Josh Feigelson
President & CEO, Institute for Jewish Spirituality

Pinchas 5783: The World in a Grain of Sand

Obtained under creative Commons license

One of the clearest moments of spiritual awakening in my life happened just before our second child, Micah, was born. I was in shul listening to a guest sermon by my teacher, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, on his idea that every people can have its own covenantal relationship with God. An important—and, then and now, somewhat controversial—idea, but that wasn’t what I focused on.

Listening to Yitz, a related awareness arose in me: Natalie and I loved our only child, Jonah, infinitely. Yet I knew that when Micah was born, we’d love him just as much. Somehow, in a way that made total sense emotionally and zero sense mathematically, I knew that our hearts were capable of expanding in this phenomenal way, and that we would love both of these children with a limitless expansiveness. (Theologically speaking, it then became fairly straightforward: If humans can do that, how much more so the Infinite One.) Something clicked.

I thought of this moment this week as I read about the major new finding in astrophysics: “a low-pitch hum of gravitational waves reverberating across the universe,” as the Times put it. “Scientists strongly suspect that these gravitational waves are the collective echo of pairs of supermassive black holes — thousands of them, some as massive as a billion suns, sitting at the hearts of ancient galaxies up to 10 billion light-years away — as they slowly merge and generate ripples in space-time.”

Writing about this news in The Atlantic, astrophysicist Adam Frank shared some rather spiritual reflections: “Something miraculous—something wonderful—is happening right under our noses. Actually, it’s happening to our noses, and the rest of our bodies as well. Every gravitational wave in that background… is humming through the very constitution of the space you inhabit right now. Every proton and neutron in every atom from the tip of your toes to the top of your head is shifting, shuttling, and vibrating in a collective purr within which the entire history of the universe is implicated. And if you put your hand down on a chair or table or anything else nearby, that object, too, is dancing that slow waltz.”

Frank helps us to personalize the significance of this news, which I’ll summarize as: All that stuff we religion/spirituality types have been teaching for so long about cosmic interconnection and, in a profound way, being “on the same wavelength?” In case you needed scientific evidence for it, now you’ve got it. Frank puts it beautifully: “All of a sudden, we know that we are humming in tune with the entire universe, that each of us contains the signature of everything that has ever been. It’s all within us, around us, pushing us to and fro as we hurtle through the cosmos.”

Parashat Pinchas brings us one of the most poignant moments in the Torah, when the Holy One tells Moses that his time is near an end—he needs to get ready to die. Moses pleads with God, “Let YHVH, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that YHVH’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd” (Num. 27:16-17). God tells him to invest Joshua as the leader of the people.

Moses here uses an unusual phrase to refer to the Divine: Elohei haruchot l’chol basar, rendered by JPS as “source of breath of all flesh.” Rashi asks an obvious question: Why not use the more economical “Lord of all flesh?” Why insert the reference to ruach, breath or spirit? Quoting the Midrash Tanhuma, he explains that Moses was gesturing at the idea that “the personality of each person is revealed to you; no two are alike. Appoint over them a leader who will tolerate each person according to their individual character.”

This brings us back to my moment of spiritual insight as an expectant parent: Learning/innately knowing how to not only tolerate, but to embrace and love, the uniqueness of my children. We are capable, it seems, of doing that on a small scale—within individual relationships, families, extended families, maybe even communities. Moses’s concern is that of a leader of multitudes, a group far beyond the ability of a regular human heart-mind to know deeply each individual. For that, he needs to appeal to the supernatural. (If you’re looking for a more contemporary political philosophy take on this, check out Benedict Anderson’s notion of “imagined communities.”)

Yet while we finite beings may not be able to relate to each person, much less each aspect of the cosmos, in its fullness, one of the purposes of Jewish spiritual practice is to help us resist our natural tendency to narrow and even collapse our field of experience into that which is right in front of us. As our tradition teaches, we are constantly leaving Egypt, mitzrayim, the place of constriction—every day, in every moment. That’s why we do all this: to attune our awareness to the expansiveness of our relationships, our world, our hearts, and the cosmos itself.

As happens almost every year, our reading of Parashat Pinchas coincides with the 17th of Tammuz, the beginning of the three-weeks leading up to the 9th of Av, a period known as bein hametzarim: the time of constriction. It’s a period that can be linked to the seven weeks that follow the 9th of Av, through the month of Elul into Rosh Hashanah and the fall holidays. I find that every year, it’s a time for me to focus on how these dynamics of narrowness and expansiveness, the finite and the infinite, work in my own life—and in our lives in general. As I do every year, I’ll contemplate the miraculous ability of the heart’s capacity to expand. Perhaps this year, we might all tap into a deeper awareness that the universe itself seems to be pulsating with a life force—and perhaps, through doing so, we can uncover new dimensions of the cosmos that is the human heart.

About the Author
Rabbi Josh Feigelson, PhD is President & CEO of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. He is the author of "Eternal Questions: Reflections, Conversations, and Jewish Mindfulness Practices for the Weekly Torah Portion" (Ben Yehuda Press, 2022) and the host of the podcast, "Soulful Jewish Living: Mindful Practices for Every Day," a co-production of Unpacked and the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.
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