As we await excitingly, and a bit impatiently, to see if Israel will be successful in its attempt to be only the 4th country to land on the moon, we have the opportunity to remember that the amazing human ability to launch rockets into space, explore space and even land on the moon is based on incredible amounts of math and science, specifically the ingenious work of Isaac Newton some 300 years ago with his discovery of the laws of motion.
I recently finished reading an incredible biography of Newton’s life and work, “Newton’s Gift” by David Berlinski.
When I was a kid, Newton was the guy who said under a tree and discovered gravity as an apple fell on his head. Only later would I found out that it didn’t actually bonk him on the head, but witnessing it fall did inspire Newton to probe the reasons why things fall straight towards the Earth and not sideways or upwards.
But more about gravity in a moment.
One of the greatest scientists to ever live, Newton was also a man of great faith. Back then the great rip between science and God did not yet occur, and it was not uncommon to find scientists who believed deeply in God.
We see this from Newton’s own words at the end of his most famous and important work, the Principia:
“This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and domination of an intelligent and powerful Being. God is eternal and infinite, omnipotent and omniscient; that is, his duration reaches from eternity to eternity; his presence from infinity to infinity; he governs all things and knows all things that can be done. He is utterly void of all body and bodily figure, and can therefore neither be seen, nor heard, nor touched…We have ideas of His attributes, but what the real substance of anything is, we know not.”
This could be a page straight out of the Kabbalah, no??
Now back to gravity.
One of the greatest things I learned from reading this biography is that Newton’s discovery of the law of gravity wasn’t just another nice scientific explanation to help humans better understand the world around them. His ideas about gravity were way beyond that. He believed, and proved, that gravity is the most dominant force in all of physical reality, whether on the surface of the Earth or in distant “corners” of the universe. It is the force that allows for there to be anything and then holds that anything together. (I am not a scientist, so don’t judge me on my explanation here, ok?)
The author of the biography I read writes this about it:
“If gravity explains much that might otherwise be perplexing, it is an explanation that proceeds by means of a mystery. Gravity acts at a distance and it acts at once. No other force in nature would seem to behave in this way. A force with such properties is hardly mechanical, however much it may be transmitted by material bodies. What is perhaps as perplexing is gravity’s irreducible character. There is within Newtonian mechanics no explanation for gravity’s force in terms of other forces– the movement or distribution of particles, say. Gravity is what it is; and it cannot be explained in simpler terms or by an appeal to the more elementary constituents of matter. We are acquainted with gravity through its effects; we understand gravity by means of its mathematical form. Beyond this,we understanding nothing.”
As a side note, from the perspective of faith, the word “gravity” can replaced with “God” and this paragraph would still make perfect sense, no?
In essence, Newton teaches us that gravity is a force of attraction between all physical bodies, small and large. It is what holds celestial bodies in relationship with one another and allows for one body to orbit around another. It is the invisible glue of our universe.
Religion, especially mysticism, would say the same thing about God—that God is the ultimate force of attraction, holding all of existence together in one unified entity.
And now onto the weekly Torah portion we read this past Shabbat, parshat Ki Tisa.
After the tragic episode of the Jews worshipping the golden calf, after the Children of Israel have hit rock bottom in the eyes of God, Moses decides that this is the moment to have holy chutzpah and ask God, “Show me Your Glory”.
This is the opening line to one of the most mystical moments of the Torah.
God responds, “You can’t see my ‘Face/Front/Countenance’ for no human can see this and live.”
After which God says to Moses, “But you can see my ‘Back’.”
Huh? See God’s back? We know that Judaism believes, just like Newton, that God has no physical form whatsoever, so we need to suspend our rational minds in our quest to understand what is happening here.
But then the very rational medieval Torah scholar Rashi, whose commentary often lends a helping hand when we don’t understand the plain meaning of the text, writes about this passage that, according to the Talmud (Brachot 7a) God’s ‘Back’ is an illusion to “the knot of God’s tefillin.”
Now, I don’t want to get into a whole thing about what it means that God has tefillin. Do a Google search about it and you’ll find enough written about it to keep you busy for the next few years!
What I do want to highlight is this:
According to the Talmud, of all the things that God could have shown Moses as a metaphor or symbol for “His Back”, it was specifically the KNOT of His tefillin that was chosen.
Now, what is a knot if not the point where disparate parts are connect, where distinct pieces are brought together, where multiplicity and separateness turns into oneness.
Kind of like how Isaac Newton described the force of gravity he discovered.
And it is the discovery of this force and the related laws of motion that allowed Israel to launch its satellite that will hopefully make a historic landing on the moon in just about 7 weeks.
And it was launched during the week that Jews around the world were learning about, pondering and discussing the concept of God’s tefillin.
Everything is connected.
Everything is one.
What an incredible world we live in.
Reprinted with author’s permission from The Times of Israel