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Dvarim: Shabbat Message by Rabbi Greg Weisman
Shabbat Message by Rabbi Greg Weisman graphic for Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

The heavens and the earth were finished, and all their array…”

Centuries ago, the early rabbis of our tradition established the custom of reciting those words from Genesis 2, the conclusion of the seven days of creation, to begin the Shabbat Kiddush. Shabbat is, among other things, our celebration of the miracle of creation, the continuation of God’s resting after laboring for six days, and taking a day to marvel in and appreciate the wonder that is creation. God blessed the seventh day, made it holy, and gave it to us that we should do the same.

In earlier eras, when our ancestors would take the opportunity to marvel in the beautiful of the created world, they might look up at mountains, down into valleys, and out to the stars that illuminate the night sky. But they did not benefit from the knowledge that we have, collected through the generations, of how incredibly complex and beautiful the universe actually is.

This week, our understanding was enhanced as we glimpsed deeper into the universe and farther back in time than ever before. The James Webb Space Telescope brought home images of Earendel, a star who light has travelled for 12.4 billion years to reach us. It is the oldest, furthest star that astronomers have found, and a photo of the galaxy cluster around it, with an arrow pointing out its faint light, can be seen here .

Astronomers teach that looking at the light from distant stars really is a look back in time, as images present a picture of the universe not as it is today, but as it was billions of years ago. This type of research helps them understand better the development of our universe and the complicated ways in which it is still evolving. Earendel is now 28 billion light years away from us, a result of the universe’s continued expansion, but perhaps more interestingly, the light that we can now see is from the universe when it was only 7% developed, in its relative youth compared to our time today.

Looking back on the past, on the road down which we have already traveled, is a theme in this week’s Torah portion, Dvarim. It opens the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ swan song recalling to the Israelite people’s arduous journey from enslavement in Egypt, to the revelation at Sinai, through the desert, and approaching the Land of Israel. In the portion Moses reminds them of some of their mistakes, like their fears of the land when the spies reported on it, and of their triumphs, like defeating enemies who had hoped to destroy them during their journey. As the portion concludes, he reminds them that entering the Land is their destiny, the fulfillment of a promise that God made to Abraham centuries earlier.

Moses, in this portion and throughout the Book of Deuteronomy, offers reminders of the past to orient and direct the Israelites as they go forward into their future without him.

He knows that his life will soon end, and in addition to appointing Joshua as his successor, he wants to be sure that the Israelites have a firm grasp on the tasks that lay ahead and the purpose for which God chose him and them-to lead lives in fulfillment of the words of Torah, lives that will bring goodness and righteousness into the world.

Moses’ retelling of our story begins our custom of telling and retelling, as we do each year in reading the entire Torah from start to finish, only to begin it all over again. Many people have commented that this portion leads us to the wisdom of Rabbi Ben Bag Bag, who said of Torah (Pirkei Avot 5:22), “Turn it and turn it again, for all is in it; see through it; grow old and worn in it; do not budge from it, for there is nothing that works better than it.” Rabbi Ben Bag Bag reminds us that looking back at what we have seen before, read before, or heard before is anything but a waste of time, but rather a way to measure and advance our own understanding.

We revisit the stories in Torah each year because our own understanding of Torah is one more year, one more iteration, one more reading more sophisticated each time we engage with it. Moses wanted the Israelites to appreciate that, just as we do.

As for the image of Earendel, on the one hand the idea that our universe is billions of years old may seem to contradict the six days of creation story of the Book of Genesis. But as modern Jews our challenge is not to decide which account is accurate, but rather to find a way to hold them both as true in our hearts and minds.

Our story of creation reminds us of the need for rest, to appreciate the blessings we have received and to marvel in the universe that the Holy One created and brought to us.

This week, our ability to marvel and appreciate was enhanced by the images from the James Webb Space Telescope, and our understanding of the universal journey was deepened.

For that, I believe the Holy One will bless us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg Weisman

 

Rabbi Greg Weisman

 

Photo of “Parson Weems’ Fable” by Grant Wood, Steven Zucker

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