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September 16, 2021 | Infinite Intimate (Yom Kippur 5782)

Sarah Berman

Infinite Intimate

Rabbi Sarah Berman, Yom Kippur Yizkor 5782

“Once upon a time, there was a universe. We are not sure about how it started or whether there is a reason.”[1] For a physicist like Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, who wrote these provocative words, the search for meaning in the universe begins at the beginning. It begins with the “when” and the “how” of creation. It begins with infinity. Why does this all exist? For physicists, because of mass and energy and matter.

Once upon a time, there was a universe. The Holy One saw it was good, but still empty. So after creating light and darkness, heavens and earth, God created humanity, double-sided beings that kept each other company. God made sure no one was ever alone, filling the world’s hollow spaces.[2] This version of creation from Bereshit Rabbah points our search for meaning in a different direction--the “why” of creation, and the “why” of relationships. We begin with the intimate. Why do we all exist? For Jews, because God made us to need each other.

In recent months I’ve fallen into a deep hole (a black hole?) of physics. I’ve read about Einstein and Bohr, particle physics, quantum mechanics, the Big Bang, the God Particle. I’ve been absolutely stunned by how many of the laws of our physical universe reflect the truths that Judaism has long taught us. From the world’s beginnings through the ongoing work of creation all around us, physics confirms Jewish tradition. It confirms our lived experience--of the infinite intimate.

Just as physics teaches that light exists on a spectrum of visible to invisible, and is there whether our eyes can see it or not--we intuitively know that life also exists on a spectrum, of possible to lived to remembered. A story from Tanchuma, describes a place where the not-yet-souls journey and feast and study Torah accompanied by angel guides. When the moment of their birth arrives, they have to forget all they have experienced in Paradise in order to become babies here on Earth.[3] And we also have a World to Come (many versions, actually), where already-lived souls gather and study[4] with he angels of the Divine Host in the Garden of Eden.[5]

Our tradition tells us that those we love exist even when their lives have not yet begun, or have already ended. Our forbears found myriad ways to show that the people we love are never gone. Not really. Not entirely. The World to Come is a promise that they still exist, even though we can no longer see them. Just as we feel the memory of sunlight on our skin even after we come indoors, the World to Come is a place in our hearts where the light and warmth of our loved ones’ memories endure. We know intimately that they are infinite.

The great teacher, HaRav Neil deGrasse Tyson, has written that, “every one of our body’s atoms is traceable to the big bang…. We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out....”[6] We are beings made of matter, seeking what matters--whether we are made from the earth of Genesis or the stardust of physics, we use our bodies and minds and hearts to seek connection, to seek knowledge, to seek love. The matter that makes up my body, your body, the bodies of everyone you have ever known, ever loved--whether created 5 thousand 7 hundred 82 years ago or “nearly fourteen billion years ago, all the space and all the matter and all the energy of the known universe”[7] has existed since the very beginning.

This matter matters, though, not as a theory of infinity, but as the stuff that makes up the intimate. The sofa you shared, or the sidewalk you walked together, or the birthday meal they made you--they are all made of matter that existed before us and will continue to exist long after. But this reminds us that we are also eternal, we have existed since the beginning of time, and we will continue to exist even after we die. Not just our matter, but our memories, our impact, our imprint on this world. Because we were created in order to connect, and we carry the light of our loved ones in us even after they no longer shine brightly.

“Because light takes time to reach us from distant places in the universe, if we look out in deep space we actually see eons back in time,”[8] Dr. Tyson teaches us. Time is an enduring puzzle of physics--but Jewish wisdom knows that time-travel happens whenever we revisit our memories. We don’t even need to look into deep space. We travel back in time when we recall the joke we shared with them or see their handwriting preserved on an old card, and we bring our loved ones forward in time when we sing their favorite song or give their name to a new generation. The medieval Jewish sage Rashi reminded us ein mukdam u’meuchar, that there is no before or after.[9] That time is not a line is a reality we Jews know, that physics is still struggling to explain.

Once upon a time, there was a universe. When and how it was created are questions that physics can answer. But why it was created--that is a question we can answer. Because once upon a time, God created humans and human relationships… And in our relationships, we created love. Like stardust, the love we create between us is never really gone. “Love doesn’t die / people do.”[10] Love lives on in us. It is the intimate made infinite.

 


[1] Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, The Disordered Cosmos, 2021, p. 1

[2] Bereshit Rabbah 8:1

[3] Midrash Tanchumah, P’kudei 3:7-11

[4] Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed

[5] Louis Ginzburg, Legends of the Jews, chapter 1, Third Day of Creation

[6] Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, 2017, p. 33

[7] Ibid., p. 17

[8] Ibid., p. 56

[9] Rashi on Exodus 31:18

[10] Merrit Malloy, “Epitaph”