Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, May 31, 2024

The Universe is Humming

Did you know that “the whole universe is humming?” That’s how Atlantic writer Adam Frank describes a recent scientific breakthrough. According to Frank, hard data now proves that, “Every star, every planet, every continent, every building, every person is vibrating along to the slow cosmic beat…a background of gravitational waves [are] washing through the universe, the space-time equivalent of car horns, jackhammers, and shouts all combining into the diffuse cacophony of city life.”

What’s the source of this universal heartbeat? According to the experts, the source may be “the zillions of supermassive black holes, some billions of times heavier than the sun, that reside at the center of every galaxy. Over cosmic timescales, galaxies collide and merge—and so do their black holes. These are near-apocalyptic events in terms of their effect on space-time, like a wall of speakers at a heavy-metal concert blasting against so many eardrums. Untold numbers of galaxies have merged across the 13.8-billion-year life of the universe, and those blasts should still be echoing in the background of space-time today. And so, perhaps, should the gravitational waves from the birth of the universe itself. The Big Bang was, well, a big bang. Initiating the expansion of everything required so much energy, and did so much violence, that it should have flooded space-time with gravitational waves that continue to ricochet around the universe to this day.”

Scientists found that “Every gravitational wave in that background…is humming through the very constitution of the space you inhabit right now. Every proton and neutron in every atom from the tip of your toes to the top of your head is shifting, shuttling, and vibrating in a collective purr within which the entire history of the universe is implicated.”

If you’re looking for a succinct description of what I think “God” is, it’s in that description. I don’t believe in a God who is pulling at invisible strings a living puppet performance. Instead, I understand God as a connective force, a uniting essence that connects the dots between all organisms and the inanimate world we inhabit. I believe God is the pulsing heartbeat that syncs them together.

This scientific discovery that Frank describes makes me feel so small and insignificant but also infinitely connected at the same time.

Scientifically, what do we gain with this insight? Nothing tangible, really, but perhaps something transformational instead.

Frank continues in his article: “The gravitational-wave background is huge news for the cosmos, yes, but it’s also huge news for you. The nature of reality has not changed—you will not suddenly be able to detect vibrations in your morning coffee that you couldn’t see before. And yet, moments like these can and should change how each of us sees our world. All of a sudden, we know that we are humming in tune with the entire universe, that each of us contains the signature of everything that has ever been. It’s all within us, around us, pushing us to and fro as we hurtle through the cosmos.”

Knowing this cosmic connectedness (or we may say, perceiving of God in this way) should give us a sense of wonder and awe that helps bring more meaning to life. It helps to articulate its sanctity. It might drive us to care for our mental and physical health more or to care for the earth with more gusto. It reminds us that we are not separate, inconsequential entities, but rather integral parts of the universes’ fabric. It forces us out of isolation or being self-absorbed.

I also wonder if it acts as a blueprint for how to think about “cataclysmic events” here on earth. When I think about violent cosmic events, I tend to think less about deep space and more about the mid-east. Instead of distant galaxies I’m watching local courtrooms and verdicts.

But what makes these earthly events different from those of the cosmos is how much control we have over them. We cannot change or even perceive the ways the universe’s processes reverberate through us and our lives - all we can do is marvel at it. But refugees, hostages and political corruption? As insurmountable as these problems seem sometimes, they are in fact a result of human choices and are therefore within humanity’s control.

But this fact does little to comfort us. Realizing just how responsible and culpable we all are, we fall fast, like a heavy meteor, from a state of awe to a barren of despair and hopelessness. We feel out of sync, disappointed in ourselves, with the future feeling bleak.

These themes - the easy shift from awe to desperation and contemplating how much control we have in the greater fabric of nature - lie at the heart of this week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai.

God states plainly: If you follow my commandments, I will make the rain come. You’ll have a good harvest, you’ll eat well, you’ll thrive. If you don’t follow my commandments, I will scatter you and wreak misery on you, because you broke my covenant with you.

We struggle with this stark cause and effect. Can it really be that if I am good, if we are good, then all will be tranquil and abundant? We know that’s not the case. Either this is primitive thinking, OR it pre-assumes that we have and never will be “good” enough. It means this utopian, peaceful vision is just God’s imaging outloud. So then if that’s the case, we are left thinking, “what’s the point?”.

The key word in the Torah, though, is covenant. God is specific: it’s not just that we didn’t keep God’s laws and therefore we don’t get our allowance. Rather, by acting in violent and insolent ways, we have gone out-of-sync with the universe. Our negative actions jarringly disconnect us from God and we suffer the isolating consequences.

According to science, we can’t actually escape God or nature, it’s impacting us even when we can’t perceive it. But according to Torah, we can make an active choice to be a willing, nurturing part of it and therefore benefiting from a feeling of sanctity, awe and purpose. This is why we do acts of repair and call our work tikkun olam - fixing the world.

This is also why we pray. We sing and chant as a way of attuning ourselves to the universes’ pulse. It is the way we perceive God in our midst. With an affirmed sense of awe, we set out to prevent the cataclysmic collisions within our control. In the event that we can’t avoid it, we then at least have the strength to withstand what comes, knowing what is right in our hearts - placing preserving life and human connectedness as values above all else.

As the universal heartbeat resonates in our own bodies, may we find not only a sense of our own smallness but also the boundless connectivity that enfolds us. Let us marvel at the intricate dance of galaxies and the pulsing rhythm of life, knowing that within us resides the echoes of eternity. Let us embrace our role as stewards of creation, seeking harmony in our actions and compassion in our hearts. Amen.

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