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Science and Religion Together Forever!
Parshat Va’eira 5780

We have been conditioned to believe that there is an inherent conflict between science and religion and that one has to choose between being a Man of Science or a Man of God. We see it in lawsuits launched by scientists suing the Kansas Board of Ed for including intelligent design in textbooks, we hear of it from “Men of Science” who will look down at you if you say you believe in G-d and drop a snide comment like, “Sure you can believe in G-d if it makes your life easier, I only believe in real things we can measure in a lab,” and we see it in headlines like this one from the Washington Post in August 3 of 2015, “Faith vs Fact: Why religion and science are mutually incompatible.”

But the truth is that science and religion can and should be mutually supporting. Indeed Maimonides himself, the great 12th century Rabbi, doctor, and philosopher, calls upon us to learn science in order to help us appreciate G-d more deeply. In his magnum opus Mishneh Torah, Maimonides writes (Laws of the Foundations of Torah, 2:2), “But how may one discover the way to love and revere Him [G-d]? When man will reflect concerning His works, and His great and wonderful creatures, and will behold through them His wonderful, matchless and infinite wisdom, he will spontaneously be filled with love, praise and exaltation and become possessed of a great longing to know the Great Name…” This does not sound like religion shying away from science, it sounds like religion wholeheartedly embracing science as a way to increase our knowledge of G-d!

I would like to illustrate one example out of many where science and religion provide deep support for each other, and knowledge of both is necessary for the greatest appreciation of the beauty in the idea. Here goes;

Why are we here? This is not a philosophical question, but a scientific one, so let’s define here. Here is the Milky Way, the galaxy we call home. The Milky Way is a collection of between 100 to 400 billion stars and roughly 100 billion planets, that is about 150,000 light years across, which is a large distance because just one light year is about 5,865,696,000,000 miles long. We are pretty close to the middle of Milky Way, just 27,000 light years from the center of the galaxy. OK, so we live in the Milky Way neighborhood, why shouldn’t we be here? Rent was cheap, the weather is good, taxes are low, why shouldn’t we be here in Milky Way?

The problem is that there is a force that wants us out of here, and its name is centrifugal. Centrifugal force is not a bad guy, it’s just a scientific rule that when things are spun around a central point, they will always move out from the center toward the outside. This is why when two people spin around each other at a wedding or bar mitzvah and one finally lets go, both people fly out toward the outside. It’s also how we enrich uranium or separate blood products in centrifuges, but you probably don’t enrich uranium or separate blood products, so we’ll move on.

The Milky Way is a spinning galaxy and it’s spinning pretty fast, about 600,000 miles per hour. That being the case, you would think that planets and stars would just fly right out of the Milky Way. Imagine you had thousands of ping pong balls sitting on a playground carousel, and then you gave it a good spin, all those ping pong balls would fly right off. So why doesn’t centrifugal force push all the stars and planets out of the Milky Way?

The answer given by science for a long time was that there was also a force keeping us here, a force called gravity. Gravity is basically a law that says that all things are attracted to each other, and the bigger the thing the more attraction is has. The moon isn’t very big, so gravity on the moon is relatively weak, so that when an astronaut jumps, he can go thirty feet before coming back down. Earth is much bigger, so its gravity is much stronger, and when I jump I get about three feet before coming back down. So the more mass something has, the more it pulls things toward it. For years science believed that there was enough mass in the Milky Way that it was pulling all the stars inward, and keeping them in the Milky Way, kind of like if you have heavy bricks on the carousel, even when the carousel starts to speed, the bricks stay on because they have weight keeping them from flying out.

That is after all how we stay on earth. The earth is spinning at about 1,000 miles per hour at the equator, but we don’t fly off the earth because earth’s gravity holds us down. So too the Milky Way is spinning at 600,000 miles per hour, but the gravity from all the mass in the Milky Way keeps us in place.

The problem is that there is not anywhere close to enough stuff. Like not even close. Like if you took all the observable mass in galaxy, and added an extra seven more identical masses you would finally have enough… This creates a real problem for scientists because the galaxy is not behaving according to all the laws of science.

