Parasha Tetzaveh

by Morris Rabinko

March 27, 2021

Twilight Zone Clock

You are about to enter another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead – Your next stop” . . . my drash.

Imagine, if you will, a rock in the middle of the ocean. Its name – Oʻahu. And imagine that by some strange twist of fate, three unrelated individuals, each a generation apart, find their way to this rock from thousands of miles away from a place we call – “New York,” a place with more than 2,000 high schools, but as it turns out, our three individuals attended the very same high school, a high school named the Bronx High School of Science, known by some as Bronx Science, and simply called “Science” by those who attended it. And imagine that these three graduates of Science, unknown to each other, not only ended up on Oʻahu, but perhaps by coincidence, or perhaps by fate or some other force at work, found themselves members of the same small Jewish congregation, a congregation known as Sof Ma’arav.

Well, my drash today is not the story of these three individuals – although I happen to be one of them, along with Marv Black and Brandon Wallis. No, my interest today is in the meeting of science and religion. Our parasha today, Tetzaveh, moves on from last week’s detailed description of the construction and furnishing of the mishkan (sanctuary) and the aron (ark), to an equally detailed description of the garments that the kohanim who preside should wear. Not being a fashionista myself, as I read the parashah trying to find my way to a drash, I felt like a ship at night, battered in stormy seas by wave upon wave of breastplates, ephods, headdresses, gems and stones, sashes, linens, and yarns, when a light beckoned to me in the darkness.

It was the Ner Tamid, usually translated as the Eternal Flame or Light, that HaShem instructed should be hung in the Ohel Mo’ed (the Tent of Meeting) outside the curtain that is over the ark. Our Etz Hayim indicates that this is the source of the Eternal Light that hangs above the ark in the synagogue to this day. This appears in Exodus 27:20, page 503 in Etz Hayim as translated therein, “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives – lama’or, l’ha’alot ner tamid – for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.” Here, l’ha’alot ner tamid is not translated as “kindling the Eternal Flame,” as some translations do, but as “kindling lamps regularly.” I think this translation, as well as some that say “continually” instead of “regularly,” is truer to the original intent, as there are other words for eternal, such as lanetzach or l’olam (from the root alam – to hide, conceal, i.e., that which is beyond what we can see or know). Although the Ner Tamid may well signify HaShem’s eternal holy presence over the ark, the word Tamid is more focused on human action, the regular or continual act of keeping the fire burning, that the translation “eternal light” would not convey.

But what was it that attracted me like a moth to the flame of the Ner Tamid? Perhaps it’s that the words refer to time and light, which are both very central to Judaism. Regarding the role of light, besides the Ner Tamid we light nerot, candles, every Shabbat and on holidays. Etz Hayim explains beautifully what it is that makes light “such a favorite symbol of God:” “Perhaps because light itself cannot be seen. We are aware of its presence when it enables us to see other things.” “Similarly, we cannot see God, but we are aware of God’s presence when we see the beauty of the world, when we experience love and the goodness of our fellow human beings.”

For the central role that time plays in Judaism, I turn to the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his book The Sabbath, “Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time.” Regarding our ritual observances of the Sabbath, the New Moon, and the festivals, Heschel calls them our “architecture of time.” “The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals” and the Day of Atonement is our “Holy of Holies” that our enemies cannot burn down. And, Heschel writes, “Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time.” He points out that the first time the word Kadosh, holy, is used in the Torah is in Genesis, where at the end of creation “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.”

What I would add to Heschel’s description of time, is that like the previous description of light as something that we cannot see, we cannot see time either. It’s interesting to note what St. Augustine, the philosopher and Christian theologian, said of time: “if you don’t ask me, I know what it is, but if you ask, I don’t know.” And like we are aware of light’s presence by its enabling us to see other things, we are aware of time through the changes of other things. Aristotle in fact described time just like that, as the measure of change or motion. (And incidentally, the root of the word Tamid is probably related to the Hebrew word limdod, meaning “to measure” based on the root mud). And as light enables us to see God’s presence in the beauty of the world, we can see God’s presence in the change and creation all around us. In fact, that is how we usually understand God’s telling Moses on Mt. Sinai that Moses cannot see His face but only His back. It is through the trail that God leaves behind of change in the world that we can see his presence.

Given this connection of Judaism to time and to light, just as I wondered if it was just a coincidence that brought Marv, Brandon and me to Sof Ma’arav, is it a coincidence that it was a Jew, Albert Einstein, who upset long held views on the nature of time and light. Before Einstein, the Aristotelian view of time as a measure of change evolved into Newton’s “clockwork universe” in which time and space were viewed as fixed and absolute. Einstein came along and showed in his general relativity that, in fact, time and space are relative, dependent on the velocity of the observer. And the speed of light, which, in a Newtonian understanding of the universe, would be measured as faster or slower depending on the frame of reference of an observer, i.e., the relative speed and direction of the observer’s motion, was determined in Einstein’s universe to be, counterintuitively, fixed and absolute, unchanging regardless of the velocity and direction of the observer.

We know from very accurate atomic clocks sent into space that the faster they go the slower time moves relative to a clock that remains on Earth. This slowing down of time is known as “time dilation” and, in fact, GPS navigation systems rely on algorithms to compensate for time dilation effects due to the speed of the satellites as they need to keep accurate time in relation to Earth-based clocks in order to correctly pinpoint positions. This is very real and the basis of the so-called “twin paradox,” whereby a twin sent into space on a high-speed voyage accelerating to speeds approaching the speed of light could return to Earth having aged 5 years, to find his twin who remained behind on Earth aged, say, 50 years.

So what is my take-away from this meeting of science and religion, from what Einstein teaches us about the nature of time and light vs. what the Torah might be telling us? I start from the point of view of a massless photon – if a photon could have a point of view – traveling at the speed of light. Time within its frame of reference is unchanged as it travels light years from one end of the universe to another, arriving at the same time it left, in no time at all, while the rest of the universe has aged millennia.

That imagery reminds me of Moses standing at the burning bush.  Moses is standing on holy ground in the presence of HaShem. The bush is burning and emitting light, but the bush is not being consumed.  We immediately know that Moses is “not in Kansas anymore.” But where, or when, is he? Has time stopped or is he outside of time? Does being in the presence of HaShem mean to be outside of time? This provides me a different way of thinking of the Shabbat. Within our referential frame – our home, the synagogue, our eruv? – everything seems the same, but the outside world has stopped. We do no work, because work is change, and change is time. We are outside of time in the presence of HaShem.

I think of the Zen koan, of the two monks arguing on the bridge as to whether the water is moving under the bridge or the bridge is moving over the water. The Master comes by and they ask him to resolve their argument, and he responds, “It is the mind that moves.” In a similar way, I see time as how our mind perceives the world, but we can change our perception by separating ourselves from the rest of the week.  From this new point of view, Shabbat is not just a holy time of the week, it is a hole in time, that we create to be close to HaShem, outside of time. So perhaps on Shabbat we should imagine ourselves hitching a ride on a photon and see where it takes us. And I think I’ve already succeeded because I’m out of time. “Second star to the right and straight on till morning.”

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