. These are small, parasitic, freshwater catfish. Do not, however secretly, urinate in the opaque waters of the Amazon, or these little demons will swim right into your urethra and lodge in the urinary tract. Since they have spines on their backs, it takes surgery to get them out.  

Of course, not all of the fish in the Amazon River are predators. Lots of them are prey (a subject I described in an earlier post). Amazingly, despite all the water creatures eager for human food, from time to time, locals can be seen fishing from the shore. If you gotta eat, you gotta eat, I guess. Or maybe they are familiar with the times when the carnivores will most likely be hungry. Sometimes the long arms of a favorite pet of the region, the furry sloth, will be hanging from the necks of these indigenous people. A human, it seems, is just as good as a tree for hanging out.

In any case, there are lots of fish in the Amazon river, and most of them are not flesh-eating. Lots of them prefer seafood to people. Actually, the many diverse species come from the merging of two or more rivers. This merging –when two bodies of water meet (sometimes one of them is a tributary) and then join to become one river — is called a confluence.  In the case of the Amazon River in Brazil, the meeting of the waters provides an amazing visual display – it is truly spectacular –as the two streams resist mixing their colors. As they approach one another, the contrast is striking: the dark-hued Rio Negro and the coffee-tone of the Amazon. They seem to like their own colors and don’t want a mixed marriage.

The Rio Negro is not really a black river, as its Spanish name would proclaim, but it is a dark color, classed among the blackwaters of the world. It is also a large body of water, in fact the largest tributary of the Amazon. As it enters the Amazon from the left, the Rio Negro insists on keeping its own dark color. So does the pale sandy Rio Solimoes, which continues to flow from the upper part of the Amazon River. They are so stubborn, these rivers. I watched in amazement as the two rivers continued to flow in their own streams, at their own levels (the Solimoes flows beside and below the Rio Negro), in their own preferred colors, without mixing. They maintain different temperatures, different speeds, different water density. The Rio Negro flows at near 2 kilometers per hour at a temperature of 28 degrees, while the Rio Solimoes flows between 4-6 miles per hour at a temperature of 22 degrees. They are different in the movement of air masses

Not only do the waters continue to be separatists in the same Amazon river for about six kilometers (3.7 miles), but they also contain different fish – different species — in each of the two streams. They do not mix either; they maintain their own levels in an “us” and “other” situation. If I were a joker, I would say “fishuation” that is very Talmudic since each “side” has a different point of view. The Talmud is full of rabbis disagreeing and maintaining their own position. Usually they find a middle ground.

But if they can’t, the Talmud also teaches that when two forces maintain an oppositional view and refuse to compromise, a third force is needed to “lift them up” from their folly. Two oppositional ideas can generate a third choice that they haven’t previously considered. That’s what happens in the Amazon River. A huge natural blockage, some six kilometers past their first meeting place near the Brazilian city of Manaus, impedes the river’s flow and crunches the two streams together like an oversize mix-master. After that, there are no more distinctive plumes traveling at their own levels, temperatures, and populations. The unfazed Amazon continues its journey – it’s one of the longest rivers in the world, rivaling the Nile — as a churning, united muddy brown. In its own way, it’s a beautiful, flowing middle ground.

The Peacock’s Tale

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick


For years I had a busy writing and editing service. Among the books, articles, speeches, and what-have-you that I edited, there were usually two or three master’s or doctoral theses every year. And I learned a great deal from them. One thesis that I found particularly spiritually attractive concerned equine therapy, something that has since proven very successful, especially with teenagers, but at that time it was still regarded with considerable skepticism, particularly by this graduate student’s professor. The student ended up dedicating her remarkable thesis to her horse and to me. The prof didn’t get a mention.

One of the interesting things I learned from her thesis was that in animal life there are two categories: predators and prey. Apparently, predators have eyes placed to look straight in front of them, so that they can spot prey quickly. Prey, on the other hand have eyes placed on the side of their heads so that they can see the predators coming more easily and run away. Prey always have a nervous quality, a marked sensitivity to their surroundings.


