September 17, 2012

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, AZ

Hayom Harat Olam, we sang a few minutes ago, today is the birthday of the world.  According to the calculation of the rabbis of the Talmudic period, the entire universe began a very long time ago on this day, Rosh HaShanah.  So how do you celebrate the birthday of the world?

Do you bake a giant honey cake, and put 5,773 lit candles on top of it?  Fill up blue and white balloons and hang “Happy Birthday World” streamers? Purchase and wrap gigantic presents?  Buy a truly humongous card, and get 7 billion people to sign it?  Invite everybody to come over and blow loud horns and sing songs?  Ok, so we do actually blow loud horns and sing songs.  I guess we have that part of the birthday party thing covered.

But what does it mean, exactly, that this is the birthday of the world?  Does it mean that this is the anniversary of the beginning of creation?  And when was it exactly when creation began?

I was asked in a class recently just what we are counting 5773 years from exactly.  I mean, Judaism has only been around for 3800 years, at longest, from the time of Abraham.  So where does this number 5773 come from?

The answer is simple—and then not-so-simple.   The simple answer is that 1900 years ago in a book called Seder Olam (Rabbah) our Cha”zal, the rabbis of the Mishnaic period, calculated that God created the world at this time of year exactly 5773 years ago.  The rabbis were close; by contemporary calculations, they only missed by about 5 billion years or so. If you think Genesis is describing the creation of the entire universe, and not just our world, they missed by 14 billion years.

Close but no cigar…

Of course, that’s if you take a literalistic view of the creation of the universe as having been an actual act of God completed over six days with one day off for good behavior.  Which raises the question of just what time means to God, anyway.

You may know the ancient Jewish joke: a man is praying to God, and he says, “God you are so great, and I am so small.  God, a million years to you is like a minute to we humble humans.  God, a million dollars to you is like a dollar to we humble humans.  So, God, please, can you give me a million dollars?”

And God answers, “Sure.”

But nothing happens.

So the man says, “Great!  When?”

And God answers, “In a minute.”

The truth is, we celebrate the year 5773 because that’s how we Jews count time, and it’s pretty arbitrary.  But all calendars are arbitrary: our current American year is 2012—but 2012 years from what, exactly? 

If you answer, “the birth of Jesus,” you are in good company, but scholars think that if Jesus was a real person he was born in 6 BCE—that is, 6 years before himself.  Now that would be a miracle!  And by the way, did you know that there isn’t any year zero in our current calculations?  The Gregorian calendar goes directly from 1 BC to 1 AD.  What, did they just misplace a year somewhere there in the first century? 

Actually, people living in the first century had no idea they were living in the first century at all: they thought that they were living in the fourth century of a totally different calendar that started with the founding of the Syrian Greek Empire in 311 BCE.  It wasn’t until the year 525 CE, roughly 1500 years ago, that a Christian monk from the Balkans living in Rome named Little Dennis invented the current year-counting system.  And just like that the first century became the first century—half a millennium after the fact. 

So more than 500 years later someone decided that we should date our count from a non-existent year zero, and we’ve been doing it ever since. Pretty arbitrary all around—kind of like 5773.  Just pick a date, and that becomes your year zero—or year one.  But maybe we shouldn’t do it that way.  Maybe we should be more scientific about the whole thing.

I’m reminded of the theme song from the show The Big Bang Theory, sung by the rock group The Barenaked Ladies—that’s their name, OK?—the smartest and one of the funniest shows on the air these days.  It begins with the song lyric, “Our whole universe was in a hot dense state, then 14 billion years ago expansion started; the earth began to cool…” and so on.  Perhaps we should be counting our years from the real beginning of everything, the true Breisheet moment of the creation of the universe some 14 billion years ago when God really began everything in that ultimate moment of singularity.  That would make this the year 14 billion five thousand seven hundred and seventy three; or 14 billion, two thousand and twelve, take your pick.  It’s a little hard to write that on personal checks, however. How many zeroes are there in a billion anyway?  I suspect Mitt Romney knows, but not most of the rest of us…

So the birthday of the world, however old we declare it to be, is not really about which birthday, since all counting is arbitrary.  It is instead about just what that birth consisted of, and what role God played in it.  And that turns out to be a very intriguing subject, because it teaches us not only about our own universe, but also about what God really is, and how we should think about religion and ourselves in this second decade of the arbitrarily determined 21st century.

