Saturday, July 23, 2016

Parsha Balak: What Matters

At the request of our congregants, we are reposting Adas Emuno President Lance Strate's D'Var Torah from this past Friday night, July 22nd, on Parsha Balak:

A little over four years ago, on July 4th, 2012, physicists working at the European Centre for Nuclear Research in Switzerland announced that they discovered the subatomic particle known as the Higgs boson. This particle is also known by its nickname, the God particle. You may recall that atoms are composed of particles such as protons, neutrons, and electrons, and you my also know that there are a number of other subatomic particles apart from those three. Most of these particles have mass, and mass is what distinguishes matter from energy. Protons and neutrons have mass, for example, electrons have just a little bit of mass, but photons have no mass whatsoever. Photons, as you may know, are the particles that form the basis of light, along with every other form of electromagnetic radiation. They are pure energy. 

So, some particles have mass, and some do not, and the question is, how do particles such as protons and neutrons gain their mass? Which is to say, how is it that matter comes into existence? The theoretical answer, put forth by the British physicist Peter Higgs in 1964, is "that particles gain mass by interacting with a medium, or Higgs field, that exists everywhere in space and is made up of unseen particles called bosons." The Higgs boson is called the "God particle" "because it is believed to have originated during the Big Bang and helped shape the subatomic particles that make up all matter in the universe."

And what does this mean for us, as we join together to observe Shabbat? The Fourth Commandment tells us to remember and keep the Sabbath because God labored for six days to create the world, and on the seventh day God rested, and blessed and hallowed the Sabbath day. Shabbat is a celebration of Creation.  As Reform Jews, we are not asked to be creationists, and accept the story of Genesis literally. But Shabbat gives us the opportunity to stop for a moment, and reflect on the grandeur and enormity of our universe, to regard with awe the marvelous and miraculous nature of existence, and to be grateful for our beautiful blue planet earth, the precious and sacred quality of our lives, however fleeting they may be, and the great gift that, just as the universe has been expanding ever since the Big Bang, so too has our knowledge and understanding been expanding over the course of human history.

The discovery of the God particle was announced on our American Independence Day. The founders of the United States were products of what we sometimes call the Age of Reason, or the Age of Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that began in the mid-17th century, and originated with the writings of the English philosopher, John Locke, and the Jewish philosopher from Holland, Baruch Spinoza. 

The English physicist Isaac Newton was also an important influence on the Enlightenment early on, and later on, one of the founders of the American republic, Benjamin Franklin, was himself a scientist, and made major discoveries concerning electricity. He didn't know that electricity was created by a flow of subatomic particles when he flew his kite in a thunderstorm and caught lightning in a bottle. But that glowing key in a bottle was an important step on the way to understanding the relationship between electrons and photons.

The founders of our nation believed in the power of reason, and the United States of America was the first country ever to be argued into existence. The basis of the rational argument that underlies our separation from England is made abundantly clear in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

In the story of Genesis, the Creator begins the labor of Creation by saying, Let there be light! God calls the world into being, and the world is created by God's word. On July 4th, 1776, our founders created a new nation through words, through a Declaration of Independence. They declared that we all have the freedom to choose our own government, and the freedom to pursue our own dreams. They declared that all people have a right to be free from oppression and persecution, and also to be free to engage in our own acts of creation. In the same way, on the Sabbath, we are given the freedom from labor, but also the freedom to reflect, meditate, contemplate, to pray, commune, and communicate.

The founders of the United States took inspiration from a variety of ancient sources, including our own Holy Scriptures. The story of Exodus is the story of how a diverse population of former slaves, divided among 12 tribes, became one nation, under God. If Moses telling Pharaoh to let my people go was our declaration of independence, receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai was our constitution, the laws and commandments that bound us together as one. The rule of Law, of Torah, would apply to everyone, even prophets, priests, and kings, establishing the principles of equality and justice, as unalienable rights. The Haftarah reading for this week, from the prophet Micah, concludes with one of the most memorable statements in the Bible, one that inspired the founders of this nation, and serves as the foundation of our faith: "What does the LORD require of you, only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?"

This week's Torah portion includes the story of Balaam, who is a prophet of God, but not Jewish, not one of the children of Israel. He's not even a friend to our people.  And this is important because in our religion, we do not believe that ours is the only pathway to God.  Each individual can relate to God in his or her own way, but mostly God deals with groups of peoples, with families, with communities, with peoples.  In this way, we take responsibility for each other, for creating a just and merciful way of life.

The story relates how the king of Moab does not want to give the Israelites safe passage through his kingdom as they make their way to the promised land, and summons the prophet Balaam to come and put a curse upon the Israelites.  This leads to a comic episode in the Book of Numbers where God causes a donkey to talk.  

