Parashat Balak 5779

Rabbi Dr Margaret Jacobi, 12 July 2019

Balaam’s Ass and the Higg’s Boson
[Adapted from a sermon originally given in 2012 after the discovery of the Higgs boson particle]
According to a midrash, ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath at twilight. The first three were the mouth of the earth which swallowed Korach, the mouth of the well which supplied water in the wilderness, and the mouth of the ass which spoke to Balaam. (There followed the rainbow, the manna, the rod of Moses, the Shamir, a worm used to cut stones for the temple, the shape of the writing on the tables on the commandments, the writing and the tablets.)

Our ancestors struggled with the miraculous just as we do. If something went against the order of creation, they had to find a way of explaining how it could exist. The ass which spoke to Balaam was such a thing – how could an ass speak? And so they grouped it with other miraculous things and thought that they must have been created at the very beginning of the world, at twilight just before the first sabbath, ready to appear when needed as the world progressed.

In our day, we continue to struggle with creation. The discovery in 2012 of the Higgs boson marked another step along the way. As I understand it, the Higgs boson named after Peter Higgs and Indian Physicist Satyendra Bose, was postulated to explain how particles have mass. It is therefore an important step in explaining how energy developed into matter and the universe came to be. Gradually, scientists are getting nearer and nearer to the beginning of the world and to understanding its creation. Yet, as has been repeatedly said by scientists, the discovery of the Higgs boson is not the end of the quest – rather it is like opening a door onto more and more questions.
We are still a long way from understanding the mystery of creation. But as we get nearer, we might wonder where our understanding of God fits in the picture. We speak in our prayers of God as creator, but what can we mean? And what do we make of the creation account in the book of Genesis?

The second question is easier to answer. The account in Genesis is beautiful, full of poetry, meaning and inspiration. It teaches us the wonder of God’s world, our place in it and our responsibility for it, and the unity of all human beings. But from at least the time of Philo of Alexandria in the 1st century CE, it has not been understood literally. It is full of symbolic meaning but it is not to be understood as fact. It is only recently that Jews have begun to question the idea of evolution. The Reverend Simeon Singer, of Singer’s prayer book fame, eulogised Darwin at the time of his death, praising him as being among the righteous gentiles. When the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists was founded in 1948, Darwinism seems to have been widely accepted. Only in the 1960s, under the influence of a Christian creationist revival, did the Orthodox members began to question Darwinism. Even now, amongst many Orthodox and most non-Orthodox scientists, Darwinism is accepted in at least some form and the Genesis account is seen for what it is: poetic truth.

The first question, what can we mean by God as creator, is more difficult. But again it is not a new question: in Maimonides time, faced with the theories of Aristotle and Plato, Jewish philosophers considered how God could fit into the scheme of creation, and talked of God as ‘Prime Mover’ the cause beyond all other causes. Nowadays, some have talked of the God of the gaps – God explaining what physics cannot yet explain. The problem with this, as I see it, is that as physics begins to fill in the gaps God shrinks, as it were, to fill the remaining gaps. Others, have seen God on a much larger scale. The physicist Paul Davis, for example, in his book ‘God and the New Physics’, envisages God as the mind of the universe. Just as our mind is the aggregation of the activity of billions of nerve cells, so God is somehow the mind emerging from the vast matter of the universe. Others, notably modern rabbis Mordecai Kaplan and Art Green, have written of God as a force within creation, the force which gives rise to wonderful variety of species in the world, and to human beings who strive for good, though so often failing.

Ultimately, the answer remains a mystery. Indeed, we could say that God is the name that we give to the mystery of being. God is more a presence felt than a logical reality. To believe in such a God is not counter to logic, but it is an act of faith, for questions will remain. Faith should not blind us to science, as it does for those who question evolution. But neither does science exclude our faith. For there is wonder and mystery in the universe, more than we can possibly imagine. Faith in God gives us meaning and purpose amidst the mystery, telling us that despite the vastness, we have been created for a purpose and can do good.

Our ancestors struggled with the mystery and we continue to do so. We can still find meaning in their words, uttered in wonder. As Psalm 92 says, ‘Mah Gadlu ma-asecha Adonai, me-od amku machshevotecha – How great are your works Eternal One, Your thoughts are very deep.’ God’s thoughts are indeed very deep, and it is in our life’s journey exploring the mystery that we can begin to fathom their meaning.

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