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Cantor's Comment - Parshat Toldot                                November 6, 2021 - 2 Kislev, 5782

11/05/2021 09:36:32 AM


Angels, demons, miracles… traditional Jewish belief incorporates a number of things that, in the eyes of many, strain credulity because they ask us ignore what most of our experience has taught us about the world, nature and science.  What gives us the right, as Jews, to scoff at or mock some of the beliefs that are out there in the world today that we might call silly or ridiculous?  This week, hundreds of followers of the insane Qanon cult showed up at the Grassy Knoll in Dallas,  because, apparently, Q said that John F Kennedy would be rising from the dead on Tuesday and heading over there to greet them.  Technically, the raising of the dead is a concept that Judaism believes in too, in Hebrew, t’chiat hameitim.  It’s supposed to happen when the mashiach arrives, ushering in new era of peace and holiness for a troubled world.  So why is the Q resurrection of JFK stupid, while the Jewish belief in mashiach is accepted as mainstream?  To help answer this question, we’re going to talk about aliens…  hang on tight, this is going to be a mind-bendingly fun one. 

Do you believe in aliens?  Don’t answer just yet.  When we ask the question that way, what immediately comes to mind for most people is UFOs and little green spacemen that we’re used to from movies and tv, which seems pretty silly.  But consider what the likelihood really is that there may be another planet out there with life on it like ours.  Our planet earth orbits the sun, which is just one star in our Milky Way galaxy, made up of some 100 billion other stars.  Our galaxy is just one of trillions of other galaxies.  Scientists tell us that based on the statistical probability alone, it is almost certain that there must be life somewhere else out there.  Humanity has only been around a very short while compared to cosmic time, and if there really is life out there in the universe, chances are that they will have been around far longer than we have.  Perhaps they’ve already cracked the mysteries of existence, figured out sustainable environmentally friendly living, defeated social problems like poverty and prejudice, and eliminated disease?  Despite the almost instinctive urge we feel to dismiss the possibility of life on other worlds as ridiculous, imagine what humanity could gain if it turns out to be true.  This is exactly why scientists invest their time and expertise, along with millions of tax dollars into programs like SETI, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.  As bizarre as it sounds, believing in aliens is not as crazy a thing as we might have thought, and we are all, to some degree, invested in it.  And we explore that possibility not out of zealous fervor, but analytically and thoughtfully.  By contrast, we see more and more people today, like the Qanon followers, who are entirely divorced from reality.  From anti-vaxxers to stop-the-steal folks, from 5G alarmists to flat-earthers, we have learned that human beings are evolutionarily hardwired to find safety in groups, and will sometimes sacrifice their own sense of logic and reason in order to feel the security that comes with belonging to the group.

But we’re not quite done yet, because why not then consider Judaism merely a system of group-think?  What makes our ideology as Jews any more thoughtful or analytical than another established religion?  Nearly a thousand years ago, the great commentator and philosopher, Rambam, published his Guide to the Perplexed, the seminal work of Jewish rationalism, the idea that every concept in Judaism can be framed in a way that is based in both logic and reasoning, including the concept of Mashiach, which made its way into Rambam’s 13 principles of faith.  How did he do it?  Here’s a Maimonidean approach to the answer with a modern twist… 

For the sake of argument, let’s explore the seemingly more boring answer to our original question about believing in aliens.  What if we were to say that we don’t believe that aliens exist, and that we are alone in the universe?  That would mean that of all of the planets, circling all of the hundreds of billions of stars of our galaxy, our galaxy one among trillions of other galaxies in our possibly infinite universe… it’s just us.  It’s all ours.  Somehow, this is the one spot in the entire universe where things can move because something else had the intention to push them.  The entire concept of intention only exists here in this one place.  And not all life on earth possesses the extremely rare gift of intention.  A tree can’t do it, only those creatures with a degree of consciousness, which is something even more rare.  And of all the creatures on earth with consciousness, only one form of life, one species of animal takes consciousness one step further into sentience, the ability to be aware of one’s self, to be able to reason and gain new understanding.  And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing for the last few thousand years, gaining knowledge and understanding, and more in recent years than hundreds of years ago.  Our learning is accelerating.  And where does all that learning and understanding reach its limit?  Humans today are only a few thousand years removed from a hunter-gatherer society.  Where will humanity be in another few thousand years?  Will we have solved for ourselves the problems of poverty, disease and bigotry that plague our world?  What will artificial intelligence look like in a thousand years?  Two thousand?  A hundred thousand?  And what about humanity itself?  What will our bodies look like?  Will we figure out how to defeat death and all live together forever inside a computer?  Unless we destroy ourselves, which admittedly seems like a possibility, the only alternative is that humanity continues to progress until one day when our reality will be unrecognizable from the reality we live in today when the worldly problems we know of today simply don’t exist anymore.  Judaism has a word for that… mashiach… the possibly inevitable end times, when the world is delivered into a state of peace and holiness. 

As you might imagine, this is not exactly a traditional teaching about the Jewish concept of Mashiach, but it true Rambam style, the rationale is not the point.  Rather, the point is that it CAN be rationalized with nothing more than a thought experiment.  The truth is that we don’t know how the Mashiach will actually manifest itself in our world, but we’re open to all kinds of different possibilities.  What we do know is that we, the Jewish people, need to be doing our part to bring it about. 

In this week’s parsha, Toldot, we are introduced to the rivalry between our forefather, Yaakov who is clever and thoughtful, and his twin brother, Esav who is large, brutish and physically strong.  In the Torah, and throughout Jewish history, the image of Yaakov verses Esav has always been a paradigm by which the Jewish people have seen the world—the spiritually focused, educated and thoughtful Jews facing a world that is focused more on materialism and superficiality.  Esav, being the first born should have been given his father’s blessing, but instead God determined that the promise to Abraham would need to be fulfilled by Yaakov, not Esav.  And ever since then, it has been the Jewish mission to be a Light Unto the Nations, to be the people who, in every generation, annoy the world with our incessant moralizing, to show by example what it looks like to think deeply and meaningfully, to force people to talk about what our obligations are to the world, instead of only about what we think we are rightfully entitled to, to sometimes be the only voice of reason that keeps nudging our species towards mashiach and away from our own destruction.  I personally believe that if humanity makes it to mashiach, it will be because the Jewish people got us all there with thoughtfulness, a strong sense of morality, and the ability to recognize how preciously rare life in the universe is… our holiness.

Shabbat Shalom

Mon, July 4 2022 5 Tammuz 5782