There was a great deal of publicity earlier this summer about the discovery in physics labs and supercolliders around the world of a new result—the finding of “The God Particle.”  In fact, for a few days this God Particle story was trending at number one on Yahoo and Google, and it even had its own Twitter handle--@Godparticle, hashtag #Genesis, believe it or not.  While nowhere near as instantly spectacular a news story as, say, the Linsanity that followed New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin’s 15 minutes of fame last spring, or quarterback Tim Tebow’s miraculous resurrection of the Denver Broncos each week last winter, it was still a pretty big deal.  And it was particularly surprising to see the story of a physics discovery with exactly no practical applications suddenly penetrating the consciousness of our over-stimulated, information-addicted society. 

The story described the confirmation of something with the unappetizing name of the Higgs-Boson particle.  It must have been pretty big to distract us in an election-year summer that included the London Olympic Games.

And it was, and is.  Why, it even excited physicists, those least excitable of all human beings. 

"What we are observing is a new particle with very large mass that would have to be a boson," said UC Santa Barbara physicist Joe Incandela, the spokesperson. "This is a historic and very profound step forward in our understanding of the underlying structure of our universe."  And also where the universe comes from, and perhaps even why.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist himself, said that, “Scientists have been looking for the Higgs particle for more than two decades; these results help validate the Standard Model used by scientists to explain the nature of matter."

So why is a physics experiment important?  What exactly is a Higgs Boson, or God Particle?  And what does it have to do with God, or us?

It turns out that the name “The God Particle” comes from a 1993 book by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman—he is, of course, Jewish; most of them are—called, The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?  The idea is that through 40 years of experimental tests what is called the Standard Model of particle physics has been proven to correctly explain the elementary particles and forces of nature.  In fact, it explains nearly everything about how the universe works, and even how it came into being and so far it has all been proven to be true by experimental physics—with one exception.  It cannot explain how most of these particles acquire their mass, a key ingredient in the formation of our universe.  Without mass there is no universe at all.  So what gives these fundamental building blocks of creation their mass?

That’s where the God Particle comes in. 

Back in 1964 scientists proposed the existence of this new particle, now known as the Higgs boson, whose coupling with other particles would determine their mass.  In other words, every particle would have to interact with this God Particle to give it mass.  It’s a bit like the story of Noah naming the animals, except a little sexier, and it all happened more than 14 billion years ago: each particle coupled with the God particle which gave it its mass, and then expansion explosively began.

In other words, if this God Particle really exists, it is the one element in the universe that determines what all other elements become. 

It’s a kind of wild idea, but people much brighter than I am think it describes just how our universe came to be.  The only problem is actually proving that it’s true, which requires finding this Higgs Boson, this God Particle.  That quest became the Moby Dick of contemporary physics: deeply desired and very, very hard to capture.

Experiments at the two most important and expensive supercolliders in the world, the LEP collider underneath Switzerland and the Tevatron collider at the Department of Energy's Fermilab outside of Chicago have searched for the Higgs boson for years, but it eluded discovery.  In part to search for this God particle the Europeans took apart their giant supercollider and rebuilt it much bigger and better, creating the Large Hadron Collider, which came on-line two years ago.  And only this summer, after decades of developments in accelerator and detector technology and computing did scientists finally reach the moment of knowing whether the Higgs Boson, the God Particle, was the right solution to this problem.  And they decided it was!

That is, physicists now are convinced that the Higgs boson, the God Particle, explains how we, and the rest of the universe, exist. It explains why all matter created in the Big Bang has mass, and is able to coalesce. Without it, as the background paper to this experiment explains, "the universe would be a very different place… no ordinary matter as we know it, no chemistry, no biology, and no people." All energy, all everything, was present in that initial creation, and the God particle shaped every part of it.

Does that mean that seeing this boson, or scientific evidence of this, is like seeing panim-el-panim, the real face of God?  I mean if this is the God Particle, is its confirmation actually scientific proof of the existence of God?

