“Having This Conversation” Acharei Mot / Kedoshim 5779

How often have we heard that opposites attract? Whether searching for a partner (chavruta) with whom to learn Torah or for a potential spouse, we are often told to seek a different point of view. There is one field in which opposites always attract and that is in nuclear physics. An atom is comprised of positively-charged protons and negatively-charged electrons. The electrons orbit around the protons, attracted by their opposite charge. One day I had an epiphany: How can an atom ever have more than one proton in its nucleus? Shouldn’t the protons repel each other? Something called the “Strong Nuclear Force” prevents this from happening. At extremely close distances – less than one quadrillionth of a metre – this attractive force is greater than the repulsive (Coulomb) force that the protons feel from their neighbouring protons, so the protons bind tightly inside the nucleus. Without the Strong Nuclear Force, protons would indeed repel each other. The only element that would exist in the universe would be the element with only one proton – hydrogen. If the Strong Nuclear Force did not exist, we would not be having this conversation.

The existence of the Strong Nuclear Force is an example of the “Anthropic Principal”, a set of “scientific coincidences” that have enabled human life to exist on planet earth. They are the “just-so-happens” that if they did not happen, then we would not be having this conversation. Here is another example: Let’s return to our protons. A proton is exactly 1836 times the size of an electron. And yet, the positive electrical charge of the proton is exactly the same as the negative electrical charge of the miniscule electron. If the proton and electron each had an electric charge relative to their size, the same way that gravitational force is relative to an object’s mass, then we would not be having this conversation.

Now for one last example. Until about 66 million years ago, dinosaurs ruled the earth. Dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus Rex had the speed, agility, and ferocity to defeat any species that ever roamed the earth, including humans. One day, a massive meteor, between ten and fifteen kilometres wide, crashed into the earth. The impact devastated the environment, causing shock waves, fires, and tsunamis. It threw tons of dust into the air, blotting out the sun and causing temperatures to plummet. Every dinosaur died. Had that meteor missed the earth, then human beings could never have survived. In the words of Luis Alvarez, the Nobel Laureate who, together with his son, fathered the theory of dinosaur extinction, “From our human point of view, that impact was one of the most important single events in the history of our planet.  Had it not taken place, the largest mammals alive today might still resemble the rat-like creatures that were then scurrying around trying to avoid being devoured by dinosaurs.” Had the meteor taken a slightly different trajectory, we would not be having this conversation. Alvarez continues, “If the impact had been weaker, no species would have become extinct; the mammals would still be subordinate to the dinosaurs, and I [Alvarez] wouldn’t be writing this article.  If the impact had been stronger, all life on this planet would have ceased, and again, I wouldn’t be writing this article.  That tells me that the impact must have been of just the right strength [to ensure that] the mammals survived, while the dinosaurs didn’t.

There are two ways of looking at the Anthropic Principle. The Weak Anthropic Principle asserts that the “accidents” that enabled our existence all occurred, well, accidentally. The only way the universe could have evolved was in the way that it did evolve. It is completely unremarkable. The Strong Anthropic Principle posits that the chances of everything working out so perfectly are too small to be attributed to chance. There had to have been a guiding hand. A religious person would add that this guiding hand belongs to G-d[1]. In order to create this corporeal world, certain conditions had to be met: complex elements had to exist, electrons and protons had to have the same charge, and dinosaurs could not walk the earth forever. G-d created the laws of nature to support His universe. In the words of the Zohar, the foundation of Jewish mystical thought, “G-d looked at the Torah and created the world”.

Both Parashat Acharei Mot and Parashat Kedoshim[2] contain numerous commandments and both parshiot end with a similar warning. At the end of Parashat Acharei Mot we are told [Vayikra 18:24-25] “You shall not defile yourselves by any of these things, for the nations, whom I am sending away from before you, have defiled themselves with all these things. The land became defiled… and [it] vomited out its inhabitants.” Parashat Kedoshim ends on a similar note [Vayikra 20:22]: “Observe all My statutes and ordinances, and fulfill them, then the Land, to which I am bringing you to dwell therein, will not vomit you out.” The Torah describes a causal relationship: sinning will inevitably lead to ejection from the land. Whether the land is inhabited by the Canaanites, the Amorites, or the Israelites is inconsequential. The ArtScroll Stone Chumash makes an observation: The warning in Parashat Acharei Mot is preceded by a short preface [Vayikra 18:3]: “Like the practice of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelled, you shall not do, and like the practice of the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you, you shall not do”. Here’s the thing: While it seems that the Egyptians and the Canaanites were guilty of similar sins, only the Canaanites were ejected from their land as a result. The Land of Egypt was unaffected by the sins of the Egyptians. Why?

Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveichik, the leader of U.S. Orthodox Jewry in the twentieth century, said in a talk he gave in Boston in 1972, “Exile from the Land of Israel is not a punishment per se, it is a natural consequence of sin. The land does not tolerate sinful people just as the body naturally rejects foreign tissue. The Holy Land can only accept Holiness”. Rabbi Soloveichik is extrapolating the Anthropic Principle by proposing an even stronger version: Just as the universe was created in a way that could support physical life, just as planet earth was created in a way that could support human life, the Land of Israel was created in a way that could support spiritual life. “G-d looked at the Torah and created the world”.

A Jew must recite the Shema prayer twice a day. The second chapter of the Shema includes a warning [Devarim 11:13-14]: “It will be, if you listen to My commandments that I command you this day… I will give the rain of your land at its time… you will gather in your grain, wine, and oil.” The Land of Israel has three primary sources of water: the Sea of Galilee and the Samarian and Coastal Aquifers. All three are fed by rainwater. If it does not rain then Israel has no water. Israel has suffered from sub-average rainfall for the past twenty years but the past five years have been devastating. By last October, the water level in the Sea of Galilee had fallen precariously close to the “Black Line”, below the intake pipes of the water pumps that send the lake’s water to the Israeli water network. Were it not for desalination technology, Israel would have been forced to ration water. But this year was completely different – it just didn’t stop raining. Nearly the entire country received at least its yearly average of rainfall and most places had twenty-five percent more rain than usual. In Moreshet, we received more than two thirds more than our yearly average. The Sea of Galilee has already risen by more than three metres and as the snow in the Golan Heights melts, it will rise even higher.

Three weeks ago, I went with my family to Nachal Farod, a seasonal stream near Safed. Typically, Nachal Farod is wet – perhaps “moist” is a better word – for about six weeks each year. This year it has been a raging river for more than four months. Over the course of one hour, we saw rapids, thundering waterfalls, and pools in which a person could bathe. There was a holiday atmosphere. People were laughing and playing in the water. I took a picture of a Hasidic youth in full garb standing directly under a waterfall.

It was impossible not to see G-d.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Shoshana.

[1] Professor Nathan Aviezer, a physicist at Bar Ilan university, has written extensively on the topic of the Anthropic Principle and the believing Jew, see for example https://jewishaction.com/science-technology/the-anthropic-principle/

[2] Because the 8th day of Pesach fell on Shabbat, there is now a one-week lag between the parshiot read in Israel and in the Diaspora that will not be closed until August. This Shabbat, the Israelis will read Parashat Kedoshim while the Diasporans will read Parashat Acharei Mot.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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