It has been said that the Yomim Noraim follow the summer so that we can spend several weeks contemplating Hashem’s beautiful world and then do teshuvah mei’ahavah, repentance out of love. Those who travel can witness some of the amazing glories He placed in the world to remind us of His presence. The rest of us just have to watch the trees grow, hear the birds sing, and turn to the One Who made it all. Then, when we realize that it is He Who is judging us, it becomes not only more meaningful, but we can take to heart that this is not traffic court or a summons to mow our lawn. We are eased into the seriousness of Elul, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur by awe instead of pain, beauty in place of fright.
However, first we must remind ourselves that the Creator is not far away. “Hamelech basadeh – the King is in the field” means that not only is He accessible, but His judgment is imminent.
One of the famous parables about these days – always with a king – is of the disagreement between a man and his wife. A king had the custom of periodically “dropping in” on his subjects to see how they live and sometimes help improve their lot. To be fair, he would give some notice of his arrival. A poor couple living in a hut in the forest received such notification. “The king will be visiting you in one month,” the royal stationary dauntingly announced.
The husband immediately started ordering new furniture, drapes, special foods, and repairs for the broken roof. On the other hand, his wife was horrified. “What are you doing?” she demanded. “We can’t afford this. I’ve been begging for these things for years, but you said we don’t have the money.” His response was, “Yes, but the king is coming.” She responded logically, “You don’t understand. He wants to see how we live, not what we do in a rush under pressure by borrowing and spending beyond our means.” The husband responded gently but firmly, “You would be right if the king just dropped in. But if he gives us a month, it is to see what we can do with 30 days of notice.”
If part of our own notice is indeed to think of the Creator’s glory and malchus, then we must look up at the galaxies and stars; we must take note of the hidden world of the microscope and remember that He has made and is in control of the large and the small.
This year, some scientists, by virtue of their blindness as much as their technology, have also given us cause to recall the majesty of Hashem’s creation.
What has been called “A Crisis in Cosmology” (New York Times’ “Sunday Opinion” section, September 3, 2023) reveals that the new James Webb Space Telescope has been causing trouble for scientists. Despite being dazzled by its new images of the universe, they “had to admit that something was amiss.” The information it sent was “exciting in an uncomfortable sense.” The “so-called standard model of cosmology” (how they think the universe came to be) “has been found to be alarmingly inconsistent.” In other words, all that they have thought and written for the past number of decades is wrong. Put somewhat more diplomatically, “physicists and astronomers are starting to get the sense that something may be really wrong.” The two distinguished scientists, professors of astronomy and astrophysics who wrote the article, admit that “we might have to rethink the standard model of cosmology; we might also have to think about some of the most basic features of our universe – a conceptual revolution that would have implications far beyond the world of science.”
Now, most of our readers are probably a lot smarter than me. I expected the next sentence to be, “We now have to consider that there was a Creator at the beginning of all this.” Alas, I was wrong. Instead, they “courageously must roll up their sleeves, go back to our blackboards and come back with new ideas that allow us to improve our theory by better matching the evidence.” I guess emunah is not happening so fast. Yet, they are getting desperate. “There is, however, another possibility,” they are forced to admit. “We may be at a point where we need a radical departure from the standard model, one that may even require us to change how we think of the elemental component of the universe, possibly even the nature of space and time.” Okay. I’m not holding my breath, but hope springs eternal.
As we tell stories about gedolim, literary critics tell stories about, lehavdil, their own giants. One such story is about a well-known egocentric writer named Margaret Fuller. She once declared, “I accept the universe,” to which the acerbic wit Samuel Johnson responded, “She had better!”
I dare say that we have no problem with the universe, but accepting ohl malchus Shomayim is not as easy. The baalei mussar tell us that it is not that hard to accept Hashem’s dominion over the United States, Russia and China. We might even easily accept His power over Eretz Yisroel and all the Yidden in the world. However, the avodah of the Yomim Noraim to accept His yoke over ourselves is quite difficult indeed. Rav Elchonon Wasserman (Kovetz Maamorim No.1) points out that some of the greatest geniuses in history, such as Aristotle, didn’t “discover Hashem” because accepting His sovereignty carries and engenders heavy consequences. Our lives change, our perspective is altered, and we must stop doing some things we enjoy and start others that we think we won’t. Thus, says Rav Elchonon, the word is “don’t stray after your hearts,” not brain or head, because it is the heart that gets us into trouble. Over the next few weeks, we will strike our heart many times, but we will leave our head alone because it is not at fault. All the brilliant scientists can’t figure out why their precious “standard model” of Big Bangs and other random celestial events is wrong. All they need to do is look up for a moment, but the yeitzer hara is blinding their sight, like he does to so many of us.
So what should we do to be smarter?
The first Ramban in Chumash tells us. He acknowledges Rashi’s teaching that the Torah had to begin with creation to indicate that Eretz Yisroel is legitimately ours. However, “there is a great need to have begun the Torah with the story of creation. Hashem’s creation of the world is the foundation of our emunah, and one who does not believe that He created the world from nothing and thinks the world has always existed denies the essential principle of Judaism and has no Torah.” The Rambam (Commentary to the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10:1) famously teaches that “the fourth principle of faith is Hashem’s eternity… You should know that a major principle of the Torah is that the world was created and formed by Hashem from absolutely nothing.”
We have often quoted in these pages the words of my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner (see Sefer Hazikaron Pachad Yitzchok, page 85) that there were three who ruined humanity: Darwin, Marks and Freud. Each of them injected materialism into some aspect of our lives. However, it was Darwin who, to this very day, convinced humanity that there is no purposeful creation of the universe, only a series of random haphazard events that brought about the universe we see. If that was so, we would have no reason or mandate indeed to follow any laws, except the practical ones that a civilized society requires. Thus, there is no reason to assume that secular scientists will ever wake up to facts and figures concluding that “Eureka! There is a G-d.” No theory requires life changes, only “tweaks and adjustments” (end of the Times essay) to the disproven but unthreatening way of life.
Hashem has given us an Elul and Tishrei as a way of saying, “Remember Me?” (Zichronos). “Wake up!” (Shofros). “I am your King” (Malchuyos) and therefore change (Teshuvah). The process is actually much easier than the scientists tying themselves up in knots using false calculations and even more faulty conclusions. Let’s use the rest of Elul and Selichos wisely. These tefillos and teachings are eternally true and objectively beneficial, and will iy”H bring us a kesivah vachasimah tovah.