Dear Friends and Colleagues:
In a bit of delightful serendipity, my wife gave me a gift of the physicist David Deutsch’s book The Beginning of Infinity in the midst of this year’s asesret y’mai t’shuva, the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Hayom harat olam (“today the world is born”). It is unlikely that the authors of this centerpiece of the High Holiday liturgy had the Big Bang in mind, but it’s what I always think of.
Carl Sagan helps us conjure that moment: “All the matter in the universe was concentrated at extremely high density—a kind of cosmic egg, reminiscent of the creation myths of many cultures.” Then, the primordial explosion, occurring on “a day without yesterday” (as one of the originators of the theory, Georges Lemaître, put it), burst forth. After expanding from a singularity, the universe cooled sufficiently to make way for life as we know it.
Deutsch’s book sets forth a bold proposition: He argues that the fundamental engine of human progress is our ongoing quest for better and better explanations. He notes with some awe the distance “between the enormous reach and power of our best theories and the precarious, local means by which we create them.” We humans have always imagined truths about our universe that ought to be, long before we had the physical tools to prove them true, from the first astronomical observations of an expanding universe to this year’s discovery of two black holes colliding a billion light-years away, the first evidence of gravitational waves, Einstein’s ripples in the fabric of space-time.
While it may be the engine that drives progress, the search for better and better explanations of “what is there, what it does, and how, and why” can be disquieting, as this (and I suspect any) parent of young children can attest. Searching out new explanations requires us to be willing to shed old ones, destabilizing world views that have served us just fine up until now.
I keep coming back to this destabilizing-yet-indispensable questing for understanding as I think about the work of cheshbon ha-nefesh—the “accounting of the soul”—that is perhaps the essential undertaking of the 10 days of teshuvah. Teshuvah is literally defined as “return” and signifies repentance. We often conflate the two, believing that if we can only return to our original, purest self, we will have repented. But Deutsch is making the opposite point: It’s only when we look for better and better understandings of ourselves that we can make any progress at all.
It’s the clash between the Wizard of Oz’s “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard” and Tom Wolfe’s “you can never go home again”—put more poetically by Heraclitus: No human ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river, and she is not the same human.
What if teshuvah isn’t the return to some elemental, pure version of ourselves, but instead represents the elemental quest for learning, for striving, for improvement? What if teshuvah is the essence of human progress, in tension not with sin but with stasis? What if, in these 10 days—a condensed, accelerated window that hearkens to the very moment of harat olam, the birth of the universe, whose release of energy 13.7 billion years ago made possible this best of all possible worlds—our work is to ask questions of ourselves to better understand what is there, and what we do, and how, and why?
These are certainly the questions that animate us at the Foundation, where we have the privilege of partnering with you at this extraordinary moment of human and Jewish history, to engage together in this act of teshuvah, questing to find yet better explanations, distilled from the breadth of Jewish teaching and learning, for what it means to live a good life.