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Parashat BeHar-BeChukotai 5773 — 05/01/2013

Parashat BeHar-BeChukotai 5773 — 05/01/2013

Hashem spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai… (25:1)

All the commandments … were stated in general terms and in detail, all of it at Sinai.  (Ramban ad loc)

According to Rashi, the point of the Baraita [Mishnaic-era teaching] was that when Gd taught the laws of Deuteronomy to Moses in Moab, He did not teach him anything he had not already heard in Sinai.  According to Ramban, however, the Baraita is not dealing with the Deuteronomy laws specifically; rather, its point is that all the laws (even those communicated to Moses later, such as in the Tent of Meeting) were originally taught to Moses in all their detail at Mt. Sinai.  [As such, this Baraita reflects the view of R. Akiva (Zevachim 115, et al), as opposed to that of R. Yishmael (ibid), which is that many details were not told to Moses at Sinai, but were communicated to him in the Tent of Meeting for the first time.] (Artscroll edition, page 728, note 13)

There are a number of traditions about what Torah is and “who knew what and when did they know it.”  For example, the Patriarchs were said to have fulfilled all the mitzvot of Torah even before it was given.  There are some obvious exceptions: for example, Jacob married two sisters (Rachel and Leah) in contravention of the restrictions of chapter 18 which we read a couple of weeks ago.  Moses Rabbeinu is said to have been taught the entire Torah at Mt. Sinai, including “every question ever asked by a student to his teacher.”  (We discussed this idea in the drash for Parashat Yitro, 5771.)  And the 8th and 9th Principles of Faith formulated by the Rambam are that the entire Torah that is in our possession was revealed to Moshe Rabbeinu, and that it is immutable and will never be replaced or exchanged for another teaching.  Finally, the Midrash tells us that Torah existed before the creation of the universe, and that it is, in fact, the “blueprint” of the universe.  How are we to understand all this?

I’d like to raise a related issue that has bothered me for some time.  The incidents of Korach’s rebellion and the disaster of the spies both happened some time after the giving of the Torah, yet they are recorded in Torah.  If Moshe received the whole of the Torah that we have in our hands today, wouldn’t he therefore have known what was going to happen, and tried to avoid it?  Wouldn’t he have known that if he hit the rock instead of speaking to it (after Miriam’s death) that he’d be banned from entering the Land of Israel?  Is this Torah or Euripides?  How are we to understand this?  How does the fact that the spies and Korach presumably had free will figure into this question?

I am going to try to throw some light on this problem from perhaps an unlikely source – quantum mechanics.  There are phenomena that occur on the atomic and subatomic levels that are strikingly different from what we observe in ostensibly similar setups on the macroscopic level.  Here is a simple example.  Imagine walking along a beach and you see a jetty sticking out into the water perpendicular to the shore.  The waves are moving parallel to the shore, when they hit the jetty.  The waves that are out past the jetty continue on mostly undisturbed.  The water behind the jetty should have no waves – they’re blocked by the jetty.  However we do see waves propagating at an angle behind the jetty, as the disturbance at the jetty’s edge fans out in an almost circular pattern in the otherwise undisturbed water.  This phenomenon is known as diffraction, and we see it with light as well.  If a laser beam is aimed at the edge of an obstruction, it “bends” around the edge and illuminates part of the area behind the obstruction, which should be completely shadowed by the obstruction.

This is well and good for waves, however if I throw baseballs at the edge of a wall, I would expect that they would either hit the wall and bounce back, or they would miss the wall and sail through without being deflected at all.  This indeed happens for macroscopic objects like baseballs (unless of course they’re thrown by a skillful pitcher who can make the ball curve!).  If we try it with microscopic objects, like a beam of electrons for example, we find that electrons appear behind the obstruction.  In fact, if we do this with many electrons, the pattern that the electrons make is identical to the pattern that light waves make when diffracting around an edge.  It appears that the electrons behave like a wave, at least in certain circumstances.  If we do the experiment with a single electron, we find something quite interesting – each time we do the experiment the electron winds up in a different place.  The probability of the electron’s winding up in any particular place depends on the size of the theoretical electron-wave that is diffracting around the edge, at that place.  When we go ahead and try to determine where exactly the electron is, the electron acts like a particle and gives us a specific answer – the only trouble is, it gives us a different answer every time!  ‘Tis here! ‘Tis here!  ‘Tis gone!  (Hamlet)

How are we to understand this?  In truth, physics describes every particle in existence as having a dual nature.  In its undisturbed state it is unbounded, everywhere, just as a wave cannot be localized precisely.  In more precise language, we say that the particle is in a simultaneous combination of all possible states that it can have.  Some of those states are more and others are less likely to be measured, but the particle is in all of them simultaneously.  It is only when we actually go to measure  the state of the particle that it obliges us by assuming one state and one state only.  This effect is quite noticeable in small particles like electrons and protons, and is virtually unnoticeable for macroscopic particles like baseballs.  This is why we never noticed it before we started doing research on atomic and subatomic particles in the early 1900’s.

