Monthly Archives: April 2019

I Saw a Black Hole

Ask me about first-century Judaism, and I’m all over it. Bring me a question about aspects of modern and post-modern Jewish history, and I will not disappoint. But the moment we veer from my Judaic comfort zone into hard science, I am pathetically inept.

I have tried. God knows how hard I’ve tried, to figure out some of the basic principles of the Universe. But no matter how much I read about quantum physics or string theory or the theory of relativity, I am so out of my league. It doesn’t compute.

I read, and re-read the same pages over and over again without success. And the moment I see a mathematical equation, I hyperventilate. The numbers and the symbols just don’t speak to me. I may as well be looking at hieroglyphics!

But I will say this: even though I don’t understand how they got it (even after reading several explanations) when I saw that picture of the black hole the other day, I actually got teary. Since I was a kid, I so wanted to see this mythic object in space.

As a tried and true baby boomer, I was completely enamored of the space program. From the age of 7, I watched the live Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo liftoffs. I sent away to NASA, explaining how much I wanted to be an astronaut. They responded with an enormous package –first true parcel sent personally to me in the mail! – Of pictures and charts and maps and who knows what else. And I went everywhere with that stuff, showing it off, proudly listing the names of the first astronauts.

By fifth grade, I had learned that one needed to know something about advanced mathematics and engineering and – the killer of dreams – one had to go through a bruising array of physical challenges, including getting slammed upside down into a deep pool and then unbuckle the seat belt, swim to the surface, and not die. That wasn’t going to work for me. So my flying days were over before they began. But that did not stifle my curiosity about the great beyond.

When I look at that picture of the black hole, I feel the same chills and thrills I experienced when I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Up to that point, space travel and event horizons were all speculation and science fiction. But the moon landing and the black hole have presented us with extraordinary truths about our Universe, its grandeur and depth and remarkable beauty.

These unspeakably astonishing discoveries also point out the greatness of humanity. Just when I am filled to overflowing with revulsion regarding people in leadership at home and abroad who are so venal, so transparently ignorant and disdainful of humanity, I look at that black hole picture, and I qvell (swell with pride and appreciation).

Albert Einstein created the theory of relativity and knew there just had to be black holes and used terrifying advanced math to try proving it. The math was even too hard for him until another German Jewish genius named Karl Schwartzchild came to his rescue and solved Einstein’s equations. These 2 humans figured it out! How? A young MIT Ph.D. grad, Katie Bouman, along with many others, worked together to capture the image of the black hole. How did she do that? How did this team of big egos, little egos, big geniuses, not such geniuses, different colors and cultures do it?  

As benighted and as foolish as so many of us are, what a joy it is to know that there are also people so smart, so enlightened, so open-hearted, that they seek to open up the Universe to all of us, not for profit, not to exclude others, but as a gift of knowledge. This gift reminds us that we all share the fullness of life on this little blue marble called Earth.

Who will be victorious in the end? Is it the yetzer tov or the yetzer ha-ra? Is the evil impulse stronger than the good impulse? Does selfless genererosity win? Or does pernicious narcissistic self-interest declare victory?

Of course, no one knows. And, truth be told, maybe we just keep bouncing between those two poles, endlessly buffeted by the collisions of truth and lies. I suppose that’s how it’s always been. But wouldn’t it be nice to awaken one morning and find that all of us agree that humanity is created in God’s image? That kindness just makes sense? Such a moment might even dwarf the picture of a black hole. Such a moment would light up the Universe. Amen.

Have a sweet Passover, filled with matzah balls, laughter, stories of freedom, and promises to embrace the good by doing good.

Passover Lessons

Many years ago I was a guest at a large seder in Jerusalem. Around the table, in great Yerushalmi style, was a sampling of all the classic residents and tourists. Some were American, some native Israelis, some Yemenites, some religious, some heretics, some crazy. Old, young, and in between. It was a classic scene, and I loved it. There was lots of wine and drama.

Hours went by until the Passover meal was served and the afikomen successfully hunted down. Right before the 4th cup of wine is blessed and then imbibed, the door is opened for Elijah. From past seders, I remembered singing “Eliyahu Hanavi” – Elijah the Prophet – into the night.

But there is another tradition, that does not include that plaintive song. It is instead a very tough reading that goes: Pour out Your wrath upon those who do not know You and upon the governments which do not call upon Your Name. For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his dwelling place (Psalms 79:6-7). Pour out Your fury upon them; let the fierceness of Your anger overtake them (Psalms 69:25). Pursue them in indignation and destroy them from under Your heavens (Lamentations 3:66).

At that Jerusalem seder, there was a particular older man, a Holocaust survivor, as it turned out.  He was thoroughly enjoying the food and the wine and the Passover story and all the attendant festivities. But when it got to this particular passage, something happened.

When the door was opened, he quickly elbowed his way through the throng of people to the threshold and began to recite the imprecation above. Actually, reciting is not accurate. He screamed it, he bellowed it into the Jerusalem night, shaking his fist and crying. All those years since the crushing brutality and privation, decades since his liberation from Dachau, the pain of captivity still constricted his soul. I will never forget how he screamed and wept.

When I recall that story, I remember a line from the movie, Forrest Gump, when Jennie, now an adult, comes upon her old, vacant childhood ramshackle home where she’d been beaten and raped by her father. She looks at the place in silence, and then suddenly breaks into a sob, throwing her shoes at the hovel. Out of her mind with grief and anger, she throws stones at the windows and then collapses on the road. Forrest, narrating the scene, only says, “Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.”

The liberation from Egypt may have been one moment in history. But just because we left Egypt does not mean that Egypt has entirely left us. The residue of servitude is hard to eradicate. All of the work people put into finding the chametz and cleaning it out before Passover is a metaphor for our own struggles with the past and how it clings to us. We can’t be complete when we are dragged down by remnants of the past.

We keep telling the story of Passover for a dual purpose. First, it reminds us of the bitterness of servitude and the therapeutic value in symbolically casting it out, much like the crumbs of Tashlich. And second, it tells us that we are not the only people who have suffered. Even as we acknowledge our long trek from slavery to freedom and the damage it did—and still does – to us, we see others who are not as far along on the road to freedom.

Some years ago, Solomon Burke sang None of Us Are Free, which includes the lyrics,

There are people still in darkness,

And they just can’t see the light.

If you don’t say it’s wrong then that says it right.

We got try to feel for each other, let them all know that

We care.

Got to get the message, send it out loud and clear.

None of us are free.

None of us are free.

None of us are free, when one of us is chained.

None of us are free.

This is the truest message of Passover. We were once slaves, embattled, beaten, murdered. Avadim hayinu. But now we are free. Ata b’nai horin. We sluff off the shackles of our oppressors. We work out the trauma of our past and enter into history fully present and engaged. And that engagement along with our empathy leads us to work for the liberation of all.

I know – it’s pretty high-minded stuff. But we are here for a reason. We are the hands of God, the outstretched arm helping others find their way to hope. Passover is not only telling stories of the past. It’s also sharing the undying hope that somehow, all of us will be free at last.