Balaam was riding on his donkey to Moab, responding to the king's summons, even though God told him not to, so God sends an angel to block their way. The angel is invisible to the Balaam, but visible to the donkey, so the donkey keeps stopping, and Balaam beats the donkey repeatedly in an effort to make the donkey continue on their way.  Finally, the donkey says to Balaam, "What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?" And Balaam responds, "For you have humiliated me; if I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now."
 And the donkey then says, "Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden since you first started until now? Have I been accustomed to do this to you?" Balaam concedes the point, and at this moment the angel is made visible to him, and Balaam begs God's forgiveness and offers to turn back. The angel tells him to continue on to Moab, saying, "but the word I will speak to you, that you shall speak."

Certainly, there is an important message here about cruelty to animals, and the Torah does include some significant passages that serve as a foundation for animal rights.

After he arrives in Moab, there are three episodes where Balaam is ordered to curse the Israelites, but instead is directed by God to bless them instead. The first time around, he says, "How can I curse whom God has not cursed, and how can I invoke wrath if the Lord has not been angered? For from their beginning, I see them as mountain peaks, and I behold them as hills; it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations." Israel has a unique destiny, and it stands alone, independent, but also isolated.

The second time when Balaam blesses the Israelites, he says, "God has brought them out of Egypt with the strength of His loftiness. For there is no divination in Jacob and no soothsaying in Israel. In time it will be said to Jacob and Israel, 'What hath God wrought?'" Balaam himself was said to be a sorcerer in addition to being a prophet, which goes along with his unique power to curse and to bless, but what he is saying here is that the Exodus was brought about not by magic or sorcery on the part of Moses and his people, but by the power of God; by the will of God, not that human beings.  

The question, What hath God wrought? became an important part of American history in 1844, when the quotation was used as the first message sent from Washington DC to Baltimore by Samuel Morse, officially inaugurating the first commercial telegraph line. The telegraph used electricity to send signals from one point to another instantaneously, allowing us to transcend time and space for the first time. This invention represents an important stepping stone between Benjamin Franklin's kite line, and the particle accelerator that led to the discovery of the God particle.

The third time Balaam is called upon to curse the Israelites and blesses them instead, he begins with a declaration that became a part of Jewish Sabbath morning liturgy: "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!"

The story of Balaam serves as reminder of the power of words, and especially of the power of voice. Balaam has the power to bless and the curse, but both are speech acts, both blessings and curses only have power when they are spoken out loud. The same is true of the concept of prayer. The prayers printed in our prayer books are not actually prayers until we say them out loud (or in some instances, say them silently to ourselves), just as in stories of magic, the magic spell does not take effect until someone actually utters the words.  

Along the same lines, our worship service officially begins with the call to worship, a vocal summoning to praise God. And when we say the watchword of our faith, the Shema, we say, Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one. We have to hear it, not see it, so much so that many follow the tradition of covering their eyes when saying this prayer.

Sound is the source of the sacred, while sight reveals the profane world. Sound gives us depth, we can hear the interior of things. And sound emanates from within, as the prayer says, out of the depths I call to you, from deep inside us sound is uttered, and outered. Sight only gives us surfaces.  In the story of Genesis, Creation begins with sound, with God saying the words, Let there be light. God's voice is heard before anything can be made visible, before the creation of light, the first particles created being the ones without mass.

Hellen Keller, who as you know lost both sight and hearing, was once asked which of the two senses she would rather have, if she could only have one. And she answered that she would rather be blind. The reason she gave is that hearing is so much more important for communicating and relating to other people. Sight gives us a world of objects, it leads us to objectify the world, to engage in what Martin Buber referred to as I-It relationships. Sound gives us a world of relationships, of voice and conversation and communication, and makes it easier to form what Buber called I-Thou or I-You relationships.

Albert Einstein's theory of relativity replaced Newton's physics by saying that space does not exist apart from the relationship between objects. The universe does not sit inside a box, or what Newton called absolute space; the particles, the matter of the universe is all that there is, and there is nothing outside of that. Space is the field that exists between the particles of the universe. As the matter in the universe expands, so does space.  

In the same way, our Congregation Adas Emuno does not exist outside of the relationships among us, it is created by our relationships with each other, and with those who came before us. Judaism does not exist, except for the relationships among us as they extend among our people everywhere, and the same is true of any religion, and any nation.  

The relationships created by Higgs bosons, by God particles, is what grants mass to matter. Our relationships with each other, joining together as we do on Shabbat, is what grants meaning to life, and that is what makes life truly matter.

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