What does all this mean for our understanding of Torah?  I would like to propose the following.  The equivalent, in our lives, to making a measurement of a quantum mechanical system, is making a moral choice based on our free will.  Until we make a choice, the world is in a simultaneous combination of states; once we make a choice, the cosmos responds to that choice by assuming a definite state, and progressing from that point.  If that is the case, then when Moshe Rabbeinu ascended Mt. Sinai, prior to Korach’s rebellion, prior to the Spies’ slander, prior to his hitting the rock after Miriam’s death, the world was in a state where all the possible outcomes of those incidents existed simultaneously.  Therefore, in some way, if Moshe Rabbeinu received the entire Torah, he must have received, in some way that I can’t even begin to imagine, all the possible outcomes of every possible choice that could have been made.  In our physical analogy, he must in some way have perceived the electron as a wave, rather than a particle, simultaneously existing at every possible position.  Once, however, the choices were made, that is, Korach challenged Moshe, or the people believed the Spies’ slanderous report, the Torah that we have got “frozen” as it were into the one specific state that we have recorded in our texts.

I think this idea explains some surprising statements in our tradition.  In the hymn Lecha Dodi, we sing “Shamor” v'”Zachor” b’dibur echad – “Guard” and “Remember” in one expression.  There are two repetitions of the 10 Commandments in Torah – one in Shemot (parashat Yitro) when they are first given and the other in Devarim (parashat v’Etchanan) when Moshe Rabbeinu is reviewing them.  One uses the term zachor, Remember, referring to the positive commandment to rest, and the other uses shamor, Guard, referring to the negative commandment against performing any labor.  The Rabbis deal with this apparent contradiction by stating that Gd spoke both words at the same time.  When Israel is on a high enough spiritual level, we can be proactive and rest properly, enjoying the holiness of Shabbat.  Desecrating Shabbat would be as impossible for us as putting our hand into a boiling pot of water.  When we’re not on such a high level, we have to be constantly alert and guard ourselves against doing anything that even smacks of forbidden labor.  We guard the Shabbat with a host of Rabbinic “fences” around the actual Biblical prohibitions.  Our spiritual level is of course fixed by the moral choices we make.  On Gd’s level, all possibilities are there simultaneously; it is we who fix a specific outcome, on our level, by our actions.  Gd can say shamor and zachor at once; we can hear only one at a time.

In Shemot Rabbah (Yitro 28:4, Artscroll edition), our Sages say:

For Gd does everything simultaneously:  He causes death and restores life simultaneously, He smites and heals simultaneously;  … And thus Scripture states: I am the One Who forms light and creates darkness, Who makes peace and creates evil; I am Hashem Who makes all these (Isaiah 45:7)

This is a good a description of quantum-mechanical reality as you can get!  In the infinite, all possibilities exist simultaneously, even contradictory ones.  As we say in Kaddish, He Who makes peace in the Heavens – i.e. harmonizes all possible tendencies at the subtlest levels of creation – may He make peace for us and for all Israel – i.e. may we all learn to live and perceive and act on a level where all possibilities are simultaneously available to us, and may our choices always lead us, and the whole cosmos, to reflect perfectly the glory of our perfect Creator.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 5

Mishnah 4

Avraham our father was tested with ten tests, and he withstood them all.  This teaches how beloved was Avraham our father.

It struck me that the Mishnah doesn’t say that this teaches how much Avraham loved Gd, rather how much Gd loved Avraham!  That seems odd – commanding someone to slaughter his beloved son, from whom all his progeny was supposed to descend, doesn’t really seem like much of an expression of love!  R. Lau explains:

Midrash Shmuel quotes his teacher R Yitzchak de Leon that a test serves also to teach the subject himself the spiritual heights to which he can rise.  Most people, even exceptiojnal ones, usually are not aware of the full extent of their potential.

To return to our quantum-mechanical analogy, Avraham was apparently in a combination of states, some higher and some perhaps not so high.  Gd wanted him to make choices that would emphasize the higher states more and more, until his character and consciousness would be perfected.  Hence Gd, in His love for Avraham, put him in a position where he would have the opportunity to make the correct choice and fix the future development of the cosmos in a positive direction.  We, his descendants, are the beneficiaries of Gd’s love for Avraham, and Avraham’s love for Gd.