Friday, May 26, 2006

The Big Bang at Sinai

by Andrew Halpert

According to our tradition, Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai by God to Moses. As moderns, this image of the Divine handing the Torah to Moses is an image we struggle with, or disregard completely. From Mel Brooks’ parody of Moses on the mountain, “I bring you the 15 (smash), 10 Commandments”, to ever growing mountains of critical scholarship, we know that revelation at Sinai, like most of the events recorded at Sinai simply could not have happened as the bible records. I would like to suggest that Shavuot, perhaps uniquely for our “Biblical” holidays, celebrates an event that must have happened, and I would like to use our understanding of the Big Bang to do so.
The Big Bang makes clear the amazing power and lasting impacts of short, but dramatic moments. The initial stages of the big bang lasted tiny fractions of a second. In the time it takes you to read this sentence, most of the major expansion of the universe is thought to have been completed. But expansion wasn’t the only important thing to occur in that moment. Concepts that we take as absolute givens- the forces of nature, the dimensions of space, and the direction of time, were determined in those brief moments. Billions of years later, we can observe the remnants of it everywhere. The crackle on your radio between stations is your radio detecting the echoes of the original big bang. Much of our relatively complex understanding of what occurred in the Big Bang comes from what we have been able to gleam from those echoes.
Every Friday night as we light the Shabbat candles, or sit down to Torah study, or read divrei Torah online, we ourselves form echoes of an ancient moment that had enormous transformative power. How the moment of Revelation occurred has been blurred by the background noise of history, but the echoes are clear. Somewhere in the history of the people that today calls themselves Am Yisrael (the people of Israel), was a moment in which this people received the Torah. The moment might have been brief, like our Sinai tradition tells it, or it could have taken thousands of years, but we know that at some point, we received and accepted the Torah as our core, divine, text.
There is of course a crucial difference between our echoes of Sinai and the echoes of the Big Bang. As time passes, the energy of the Big Bang begins to dissipate, and its echoes become fainter. The echoes of Sinai do not live by the same rules. When we proclaim the Sh’ma, or recite Kiddush before a meal, we can imagine ourselves amplifying the signal of a tiny moment that history would have forgotten long ago were we not here to bear witness to it. Just as everything we see is a remnant of the Big Bang, or as Carl Sagan reminded us, “We are starstuff”, as practicing Jews we are also the living proof of revelation at Sinai. Chag Sameach.


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