And so now I come to the peacock’s tail. I’ve been thinking about that spunky peacock and his protective tail feathers ever since, after serving as Guest Staff Rabbi on a cruise ship, I returned from Central America (which, to my surprise, is actually in North America) to sunny California, safe and sound. Once our ship completed its nine-hour trip through the historic Panama Canal, moving into open waters, we had been under the protection of the U.S. coastguard (manning mounted guns), with a sister cruise ship closely following. I thought briefly about pirates, terrorists, then banished these fears. Together we were a BIG SHAPE – spread out like a preening peacock’s tail feathers — as we traveled, and I, for one, was glad to proceed in this close, sea-borne caravan until we reached Columbia (which is in South America).

Over the years I have seen peacocks in various places, zoos mostly, or animal parks that let them roam to a degree. But never one like this peacock. I spotted him in the National Aviary Park in Cartagena among all the other beautiful birds of many colors. I have since learned that the peacock was originally an East Indian bird, but I cannot imagine a bird’s colors being more vibrant, his tail feathers so long anywhere else but in Cartagena. As they shone in the sun, the sight was enough to make you “get religion,” to stir your wonder of the Cosmos and its creator.

This peacock roamed around freely within the area covered by the Columbian Aviary’s high, gauzy ceiling, looking humans in the eyes curiously, without fear, having learned already that at least in this protected setting, the people making contact with him were not a danger to him. Even though peacocks can bite quite fiercely if they sense they will be harmed, even though this peacock’s eyes were on the side of the head, he knew he was not at risk here. It was a safe space. My green eyes and his black eyes continued a silent conversation for quite a while, as he cocked his head from side to side, assessing me. Is this a good human being?

Then the next day the ship transporting me along with 2,000 other passengers and 1,000 crew, stopped in Costa Rica. We had returned to North America! Here those of us who chose to explore a mangrove swamp – similar swamps may be found where a river meets the sea — boarded a small boat. We travelled slowly through the narrow, brownish, swampy waters. On the shores on either side of the mangrove swamp, we could spot – often with difficulty because they were so well camouflaged — some of the bird species that we had seen in the Columbian aviary. But here in Costa Rica, they were in their natural setting. So were very scary crocodiles, predators who waited, in the swamp, just their eyes and nostrils peering above the water, for foolish prey to come too close. (Actually, crocs can run pretty fast on land – not a good idea to encounter them there either!)

And then I spotted the peacock on the shore. Not the same peacock that I had seen in Columbia, of course, but equally beautiful, strutting around with his tail feathers glowing with irridescent colors, shining in the sun. Like the peacock I saw in Costa Rica, he evoked a sense of wonder in me, a connection to Creation. How could a living creature on the shore of a swamp be so beautiful? Meanwhile his six peacock wives, dowdy brown and white hens, without long tail feathers gifted by an artistic God, fed on the plant life. One might say charitably that they were dressed modestly.

Once the gorgeous peacock spotted the crocodile, he went into defense mode. How? He didn’t run; he didn’t freeze. He stood his ground. He approached the shore as closely as he dared, turned around, and raised his tail feathers. Generally speaking, when a peacock spreads his tail feathers, a casual observer may think that he is preening. But when a peacock turns around and spreads his tail feathers in defense, his backside is a dowdy brown and white, just like the hens that he is protecting – and, come to think of it, close to the color of that low-lying crocodile. Not only are these dull feathers a camouflage, but spread out like that as the peacock presents his behind to the enemy, they make a REALLY BIG SHAPE. Enough to keep that predator croc in the water. The croc doesn’t want to mess with that scary shape, even though, when you take a second look, it’s balanced on spindly, prey-like, peacock legs.

* * *

What’s really scary, it seems to me, whether it’s a croc in a mangrove swamp or a human being in our more usual habitats, is that so often it’s hard to tell the predator from the prey. After all, human beings have eyes on the front of their faces, not the sides.

Can prey become predators? Or vice versa. Can human predators be disguised by the direction of their eyes? What if they hide their intentions with sunglasses? Does concern for others – loving-kindness, connectedness – infuse their vision, change that direction? Or does too much concern have the propensity to turn us, defenseless, into unwitting prey? In 2017, how do we find a balance between predator and prey, both at home and in distant lands?

A Green Shoot Grows


by Rabbi Corinne Copnick


“But a shoot shall grow out of the stump of Jesse,

A twig shall sprout from his stock” (Isaiah 11:1-2).

