This was a d’var torah given on July 28, 2018 for Parashat Va’etchanan.
A month ago, my partner Pat and I spent an evening grappling with the Theory of Everything – that is, the movie “The Theory of Everything”. This starts with a very young cosmologist Stephen Hawking meeting an equally young humanities scholar Jane Wilde. Hawking, as we quickly learn, is at best agnostic about the existence of God, whereas Jane is certain in her faith that there is indeed a God.
For those who have been asleep for the last 50 years, or shun popular science, Stephen Hawking is considered one of most serious minds of the 20th and 21st century. He made some of the most important discoveries about gravity since Einstein. He discovered that black holes – celestial vacuum cleaners gobbling up anything that might stray near them – also give off radiation. He found that a black hole may even blow up.
Tragically, Stephen Hawking was struck as a young man with ALS, a disease that progressively destroyed his nervous system. The movie “The Theory of Everything” follows Stephen and Jane, first falling in love, then Stephen finding his scientific calling – a search for the how and why of our universe – even while physically crippled, then Jane searching for comfort in her religion. It ends with their divorce.
But what is relevant about the movie for this week’s parsha is how it depicted both Jane and Stephen’s search for, and relationship with God. Stephen turned from agnosticism to atheism and perhaps back again. Jane remained steadfast in her beliefs, hoping that Stephen would someday have to accept God’s existence.
In this week’s parsha, Moses says
“Face to face – Pa-nim be fa-nim – the Eternal One spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire”.
He then recites the ten commandments. We hear them shortly in the parsha.
But I’m not going to focus on the commandments, though there is much one could say.
Rather I’m going to talk about being face-to-face with God. It is a powerful idea. It demands that our relationship with God be a very personal one. It’s so powerful that the Torah tells us that it is not possible to see God’s face and live. In Exodus 33:22, when Moses asks to see God’s face, the best that God can do is allow Moses to see his back. But even from that encounter, Moses is transformed for the rest of his years, his face aglow.
In the Torah, there are only two other places where the phrase “pa-nim be fa-nim” – face-to-face–is used. The first is in Genesis 32:30, when Jacob, having wrestled all night with what we believe is an angel, exclaims in the morning “I have seen God face-to-face – pa-nim be fa-nim – and I did not know it.” This is when Jacob becomes Israel.
The phrase is used once again in Deuteronomy 32:10, after Moses has died:
“Since that time, no prophet has arisen in Israel like Moses, whom God knew face-to-face–pa-nim b’fa-nim.”
This last verse is one of the proof texts employed by Maimonides, the rabbinic sage of the 12th century, to assert that Moses was indeed a prophet with a unique relationship with God. It is so important that Maimonides enshrined it as the fourth of the thirteen principles of Jewish faith listed in his commentary to the Mishna.
The relationship of God with Moses – and with the Israelites – reflects an intimacy and intensity that in today’s world seems quite foreign, where relationships are sustained by peripheral interactions like social media, email, Instagram, texting.
All this is quite sobering, especially when I consider my own search for God. Like Jane Wilde, I have a profound faith or belief in some form of ineffable being. Please don’t ask exactly what that is. And like Stephen Hawking, I have searched for the “why” of this awesome world around us. I have been on the journey to understand what a “theory of everything” might look like for 40 years, about as long as I have been on my Jewish journey with Pat. But unlike Stephen Hawking, my belief in the existence of a God has only increased.
Our world is a very magical place, not a Hobbesian world where life is “nasty, brutish and short.” Our world is ki-tov – good – as God declares it in the first verses of Bereshit. When we rise above the din of day-to-day life, it’s a world filled with the potential for goodness, a world where our work can elevate and inspire us. And it is a world filled with mystery. It should fill you with the same sense of awe that I feel. It is this world that as Jews we have been given the opportunity to shape and understand. It is this world that we are challenged to leave better than when we found it. It is no coincidence that Tikkun Olam, the pursuit of social justice, has become such an important part of our identity as progressive Jews.
So searching for a theory of everything is certainly important. I also find the search a lot of fun. But seeking a closer relationship with God beats it hands-down. Stephen, we may not be able to get face-to-face with God. But surely we must be hearing the voice of God when truly awesome events happen, like a black hole exploding.