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Cantorial Comments - Parshat Korach                                    July 6, 2019 - 3 Tammuz 5779

07/04/2019 05:28:19 PM


 “Quantum theory yields much, but it hardly brings us close to the Old One’s secrets. I, in any case, am convinced He does not play dice with the universe.”-        
                                                                                    Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Does God play dice with the universe?  Einstein, and many other scientists after him have been bothered by the idea that in our universe, there exists two simultaneous, but completely separate sets rules for physics. There is a set of rules that governs our perceivable world, rules such as gravity, conservation of motion, magnetic force and the like.  These rules apply equally to small objects like pebbles, just the same as they apply to planets in space.  However, if we are talking about objects that are small enough, such as molecules, atoms and subatomic particles, all of those rules seem to go out the window, and a whole new set of rules of physics is needed to understand how these objects behave – that’s quantum physics.  Stephen Hawking made it one of his life-long goals to come up with the Grand Unifying Theory – the single set of physics rules that makes sense of both the macroscopic and microscopic worlds at the same time, but he never succeeded.  Meanwhile, quantum physics introduces levels of randomness and uncertainty because of what is known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle – that we cannot simultaneously know both the position and velocity of an atom. What this all means is that it appears that there is a high degree of randomness and uncertainty in the universe, which conflicts with the Judeo-Christian belief in an omnipotent God.  If God exists, it means that the universe has a master plan, which means that nothing can be random.  God does not play dice with the universe.

In polytheistic traditions, randomness and uncertainty are a lot easier to digest.  Gods are portrayed as having personalities, wants and needs that are in conflict with other gods.  Gods vie for power and influence, and human beings are often caught in the middle.  To polytheists, this helps to explain why bad things happen to good people, why prayers may go unanswered as they are subject to the whim of a god, and why it is upon each mortal to work hard to impress and please the gods and gain their favour for the sake of his or her own prosperity.  Monotheism, however, operates on a different principle. If there is only one omnipotent and all-powerful God, then the entire universe bends to His will and no other. If God is fundamentally good, then the plan for the universe must be fundamentally good.  But if this is the case, why then, must good people suffer? Why can’t God’s universe be a place where suffering doesn’t exist in the first place? 

To make matters even more difficult, it seems that there are many instances in the Torah in which God takes on personalities and traits that would only make sense in a polytheistic framework.  In the Ten Commandments, God describes himself as a jealous God, which is why we are forbidden to worship other gods or make graven images.  In last week’s parsha, Shlach, God appears to have a fragile ego when Moses points out that other nations will think less of Him if He were to allow the Israelites to perish in the desert after delivering them from Egypt. Most oddly, however, several places in the Torah seem to suggest that God has a mind that can be changed through argument.  Just try to imagine God saying, “Oh, I guess you’re right, I didn’t think of it that way.”

In this week’s parsha, Korach, God is, once again, incensed by the Israelites who have challenged the leadership of Moses and Aaron, and threatens to destroy the entire nation.  God says to Moses and Aaron, “stand aside from the congregation, and I shall consume them in an instant.  And they [Moses and Aaron] fell on their faces” (Num 17:10). God states what he is about to do, why doesn’t he follow through?  As a plague from God begins to take hold, Moses instructs Aaron to stand between the living and the dead with a pan of incense as an offering to God.   “Aaron took [it], just as Moses had said, and he ran into the midst of the assembly, and behold, the plague had begun among the people. He placed the incense on it and atoned for the people” (Num. 17:12).  It is odd that that God’s instruction to Moses and Aaron, “stand aside” (Hebrew – haromu) literally indicates the idea of “rising”, whereas the response from Moses and Aaron is that they “fell” (Hebrew – vayiplu) on their faces.  God said one thing, and Moses and Aaron did the exact opposite!  We would imagine that this would have infuriated God further, but it didn’t… why?  Looking carefully at the text, we might note that God’s instruction is not actually an instruction at all, but presented as a choice.  “Stand aside… and I shall consume them”, reading between the lines, there seems to be another option: don’t stand aside, and I won’t consume them. So rather than standing, Moses and Aaron “fell on their faces”, carefully indicating their choice.

Parents understand that there are times when children require a command, such as “clean your room”. But there are also opportunities to give children their own agency, present them with choices and allow them to weigh options and consequences, ultimately teaching them critical decision making skills: “Clean your room, and we’ll go out for ice-cream”.  Judaism teaches that while human beings have free will, our choices are merely illusions because God has already ordained which choice we will make – that’s the nature of God.  The relationship between God and mankind is often compared to a parent child relationship as it denotes love and commitment, as well as that of a teacher to a student.  A question may be asked not because the teacher doesn’t know the answer, but because the teacher wants the student to figure it out and learn something in the process.  Similarly, the God Mind may appear to be influenced in the Torah narrative, but perhaps we might consider that the idea of man influencing the God Mind is also a manifestation of the illusion of free will, and is merely a parental teaching strategy.

It is easy to be disillusioned by the idea that our free will doesn’t really exist in the way that best champions our independence, but does it really matter?  Just because God knows the choice, doesn’t mean that the choice isn’t ours, and just because our actions our pre-ordained, doesn’t mean God doesn’t take pleasure in the good choices of human beings.  The most successful students are the ones who are encouraged to keep asking questions, challenge established rules and find their own pathways of learning.  And of course, successful students make very proud teachers.

Shabbat Shalom,

Wed, August 12 2020 22 Av 5780