A few months before I was ordained as a rabbi, I initiated a pluralistic Jewish study group called Beit Kulam (House of Togetherness), now entering its third year. Held in our living room and organized by my daughter, Janet, it takes the form of a cozy, Sunday morning breakfast club (bagels with cream cheese, delicious home-baked goods, really good coffee, and ample schmoozing time before the sessions start  — and even after, as people get to know one another). Some people attend via Skype or Facetime from places like Vancouver, B.C., or even Venezuela. Usually some 15-20 people attend each study session in person, plus the virtual attendees, which is a really good size for vigorous and informed discussion on continuing themes.

Some Beit Kulam members are very knowledgeable, well versed in Judaism; others are just beginning to learn what it means to be a Jew. Some of the people who attend are not Jewish but are attracted by the topics, which my daughter publishes on the web, and by the inclusive, homey atmosphere. Sometimes they just come or drop in from time to time as their schedules allow because they are curious or want to make new friends. Some people attend via Skype or Facetime from places like Vancouver, B.C., or even Venezuela. Everyone is welcome.

Why Sunday and not Saturday? Some of the people who enjoy coming to Beit Kulam are synagogue members elsewhere, so our study group sessions on Sundays don’t affect their attendance there. Why do they come to Beit Kulam? Because we discuss things they want to know or that they feel too shy to ask in a more formal setting – complex ethical or sensitive issues many synagogues just don’t have the time or inclination to examine in depth. After my presentation on a particular topic, usually part of a theme extending over several sessions, our Beit Kulam attendees engage in vigorous discussion.

* * * *

One of the themes my study group tackled this year involved exploring what really may have happened to the Ten “Lost” Jewish Tribes. We examined, and looked beyond, some of the theories that have been proposed at different times but since discarded. It was, and is, a fascinating study, which took us through many cultures.

Among the people and places we read and talked about were the ancient Maya, who made their home for centuries in Central America. How could such astonishing mathematical and astrological erudition, as well as architectural abilities, exist in their polytheistic, savage culture?  One of the once popular but currently discarded theories is that they were actually the descendants of the ancient Israelites, remnants of a Lost Tribe.

The Tower of Babel? You’re kidding!

However, according to mystical Jewish literature (See Seder Hadorot, Sefer Hayashar, Book of Jubilees, the Zohar, and the Book of Enoch), it is entirely possible that there are connections between the biblical Israelites and the Mayans, but they occurred much earlier than the period when the Assyrians conquered and dispersed the Ten Tribes of ancient Northern Israel. In fact, the possible dispersion to Mesoamerica may go back to the time of the disgraced builders of the Tower of Babel, as is recounted in the Torah (Genesis 11:1-9). God was furious, not because the builders were trying to reach the heavens, but because they were trying to usurp God’s power. And so the Torah portrays God as dispersing the people all over the world and confounding their language, so that they now spoke many languages and could no longer understand one another. This scattering of the people likely happened around 1765 BCE. The Mayan civilization is believed to have its origins around 2,000 BCE or earlier, so its is quite possible that at least some of the Tower of Babel people may have been the biblical forbears of the Mayans.

Our Genius Ancestor, Enoch…

Here is where the biblical Enoch and his many descendants come into the picture. Who was Enoch? In terms of his ancestry, he was the great great grandson of the biblical Seth, a son of Adam. The timeline and intricate genealogy of the Enoch story coincide with the beginnings of Mayan civilization – and of the birth of the Mayan calendar.

In terms of his abilities, Enoch was celebrated for his astounding astronomical and mathematical knowledge and teachings. He understood the course of the planetary bodies. He was skilled in the building of cities. The mystical Zohar claimed that Enoch possessed a book containing the inner secrets of wisdom that originated from the Garden of Eden! The Greeks credited him with the invention of writing!

It is entirely possible that one of Enoch’s descendants, who lived during the time of the Tower of Babel, many have settled in the area now called the Yucatan (perhaps in honor of his ancestor, Yoktan). Presumably, Enoch’s knowledge was passed to his descendants and through them to the Mayans, who integrated this knowledge into their own cyclical calendar.

Little did I know as our Beit Kulam group talked about the Maya that I would soon find myself in Guatemala, the birthplace of the Mayan calendar. Yes, I had agreed to be Guest Staff Cruise Rabbi on yet another trip to far away lands, this time to Central America.

