Newsletter                June 11, 2015 - 24 Sivan, 5755 

 Hands creating a form with yellow light bulb in the center

Light Speculations
Dedicated by
HBB and Amy Katz to honor the Tamuz Yahrtzeits of his parents: Yisroel Leib ben Dovid Shalom z"l and Chana Chaika bas Chaim Moshe z"l 

The epigraph of Jenny Offill's "Dept. of Speculation," was enough for me to buy her engaging book and make me wonder whether Socrates would consider me a madman: "Speculators on the universe... are no better than madmen."


I certainly speculate if defined as "to engage in thought or reflection." Socrates was referring to those who speculate, "to indulge in conjectural thought," a regular practice when picturing a biblical scene, wondering about the effectiveness of a prayer, or considering how Halachah should be applied in an unusual situation. All of the above speculations are based on Torah study and millennia of teachers, but there is always the element of conjecture. Am I really no better than a madman? Is it madness to base so much of my spiritual life on such speculation? Socrates would probably say, "Yes!"


Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, would say, "Definitely not!" Gagarin, certainly a speculator on the universe, said, "The path of a cosmonaut is not an easy, triumphant march to glory. You have to get to know the meaning not just of joy but also of grief, before being allowed in the spacecraft cabin." Yet, sitting in that cabin just before liftoff, risking his life on, and for, speculation, he said, and "all my life now appears to be one happy moment." That step forward into speculation transforms even the certainty of grief into a happy moment. Living in certaintyoffers a certain secure happiness inaccessible to living in speculation.


There is a scene in Dept. of Speculation in which the narrator describes a visit with a good friend: "We applied our muzzy intellects to a theory of light. That all are born radiating light but that this light diminished slowly (if one was lucky) or abruptly (if one was not). The most charismatic people - the poets, the mystics, the explorers - were that way because they had somehow managed to keep a bit of this light that was meant to have dimmed." Explorers, or, in our context, speculators, are described as holding onto light that has diminished for others.


Gagarin's one happy moment was one form of light. The uncertainty of his life of speculation was, perhaps, a way to hold onto his light, or, I would suggest, a different sort of light. His different light is that which is offered at the conclusion of our portion about explorers and speculators. The spies were sent by Moses to explore the Land, but their light diminished, as they were overwhelmed when speculating upon conquering this land of giants. "There we saw the Nephilim, the sons of the giants from among the Nephilim; we were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes (Numbers 13:33)!" It was not long before the people lost their light as well, "Because of God's hatred of us did He take us out of the land of Egypt to deliver us into the hand of the Amorite to destroy us... our brothers have melted our hearts... (Deuteronomy 1:27-28)." The uncertainty of their speculations diminished their light, and God remarks, "All the men who have seen My glory and My signs that I performed in Egypt and in the Wilderness... will not see the Land (Numbers 14:22-23)." Those who had so much light, "seen My glory and My signs," and allowed their light to diminish will not see the light of the Land.


There are other speculators in the portion who hold onto their light despite failures. When the Great Sanhedrin ruled erroneously, speculating that a certain act is permitted, and then the act was shown to be a form of idol worship, the Torah speaks of a temporary diminishment of light: "If because of the eyes of the assembly it was done unintentionally (15:24)." They are offered an opportunity to address their error, and, "It shall be forgiven to the entire assembly of Israel (Verse 26)." Their light is restored. Those who seek higher light through their speculations are safe. Their light can be restored.


The portion ends with the laws of Tzitzit, Garments of Light, that allow us to hold onto our light, "You will see it and remember all the commandments of God and perform them, and not explore after your heart and after your eyes in ways that will cause you to stray (Verse 39)," or, as my Uncle Noach zt"l would explain, "you will not ever say 'I don't want to grow,' or, 'I cannot possibly achieve this,' my light is too diminished."


Our journey of exploration so often sprinkled with speculation, is with the cosmonaut. However it is not, "all my life now appears to be one happy moment," but, all my life forward will be infused with the light that is ours when we are willing to speculate. Madmen? Perhaps, but the type of madmen who would say, as did Kalev, "If Moses would instruct us to build ladders to the Heaven (become cosmonauts), we could and we would (Sotah 35a)!"

Shabbat Shalom,



Rabbi Simcha L. Weinberg 

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