PARSHAT BEHAALOTECHA – SHAVUOT

(5771)

 

LIGHT AND TORAH

“The Lord spoke to Moses saying, Speak to Aaron and say to him, when you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.”                   (Numbers 8:1-2)

            As I write these words, the festival of Shavuot starts in a few more hours.  Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah.  Then this Shabbat we read the portion that speaks about light.  Aaron and his sons had the responsibility of keeping the sacred lights lit at all times.  This link between light and Torah has became a fundamental part of Jewish awareness, reflected in the architecture of the synagogue.  Every synagogue keeps their Torahs in an ark, a special cabinet or closet at the front of the sanctuary.  And every synagogue keeps an eternal light burning in front of that holy ark.  But is there a deeper connection between light and Torah?

            According to the Genesis creation story, light was the first thing God created.  (Note – the creation story was never meant as a literal, scientific view of creation, but a spiritual and poetic image.)   Light itself is a great mystery, as modern science has proven.  Let us take a moment and look at light through the eyes of science.  Or more accurately, let us look at electromagnetic radiation, from long low-energy radio waves to short high-energy gamma rays.  Visible light is somewhere in the middle.

            Einstein worked out his theory of relativity thinking about light.  What would happen if he moved faster and faster and eventually caught up to a ray of light?  Would the light appear to stop?  Einstein figured out that no matter how fast he moved, the speed of the light would remain the same.  This could only happen if time slowed down the faster he moved.  According to the Theory of Relativity, if one could actually travel at the speed of light, time would stop altogether.  It is a literal Fountain of Youth.  Light never ages; it exists in a realm outside time.  Scientists have proven this to be true.  Light exists beyond time.

            The founders of quantum mechanics experimented by shining light through two slits close together.  The light formed an interference pattern.  The light goes through both slits at the same time.   Even if one particle of light (a photon) is sent through two slits, it will interfere with itself.  It will go through both slits at once.  It is as if the light is in two spaces at once.  Light exists beyond space.

            So the best scientists of our day have shown that light, on some fundamental level, exists beyond space and beyond time.  The mystics call this supernal light.  The light we see in this world is but a reflection of this supernal light, which exists in a reality beyond this world.  This all makes sense according to the Midrash.  God made the light on the first day, but the sun and stars on the fourth day.  Where was this original light?  The Midrash says, “The light which was created in the six days of Creation cannot illumine by day, because it would eclipse the light of the sun…Then where is it?  It is stored up for the righteous in the Messianic future.”  (Genesis Rabbah 3:6)

            This mystical view of light can also be applied to the Torah.  The Torah that we keep in the ark and read from each Shabbat, the Torah that we venerate, is but a reflection of a primordial Torah.  The Midrash teaches that God actually had the Torah before God began to create the world.  “When a mortal king builds a palace, he builds it not with his own skill but with the skill of an architect. The architect moreover does not build it out of his head, but employs plans and diagrams to know how to arrange the chambers and the wicket doors.  Thus God consulted the Torah and created the world.”  (Genesis Rabbah 1:1)  Just as light exists in a supernal realm, so the Torah exists in a supernal realms.  The Zohar compares the Torah to a maiden hidden deep in a palace, who only occasionally reveals herself to her suitor.

            There is something mystical about light and there is something mystical about the Torah.  The light we see and the Torah we read are but reflections of a spiritual reality.   For those who love kabbalah, the goal of Jewish mysticism is to connect with this higher spiritual reality.

           

 

 

PARSHAT BEHAALOTECHA

(5770)

 

WHO IS A PROPHET?

“And Moses said to him, Are you jealous for my sake? Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!”  (Numbers 11:29)

            Greetings from New York City.  I am here for the annual Rabbinical Assembly Convention.  As usually happens at these conventions, much of the wisdom and insight comes not in large, plenary sessions but in small one-on-one encounters with rabbis from around the world.  I am going to share one such insight.  But let me begin with the portion of the week.

            This week begins the travels of the Israelites through the wilderness.  Tribe by tribe, the people begin crossing the desert.  And immediately they begin to complain.  They do not like the food.  Moses cries out to God (as rabbis are wont to do sometimes), “I cannot handle these people.”  So God tells Moses that God’s wisdom will descend on seventy elders.  They will share the burden of caring for the people.  (Rabbis often cannot do it alone.)  

Sure enough, seventy elders begin to prophesize in the name of God.  But two young men Eldad and Medad are also filled with the spirit of God, and begin to prophesize in God’s name.  They are unauthorized prophets.  When Joshua, Moses’ assistant wants to stop them, Moses answers with one of my favorite lines in the Torah.  “Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets.”  Suddenly we see a Torah ideal; prophecy is not limited to the gifted few.  Each of us has the potential to be a prophet.