Well, that kind of depends on what you mean by God.

If by God you mean the classic idea of a super-human being who looks like us, or speaks to us in words, and perhaps sits on a white cloud up above Mt. Everest, maybe not.  But perhaps that’s not really what God is all about.  Or, on this Yom Harat Olam, what creation is all about.

So I ask you to sit back now, and listen in a state of relaxed attention—not sleeping, you understand, but truly listening.  And allow me to describe the original birthday of the world—the creation—in somewhat different terms.

Breisheet Barah Elohim… In the beginning there was the belief that God was an Old Man with a long white beard seated upon a cloud, hovering over the face of the universe that He—for God was always male—had created.  And the Lord God was all-powerful and all knowing, transcendent, very, very big and very, very old, and he spoke in Elizabethan English with many Thous and Thines, and was called the Lord of Hosts and the Holy King and the Lord God. And this paternal Lord was the font of all truth and right. 

And this God created the whole world, and the universe, and knew everything that happened before it occurred.  And human beings, man and woman, God’s greatest and most challenging creations, filled the world God created and were supposed to carry out God’s will.  And when they didn’t they were punished.  And this conception of God worked for many people not just for seven days but for a very long time. 

Then things began to change.  New ideas popped up: emancipation, with its emphasis on individualism and rights; rationalism, with its cold bloodless clarity; science, with its abstract certitude; atheism, with the dogmatic conviction of its null hypothesis; psychology, that Jewish art of self-study; sociology, with its surveys and summations; and then the transitory isms of communism, fascism, and socialism.  World War shattered the idealistic rationalism of progress, and finally another World War and a Holocaust annihilated the shards.  Slowly and then suddenly, that all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God with the white beard on the high cloud seemed more fantasy than reality.

In fact, in the face of this unending assault of ideas and circumstances, God the Old Man was in danger of just fading away.  He seemed not even to be He anymore, and perhaps just flat out irrelevant.  At least not relevant in the way so many people had thought about Him—Her? It?—for so very long.

But it turned out that just as God was apparently disappearing from the world that God created, new ways of understanding God, and the universe God set in motion, were developing.  And those new ideas ranged over the entire broad span of collective human creativity, the magnificent ways in which human minds could act b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. 

And sometimes those new ideas coincided in surprising ways with the discoveries of science, and the realities of the world that we know from our own observation.   And then, even more surprisingly, those ideas about belief and God and science and creation all came together…

And that is what’s happening today.  We are seeing a kind of harmonic convergence that has nothing to do with the Mayan calendar or the end of the world or the rapture.  It is simply a new and deeper understanding of God in the universe around us.

I believe that the Jewish way of thinking about God has always included a subtle, subversive way of understanding God that is quite different from the transcendent concept of an old man with a white beard on a cloud.  It is a 2500 year-old mystical conception of God.  And that particular understanding of God, and our place in the universe, harmonizes beautifully with the scientific understanding of the universe that continues to develop.  Right now, in the year 5773, we have reached a kind of nexus between scientific discovery and the mystical belief that is both intellectually convincing and extraordinarily beautiful and powerful.

It is the Kabbalistic conception of the world that closely aligns with our scientific understanding of the universe today.  And it is that mystical approach, long considered to be esoteric, elitist, and, well, flaky, that gives postmodern Jews the best ability to accept the presence of the divine in ways that have meaning for us.  Specifically, it is viewing God as the Shekhinah, the divine presence in Jewish mysticism, which allows us to understand God and the universe with intellectual integrity and spiritual meaning.

The very word Kabbalah has become both popular and controversial, of course.  Kabbalah literally means receiving, and it is a more contemplative, accepting, subtler way of finding God than many of us are used to.  I am not talking here about the kind of Kabbalah practiced by Madonna, or Demi Moore, but the rich tradition found in the deep discipline and profound text of the Zohar, the masterpiece of Jewish mysticism.  In the Zohar, Shekhinah is simply the name given to the indwelling presence of the divine in this world, the essential holiness that can be sought and that seeks us as well, if we only become aware of it in our lives.