When scientists are in a pickle, in a real tough bind, they often resort to the GIAN Syndrome. GIAN stands for Give It A Name, as in Give It A Name and then we can pretend like it makes sense.[1] In this case they invented something called Dark Matter.

What is Dark Matter? It’s something that defies almost all the rules science has for everything else. It is extraordinarily heavy (about seven times as heavy as the rest of the galaxy), but we can’t see it, feel it, put it in a beaker, or test it in our labs. (It also doesn’t follow the rules of every other thing in the galaxy, in that it has no electromagnetic radiation, and no weak or strong nuclear force.) So those scientists who snidely told you that they only believe in things they can test in a lab? They were lying to you.[2] They have no way to explain how we are here in the Milky Way, and the only thing they can use to explain it is a magical substance called Dark Matter which they can’t test in a lab. Let’s put this on the back burner for a moment….

When I was younger, I remember learning a Talmudic passage that quoted part of the conversation between Job and G-d. Job is a G-d fearing man who suddenly found his whole life turned upside down, his children were killed, then his wealth dissipated, and finally he was given painful horrible physical afflictions. Despite maintaining his faith and accepting G-d’s Will with love, eventually when he is physically afflicted, he calls out and questions why G-d is doing all this to him? Why couldn’t he have just died as an infant or been a stillborn?

G-d eventually answers Job, and a large part of the answer is G-d telling Job not to question His wisdom and fairness. In Chapter 38, G-d presents Job with a long list of things He does that Job could never do, so he should be careful before questioning G-d. The list includes things like “setting the foundations of the universe,” or telling the waves to only go to a certain point and not an inch further, or setting up torrential downpours, or feeding every animal, or making sure that they all birth at the proper time. But the one task that was mentioned in the Gemara was as follows: (Job 38:31) “Can you tie the shackles of Kimmah?” Kimmah is a group of stars. As a child, I remember having trouble understanding this, what kind of shackles bind the stars together? They are thousands of light years from each other? I never really understood what that verse in Job meant, but I figured that it was probably a metaphorical expression saying that G-d set up the constellations in their fixed place.

But thank G-d for science, because now I truly understand what the verse in Job was saying. It was saying this: “By all rights, all the stars of the Milky Way should be slipping out and disappearing into the great unknown, there’s simply not enough stuff in the Milky Way to hold it all inside, but I hold all the stars together anyway.” The stars and constellations are literally being shackled into place by some Unseeable Force, and G-d was telling Job, that holding the stars and constellations together is just one of the things on G-ds ToDo list that Job could never do. Learning the science of the Milky Way, helped me appreciate the depth and beauty of a verse in Job,

And science could use a little help from religion, if only there was the humility to accept help from outside the lab. They are facing so many issues that they absolutely can’t explain, including in this case the reason for the Milky Way staying together. They have no explanation for it and have resorted to making up a magical material called Dark Matter which defies all rules of science. They have resorted to believing in something they can’t see, touch, feel, smell, put in a beaker, test in a lab, which is exactly what they claim not to do. Why can’t science just take some help from Scripture, which talked about this long before anyone even knew there was a Milky Way, long before anyone ever thought of the gravitational pull of galaxies or the mass needed to orchestrate it? If science is willing to go to the magical side, why not go to the divine side?

I thank G-d every day for giving me the beautiful Torah which is such a profound instruction manual for how to live a fulfilled life, but I also thank Him every day for the wondrous science, the infinite wisdom He embedded in the physical world so that we can see His greatness, and in the words of Maimonides, “spontaneously be filled with love, praise and exaltation and become possessed of a great longing to know the Great Name…”

Science and Religion, together forever, making the world a more beautiful and divine place!

 

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this weeks Parsha, we begin reading about the Ten Plagues. To some, the ten plagues seem like what we would call today “excessive force!” Why couldn’t G-d just use a couple of them, not harden Pharaoh’s heart, and Pharaoh would’ve for sure caved in and let the Jews go. Theoretically, G-d could’ve even just gone in right away with the “nuclear option,” the Death of the Firstborn, and probably could’ve ended the Jewish slavery with just one plague! What was so many plagues supposed to achieve?