It is an amazing insight from the Torah.  Prophecy is not a gift given to a few blessed individuals.  Rather it is an opportunity given to every human being.  That calls for an explanation.  What is prophecy?  Many believe it is the ability to tell the future.  But that is impossible; the future is wide open and not set in stone.  According to process theologians, even God does not know the future.  Rather, prophecy is the ability to speak in the name of God.  It is that deep insight in each of our souls we sometimes have, the aha moment, when we realize – this is what God wants me to do.

That brings me back to the convention.  I went to a session led by Rabbi Brad Artson, the head of the Ziegler Rabbinical School in Los Angeles and one of my favorite teachers.  He is developing a contemporary theology that is very much in keeping with my own thinking.  So I went to his session with high hopes, and was not disappointed.  It was a session on process theology and the Sh’ma.

Artson taught that we have to stop thinking about God who sits outside space and time and knows everything, including our entire future.   Such a God no longer works for contemporary American Jews.  Rather, we should picture a God of persuasion, who gives us an image of what we ought to be doing but the freedom to make our own choices.  Process theology speaks of a God who acts by persuasion rather than by compulsion.  Artson used a strange term – the lure.  God is a lure Who tries to lead us in the right direction.  We can choose to follow that lure, or we can choose to do something else.  We are free, and our choices become part of who we are.  (I do not love the term “lure”, it reminds me of fishing.  Artson admits he is looking for a nice Hebrew term which describes such a view of God.)

Now the insight – each of us knows in our hearts what God wants us to do.  Each of us knows what is expected of us.  We can use all kinds of denial and rationalization to do the wrong thing.  But if we search deeply into our own souls, each of us knows the right thing.  In other words, each of us has the ability to speak in the name of God.  Or to explain it based on our portion, each of us has the ability to be a prophet.

I am leading my own session at the convention in a few more hours.  I will be sharing some of the same insights I shared in my recent talk – Earthquakes, Einstein, and Evolution; So Where is God?  I will build on some of the same ideas as Artson – not a God who sits outside space and time and manipulates the world.  Rather I will envision a God of persuasion.  With such a God, we can all be prophets.

 

 

 

 

PARSHAT BEHAALOTECHA

(5769)

 

FOOD

“And the mixed multitude that was among them had a strong craving; and the people of Israel also wept again, and said, who shall give us meat to eat?   We remember the fish, which we ate in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic.”                            (Numbers 11:4-5)

 

            Last Saturday evening I became upset, and then I was embarrassed that I became upset.  I was upset because we always serve a light meal (shalashesheudas) at our late Saturday afternoon service.  Usually it is challah and herring, cookies and soda, but last Saturday I was looking forward to a bigger spread including tuna and egg salad, as well as fancier pastries.  We had a huge amount of leftover food from the Shabbat morning Kiddush.  And the small group who gives up going out to eat Saturday night to help me run a service deserves a nice snack.

            Last Saturday night by accident somebody had locked everything away.  All we found was an old challah.   So I became upset.  And then I became mad at myself for becoming upset.  I was just like the Israelites in the desert; the first thing they did as they began their trek was to complain about the food.  Why could they not eat the delicious food of Egypt?  God gave them mannah to eat in the wilderness, but soon they were complaining about the mannah.

            There is something about Jews and food.  We even like to joke about it.  “Give them food and they will come.”  “What is a Jewish holiday?  They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.”  “The food at this resort is not only lousy, but the portions are small.”  “If you really need a minyan, go to the local Chinese restaurant.”  Food is a central part of our heritage and culture, as every Jewish comedian has noted. 

We love to complain about food, and we love to relish our food.  I remember going to a non-Jewish wedding and looking forward to the cocktail hour in order to eat something.  (Although I am kosher, there had to be something vegetarian for me to eat.)  At the cocktail hour, to my surprise, they served – cocktails.  Not a morsel of food.  You would never see that at a Jewish cocktail hour.

            We joke about Jews and food, but in truth eating is an important part of Jewish identity.  Perhaps it is worth exploring how Jewish tradition views food.  To the animal world, food is nutrition.  I watch my dog eat, see him lunge towards his bowl with one thought in mind – get as much food down as quickly as possible.  Somebody might take it away.  And my dog has an uncanny ability to sense whenever anybody takes anything in the kitchen – he shows up and starts begging for his share.

            Judaism is about the quest for holiness, which means rising above the animal within us.  To be holy is to avoid lunging into our food.  First we need to ask the question, what is this food and where did it come from?  Not all food is appropriate for Jews to eat.  In particular, we are forbidden to eat animal products that were not properly killed.  There is an attempt to build a deep appreciate for the source of our food.

