Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Primordial Blob Meets the Bochrim

I was pondering whether or not to write about this topic, going back and forth, yes, no, yes, no, when I came upon an article in the English language Haaretz (the newspaper I most love to hate) which sort of clinched the deal for me. But when I started to work on my article, I couldn’t find the newspaper page I needed. I searched everywhere, until I realized that Barbara had put that particular sheet under Mimi’s (our geriatric cat) food bowls (Mimi has at least two food bowls going all the time: one to eat from, one to ignore. Why she needs to have four water bowls spread throughout our apartment is another matter.). When you have finished reading what I have written, you can decide for yourself whether I should have left the article to keep the floor clean!
Even secular Jewish periodicals have felt obliged to note that the morning before Pesach would be the time to recite the Birkat Hachama, a prayer which has something to do with the sun’s return to its ‘starting point’ at the moment when it was created. Now, I am already in trouble because I haven’t the faintest idea what this is supposed to mean. So when Barbara asked me the obvious question: ‘how is anybody supposed to figure out the position of the heavens when everything was created?”, I had nothing to say. Even after reading a number of articles on the subject, it was as clear as mud to me because I don’t think along those lines and there are times when my brain shuts down – sort of like a circuit breaker – to prevent excess strain on my few remaining grey cells. I gather that it has something to do with the spring solstice, and because of slight inaccuracies in our calendar, something recognized in the Talmud, the date has shifted from close to March 21 to whenever it happens to occur these days –always on a Wednesday morning – which, as always, is once every twenty eight years – although how our sage Abaye figured this out is completely beyond my comprehension.
(Like most events that occur this infrequently, I do remember what I was doing the last time it happened: Barbara and I were standing on top of the Empire State Building. The Martin Steinberg Center, a Community of Jewish Artists [where I was the head of the photography workshop], was holding a prayer service on the observation deck with a new-age rabbi doing whatever he was going to do. [I was more interested in photographing the event to be concerned with the davening.] The time before that was the year before I was a bar mitzvah, and I wouldn’t have had a clue. The next time, twenty eight years from now……? Let’s not concern ourselves with twenty eight years from today; there are times when you don’t want to do the math.)
But I was fascinated by the article in Haaretz. First of all because Yair Ettinger wrote that this event would occur on “Passover eve,” which he somehow thought would occur on Tuesday instead of Wednesday – kind of a sad commentary, don’t you think? But even more startling were the following two paragraphs, which I will copy as they appear:
“Yeshivas in the capital are holing special sessions to interpret the significance of the event. At the Kahal Hasidim yeshiva, posters promise ‘a comprehensive lesson accompanied by an enormous model of the zodiac and constellations, according to the renowned expert on the stars’ positions and heavenly bodies, Rabbi Mordechai Ganot, may he live long.’ Ganot and other speakers fill auditoriums. He said ‘many questions remain’ over ‘the thesis of a certain Polish priest named Copernicus,’ but emphasized, ‘Anyone who believes in the new system is not considered a heretic.’”
Let me join with (I hope) everyone who will ever read these words in wishing Rabbi Ganot a long and healthy life. And I am certainly relieved to know that he does not consider me a heretic. You have to understand that they love this kind of stuff over at Haaretz: anything they can find to mock and belittle Judaism, because if they can make us look foolish, greedy, malevolent, and intolerant (feel free to add to the list), that makes their estrangement from the entirety of the religion easier to justify. But do we have to make it that easy for them? Are we still engaged in the dispute between Ptolemy and Copernicus?
One way to avoid inner turmoil is to simplify your life and one way to do that is to ignore a lot of what is going on around you. Of course, you might miss out on a lot, but that’s the price you have to pay. Now a student at the Kahal Hasidim yeshiva ‘knows’ everything there is to know about the origins of the universe. On the other hand, if you were to ask a perceptive boy or girl at one of the modern day schools which some of our kids attended, “Tell me, how old is the universe?” He or she might thoughtfully reply, “Who’s asking, the rabbi or the science teacher?” And some of us go through our lives with our brains bifurcated in this way. (One of my current ambitions in learning Hebrew is to get to a stage where my otzar milim is at least ten percent of my English vocabulary.)