Let’s look at an answer given by Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky (1911-2000, Belarus – Israel), the Chassidic master of the Slonim dynasty, in his magnum opus, the Nesivos Shalom.

During the Passover seder, when we recount the Ten Plagues, we say the following teaching, “Rabbi Yehuda used to give them signs, דצ”ח אד”ש באח”ב.” The letters that Rabbi Yehuda groups together are the initials of the Ten plagues and together they form the mnemonic seen above. What exactly is Rabbi Yehuda trying to teach us with this statement? Is he simply teaching us that we can form mnemonics by taking the first letter of a bunch of words and putting them together?

What Rabbi Yehuda is really trying to do is to point out that there were actually three different categories of plagues, each with a different role to play in bringing to fruition the overall goal of the plagues. Before we can see what each grouping added, we need to look at what the stated goal of the plagues is. When Moshe came to Pharaoh the first time and told him that the G-d of the Hebrews said that he should let the Jewish people go, Pharaoh responded by saying “I don’t know who this G-d is!” G-d’s response was the ten plagues, whose stated goal was “with this you will know that I am G-d!” (Exodus 7:17).

Each set of plagues in Rabbi Yehuda’s mnemonic showed G-d’s mastery in a different area. The first set showed His mastery over all things beneath the surface of the earth. The blood in the rivers, the frogs coming out of the rivers, and the earth turning into teeming lice, were all clear supernatural phenomena showing G-d’s mastery over things beneath the earth.

The plagues indicated in the second mnemonic set showed G-d’s mastery over everything on the surface of earth. Wild animals roaming the streets, pestilence killing off all of the Egyptian’s domestic animals, and boils appearing on all the Egyptian’s skin, are all things that took place on the surface, showing G-d’s mastery over all things terrestrial. The plagues indicated in the last mnemonic set showed G-d’s mastery over all things in the heavens above. Hailstones made of fire and ice, locust blowing in from the heavens, absolute darkness, and G-d Himself snuffing out the life of every firstborn in Egypt in one microsecond, are clear indications that the heavens above are also under the absolute control of G-d.

The idea of the different sets of plagues demonstrating G-d’s control over different parts of nature is underscored clearly in the text. Each time a new set of plagues is about to begin, G-d reiterates to Moshe that this is being done so that everyone should know that the G-d of the Hebrews is the G-d who controls everything (Exodus 7:17 before the plague of blood, 8:18 before the plague of wild animals, and 9:14 before the plague of hail). Besides the three major categories; beneath the surface, on the surface, and the heavens, each plague showed mastery over a different sub category as well. Rivers, amphibians, insects, wild animals, astronomy, climate, and human health all proved to be putty in the hands of the Master Shaper.

These lesson were extremely important in the overall scheme of the Exodus, because at that time almost everyone in the world was a polytheist, believing in a panoply of gods that each controlled his or her little fiefdom, and the idea of a single G-d controlling all the forces and energies was extremely foreign. The Exodus is the one time in history where G-d demonstrated His absolute control over all of nature. These lessons were even more important for the Jews who had been living amongst and were influenced by the Egyptians, as it was for the Egyptians themselves. It is for this reason that we reference the Exodus from Egypt so many times in our prayers and blessings. It was an event that created the bedrock of our monotheist beliefs.

A one-dimensional “nuclear option” like the Death of the Firstborn might have been enough to convince Pharaoh to let the Jews free, but it would not accomplish the goals of the three-dimensional Ten Plagues which revealed the true essence of G-d to the world. That lesson still reverberates throughout the world, not only in the Jewish community, but in the majority of the civilized world that still beliefs in One Omnipotent G-d.

One plague could have been enough to get the Jews out of Egypt, but the Ten Plagues were able to get Egypt out of the Jews!