            Even if food is kosher, we stop for a moment and thank God for the gift of this meal.  It is proper to say a blessing before eating.  One of the customs I see that drives me crazy is at a bar/bat mitzvah or wedding reception.  Grandpa is called up to make the motzi on the challah.  He comes without a yarmulke, stumbles through the Hebrew blessing, and then walks away without eating a piece of bread.  If somebody says a blessing, they ought to taste the food.  But the motzi at these moments becomes a ritual like the candle lighting ceremony or the best man’s toast, devoid of any religious significance.

            Traditionally, when a meal is finished, Jews say a grace after meals (birkat hamazon).  The Torah teaches that we say this when we are full and satisfied.  Thanking God when we are hungry is one thing, but thanking God when we are sated is the ideal.  We teach our youngsters in the religious school to sing the grace after meals, with the hope that they will use this knowledge in the future.

            Eating is certainly one of the highest human pleasures.  I enjoy a well cooked meal as much as anybody.  But it is more than a time to feed the body; eating ought to be a time to feed the soul.  Last Saturday I was guilty of complaining about food.  Hopefully this week, instead of complaining, I will remember to thank God for the gift of food.  As the Bible teaches, “He opens His hand and feeds every living thing with favor.”  (Psalms 145:16)

           

 

 

PARSHAT BEHAALOTECHA

(5768)

 

LIGHT, GOD, AND THE SOUL

“The Lord spoke to Moses saying, speak to Aaron and say to him when you mount the lamps. Let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.”       (Numbers 8:1-2)

 

            Whenever we come to the annual reading of this portion, I always think about light.  The portion teaches the commandment that Aaron and his sons shall keep the seven lamped menorah lit at all times.  From this we learn the tradition of having an eternal light always burning in our synagogues.  The haftarah (the reading from the prophets), which is also read at Hanukkah, speaks of a vision of a golden candelabra which must be kept lit.  It contains the wonderful words, “Not by might nor by power but by my spirit says the Lord.”  (Zechariah 4:6)  Light symbolizes the spirit of God.

            Another verse from another haftarah struck me this week.  It was the reading from the second day of Shavuot, Habakkuk’s vision of a great storm.  The words describe God’s presence in the world.  “It is a brilliant light, which gives off rays on every side – and therein His glory is enveloped.”  (Habakkuk 3:4).  Again God is compared to light.  In a sense it reminds me of the mystical interpretation of God’s creation.  “When the blessed Holy One wished to create the world, He enwrapped Himself and light and created the world as is said, `He wraps in light as in a garment.’ (Psalms 104:2). And afterwards, `He spreads out the heavens like a curtain.’”  (Bereishit Rabbah 3:4)  God is light and creation is the spreading out of light.

            Why light?  I found a wonderful quote from Rabbi Harold Kushner in an essay “Would an All-powerful God be Worthy of Worship?”  (Jewish Theology and Process Thought)   “That’s why so often in the Bible and afterwards, God is portrayed by fire – at the Burning Bush, in the Eternal Flame before the Ark, etc.  Fire is not an object: fire is a process, the process by which the latent energy in a lump of coal or a log of wood is turned into actual energy.  God is like fire, liberating the potential energy in each of us.”

            God is fire, God is energy, God is light.  These are all powerful themes in Jewish mystical literature.  Last summer I studied physics at Florida Atlantic University.  My goal was to understand, truly understand, Einstein’s theories of relativity.  I partially succeeded.  Relativity begins with the study of light.   Einstein sat in the Berne patent office asking himself the question - what would happen if I could actually catch up to a moving ray of light?  What if I sat on a light ray as it shone from the nearby streetlamp, or from the sun?  Obviously this is impossible.  The faster we go towards the speed of light, the greater our mass, and the more energy we would need.  To catch up with light would take infinite energy.  But suppose it could happen.

            Einstein theorized that the closer we come to the speed of light, the more time would slow down.  For light, time stops altogether.  Photons of light never age.  Light exists in a realm beyond time.  The closer we come to the speed of light, the more we would contract.  For light, space disappears altogether.  Light dwells in a realm beyond space .  In the same way God dwells in a realm beyond space and beyond time.  (The same word in Hebrew olam means all of space and all of time.  When we sing Adon Olam each Shabbat morning, we mean Lord beyond space and time.  Could the Hebrew author of this prayer have foretold Einstein?)

            According to Genesis, light is the first creation of God.  But light is strange stuff indeed.  Sometimes it acts like a wave.  Sometimes it acts like a particle.  How can something be both a wave and a particle?  One can almost imagine that light exists in some other realm, some spiritual dimension, at what we see is merely light’s reflection in our world.   In our world we cannot truly see what light is, only what light does.

