A Film Informs My Sh’ma

As a single young man in 1977, I once found myself in a science museum where I viewed a just released short film that – there’s really no other way to put it – expanded my consciousness. It apparently did the same for many others and remains to this day, despite powerful advances in special effects, an impressive work.

Produced the year I encountered it by husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames, “Powers of Ten” begins with a simple scene, a picnic in a Chicago park. As predicted by the voice-over, though, the camera pulls away from the picnic, at a rate of one power of ten per 10 seconds. The zoom-out continues straight up, so that, in a few seconds, the picnic blanket is but a dot of color against the green expanse of the park, which soon enough, with the camera continuing to soar heavenward, itself shrinks to a speck. Then the viewer sees the outline of Lake Michigan, then North America; the earth’s cloud cover next fills the screen, and then earth itself, which itself quickly recedes into the distance. Eventually we see an image of our solar system and then the galaxy to which it belongs, before it, too, becomes but one of many galaxies. The camera seems to fly ever backward, until it reaches the farthest reaches of space.

The effect is visceral, or at least it was for me. It recalled to me how, as a child, I would sometimes lie flat on my back on our lawn on a clear dark night and concentrate my vision on the starry sky until I felt an inexplicable and sudden shock. It was as if the sheer vastness of the stars, of the universe itself, had somehow reached out and seized me; it was a frightening experience, yet one that, when feeling brave, I would occasionally seek out. Although “Powers of Ten” on a screen could not quite evoke that childhood shudder, it visually captured, maybe even more compellingly, the vastness of the cosmos.

The film, which proceeds from outer space to inner space, zooming back in to the picnic and then further, into the skin of a picnicker, into one of his cells and its DNA, then into an atom and an electron, has been recently celebrated on the 35-year anniversary of its release. (Charles Eames passed away the following year, in 1978, and his wife Ray, in an arresting irony, died precisely – to the Gregorian calendar day – ten years later.)

The short film actually plays a role in my life as an observant Jew, thrice daily when reciting the fundamental Jewish credo, the Sh’ma (at morning and evening prayers and before retiring). The Sh’ma declares G-d’s transcendence of time and space, and, as we pronounce the word echad (“one”) halacha prescribes that we try to conceptualize, to the degree we can, the immensity of the universe – “above and below and in all four directions” (Brachos 13b) – and the fact that the Creator of it all is not of it at all but “beyond” it and in control of it.

One of the ancient Hebrew euphemisms for G-d is “Makom,” which literally means “place.” The Talmud explains that the word describes the Divine because “the universe is not His place, but rather He is the ‘Place’ of the universe.”

Leaving – even in our imaginations – the dimensions of time and space isn’t an option for us mortals. We are like the two-dimensional residents of Flatland, Edwin Abbott’s 1884 satirical fantasy world, trying to comprehend three-dimensional existence. There is a reason the Hebrew word for both time and space is “olam,” rooted in “ne’elam,” which means “hidden.”

And yet, we are required all the same to concentrate, as we recite the first verse of the Sh’ma, on G-d’s transcendence of time and space. That can be done in an entirely intellectual manner, without any sort of visualization. I find it helpful, though, when I recite the Sh’ma, to try to capture something of the feeling I felt as a child lying on the lawn on those starry nights. Images from “Powers of Ten,” as they did 35 years ago, provide me a “visual” to accompany the intellectual recognition of the scope of the olam.

I doubt that the Eamses ever thought of their film as something that would come to invigorate a Jewish religious devotion. But that’s what it did, at least for this Jew.

© 2012 Rabbi Avi Shafran

“It’s All in the Angle” (Torah Temimah Publications), a collection of selected essays by Rabbi Shafran, is now available from Judaica Press.

(Communications: rabbiavishafran42@gmail.com)

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