Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was on good form again on Friday’s Thought for the Day on Radio 4. (I do hope he has now taken the place of Lionel Blue; adorable though he is, our Lionel is getting past his sell-by date for public broadcasting purposes.)
Sacks is worth listening to (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/today/thought-for-the-day) as he makes his familiar distinction between the roles of science and of religion in looking at the world. But if you just want to read it, here it is:
So on Sukkot we take four kinds of things that need rain to grow: a palm branch, a citron, and leaves from a willow and myrtle tree, and holding them we thank God for rain and pray for it in the Holy Land in the year to come – even if we happen to be living in the soggiest of climates. Sukkot is, if you like, a festival about the fragility of nature as a habitat hospitable to humankind.
The natural world is something science and religion both speak about in their very different ways. Science explains; religion celebrates. Science speaks, religion sings. Science is prose, religion is poetry and we need them both.
Science continues to inspire us in the way it reveals the intricacy of nature and the power of the human mind. Rarely was this more so than earlier this year with the almost certain confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson, which someone with a sense of humour called the God particle on the grounds that it exists everywhere but it’s so hard to find.
But science can sometimes make us think we’re in control, which is why we need moments like Sukkot to restore our sense of humility. We’re so small in a universe so vast, and our very existence depends on an extraordinarily delicate balance between too much and too little, whose symbol is rain. Too much and we have floods. Too little and we have drought.
So as well as knowledge we need wisdom, and the better part of wisdom is knowing that we are guardians of a universe we can easily endanger and which we still don’t fully understand. Perhaps it’s not crazy, once a year, to lift our eyes toward heaven, the way we do when we’re praying for rain, and remember how dependent we are on things beyond our control. The more scientific knowledge and power we have, the more humility we need.
Rabbi Sacks's own website has more besides, naturally: http://is.gd/7nA7tS