On Stephen Hawking, Leviticus and the Search for Divinity

Stephen Hawking died nearly two weeks ago, at the age of 76. His passing leaves a black-hole sized void in the world of science, but his legacy will surely endure. Dr. Hawking sought to answer the most elemental questions about the nature of life and existence. He plumbed the vast darkness of the universe and probed deep into a world thought to be inscrutable, only to find fragments of intelligibility and meaning. He was a seeker, and he was nothing if not driven to discover the truths hidden within the cosmos above.

Since the beginning of civilization, humanity has been preoccupied with the search for these very same truths: How did the universe begin? What is the source of life? And why are we here? For some, these questions are materialist in nature. But for others, they overlap with our search for God, and with our yearning to find Divinity in a world where it is so often hidden.

Humanity’s pressing desire to draw near to God is on full display in our Torah this week, as continue our trek through the book of Vayikra, or Leviticus. Arguably one of the most enigmatic books of our Torah, Leviticus focuses on the service of the Temple and the ways in which our people will become a holy nation. The medium through which that sanctity can be obtained and preserved is the practice of sacrificial worship.

Leviticus doesn’t shy away from violence or gore or carnage; on the contrary, we read about priests “pinching off birds’ heads,”[1] dipping their fingers in the blood of slain beasts, and digging out the entrails of animals brought for sacrifice. Leviticus, we learn, traffics in the graphic physiology of sacrifice quite unapologetically. The narrative, thus, lives in this vivid, messy, invigorating world straddling life and death, a world marked by the presence of blood and innards; a world heightened by the constant reminder of life’s fragility. Such is the world of the ancient sacrificial system: raw, visceral, uncompromising, and yet utterly and completely humbling and genuine.

As alien as all this sounds, Leviticus exemplifies some of the most profound examples of Divine Encounter that we ever witness in our Torah. The sacrificial system gives our people the most magnificent opportunity to commune with God. Whether they are offering gifts or expressing gratitude; whether they have sinned, intentionally or inadvertently, our ancestors have a path for not only communion, but also, if the need presents itself, for restoration and repair. Their God, once unknowable, untouchable, and invisible, is now accessible through ritual and rite. This is a God who enjoys the “reyach nichoach,” the pleasing smell that arises from the sacrifices. This is a God who can be sated by a sacrificial bull or a meal offering. In this system, our ancestors know what God desired and, most gratifyingly, they can provide.

In so many ways, Leviticus represents an astounding harnessing of the Divine. Our people, so yearning for connection and meeting, are granted this intimacy in the form of sacrifice. In fact, the Hebrew word for sacrifice, KORBAN, comes from the root meaning “to draw near,” or “bring close.” What our ancestors attempted with this system of sacrifice was to lasso the essence of God from above and pull God near, as near as the breath of the animal placed on the altar. Reflective of our constant search to understand and know and be near to God, our people engaged in this deeply grounded and elemental form of worship. Amidst the smoke and carcasses, and the chaos and cacophony that define this book, God abides! And God is near.

But where is God now? We very often struggle in our search for the Divine, one day drawing so close and the next, drifting so far. We stumble reaching for an unknowable, invisible God. And yet, we persist in our search, because we long for meaning, and we yearn for truth.

In his seminal work, “A Brief History of Time,” Dr. Hawking wrote, “if we do discover a complete theory” of the universe…then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of why it is that we and the universe exist…If we find the answer to that,” he continued, “it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we would know the mind of God.”[2]

Stephen Hawking never did discover a complete theory of everything. He died, still searching for the true nature of existence, still yearning to determine the universe’s grand design. He was a passionate student of cosmology and physics, compelled to discover the workings of the earth so that we could someday tame the transcendent and understand that which exists beyond the scope of human perception.

Stephen Hawking’s life was a series of questions and answers and then, always more questions. He never stopped asking “Why?” He never stopped searching for “How?” And we mustn’t either.

And so, as we sit with our worries and our doubts, our hopes and our fears, I hope we may we heed the famous advice Dr. Hawking was wont to dispense. He would say:

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the Universe exist. Be curious.”[3]

Here’s to always looking up and seeing into infinity.

[1] Lev. 1:14

[2] Hawking, Stephen, 1942-2018. A Brief History of Time. New York :Bantam Books, 1998. Print.

[3] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/490245-remember-to-look-up-at-the-stars-and-not-down, retrieved March 26, 2018.

About the Author
Sara Sapadin is a rabbi and mother of four. Ordained by HUC-JIR, Sara currently serves Temple Emanu-El in New York City as an Adjunct Rabbi. Sara has written for a number of Jewish publications and is also a proud contributor to The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate (CCAR Press).
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