from the heart of jerusalem

Considering the universe: Creation for a purpose


In 1925, the American Astronomer Edwin Hubble demonstrated (as an extension of Vesto Slipher’s discovery in 1918) that the universe was not static, it was expanding: every galaxy in the observable proximity of earth was receding at the same rate of speed. This, along with other discoveries, gave rise to the big bang theory: that the universe had once been contained in a singularity, a single dot that sat for an eternity in space before it exploded.

Many, including Einstein, resisted the idea of a non-static universe as it implied a beginning and that a supernatural external force caused the big bang. Eventually, though, even Einstein had to admit that the universe was likely not static. The death knell of the static universe theory may have been Penzias and Wilson’s discovery (for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1965) of the frequency of sound — which was the echo of the big bang itself.

Of course, if all matter and energy was initially contained in the original dot of singularity, there was nothing external that could have naturally caused the big bang, which seemed to suggest a Prime Mover. Hence Einstein’s reluctance to accept a non-static universe and his statement that “I have not yet fallen into the hands of shamans and priests.”

Now the scientific community suggested another possibility: perhaps the universe was expanding but would eventually implode back into a singularity and then, when all that energy contracted to its extreme limit, it would explode again and the process would start over. In other words, the universe could still be viewed as static with no beginning, just of an oscillating nature with an endless succession of big bangs followed by big crunches followed by big bangs and so on. To support this theory there had to be enough average density of mass in the universe to allow for all the matter to eventually slow down and begin to reverse the expansion process. But there is not enough mass, not by a long shot.

Many theories were suggested as to where this massive amount of missing mass might be hidden. Perhaps in black holes? Or maybe behind each observable star lay many more hidden stars? Anything but the most obvious conclusion — that the universe had a beginning and that all of creation thus may have been created for a purpose.

This week in parshat Bo, we witness the inevitable conclusion of the battle of wills between Moshe and Pharaoh. After ten plagues, the destruction of Egypt, and finally, tragically, the death of his own firstborn son, Pharaoh exhorts Moshe to leave Egypt; he will finally let the Jewish people go.

In this dramatic finale, the Kotzker Rebbe notes a curious detail: As G-d visited the plague of the first-born in the middle of the night, there arose a great cry in all of Egypt, for there was no house that was spared. (Shemot 12:29-30) The verse tells us that “Pharaoh arose in the night” on which Rashi comments: (he arose) from his bed (mi’mitato).

Think about it: Moshe has given Pharaoh warning of nine plagues, and each one came to pass. And this time Moshe tells Pharaoh (11:5-6) that every first-born will die this night, including Pharaoh’s own son! Even Pharaoh himself, according to tradition, was a first-born. And Pharaoh goes to sleep. In his bed. Seriously?!

Says the Kotzker, there is a deep idea here that a person can become so ensconced in their beliefs that no amount of evidence to the contrary can sway them from their beliefs.

This is similar to what happened in the plague of the hail, where, after six plagues Moshe warns Pharaoh and the Egyptian people (9:19-20) that whatever cattle are left in the fields along with anyone else, will be destroyed in the fields. After six plagues one would think everyone would immediately move everything into the barns. But incredibly, most Egyptians did not. Because to move the cattle would have been to admit that they were wrong, and that their entire lives had been built on a colossal mistake.

Sadly, we see this all too often. Twenty five years after Oslo, despite all the evidence that “land for peace” did not work, there are still significant groups of people who believe if only we would give away yet more land, we would have peace. Even Shimon Peres, despite all his accomplishments, especially as president of the state of Israel, was never able to admit that Oslo was a colossal error, because to admit that might have meant that his entire political career was built on a mistaken assumption, and that is a very hard thing to do.

Fascinatingly, after the hail, unlike the rest of the plagues, where Pharaoh expresses irritation, anger or even fear, here, in the plague of hail, he says to Moshe: “I have sinned this time. G-d is the righteous one and I and my people are the wicked ones.” (9:28)

In a moment of clarity, Pharaoh realizes he made a mistake! G-d gave him a way out, and he should have grabbed it. He was perhaps given a chance to accept that G-d runs the world 

Pharaoh recognizes here that he made a mistake, and he regrets it! He is so close — all he has to do is resolve to make a change and the future will be wonderful. But he cannot make that change and, failing to capitalize on the opportunity, once the hail has been removed, he falls back into his old ways. The rest is history.

In 1978, Dr. Robert Jastrow, director of NASA’s Goddard Center for Space Studies (perhaps the greatest astro-physicist of his day), released NASA’s definitive findings after 15 years of study, declaring that the universe was indeed open and expanding. As the New York Times magazine reported:

 “This is an exceedingly strange development, unexpected by all but the theologians. They have always accepted the word of the Bible: ‘In the Beginning G-d created Heaven and Earth.’ But for the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak, and as he pulls himself over the final rock he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Pharaoh teaches us the danger of getting stuck in the way we see things, we cannot see truth when it stares us in the face. Perhaps that is why the Jews need to leave Egypt; its time to share with the world a different reality.

The world faces so many challenges; perhaps we need to approach them from a different perspective. After all, only madmen approach the same problems with the same solutions, expecting a different outcome.

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.