            For this reason, light symbolizes God.  According to the Bible light also symbolizes the soul.  “The soul of man is the light of God.” (Proverbs 20:27)  Like light and like God, a part of each of us exists beyond space and time.   We humans are far more than bodies; we each carry a bit of eternity within us.  This is the message of the eternal light.

 

 

PARSHAT BEHAALOTECHA

 (5767)

 

WHY LIGHT?

 

“The Lord spoke to Moses saying, speak to Aaron and say to him, when you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.”

                                                                        (Numbers 8:1-2)

 

            In every synagogue in the world there is an eternal light before the ark where the Torahs are kept.  The light is kept burning continuously.  This hearkens back to the commandment in this week’s portion, given immediately before the Israelites began their journey through the wilderness.  Aaron and the priests were to keep a light burning at all times.

            Why light?  Part of my research has been on the meaning of light.  Currently I am studying Einstein’s theory of general relativity with a physics professor.  Einstein’s revolutionary conception of the nature of reality is based on a rethinking of space, time, matter, and most important – light.  Einstein began his brilliant work while still employed in a Swiss patent office, trying to imagine what would happen if a human being could catch up to a ray of light. 

            Usually if something travels at a constant speed, if we could travel fast enough we could catch it.  Light is amazedly fast (about 186,000 miles a second).  But perhaps with a big enough rocket we could catch up.  (Of course Einstein did not know of rockets; he was doing a thought experiment.)  Einstein’s brilliant insight is that no matter how fast we go, the speed of light stays constant.  Time may slow down, space may stretch, spacetime may bend, matter and energy may transform themselves, but light is constant.              People misunderstand relativity to mean that everything is relative.  Not so; time and space are relative but light is absolute.  If you could actually run besides a wave of light, time and space as we understand these terms would disappear altogether.  Light in its reality exists beyond time and space.  So we can ask, what is the philosophical meaning of light beyond space and time.

            Thousands of years ago the great philosopher Plato said that the world we live in is really a reflection of a more perfect world.  He compared it to shadows cast by a fire in a cave; if only we could step out of the cave we would see true reality.  Later the great process philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead famously wrote that all Western philosophy is merely “a series of footnotes to Plato.”  At the center of Western thinking is the image of a reality beyond the physical.  And relativity seems to point to the idea that light, in some ultimate sense exists in that reality.  What we see is a mere reflection of some greater reality.

            We have looked at science and we have looked at philosophy.  Now let us look at mysticism.  According to the Jewish mystics, God initially was encompassed in a garment of light.  Light is identified with God.  It is something that exists beyond space and time.  Putting forth light was God’s first step in the emanation of the universe.  When we see light, we see a mere reflection of a greater reality which we cannot reach in this material world.  Perhaps that explains why our human vision of light is so difficult to pin down.  Sometimes light appears as a wave and sometimes light appears as a particle.  How can it be both?  Light exists in some other reality, a reality beyond space and time.

            One last thought.  The book of Proverbs teaches a beautiful saying which we have up on our memorial boards in our synagogue.  “The soul of man is the light of God.”  (Proverbs 20:27)  Each human being carries within himself or herself a little bit of that divine light.  We all have a part of ourselves which exists in a reality beyond the material, beyond space and time.  Occasionally, in moments of mystical insight and in moments of intense relationship, we can connect to the part of us which exists beyond time.

            Why must we burn an eternal light?  Light is like God and light is like the soul.  It reflects a reality beyond the material world.   

 

 

PARSHAT BEHAALOTCHA

 (5766)

 

WITH GOD ON OUR SIDE?

 

“When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say, Advance O Lord, May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You.”                        (Numbers 10:35)

 

            Any Jew who attends synagogue even occasionally is familiar with the prayer.  The ark is opened to take out the Torah and everybody sings vahi binsoa haaron …  “When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say, Advance O Lord, May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You.”  The verse from this week’s portion is considered so important that it is set off with marks from the rest of the text (for those who know Hebrew, two upside down letters nun.) 

            We sing the words without thinking about what they mean.  Does God really have enemies?  Does God take sides in our wars?  Should soldiers who are God’s children pray for victory before going off to fight and kill the enemy, who are also God’s children?  It reminds me of the old Bob Dylan song composed at the height of the Vietnam War, With God on our Side.  The song pokes fun at those who would invoke God’s name as they go to war.   Could it be that God looks at our petty wars like an impatient father watching his children fight, ready to say, “If you two don’t stop it I will punish both of you.”

            Does God take sides in a war?  The liberal in me is sorely tempted to say no.  Invoking God’s name on one side of a war is like invoking God’s name in one side of the Miami – Dallas basketball playoffs.   Does God choose one party over another?  One of the insights of postmodern thinking is that there is no absolute perspective, no God’s eye point of view.  We have our point of view, the Sunnis and the Shiites have their point of view, the Islamic Jihadists have their point of view, and who are we to judge one over the other.  To this liberal, postmodern perspective, no party can claim to have God on their side.  And yet, with careful thought, I have come to believe this liberal, postmodern approach is absolutely wrong.

