Adaptive Optics: Behar-Behukotai 5773/2013

The other night I read a magazine article on the construction of the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), an international collaboration to construct the greatest earth-based observatory up in the Andes Mountains in Chile.  The technology involved in manufacturing the massive set of primary mirrors, with an effective diameter of 24.5 meters (80 feet), is remarkable, but what really excites my imagination is the concept of “adaptive optics.” The primary mirrors will gather the faintest light and reflect it onto a set of secondary mirrors, which will in turn focus the light onto an array of sensors to capture the broadest range of wavelengths. 20081216_giant_magellan_tel These secondary mirrors are designed to adapt their shape in extremely subtle ways to compensate for the distortions of light caused by earth’s atmosphere. Lasers around the telescope will probe the sky in order to measure these distortions, allowing the telescope to adapt the shape of its secondary mirrors and collect the oldest and faintest light at the highest possible resolution. While it is of course preferable to avoid atmospheric distortions altogether by locating a telescope in space (like the Hubble Space Telescope, whose mirror is a mere 2.4 meters), it is difficult and expensive to place and maintain equipment there, making earth-based telescopes an important component of astronomy for the future (see this link from Harvard Magazine for the full article).

Why, you may be asking, am I starting a d’var Torah with a discussion of telescopes? In my integrating seminar this week, my student Philip was discussing Rabbi Isaac Luria’s concept of shevirat hakelim, the primordial shattering of vessels that were intended to convey the light of creation throughout the cosmos, but which were compromised by evil and thus incapable of containing this divine energy. As Philip spoke, I associated this concept with the article on the Giant Magellan Telescope, and realized that both of these are apt metaphors for the religious life. As with astronomy, Judaism is an “observational science.” Astronomers devote themselves to observing the cosmos, searching for the earliest moments of existence, and seeking to understand the nature of both the light and the darkness that present themselves to every creature that scans the night sky. Religion in general, and Judaism in particular, are also “observational” disciplines in that they direct us to study all aspects of existence—physical, spiritual, scriptural and natural—so that we too can understand both the darkness and the light, and can shape our souls to become more perfect mirrors of God.

Adaptive optics is another rich part of the metaphor. Like the secondary  mirrors of the GMT, we seek to minimize the distorting effects of our environment so that we can become more perfect “kelim” or vessels of light. Some such distortions are external—the pettiness, coarseness and materialism of our surrounding culture. Some are internal—our own insecurities and jealousies and anger. Observance is not just a physical activity—of putting our bodies through various ritual gestures so that we can be considered “shomeir mitzvot,” guardians of the commandments. These activities are also meant to purify our souls so that we can view reality with clarity, and with truth. As we say in each Shabbat Amidah, “v’taheir libeinu l’ovdekha b’emet,” “purify our hearts to serve You in truth.” The verse “ohr zarua la’tzaddik–light is sown for the righteous,” (Psalm 97:11) has long been understood by Jews to mean that God secreted the original blinding light of creation for the righteous to seek.

I am speaking tomorrow at Minyan Ma’at about Parshat Behar-Behukotai. One of the texts which caught my eye comes from the Sefat Emet. He has a particular concern with the corrosive effect of habit on religious life. Even “good habits” are problematic when they diminish the practice of mitzvot, allowing us to forget that we are meant to be serving God. Israel is summoned to the base of Mt Sinai in order to become angelic, which means to escape the bonds of physical routine. Sefat Emet argues that Shabbat, the sabbatical year, and the jubilee, are each designed to break the grip of nature and routine, and to allow a person to view our physical lives as a training ground, rather than as a final destination. This, he  concludes, is the essence of the vitality of every person in Israel.

The final verse of the portion and of the book of Leviticus states, “These are the commandments which the Lord commanded Moses for the Israelites on Mount Sinai.” In the Talmud Yerushalmi, Rav Illai (or Hillai—two variants in tractates Hallah and Shabbat) states, “these are the commandments—if you do them as commandments, then they are commandments; but if you don’t do them as commandments, they are not commandments.” I take him to mean that intention is essential to the observance of mitzvot. It does not suffice to go through the motions of religious life. Religious behaviorism may be a necessary starting point (mitokh shelo lishmah, ba lishmah—doing them for ulterior purpose may lead one to do them for ultimate purpose), but our goal should always be to become aware of our motives, to adapt ourselves, so that our understanding of Torah and our observance of mitzvot can become true—reflecting the distant light of creation, and allowing us to become more perfect vessels of the divine light.

Shabbat shalom, R’ Danny Nevins

    שפת אמת ויקרא פרשת בהר

בענין השמיטין ויובלות דכ’ בהר סיני כו’. כי כל ענין השביתה היא ביטול הטבע שקרבנו הש”י לפני הר סיני היינו שנתעלו בנ”י להיות כמלאכים. והגם כי נאמר אכן כאדם כו’ עכ”ז נשאר הדביקות לזמנים. שיש בכח בנ”י לצאת מן הטבע. וזה אות השבת ביטול המלאכה. ובשמיטה היה כל השנה שביתה הכל כנ”ל שלא להיות טבועים תחת ההרגל והטבע רק לידע שכל עוה”ז הוא טפל ופרוזדור לטרקלין והנייחאשל איש ישראל היא בעת השביתה ממעשים של הטבע שזה עיקר חיותאישהישראלי.

תהלים פרק צז 

אוֹר זָרֻעַ  לַצַּדִּיק וּלְיִשְׁרֵי לֵב שִׂמְחָה:

ויקרא פרק כז, לד

ל) אֵלֶּה הַמִּצְוֹת אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְקֹוָק אֶת מֹשֶׁה אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהַר סִינָי:

תלמוד ירושלמי מסכת חלה פרק א דף נח טור א /ה”ה 

 אמר רבי הילא  אלה   המצות  אם עשיתן  כמצוותן הן מצות ואם לאו אינן מצות

תלמוד ירושלמי מסכת שבת פרק יג דף יד טור א /ה”ג 

 אמר רבי אילא  אלה   המצות  אם עשיתן כמצוותן הן מצות ואם לאו אינן מצות