Metaphorically I wear two hats, or better, a hat and a kippah. Primarily I work as a Ph.D. physicist, but on Shabbat and holidays, you’ll often find me on the pulpit. In my position at Los Alamos National Laboratory I am a member of a team proposing a major experimental facility which is in its early stages of development, a facility designed to look in detail at crystals.
Many of us learned in school about the atomic structure of materials. While gases are a random collection of atoms, solids generally exist as ordered, three-dimensional arrays of atoms, what we call crystals. What is not often taught, however, is that in real life, crystals are not the perfect images that we see in textbooks.
Instead, there are occasional defects. These “errors” may be vacancies where an atom is missing from the lattice, or they may be interstitials involving the addition of an atom in a place that is usually empty, or they may be more complex configurations consisting of entire lines or planes of atoms misaligned from the normal pattern.
If we don’t take these defects into account when we try to predict how materials will behave in real life, we produce woefully incorrect answers. Indeed, it is the defects that contribute in a significant way to the performance of real-life materials. That’s why we need to study the flaws. As the late British theoretical physicist Sir Charles Frank once said, “Crystals are like people: it is the defects in them that make them interesting.”
And indeed one of the features of the Jewish Bible that has made it endlessly fascinating for millennia is that its central characters are all flawed: Moses has a temper, Jacob is deceitful, Joseph is self-absorbed, Sarah is vindictive, and King David – well, let’s not even go there!
Judaism, then, does not expect us to reach perfection. Rather, it demands of us to strive to be as good as we can be, and it has a built-in mechanism – namely teshuvah, or repentance – to help us move past our inevitable failings and try again. We don’t need a multi-billion dollar probe to explore our human faults – we can use cheshbon hanefesh or self-examination, and we’re encouraged to do so each year before the High Holidays. Don’t be alarmed if you find defects when you examine yourself – learning about our defects is the first step towards improving our behavior.