            Events broke in the news this week that helped me realize God does take sides.  The United States bombed a safe house in Iraq and killed Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi.  Zarqawi was a terrorist of terrorists, responsible for bombings, kidnappings, and beheadings not just of Americans and British, but of Shiites and even fellow Sunnis who he felt had crossed him.  In one violent moment Iraq became a safer place for both Iraqis and Americans.  Does God take sides in the killing of Zarqawi?

            A human being cannot know what is in the mind of God.  But one of the fundamental teachings of every Biblical faith – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – is that God is the force of life in the universe.  We see inert matter becoming proteins, becoming life, becoming plants and animals, and eventually developing into human beings.  We see human beings as having a unique ontological status – they are created in the image of God.  Our shared religious faiths teach the words, “Therefore choose life.”  God is that force in the universe which creates life, particularly human life.

            So which side does God take in our conflicts?  God is on the side of those who enhance life, those who work for human survival and human dignity in this world.  And God is opposed to those who wantonly destroy innocent life.  I have no problem invoking the name of the God in the war against terror, the war against Hamas, al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, and the late Mr. Zarqawi.  

            We can argue about the wisdom of going to war in Iraq.  We can even condemn some actions of some military personnel such as the recent events in Haditha, where US marines allegedly killed unarmed civilians.  Those of us who love Israel can argue about the wisdom of some of Israel’s policies regarding the Palestinians.  But we cannot argue that we must fight those who would deliberately and wantonly destroy innocent human life, no matter how worthy the political cause.  In my mind, there is no question which side God takes in the war against terror.

 

 

 

PARSHAT BEHAALOTECHA

 (5764)

 

PROPHECY

 

“But Moses said to him [Joshua], Are you wrought up on my account?  Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them.”

                                                                        (Numbers 11:29)

 

            The Jewish Post and Opinion reprinted an article this week that originally appeared in September 1961.  A man stood outside Temple Emmanuel in New York City on Rosh Hashanah passing sheets of paper with a personal prophecy on them.  Claiming to speak in the name of the Lord, he called for an end to hypocrisy by worshippers, a return to social justice, the observance of the Sabbath, stronger family life, and greater modesty by young people.  When he was asked to stop, he refused, and eventually he was arrested and taken down to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital.

            The man was back on Yom Kippur passing out the papers in front of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism.  This time the rabbi, the great Mordecai Kaplan, actually invited him to read his treatise from the pulpit.  The man refused, saying that God wanted him to simply pass out the leaflets.  Later, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement in America, went to visit the man, and found him to be saintly, with a prophecy that rang true.  Schachter-Shalomi wrote about the importance of the man’s message and asked the question, “are there modern day prophets?”

            The article reminded me of a story in this week’s portion.  Moses was overwhelmed trying to bear the entire burden of the people Israel on his own.   God told Moses to gather seventy elders around him, and part of the spirit of prophecy would descend on them.  They would share the burden with Moses.  As this happened, two young men named Eldad and Medad were in the camp, and they also began to prophecy in the name of God.

            Joshua, Moses’ second in command, offered to restrain the two young men.  Moses answered that he should not be concerned.  “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them.”  To Moses, the dream was for all of us to speak in the name of God.

            What is prophecy?  Some would say that prophecy entails the ability to tell the future.  But that is more magic than true prophecy.  Prophecy begins with a powerful idea – God the Creator is also God the Communicator.  The One Who made us humans also communicates to us teachings on how we are to live.   Many of us have moments of deep and profound insight, what I sometimes call “aha moments.”  We suddenly understand who we are and what God expects of us.  It is as if we have received a communication from our very Creator. 

            Certainly there is ambivalence about prophecy in Jewish tradition.  The Talmud teaches, “Since the destruction of the Temple, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children.”  (Baba Batra 12b)  On the other hand, our tradition teaches that if we are not prophets, at least we are the sons of prophets.  (Jewish tradition tends to use the male language.  Today we would say that we are the sons and daughters of prophets.)  Our tradition recognizes that we humans have those aha moments, when we are flooded with insight into the will of our Creator.

            How do we know if a prophecy is true?  After all, who can forget the Jim Jones of the People’s Temple, whose false prophecy led to the deaths of hundreds in a mass suicide in Guyana.  I suppose the only real answer is - does the prophecy ring true?  Do we really believe that this is what God, the Creator of heaven and earth, wants us to do?   Have we cleared our own ego out of the way in order to open our hearts to God?   Our the words that fill our hearts about God’s needs or our own needs?

