Ari Sacher
Ari Sacher

‘Something from Nothing’ Parashat Devarim 5781

One week before his death, Moshe recalls a time forty years earlier in which he was spending too much time judging the people and not nearly enough time teaching them. It was clear that he required assistance. He told the people that they had grown in number and that while their large population was a blessing, nevertheless [Devarim 1:9] “I cannot bear the burden of you by myself.” Moshe then proceeds to bless them [Devarim 1:10-11]: “G-d has multiplied you until you are today like the stars in the sky. May the G-d of your fathers increase your numbers a thousandfold, and bless you as He spoke to you.”

Rashi, the most famous of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, asks what Moshe was adding when he asked G-d to bless them “as he promised [them]”. Rashi answers, “They said to him, ‘Moshe, you are setting a limit to our blessings (only a thousand times)! G-d has already made a boundless promise to Abraham [Bereishit 13:16] ‘… if one can count [the dust of the earth, then can thy seed also be counted]’! Moshe replied to them: ‘This (a thousand times) is from me (it is my blessing); but may He bless you even as He has spoken concerning you!’” Many of Rashi’s supercommentators[1] comment that his answer is problematic in that he is not actually answering the question. The problem at hand was that Moshe’s blessing was too small, essentially limiting G-d’s blessing. G-d had already promised to make the Jewish People “like the dust of the earth” while Moshe had blessed them only that they grow one thousand times larger than their current size. Scientists calculated about one hundred years ago that one cubic centimetre of air contains about 13,000 dust particles. Assuming that the volume of the atmosphere is 4.2 billion cubic kilometres, or 4.2 septillion cubic centimetres, this means that the atmosphere contains about 55 octillion particles of dust. Compare this to Moshe’s blessing of one thousand times their current population of 600,000, or a total of six hundred million. The two numbers are not even close. What, then, according to Rashi, does Moshe’s blessing add? It would have been a better idea to just go straight to G-d’s blessing. The supercommentators offer an array of answers, the most common of which is that G-d’s blessing was constrained by the performance of the Jewish People while Moshe’s blessing was not. That is to say, while G-d’s blessing was much more bountiful than Moshe’s, it is contingent upon the adherence of the Jewish People to the Torah. Moshe’s blessing, while perhaps less bountiful, had no such strings attached. His blessing would come to fruition regardless of their behaviour.

Rabbi Shmuel Shemarya Heine, who lived in Ostrovtza, Poland, in the nineteenth century shines new light on the differences between Moshe’s blessing and G-d’s blessing. Writing in “Zichron Shmuel”, Rabbi Heine begins his explanation with the well-known verse [Psalms 121:1]: “I turn my eyes to the mountains; from where (me’ayin) will my help come?” Rabbi Heine, noting that the word “ayin” can mean “where” but it can also mean “nothing”, completely reinterprets the verse, not as a rhetorical question but as a resounding statement: My help will come from nothing. Rabbi Heine explains: As the entire universe was created “yesh m’ayin” – ex nihilo – man must therefore internalize that his existence comes from nothing. In a similar way, Rabbi Heine reinterprets the Mishnah in Ethics of the Fathers [3:1] “Know from where (me’ayin) you have come” as “Know that you have come from nothing”.  Once a person comes to the realization that he owes his entire existence to G-d, his perspective undergoes a seminal change: “When man realizes that he lives in a world that comes from nothing, he understands… that he lives above mere luck (mazal)”.

At this point, our interpretation diverges from Rabbi Heine’s. While he takes a more Kabbalistic approach, we will take a more scientific approach. Ex nihilo creation is a concept that we take for granted, a concept that we believe we fully comprehend, a concept we already understood as children. “Something from Nothing” is a book that my wife and I used to read to our children when they were young. It is a modern adaptation of a well-known Jewish folktale that describes how a blanket a grandfather had made for his grandson is transformed over the years into a jacket, a button, and, ultimately, a story. Where is the difficulty here?

Biologists agree that life is created from microscopic gametes. In order to understand ex nihilo creation, all we have to do is to extrapolate just a little further: At first, nothing existed, then G-d said “Let there be light”, and then, presto, there was light. Some religious scientists associate this process with the Big Bang Theory, using scripture as evidence that the Torah and modern science can live together in perfect harmony. The problem with this explanation is that it is inexact. Before the Big Bang, the universe, as we know it, was highly compressed, very dense, and very hot[2]. At the moment of the “Big Bang”, the universe exploded and quickly began to expand and cool. But even according to this theory, the universe began with well-defined initial physical conditions, albeit extremely small. The Big Bang Theory does not describe ex nihilo creation, it describes transformation of existing matter from one state into another Let’s try looking from another direction: Albert Einstein proved that matter and energy are transformable such that . But even Einstein requires raw material, be it matter or energy. “Something from nothing” is an impossibility – unless G-d lends a hand.

With this background, we can understand that Moshe’s blessing and G-d’s blessing were completely different. Moshe blessed the Jewish People so as to grow from six hundred thousand to six hundred million. G-d blessed them so as to grow from 600,000 to 55 octillion, for all intents and purposes, from nothing to something. This explanation fits very well into the language of scripture. Moshe asks G-d to bless them “as He spoke to you (lachem)”. In another location[3], Rashi translates the word “lachem” as “lehana’at’chem” – “for your benefit”. When did G-d speak for their benefit? While Rashi indicates that this happened when G-d promised Abraham that he would make his children “like the dust of the earth”, I suggest that there was another such instance. In this particular instance, G-d truly made something from nothing. At the moment of creation. G-d spoke, and the universe came into existence [Bereishit 1:3] “G-d said ‘Let there be light’ and there was light”. At that moment, G-d blessed mankind with the wonder of creation ex nihilo. Moshe asks G-d to continue blessing the Jewish People with this miraculous blessing, each and every day.

This explanation can also elucidate what appears to be a problem in Rashi. When Moshe tells the Jewish People that they are “as the stars in the sky”, Rashi comments, “But were they that day as the stars in the sky? Were they not, indeed, only six hundred thousand? What, then, is the meaning of ‘you are today’? It means: You may be compared to the day (the sun), existing forever just as the sun and the moon and the stars”. According to Rashi, Moshe is not speaking quantitatively – he is speaking qualitatively. If so, why does he not compare the Jewish People to the sun or to the moon? Rabbi Heine would suggest that the difference between the sun, the moon, and the stars is that while the sun and the moon, as seen from earth, are two-dimensional disks[4], stars are one dimensional points. Mathematically speaking, a point is the smallest object in the universe. A point is as close as one can get to non-existence without actually being there. By comparing the Jewish People to stars, Moshe is reminding them that their mere existence is an incomprehensible miracle. Just as G-d created something from nothing, He could turn now into forever. And “forever” should be just enough time for us to get our heads around the miracle of our own existence.

Shabbat Shalom and have a meaningful fast,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, Iris bat Chana, and Yosef Binyamin ben Rochel Leah.

[1] A supercommentary is a commentary on Rashi’s commentary. Famous supercommentaries include the commentary of Rav Eliyahu Mizachi, the Gur Aryeh, the Levush Ora, and the Siftei Chachamim (actually a collection of supercommentaries).

[2] Stephen Hawking, in “A Brief History of Time”, discusses a singularity that existed before the Big Bang, “thought to have contained all the energy and space time of the Universe”.

[3] Bereishit [12:1]

[4] Remarkably, the sun and the moon, as seen from earth, have the same radius. See our shiur on Bereishit 5777.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. 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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