Thursday, September 1, 2011

Earth Etude for 4 Elul

For six weeks beginning in Elul, Jews engage in introspection. “Elul” - taken as an acronym: I and my beloved - introduces the principle that teshuva is about relationships: with self, others, God, and as well the Earth. The season is not completed until we return in the Torah cycle to the beginning, Beresheit (Genesis), and the story of Creation.

Understanding and coming to grips with the physical universe in which we live is an integral part of the process of teshuva. It gives us perspective on who we are, where we came from, where we are going, and God’s plan. This is why the Torah begins with what, as Rashi astutely notes, is a seemingly irrelevant story. But if we cannot appreciate the Earth and cosmos in which we live, then we cannot fully understand the web of relationships and obligations that bind us.

About 13.7 billion years ago the universe as we know it exploded from an infinitesimally small point in a creative event dubbed “the big bang,” and has been expanding ever since. The original description was the cumulative result of decades of mathematical thinking and meticulous observations that culminated with Edwin Hubble’s 1929 observation that other galaxies were systematically moving away from us, in accord with Einstein’s then recent theory of relativity. Four hundred years after Rashi, the Kabbalists of Tzefat offered their own perspective on the lessons of the Torah’s beginning. The Kabbalists weave an intricate account of an expanding universe, layers of light emanating from a primal point, but with a reason beyond the simple physics: humanity has a role to play in this cosmic drama. Tikkun olam is humanity’s task – to heal the breaches and injustices of our society, imperfections that were reflected in the very fabric of the newly formed cosmos. Caring for the Earth is one of these tasks. G’mar Chatimah Tova.

Howard Smith is a senior astrophysicist at Harvard and the author of “Let There Be Light: Modern Cosmology and Kabbalah, a New Conversation between Science and Religion.” He lives and in Newton with his family and davens at the Newton Centre Minyan and Shaarei Tefilla.

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