            I do not recommend standing outside a synagogue passing out papers on the High Holidays.  I do recommend opening ourselves up and asking the question, what does God want of me at this moment?  Perhaps we will have moments of insights, and we will realize that prophecy is alive even in our own time.

 

 

PARSHAT BEHAALOTECHA

(5763)

 

WHAT IS LIGHT?

 

ASpeak to Aaron and say to him, When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the menorah.@

(Numbers 8:2)

 

God commanded Aaron to light lamps.  Light has always been the most powerful symbol of God=s presence.  Light was the first thing God created.  But there is nothing harder than pinning down light?

What is the light God created on the first day?  He created electromagnetic waves moving through the universe at a constant speed.  However, this opens the door to many profound problems.  When we think about a wave, something must be waving.  In the oceans, the water waves.  When we hear sounds, the air is waving.  (We cannot hear sounds in a vacuum).  When we are at a football game and someone starts a wave, the fans are waving.  You cannot start a wave in an empty stadium.  What is waving when light passes by?

Scientists once believed that there was an invisible substance called ether that filled the universe.  Light was simply a disturbance of the ether.  Then Albert Michaelson and E.W. Morley designed an experiment to try to detect the ether.   To their surprise, they discovered that the speed of light was constant, and they concluded that there is no such thing as ether.  Electromagnetism seems to be a wave that travels through a vacuum at a constant speed.  Thinking about this strange phenomenon led to Einstein's brilliant insights into the very nature of the universe.

Einstein began with a thought experiment.   What would happen if a human being sped up next to a wave of light.  Would the light appear to slow down?  After all, if our car speeds up next to a moving train, the train appears to slow down in relation to our car.  If we are moving at the same speed as the train, it might appear that the train is standing still.  Light ought to behave the same way.  So too, Einstein wondered what would happen if he watched a distant clock tower well traveling away from the tower at the speed of light.  New light from the clock would never reach him, and it would appear as if the clock stopped, and time stood still.

Einstein's thought experiments led to a radical rethinking of the very nature of the universe.  According to Einstein, the speed of light must remain constant no matter how fast we move.  Space and time themselves must change, but the speed of light stays constant.  As we move faster time slows down, space contracts, so that the speed of light is constant.  No matter how fast we move, the light going past us will appear to go at c - 186,000 miles per second.  Our diffi­culties with light are just beginning.

Einstein called this the Special Theory of Relativity because it dealt with a special case - measuring light while traveling in uniform motion.  Einstein next asked, what would happen to light if we are not traveling in uniform motion, if we are accelerating.  For example, imagine we are in a box in a free fall towards the earth.  Galileo had long ago proven that every object in the box, no matter its weight, would accelerate towards the earth at the same rate.  What if someone shines a light in the box?  Would the ray of light also fall to earth?  Einstein theorized that gravity would effect light just as it effects matter.  Gravity bends electromagnetic radiation.  Out of this law grew the General Theory of Relativity.

How can light be affected by gravity?  Gravity affects the mass of an object?  Isn't light pure energy?  Einstein taught that energy and matter are not really different substances; they are two aspects of the same reality.  According to Einstein's famous formula E=mc2 all matter is really energy and all energy is really matter.  Turning matter into energy is how the sun burns, and how we explode nuclear weapons.

Our exploration into the nature of electromagnetism will become even stranger.  As we asked earlier, how can a wave travel through a vacuum?  What is waving?  In fact, sometimes light behaves strangely like particles of energy.  It causes something called the quantum effect.  Electrons absorb energy only in discreet amounts, and also give off energy in specific numbers.  This is possible only if light is a particle of specific energy, known as a photon.

So what is light, a particle or a wave?  The answer is both, and neither.  It depends on how the experiment is done.  In some experiments light behaves like a wave, in other experiments it behaves like a particle.  Open two small openings in a wall and the light passing through forms interference patterns like a wave.  Close one of the openings and measure the light with a Geiger counter like device and light comes in discreet, particular bundles of energy.  What is light?

Maybe there is a solution.  Perhaps we can invent a really sophisticated microscope to actually look at a photon of light.  We would then know precisely what light is.  As simple as this seems, according to quantum mechanics it is impossible.  The very act of looking at a photon changes it.  There are no objective observers.  If we try to measure the location we find uncertainty in the momentum; if we try to measure the momentum we find uncertainty in the location.  According to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, we cannot pin light down.  In fact, on the atomic level, we cannot pin anything down; the very act of measuring changes whatever we are trying to measure.

So what did God create on the first day.   Perhaps He created the fundamental stuff of the universe.  Sometimes it manifests itself as matter, sometimes as energy.  Sometimes it appears as a wave, sometimes as a particle.  It all depends on how it is measured.

