Thursday, July 16, 2015

Allusion and Illusion - Reflections on Parashat Masei 5775

(Numbers 30:2 - 36:13)

Remember Robin Williams' shtick about "Reality: What A Concept"?  This week's Torah portion challenges our perception of reality, although perhaps taking a slightly different, less drug-induced, approach than Robin's.

In it, we read of the sojourns of the the Jewish People during their 40 years in the desert.

Specifically, the Torah names all the places that they stopped on their twisting path toward the Promised Land. Place names like Marah. Ilem. Dafka. Alush. Refidim. Kivroth Hata'avah. Chatzerot. Ritmah. And on and on. Forty-two of them, to be exact.

But guess what? The Ba'al HaTurim and others say the list of names aren't actual places. Rather, each name is an allusion to some notable event that occurred at that encampment. Like, 'the spot on the trail where I twisted my ankle.'

Marah - the place where the bitter waters were made sweet. Kivrot Hata'avah - the burial place of the lustful. In other words, you'll never find these places on Mapquest; these "places" don't exist per se.  

This makes sense: after all, the Jews were sojourning in a desert - do you think the wilderness was dotted with little frontier towns, complete with saloons, banks and blacksmiths?  Of course not. They made camp in the wide expanses of nowhere; as my Zayde would have said in Yiddish, in Chandikeveh.

So the Jewish People - whom the Maharal describes as the otherworldly people - survived for 40 years with no natural food or water, encamped in places that don't actually exist, and somehow emerged out the other side intact.

There was no there there, almost as if they existed in another dimension of reality.

150 years ago, scientists felt they had a pretty good grasp on reality. They had proven that there were these little particles called "atoms" - from the Greek meaning smallest indivisible unit, aka "elements." Hydrogen. Helium. Lithium. Berylium. These were the building blocks of the entire universe, and Mendeleev had even worked out their orderly arrangement in what became known as the Periodic Table. 

This was huge, because everything in the physical universe, without exception, is composed of atoms. You, me, that big sycamore down the lane, the car that drives down that lane - everything. (Did I mention everything? Because I meant ab-so-lute-ly everything.)

So with great confidence, Science claimed that it had cracked the mystery of the essence of matter.

Only...Science soon discovered that the atom - supposed to be the smallest indivisible unit - was actually composed of smaller, sub-atomic particles. (Ouch! got that wrong...) Protons. Neutrons. Electrons. So the hunt was on for the smallest individual sub-atomic particle, so Science could re-assert its conviction that it had a handle on the essence of physical reality.

Since then, though, the deeper we have looked into the structure of the atom, the more particles we have found, and, to complicate matters further, sub-atomic particles ignore the laws of physics. So Particle Physics has quietly abandoned its efforts to find the smallest particle, but rather catalogues the existence and behavior of sub-atomic particles that might exist for a billionth or a trillionth of a second. 

In other words, when you start seriously studying matter, the more we attempt to peel back its layers to get to the core of reality, the more it seems there's nothing there. 

Similarly, most everyone who has taken high-school level chemistry knows that atoms are composed of a positively charged nucleus around which spin negatively charged electrons in various "shells" or states of energy. We are all familiar with the symbol of nuclear energy, showing rings of electrons spinning around a nucleus:

However, this depiction is not at all to scale. If we were to draw the atom accurately, the nucleus would be the size of a ping pong ball on the 50 yard line of the Superdome, while the electrons would be spinning around way out in the nosebleed section - at the edge of the uppermost bleachers. 

But what's in between the teeny weeny nucleus and those far out spinning electrons? 

Nothing. Not air, not anything. 99.99% of the atom is composed of nothingness. There's no there there.

And we're all composed of atoms. 

Which means that you, me, that big sycamore down the lane, the car that drives down that lane - all that physical reality is chimerical. It is quite literally 99.99% nothingness. 

No matter how immediate, how palpable reality may seem, it's just an illusion - nothing but a momentary hiccup in the unending flow of energy in the universe.

For over 3,000 years, Torah has been teaching us what Science is just now getting around to: that we are spiritual beings - neshamot - shrouded in a veil of physicality, and that physicality itself is nothing more than a Holodeck image - an incredibly convincing illusion.

Like the Jews of old, we are all sojourners in the wilderness, trapped for a time in a dimension foreign to our essential nature. 

In our travels, the wise will stay true to the spiritual self, while the fool will chase the shimmering oasis of physical comfort and self-indulgence. 

Thanks, Robin: "Reality" is just that - a concept. 

Shabbat Shalom.

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