Let’s take a step back and consider the following situation: your young child, now old enough to ask, inquires of you why the sky is blue or why the leaves turn brown in the fall. Perhaps you actually remember the answer; maybe not. If the child starts asking about human reproduction, that get’s a bit dicey. The one thing you never want to do with children is resort to bubbe meises (the closest English equivalent would be ‘old wives tales’) like ‘the stork brought you.’ You probably want to say something that, while generally true, is geared to the comprehension level of your audience – always a good idea. So you have to leave out a lot of the details. You may also be trying to convey other messages that you feel are more important. For example, you may be more concerned about how your five year old gets along with his siblings, that he or she stops pulling the cat’s tail and remembers to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Stuff like that, which in the scheme of things, dwarfs the need to explain DNA or photosynthesis to a young child.
My buddy up the block, Michael, was trained as a chemical engineer, and he can explain how any process or any thing works in such exquisite detail that you are sorry you asked. But imagine if you were the world’s biggest authority on a subject, or better still, the universe’s biggest authority, and you had to provide an explanation or, even better, a series of explanations to an audience that was not up to the task. That, in my view, sort of explains the dilemma inherent in our sacred Torah.
I’m trying to be careful here. In no way am I suggesting that our ancients were either child-like or cognitively challenged. To begin with, even the most wild-eyed pagan, one whose method of worship was to defecate in front of his idol (I hope no one is eating lunch while reading this!) was on a higher spiritual madrega (level) than the average Joe today. The avoda zara-nik was at least trying to locate the spirit(s) which animated the world around him; it would never have occurred to him to postulate that “things just happen,” the predominant idea of the educated classes today. In the midst of a sea of idols of every size and shape, our Jewish ancestors somehow managed to seek out, identify, and connect with the one true universal Deity and receive from Him a book of instructions called “The Torah,” which must be examined with great care. Just as it was not meant to serve as a biographical study of our matriarchs and patriarchs, it was never intended to be understood as a textbook of any of the natural sciences. Even if you go through it casually, you have to notice that, once we have been introduced to our patriarchs and matriarchs and have been brought in and out of Egypt (with signs and wonders), crossed the Sea of Reeds and witnessed the revelation at Mount Sinai, the Torah’s major emphasis shifts to an extensive list of what we are to do and not do, a detailed description of building the temporary sanctuary, what the priests are to wear, the sacrifices that are to be brought to them and how these are to be performed, maintaining ritual purity, rewards and punishments for our behavior, and so forth, leading up to our entrance into The Promised Land. Of course, one has to start somewhere, and to answer the question posed by an anonymous young man on a recent Birthright trip to Israel, “Who’s this Hashem guy everyone keeps talking about?”, our Bible begins with the single most momentous utterance in human history, “Bereishit bara elo(h)im et hashamayim v’et haaretz.” Many have pondered on the precise meaning of “bereishit,” but it is clear to the great commentator Rashi that “this verse does not intend to teach the sequence of creation…..” If I were to offer up my (very) free translation or interpretation of this verse, it would be something like “Let me introduce myself; I’m ‘The Guy’ who is responsible for everything you see or don’t see around you, now listen up to what I’m going to tell you, so you can get it right.”
What follows has to be seen, in my view, as a basic explanation of a very complex process of creation that would satisfy the needs of our holy ancestors – many of whom were given the gift of prophecy, none of whom had either a microscope or a telescope to aid them in their understanding of the natural world – yet would majestically resonate throughout the ensuing millennia, sweeping away the aboriginal animisms, the savage idolatrous gods of antiquity, the overgrown and over-sexed adolescent deities of the Greeks and Romans and their Nordic counterparts. And just as our rabbis have spent the last several thousand years poring over every letter in the Torah for its hidden meanings and interpretations, so others have been engaged in teasing out the secrets of creation in a process of discovery which has reached a crescendo over the last hundred years. And just like two teams drilling a tunnel from opposite directions starting miles apart, one has to hope that the rabbis and the scientists would somehow meet up in the middle.
Here’s an amazing idea. If I were to ask you who is the grand forerunner of the modern scientific revolution, what would you answer? My nominee: Moshe Rabbenu, the man with an unrivaled knowledge of G-d. Was it not our great leader who wrote (in psalm 90) “For even a thousand years in Your eyes are but a bygone yesterday, and like a watch in the night.”? (translation courtesy of Artscroll) The standard explanation of this verse, taken from the context, is a call for repentance, insofar as our ‘reservation’ on this planet is barely long enough to see the sights, but long enough to get into trouble big-time. Then a hundred years ago, when my parents were small children, another smart Jew, a guy named Einstein began making some calculations which changed ‘our’ understanding of how energy and time and mass related to each other and led, among many other things, to the startling but inescapable conclusion that time is not universally constant. Moses was not just being poetic, ethical or moralistic. Somewhere in his ‘conversations’ with G-d, the word slipped out that His method of tracking time was markedly different from our own. In other words, if G-d had a wrist on which to put a watch, or perhaps a pocket to hold an hourglass, the watch hands or the sand would no doubt be moving very differently from how our devices would.
