In this week’s parshah, Nitzavim, Moshe offered us a unique covenant with the God of the universe. HaShem would be our Elohim and we would be His people. But there were caveats. We would have to follow the rules, not bow down to idols, etc., and we would be cursed even if we thought of peace while stubbornly refusing to keep all of the commandments. (Deuteronomy 29:16-19)
We were not always good children. In Deuteronomy 32:5-6, we were called corrupt, blemished, crooked, perverse, foolish, and unwise. Moshe knew what kind of a people we were, stubborn and sometimes arrogant. So he predicted our ultimate punishment of being dispersed to the end of the earth. Yet HaShem promised to one day have mercy on us and bring us back to our homeland.
Yet life here is not all milk and honey. The hardship of Israeli life is making some of us second-guess our long term residence in the Jewish State. Only 74 percent of Israeli Jews believe that Israel will still be here a hundred years from now and some 14 percent are considering leaving the country because of economic hardship. The good news is that 82 percent of Israeli Jews still identify as Zionists. This would make Moshe a little proud because there is still hope that all of us will someday come home.
If Moshe were alive today, he would still consider us a rebellious lot. A whopping 41.5 percent of Israeli Jews identify as secular. What exactly is a secular Israeli Jew? We are defined by the Israeli culture and Hebrew language. We might observe such wonderfully Jewish activities as Israeli holidays and enjoying the many kosher restaurants in Jerusalem. Many of us don’t personally identify with any major Jewish group in general or the strict keeping of religious rules in particular. But we raised our children Jewish and we still have a lot of pride in Israel, the IDF, and Moshe.
We might consider Albert Einstein just as inspired as Moshe or even more so depending on the context of the conversation and what kind of truth was being discussed. Yet many of us still love to discuss Judaism because deep down inside that’s who we really are. We would defend to the death an observant friend’s many rituals, and when we retire, many of us hope to have the time to be more observant again.
By definition, Jews are closely associated with religion. According to a recent poll conducted by Dr. Camil Fuchs, over 70 percent of Israeli Jews still believe in God. Just who or what God is might require further definition for most of us. We want to believe in a God of infinite mercy, not one who would curse us for the smallest infraction. We prefer a God who wrote the mathematical laws of nature and then sat back as the universe evolved according to His rules. Of course, any help He could give us would be appreciated.
Making images of HaShem is forbidden, but too many people can’t shake the fictitious image of the judgmental old man in the sky. We recoil from the image of an angry God. Albert Einstein, arguably the most famous Jewish scientist of all time, could not comprehend a God who punishes His creatures. He saw anthropomorphisms as childish analogies, and yet he recognized reason manifest in nature.
Einstein articulated our modern concept of God so well in an interview published in 1930:
The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe. We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that sways the constellations.
Yet the Torah speaks of a personal God, one intimately involved in the welfare of the whole house of Jacob. The haftarah for this week includes Isaiah 62:11-12, which speaks of HaShem proclaiming to the end of the earth that the daughter of Zion will be called a holy people. Deuteronomy 30:4 goes so far as to say that if any of HaShem’s people are dispersed to the end of heaven, from there He would gather us to Eretz-Israel.
What is meant by the end of the earth or the end of heaven? It was thought in those days that if someone sailed far enough out to sea, he would just fall off the end of the world. In a similar way, as heavenly bodies like the planet Mars traverse the sky, they seem to disappear at the end of heaven at the point where heaven and earth meet at the horizon. Even from the very end of heaven HaShem promised to gather us again to Eretz-Israel.
Sheyna Gifford is a doctor and astrophysics researcher. She is also Jewish. On August 28, she started a year-long simulated mission to Mars with a field biologist, fluid physicist, astrobiologist, spacecraft engineer, and a space architect in a 36-foot-wide geodesic dome called the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) habitat. Sheyna and the rest of the team will be doing cutting edge scientific research on effective team composition and support strategies for mankind’s first trip to Mars.
Will we ever see Mars traverse the sky to the end of heaven at the horizon while Sheyna is there on mankind’s first mission to the Red Planet? Sheyna hopes so. Then HaShem would indeed have the opportunity to gather one of His own from the end of heaven to Eretz-Israel. Sheyna, go and come home. Make us proud. Godspeed, Sheyna. Godspeed.
Yoeli’s Mandate: Leave your mark, make a difference for the good, and do your part to make sure that they never again devour Jacob or make his habitation waste.
You may write to Eli Kaufman at firstname.lastname@example.org