In essence, Shechinah is God in the natural forces of the universe, in the very laws that govern our world and its processes, and in every creature in this world of ours whose creation we celebrate today.  The mystical God is both the creator of the natural laws that govern our universe and the paradoxical, quantum presence that gives creative energy and animating life to all beings in that universe. The Shechinah can be, and is, everywhere at once, and our ability to sense that presence, and to cultivate that sensitivity, is what is required to actually find God.

And with some confidence we can say today that our scientific understanding of the world not only allows for such a creative essence, a Shechinah that motivates and forms all existence, but nearly requires it.

In the Zohar, a text written 700 years ago, creation, and the essential divine quality, are described this way: "A spark of impenetrable darkness flashed within the concealed of the concealed, from the head of Infinity--a cluster of vapor forming in formlessness, thrust in a ring, not white, not black, not red, not green, no color at all. As a cord surveyed, it yielded radiant colors. Deep within the spark gushed a flow, splaying colors below, concealed within the concealed of the mystery of Ein Sof."

In trying to comprehend what is meant by “The God Particle,” I came across this passage: “In the Standard Model of physics, the Higgs boson is a type of particle that allows multiple identical particles to exist in the same place in the same quantum state. It has no spin, no electric charge, no color charge. It is also very unstable, decaying into other particles almost immediately.”  And from that decay, that differentiation of the essential unity, comes all creation.

I would never contend that that Moses de Leon, writing the Zohar in Spain in the 13th century, understood contemporary particle physics as of September 2012.  But I can say with some certainty that the parallels are often eerily fascinating.  And that the ancient approach to understanding God allows us to do so in ways that are spiritually fulfilling and have intellectual integrity.  For when we become aware of the extraordinary beauty and elegance of that initial creation, and understand the presence from that very moment of a divine guiding element, we can and will find holiness, resonance, harmony, and energy in every element of this beautiful, sacred universe.

On this birthday of the world physical science researchers have reminded us that that we were each present at that initial creation, as energy shaped and formed by a greater power—just as today we are partners, with God, in the process of creation.  Junior partners, perhaps, but partners nonetheless.

According to physicists, that moment of creation was an instant of unparalleled, unrepeatable release of energy.  It was that enormously creative expansion that began everything knowable in the universe.  From the Yom Harat Olam, the birth moments of creation, came everything that matters, including matter itself.  Fascinatingly, our own energy—your own energy—was present at that creation, and remains present.  Everything began in the same way, at nearly the same time.  And everything in this universe is therefore connected.

The interrelatedness of all being is a sheer fact of life: a mystical insight, but also good common sense, and pure science besides.  We can trust that we are part of a vast web of existence constantly expanding and evolving.

Certainly the beginning of that is an event worthy of celebrating.  And a challenge for us, as well, in this bright, shiny new year.

As Zohar scholar Danny Matt puts it, “By attuning ourselves to the divine pulse animating all life, we can overcome our estrangement from nature. By exploring and contemplating the origin of the universe, we discover that our evolution is a step in a cosmic dance. Engaging the world spiritually, we realize there is no sharp line between the here and now and the ultimate. Looking for the spark, we find that what is ordinary is spectacular.”

Of course, in the daily grind of life, that is also something we can easily forget.

As Matt concludes, “God is not somewhere else, hidden from us. God is right here, hidden from us. We’ve lost our sense of wonder in the fast pace of life. God is right here, in this very moment, fresh and unexpected, taking you by surprise.”

Our task in this new 5773 year is to become aware that God’s presence, the divine spark, really is everywhere.  And to try to relearn a sense of wonder at that amazing reality.

In the 12th century the poet and great Torah commentator Ibn Ezra wrote of God:

I see You in the starry sky

I see You in the field of rye

In every leaf

In every flower

Is witness of Your matchless power

We fancy You remain concealed

But in all Your work You are revealed…

And yet we can so easily walk—or run—through this world of wonder and miss God’s presence.

May this be a memorable birthday for the world; more importantly, may we come to realize that it is our birthday as well, a day to begin to see those signs of God’s presence everywhere in the world around us.  And in doing so, may we come to know God, and even understand God, as God truly is: everywhere, if only we choose to look.

May you be blessed in 5773 with a year of health, happiness, peace: and most of all, the awareness of God’s presence.  L’Shana Tova 


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