 

Parsha Summary

The Parsha starts with G-d reassuring Moshe that he has a special covenant with the Jewish people and that He will take them out of Egypt with great wonders and bring them to the land He promised their forefathers. Moshe conveys this message to the Jewish people, but they don’t believe him, due to their hard work, and distress.

Then the Torah gives a quick recap of the lineage of the first three tribes leading up to Moshe and Aaron, just to give us a proper perspective on who the Moshe and Aaron we will be talking about for the next few parshiot are. At the end of that we find Moshe demurring for the last time, this time based on his speech impediments, after which G-d tells him that Aaron will be his interpreter.

Moshe and Aaron come before Pharaoh and show him a miracle in which Aaron casts his staff to the floor, and it turns into a snake. Pharaoh starts laughing and calls in his wife, then his children, then the school children, and they all do the same with their staffs. However, when Aaron picks up his snake it returns to its staff form and then proceeds to swallow all the other staffs without changing size. After that, Moshe warns Pharaoh of the first of the Ten Plagues – blood.

After Pharaoh doesn’t heed the warning, Aaron raises his staff and hits the Nile which turns to blood. For the next week, the Egyptians could only find blood no matter where they looked, even in wells, reservoirs, and houses. The only way they could drink water was by buying it from a Jew. (No kids outside selling lemonade for 5 cents a cup, more like kids selling water for $10 a cup and having a line of customers!) Pharaoh called his magicians who could also produce blood. This hardened his heart, and he did not let the Jews go.

Then Moshe warned Pharaoh of the frogs and, sure enough, soon the entire Egrypt was covered in frogs. The frogs even went into burning ovens and the people’s stomachs. Pharaoh’s magicians could also produce frogs, but they couldn’t get rid of them, so Pharaoh tells Moshe he will let the people go if the frogs go as well. Moshe davens, the frogs all die, but Pharaoh doesn’t keep his part of the deal.

Next G-d tells Aaron to hit the ground with his staff, and the entire earth of Egypt turns into a teeming mass of lice. This the magicians cannot reproduce, as they have no control over anything smaller than a grain of barley, and they are forced to admit that it is the finger of G-d. But Pharaoh was of the hardened heart type, and he did not let the Jews go.

G-d tells Moshe to warn Pharaoh about the next plague, assorted wild animals, and when Pharaoh doesn’t change his mind, they descend on Egypt and wreak havoc. Pharaoh cries uncle and offers to let the Jews go but, once again, as soon as the plague is over he changes his mind. This pattern continues through the end of the Parsha, as the fifth plague, pestilence, the sixth plague, boils, and the seventh plague, hail, unfold. After watching the miraculous hail, which was a combination of fire and ice, Pharaoh admits that he and his people have been wrong and that G-d was right. But after the hail stops, guess what happens? You got it, he changes his mind and goes back to the old “I will not let them go” line. That’s all Folks!

Quote of the Week: All know the way, few actually walk it. – Samuel Fremont

Random Fact of the Week: All the insects on earth weigh three times as much as all other animals combined.

Funny Line of the Week: Why don’t they just make mouse-flavored cat food?

Have a Dandy Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

[1] Here are two examples of GIAN. By all laws of accepted science, nothing should be able to move faster than the speed of light, but most scientists believe the universe expanded much faster than that in the first few moments of its existence. So they named it “Inflation” and spent a lot of time building theory around that. Another example is that according to the theory of evolution, we should see life slowly and incrementally evolving, but that is not what happens. Instead there are times when millions of new life forms suddenly show up. So we call it the “Pre-Cambrian Explosion” and build some supporting ideas around it, and now that it has a name, it’s no longer a big challenge to the fundamental rules that aren’t being followed.

[2] In general, there are so many things that scientist have no clue how to explain, yet they have Faith that science will one day discover the answer. No one can coherently explain where all the energy for the Big Bang comes from, and no one can explain how life arose from a non-living planet. Most scientists will readily admit they don’t know the answer to so many big questions, but they have faith that in the future science will find the answer. Then they go and write articles called “Faith and Fact: Why religion and science are incompatible.”

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