Part of my Shabbat morning ritual is reading the New Yorker. While on most mornings there’s a lot of hustle and bustle in the house as we get kids out the door and ourselves ready for work, on Shabbat we’re able to be expansive—a necessary precondition to reading long-form articles (that is, reading them in a way that leaves one feeling satisfied rather than breathless).
A couple of weeks ago, my Shabbat morning encounter with the magazine led me into reading an article by Stephen Witt about the amazing advances taking place quantum physics. I could write a separate column about the optimism it inspired in me, a reminder that, in the face of painful prognoses on the climate (or anything else), many futures are still possible. But for our purposes today, what most struck me was the description of a quantum phenomenon known as entanglement. Here’s how Witt describes it:
Imagine that you and a friend flip two entangled quarters, without looking at the results. The outcome of the coin flips will be determined only when you peek at the coins. If you inspect your quarter, and see that it came up heads, your friend’s quarter will automatically come up tails. If your friend looks and sees that her quarter shows heads, your quarter will now show tails. This property holds true no matter how far you and your friend travel from each other. If you were to travel to Germany—or to Jupiter—and look at your quarter, your friend’s quarter would instantaneously reveal the opposite result.
This is a mind-bending theory, one that was so unreasonable that Einstein rejected it. How could it be that two particles, separated by potentially infinite space, could share this relationship of instantaneous, faster-than-the-speed-of-light interconnection?! Our minds seemingly aren’t built to comprehend the idea. But ultimately entanglement has proven to be true. John Clauser, who first proved the theory in the lab in the early 1970s and won the Nobel Prize for his work this year, said decades later: “I confess even to this day that I still don’t understand quantum mechanics.”
In a bit of entanglement-inspired coincidence, my dear friend, colleague, and rabbi, Ari Hart, talked about this same article in his sermon in shul last week, using it to help illuminate the meaning of miracles at Hannukah. My mind went in a slightly different direction, towards a line in Judah’s speech to Joseph during Parashat Vayigash. As you’ll recall, Judah speaks passionately to Joseph (whom he does not yet know is Joseph) about how the brothers’ travails in Egypt will affect their father. He tells Joseph of Jacob’s reluctance to send Benjamin on their journey, how Jacob is still traumatized by the losses of Rachel and Joseph, and how the thought of losing Benjamin has driven Jacob to the point of despondency.
In describing the relationship between Jacob and Benjamin, Judah utters a strikingly beautiful phrase: “Now, if I come back to your servant, my father, and the boy is not with us—v’nafsho keshura b’nafsho, and his soul is bound up with his soul—when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will send the white head of your servant our father down to Sheol in grief.” (Gen. 44:30-31). In subsequent rabbinic writing, the phrase appears, unsurprisingly, in discussions of relationships: between friends, spouses, masters and disciples. At heart, the question driving many of these discussions seems to be, how can we understand that two people can be separate beings and yet so deeply intertwined that their lives are, not only seemingly but in essence, entangled like quantum particles? It’s not hard to believe Judah: If something were to happen to Benjamin, Jacob would know, and he would be deeply and instantaneously affected. (Of course, this also raises question: Presuming that Jacob and Joseph were similarly entangled, how is it that Jacob isn’t aware that Joseph is alive? Or perhaps he is? As we say in the rabbi business: That’s for another sermon.)
To me, this line feels like the heart of the Joseph story, or perhaps the whole narrative of Genesis, the central question of which is, in a poetic way, about this phenomenon of entanglement. Whether they are twins from the same womb (Jacob and Esau), full siblings (Cain and Abel), or half-siblings born of different mothers (Isaac and Ishmael; Jacob’s children), cousin relations (Abraham and Lot; Jacob and Lavan), or people bonded outside of familial relations (the patriarchs and matriarchs who become entangled by marriage; the diplomatic/friendship relationships of Abraham and Avimelech and Abraham and the Hittites), how do people understand and experience their bonds? What are their—our—responsibilities to one another? What is the shape of our entanglements?
Not infrequently, I find that these questions, in one form or another, come up during my practice, whether it’s meditation or prayer or Torah study or exercising ongoing mindful awareness in my day-to-day life. Whom do I prioritize with my time and attention? How do I take note of the sensations that arise in me when different relationships are at the center of my awareness? How do I mindfully show up for the people—in my nuclear family, my extended family, my workplace, my community, our shared habitat of the planet—with whom I’m entangled? For me, and likely for you as well, these are the questions that come up again and again. They are why we practice.