Shabbat Parshat Beshalach - 5760
The One Who Said to His Universe, "Enough!"
Hashem has many Names. In fact, that reminds me of a joke. Once, an IBM Systems Engineer went out on call to Tibet, where one of their mainframes (this joke is from the 70's; hence, the jargon may have changed) was being used by a group of Buddhist Monks to print out the Names of god. They felt that once all the names of god had been printed, the Universe would have achieved its purpose, and would come to an end. They also seemed to believe that they were close to the end of this task - but the machine had, perhaps not wishing to be responsible for the end of the Universe, "gone down."
The IBM employee felt a little foolish because of the nature of his mission, but he had been told by his management just to get the job done - customer satisfaction and all that! - so he'd hired a team of native guides and they reached the summit of the mountain, and he'd gone to work. He quickly finished his repair and wished the customers success with their project and began to head down the mountain. But as he went down, he noticed that the guides were looking excitedly at the sky. He looked up and he saw that the stars were, very definitely, one by one, going out
Both the Parshah this Shabbat and the Haftarah feature occurrences which involve the destruction of enemies of the People of Israel, in the case of the Parshah, the army of the Pharaoh of Egypt, in the case of the Haftarah, the army of Sisera, by bodies of water. In the case of the Parshah, it was the Yam Suf; in the case of the Haftarah, it was the Brook of Kishon. These bodies had temporarily been released from the limitation imposed upon them by G-d when he said to His Universe, in defining the Laws of Nature and delineating the boundaries of the Seas, and which He repeated emphatically to them after the Great Flood, "Enough!" This is the Name we know of as "Shin Dalet Yud," "Shakai," where the "d" is replaced by the "k" purposely, not to write out the Name of G-d in His aspect of constraining Nature to obey fixed laws, bringing order out of chaos, for a non-ritual purpose.
Like the IBM customers, I think we may be approaching a limit of sorts. King Solomon writes in Megilat Kohelet as an example of things that cannot be known by Man, "As you do not know the direction of the wind, and as you do not know anything concerning the bones of the fetus in a pregnant woman, etc." (Kohelet 11:5) But now we have the (imperfect, but not bad and improving) science of Meteorology as far as the wind, and any number of X-Ray type methods of learning about a fetus!
In Kiddush Levanah, we say, as it were, to the Moon; really of course to its Creator, "As I dance before you but cannot touch you, so may my enemies not be able to harm me!" Now, although we are still "capable of" losing a Martian Lander, we have demonstrated time after time, that the moon is no longer beyond our physical grasp!
And although we are still "capable of" being laid low by a lowly mosquito, and being reduced to a vegetable by certain diseases, it has been said, not without a certain degree of hubris, but nevertheless somewhat accurately that by the middle of the next (actually, the current) century, if the pace of advance of medical knowledge continues as at present, and assuming the successful completion of the human genome project (what that means exactly is not really clear to me, but I think I understand the basic idea), the practice of medicine will change radically. From a discipline based on diagnosis and prescription of appropriate pharmaceuticals or invasive procedure, it will become, perhaps with the diagnosis still in place, but now an exercise in "gene therapy;" that is, "tinkering" with the appropriate gene to accomplish the cure.
The human being was commanded long ago not to eat from the "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, for on the day that you eat from it, you will die." (Bereshit 2:17) After Adam and Chava "sinned" by eating from the fruit of that tree, Parshat Bereshit pictures L-rd G-d saying "So now, that the human being has become like one of 'us,' lest he stretch forth his hand and take also from the Tree of Life, and eat from it, and live forever!" But it seems that the Tree of Knowledge may have been enough to enable humanity in the long run of time (which on the other hand, for G-d is less than an instant), to identify the secret of the "Malach HaMavet,: the Angel of Death; namely, the gene responsible for aging. So that now he may attempt to negate its function - and perhaps, just perhaps, live forever - wouldn't that be ridiculous!
In this Year of 5760 since "Creation" we are already close to the Year 6000, and if we are really past Year 5920, according to the likely error in historical dating mentioned in a previous essay, we are even closer - it appears that humanity is not far from realizing its full intellectual potential, which is to understand and to some extent "control" the Laws of Nature. (This may sound more than slightly ridiculous when we are still getting clobbered by hurricanes and floods and assorted other phenomena of nature) but was that not in fact the job that Hashem gave Original Man "Be fruitful and multiply, fill the Earth, and conquer it?!" (Bereshit 1:28)
But now, what?
I think it is time, or far past time that we put back the slip of paper which says "Bishvili nivra haolam," "The world was created for me," into our pocket, and take out the "other slip of paper," the one which according to the Kotzker says, "Veanochi afar veefer," "I am but dust and ashes." (Bereshit 18:27)
Humanity may have come a long way in unraveling the secrets of nature, but it is very questionable whether it has done so when it comes to the study of Torah. The Talmud is called a sea; the sea is just a metaphor, but it is a metaphor which suggests great depth and mystery and presence of unknown treasures. And even though we live in the Age of the Alvin, and other submersibles, we have only begun to probe the depths of the sea. We are instructed by the Torah Scholar named, or nick-named ben Bag-Bag to dive in and explore, and do it again, "to turn it over and turn it over yet again, for everything is in it." (Pirkei Avot 5:26)
We are beginning to come to the point where humanity turns to the study of Torah, ready to appreciate and respond to its true depth. Just a few more cycles of the "Daf Yomi," the Daily Study of a Page of the Talmud, and other great Torah and "Midot," Ethics, "Kiruv," bringing those who are "far" from Yiddishkeit "closer," "Teshuvah K'lali," Communal Repentance, and "Ahavat Yisrael," Love of our Fellow Jew and "Ahavat Eretz Yisrael," Love of the Land of Israel Projects, and the Jewish People will have, with G-d's help re-defined itself, into a spiritually mighty force. Then the Prophecy will take hold and accelerate and the world will begin to become "full of the knowledge of Hashem as the waters cover the bed of the sea." (Yeshayahu 11:9)
Rabbi Pinchas Frankel
Rabbi Frankel is an Educational Coordinator at the OU