What do we really know about light?  Ultimately, we must resort to metaphors because the human mind is limited in its understanding.  We cannot know light in its essence.   Light is a mystery, like God is a mystery.  Perhaps that is the reason that in our tradition, light has come to symbolize God.


 

Parshat Behaalotecha

(5762)

 

Beyond Stereotypes

 

"Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite (Ethiopian) woman he had married, he had married a Cushite."     (Numbers 12:1)

 

One evening last week I was walking my dog through our neighborhood when I saw something that initially struck me as strange.  A man was doing mechanical work on his motorcycle, listening to very loud music.  I expected the music to be heavy metal or rap, or perhaps country.  To my surprise, the man was listening to opera.  Something did not fit it my mind.  People who work on motorcycles do not listen to opera.  And people who listen to opera do not drive motorcycles.

How easy it is to stereotype people.  We all have the bad habit of fitting people in categories based on their dress, their race, their gender, their ethnicity, their social-economic status, their profession.  With stereotypes, we do not see people's uniqueness.

People assume that rabbis, because they are rabbis, must all be more or less the same.  I have always loved reading books on mountaineering, sharing the adventure vicariously.  One day I heard that Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to conquer Mt. Everest, was speaking in my community.  Of course I bought a ticket and went to hear him.  One of my synagogue members was there, and her mouth dropped open when she saw me.  "Why would a rabbi go to a lecture on mountain climbing?!"  As if rabbis are only interested in God and religion.

My oldest friend in Israel had a similar experience.  He was at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem for minor surgery, and his roommate was a Palestinian Arab.  My friend wears a yarmulke on his head all the time.  His roommate was reluctant to speak with him, but eventually the two began chatting.  After awhile, the Arab told my friend, "I realize that I was wrong about you.  I assumed, because of what you are wearing on your head, that you hate Arabs."  In truth, my friend has been extremely active in outreach to Palestinian Arabs.  But the Arab saw only the yarmulke, not the man.

In this week's portion, Miriam the older sister of Moses, complained about Moses wife Tziporrah.  Twice in the verse the Torah mentions that Tziporrah was dark skinned, an Ethiopian, today the word Cushite is used to refer to a black person.  (Some commentators, including Rashi, claim that Miriam was supporting Tziporrah and complaining about Moses' sexual separation from his wife.  However, if that is true, why the emphasis on her dark skin.)

Like Miriam, so many of us see a person with dark skin and immediately form certain stereotypic images.  But then again, we humans often stereotype all kinds of people.  How do we react when we see born again Christians?  Orthodox Jews?  Southerners?  Palestinians?  Individuals with many tattoos?  College students with long hair?  People of another race or ethnicity?   Seniors who live in the condos?  Urban young professionals?  Rabbis, ministers, or priests?   How easy is it to categorize them and place them in a box that fits our preconceived notions.  How easy is it not to see them for the individuals they are.

The Talmud teaches that a human being makes many coins with the same stamp, and each is exactly the same.  God makes human beings with the same stamp, and each is unique.  Like snowflakes, no human being is like any other human being.  We need to look beyond stereotypes and preconceived images to see the real person there.  It may be a motorcycle rider who loves opera.  Or a rabbi who loves mountaineering.  Or an observant Jew who does outreach to Palestinians.   Or a black woman who left her home to marry the leader of another people.

Miriam was punished for her harsh words about her brother's wife.  Perhaps her mistake was not seeing beyond the dark skin to the real human being who stood in front of her.  Too many of us look only at the external, and never see the real person in front of us.

 


 

PARSHAT BEHAALOTECHA

(5761)

 

FATHERLY LOVE

 

"Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, Carry them in your bosom as a nursing father carries an infant."              (Numbers 11:12)

 

    This parsha includes the bizarre image of a father nursing a baby.  The Israelites had finally begun their forty year journey through the wilderness.  Almost immediately they started to complain about the food.  Moses could not bear their complaints and cried out to God in frustration, "Did I conceive these people or give birth to them?  Am I a father who nurses them?"  One could infer that perhaps a mother who carries a child in her womb, gives birth, and  then nurses an infant could tolerate this behavior.  But could a father?

Last week I spoke of Erich Fromm's description of motherly love and fatherly love.  Motherly love is the unconditional love every human being needs to feel.  To quote Fromm, to a mother "I am loved for what I am, or perhaps more accurately, I am loved because I am.  (his italics)   This experience of being loved by mother is a passive one.  There is nothing I have to do in order to be loved - mother's love is unconditional.  All I have to do is to be (his italics) - to be her child.  Mother's love is bliss, is peace, it need not be acquired, it need not be deserved."  (The Art of Loving, p. 37)  Perhaps Moses was saying that he was not prepared to love his people with this kind of love.