* * **

These are the things I pondered as our cruise ship approached the boundaries of the next port of call, Guatemala.  As misty clouds floated just below the summits of the 23 volcanos ringing the country, they created an other-worldly quality. Mystical, like the ancient literature that connected the biblical Enoch with this part of Central America.

Most of these volcanos are still active or dormant. When fiery lava at times flows down their sides, when the volcanos erupt, killing everything in their wake, is the spiritual legend of the ancient Maya who once fed them human bodies still predatory in nature? Has it been redeemed by time – and dispersion?

The atmosphere is surreal. This still troubled country was – and is — the home of the Mayan culture, the birthplace of its creation story and its two calendars (one lunar, one solar, which they intercalated), of remarkable astronomical calculations, of the complex cycle of its culture, of a written language whose mysterious code has been cracked, if not fully understood, in modern times. It is also the inspiration of powerful artistic representations based on the natural world, on the animals around them, like the jaguar, whose speed and cunning strength they venerated. Or the Maize God, the supergod that gave them food.

Here in this place thinly covered with limestone and volcanic ash where food was – and is — so hard to grow, the Maya knew they were, above all and without warning, the prey of the predatory mountains, and so, for centuries, they tried to propitiate the gods of the volcanos by feeding them human sacrifices. Many of these sacrificed humans were captives taken from other tribes with whom the Mayans were warring. Today recovered Mayan artwork in museums reveals the armed predator with his foot on the neck of his human prey. Depending on circumstances, it seems, prey and predator were interchangeable. Can people capable of impressive abstract thought literally remove the heart from a live person – in order to ingest that person’s power – on a sacrificial altar and still remain spiritual human beings? Or do they then become indistinguishable from the wild animal life that inhabits their landscape? Do they become a human landscape informed by the fury of the volcanos.

Eventually, though, it was not the volcanic eruptions that drove the Maya from the land they held to be spiritual. Like similar periods that have been captured in the Hebrew Bible, long years of drought with resulting famine caused them to leave. There was nothing to eat. Slowly, the wild animals, both prey and predator, disappeared, and eventually the Maya left for other places. Most assimilated into Mexico.

There were dire predictions that the world would come to an end when the revered Mayan calendar ended its 5,000 year cycle.[1] In fact, the Maya had two calendars, the first a sacred calendar called “the Calendar Round,” which was lunar, and the second referred to as “the Long Count Calendar” (these dates were usually found on inscriptions), which was solar based. The Maya reconciled the two calendars. They also created the concept of the zero.

The Calendar Round (52 years):

 In Breaking the Maya Code, 3rd ed. (Kindle), author Michael Coe, a long recognized authority on Maya culture, explains the 260 days of the sacred Calendar Round as evoking the nine-month period of gestation. This, he says, results from “the never-ending permutation of 13 numbers with a rigid sequence of 20 named days [13 x 20 = 260].” In addition, a system of bars and dots are accurately used to represent the numbers (e.g., a dot stands for one, and a bar for five, so that the number six would be a bar and a dot). Apparently, this count “has not slipped one day in over twenty-five centuries. Now, run this count against the 365 days of the solar year, and one will get the 52-year Calendar Round, the Mesoamerican equivalent of our century.”

            That’s the first Mayan calendar. What about the second one, the Long Count Calendar?

The Long Count Calendar:

This second Mayan calendar appeared near the end of the Mayan Pre-Classic period (the last century B.C.). To quote Michael Coe once again in Breaking the Maya Code, 3rd ed. (Kindle): “Unlike dates in the Calendar Round, which are fixed only within a never ending cycle of 52 years and thus recur once every 52 years, Long Count dates are given in a day-to-day count, which began in the year 3114 BC.” Many people believed that the world would end in 2012 AD, when the calendar concluded.

Nevertheless, the physical world of those long ago Maya – and the rest of the planet with it — did not end in December 2012, as so many misguided people thought it would. No, the globe did not erupt in chaos because, in Mayan culture, when you come to the end of a cycle, it simply starts all over again. The new cycle simply represents an era of regeneration and hope for the future. That, too, is the story recounted throughout the Hebrew Bible. Even if the tree is felled, a green shoot will eventually grow from the stump. Even if it takes 5,000 years.

[1]Interestingly, in 2017, the ancient Hebrew calendar is in the year 5,777 CE.