It is hard today for most of us to understand this concept or so many other recent scientific discoveries: from quantum mechanics to string theory, from atoms to antimatter. Fortunately for all of us, Hashem in His kindness has created a world in which we can function quite well day to day – without understanding or pondering over the subtleties of the cosmos. For example no- one-I-know’s life has been altered dramatically in the last several weeks since we were informed of the discovery of the ‘primordial blob’ (given the name Himiko by its discoverers at the Carnegie Institute in Washington, after a “mysterious ancient queen in Japanese folklore.”) This beauty (which “could be a massive gas cloud energized by a supermassive black hole, a primordial galaxy gobbling up gas from its surroundings, two young galaxies colliding, or a single massive galaxy”) spans 55,000 light years and is approximately 12.9 billion light years away – give or take a few decades. (They determine this by the “extreme redshifting of its hydrogen spectrum.”) No, there has been no noticeable difference recently in the frequency of buses to and from Maale Adumim; the hill up to the bus stop seems just as steep since I read about the ‘blob,’ and the ants and sand flies will begin to multiply at alarming rates. But did any else read about this phenomenon and have the idea that when it talks about “tohu and bohu” (in our sentence from Bereishit) that maybe, just maybe, what is being referred to in those mysterious and absolutely untranslatable words is something like this formless shape?
If anybody else did, it probably wasn’t our friends at the Kahal Hasidim yeshiva with their “enormous model of the zodiac and constellations.” But if I were to engage these worthies in a civilized conversation, I might ask them something like this: “Silly people! Do you really think that G-d’s creation would be something so elementary that it could be encapsulated in one diagram you can hang on the wall of your illustrious yeshiva? Wouldn’t be that much of a deity, now would He?”
There’s a lot that we can all be grateful for, including living at a time when we have regained sovereignty over The Land. But how about that the ‘secrets’ of creation are being revealed to us in our lifetime at an astonishing rate – whether we understand them or not – peeled away like the leaves of a cabbage – except that for every leaf we reveal, there seem to be a greater number of leaves underneath and the cabbage seems to be getting bigger and bigger! Only now are we beginning to get a sense of the size and scope of “Day One” of The Creation and that the universe, constantly expanding, contains black holes so dense that light cannot escape and simultaneously particles so ephemeral that they disappear faster than employees at quitting time. Modern string theory postulates additional dimensions that we will never see, the contents of which we will never know, while new creatures, almost phantasmagorical, are constantly being discovered in the remotest depths of our oceans. Our Creator is even more super-awesome than we had ever imagined! And yet this Creator has ‘taken the time’ to have a relationship with us (“Hashem, what is man that you would even think of him,” from psalm 144)! Perhaps that is the main point to consider – something which you can’t fit on any wall, even the Kotel.
All of the above helped me put Birkat Hachama in perspective, as an opportunity to give thanks to our Creator, both for His creation and His kindness to us. AND (that’s a big “and”) for giving us the capacity and the will to continue our exploration of the universe around us. So that if we come to realize that our original concept of the sun – which is in fact one of uncountable stars hurtling through the shifting cosmos at amazing speeds – ‘returning to its starting point’ is a breath-taking metaphor of renewal….., that’s OK by me.
I have it from my unimpeachable source here in Maale Adumim that the mitzvah associated with Birkat Hachama is simply to recite the bracha, “osseh maaseh bereishit,” and that everything else that people say today are relatively recent add-ons (because saying a nine word blessing for something which you do once every twenty eight years is kind of a letdown). And that blessing is precisely what I said. I did not join the throng of locals here in Maale Adumim assembled in the area near Sde Chemed where the kids play basketball; I did not join the tens of thousands of people assembled at the Kotel or in any number of smaller venues in and around the Old City (all of which took place at about 7AM). I had to finish disposing of my chametz and start cooking for Pesach, neither of which could be put off, regardless of where the sun was or wasn’t. My plan was to prepare as much food for the entire seven days as possible, in order to enjoy the intermediate days with a spirit that I would never been able to muster in former days. And that is exactly what I did and what I will be writing about shortly.

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