Moses' love was closer to Fromm's view of fatherly love.  (As I mentioned last week, these are ideals or archtypes.  Every real mother and every real father loves their children with both kinds of love.)   Fatherly love is more demanding, more conditional, filled with expectations.  Fatherly love teaches appropriate behavior and is prepared to punish inappropriate behavior.  To quote Fromm once again, "Father is the once who teaches the child, who shows him the road into the world." (The Art of Loving, p. 39)

It is the love that is concerned with success in the world.  It is tied to the very ancient Jewish tradition that a father is obligated to teach his child Torah.

We humans need both kinds of love.  We need two kinds of love from God, and we need two kinds of love from our parents, who are God's representatives in this material world.  We need a love that is unconditional, that shines its light on us whatever we do, whether we deserve it or not.  And we need a love that is demanding, that lays expectations on us, and that is concerned with our success, our achievement, our behavior, and our character.  This is one reason that the kabbalah saw two aspects of God, the male and the female.  In this world part of our job is to balance within God the male and female.

Dennis Prager in one of his lectures on tape, recalls an incident at a local diner with a waitress.  The waitress was unusually cheerful and upbeat, and Prager asked her why she was so happy.  She answered with a song in her voice, Because I know that God loves me."  Prager pushed her further, "Tell me, does God love everybody?"  The waitress answered, "Absolutely."  Wanting to be provocative as only Dennis Prager can, he then asked her, "Tell me, does God love Hitler?"  I do not recall her answer, but I believe she said that she needed to serve another table.

Prager's point in raising the story is that unconditional love is not enough.  We need the kind of love that makes demands, that lays down expectations, that teaches us rules, and that punishes us when we fall short.  This is the love Moses felt towards his people.  He was deeply disappointed when they began their journey with complaints.  He was not a nursing father, but rather was Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher.  Moses' love gave us the Torah, the teachings, that have allowed our people to survive thousands of years.


 

PARSHAT BEHAALOTECHA

(5760)

 

HAPPY WITH YOUR LOT

 

"The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving, and the Israelites, moreover, wept and said, if only we had meat to eat."

(Numbers 11:4)

 

For months the Israelites had been preparing for their journey through the wilderness.  They were to march in an orderly fashion across the desert and into the promised land.  Unfortunately, the best laid plans did not work out.

Immediately the people began complaining.  The first complaints were not surprising - the Israelites did not like the food.  In the desert they had to eat manna.  Back in Egypt they had meat and vegetables - cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic.  As we read the Torah these coming weeks, complaints about food will escalate into complaints about everything.  Only when that unhappy generation died off would the Israelites be allowed to enter the promised land.

We all know people who love to complain.  In fact, some people seem to enjoy a certain pleasure in displaying their ongoing dissatisfaction with everything and everyone.  Some people seem to relish being unhappy.  To such people, the cup is always half empty, never half full.  They will go to a wedding and never notice the radiance of the bride or the joy of the groom.  Rather, they will comment on how the food was no good, the music was too loud, they were seated at the wrong table, the hostess ignored them, the rabbi spoke too long.  There is a perverse joy in finding fault.

There is the story of a man who was always complaining to the rabbi about his life.  He never had enough money, his marriage was unhappy, his kids were no good, his health was failing.  Life was full of bitterness.  He kept asking the rabbi, "Why am I suffering so?"  Finally, the rabbi said, "I want you to visit Yakov; perhaps he can give you an answer."

The man went to Yakov's house, and found it to be a hovel.  There was no heat, little food in the house, and the Yakov looked quite ill.  In fact, the man as shocked at Yakov's condition, and asked him, "how do you deal with suffering?"  Yakov had a big smile on his face.  "Why are you asking me?  I have never suffered."

Attitude is everything.  We can look out at the world and complain about what we lack, or we can look out at the world with a sense of appreciation and gratitude.  We can see life as a burden to be endured, or as a gift to be savored.  We can remember the food we had in Egypt, or we can bless the food God is giving us in the wilderness.  Or as Adlai Stevenson so aptly said regarding Eleanor Roosevelt, "She would rather light candles than curse the darkness."

Perhaps the most difficult of the Ten Commandments to observe is the tenth, "Thou shall not covet."  All the other commandments deal with actions, this one deals with thoughts and attitudes.  To want what we do not have creates a bitterness of the soul.  How can we engender in people an appreciation for what they do have? 

Ben Zoma once taught, "Who is rich?  Whoever is happy with his or her portion."  If we see life as a gift to be savored, we will appreciate what we have and find satisfaction of the soul.  If we see life as filled with shortfalls, we will be filled with bitterness.  The mistake of the Israelites in the wilderness was their constant complaining.  May we learn to be truly satisfied with our portion.