a text version of my sermon from Shabbat Hol HaMoed Sukkot –
As the Nobel prizes have been awarded in the last week the winners have been making their media rounds, patiently engaging in interviews and answering questions about their work and what got them to where they are. On the radio a few days ago I heard Rainer Weiss, one of the physics prize winners, talking about his work. In the course of his interview he referred over and over again to Albert Einstein, saying that his life’s work had in large part been based on principles that Einstein had theorized about more than 100 years ago. The problem for Einstein was that the technical ability to verify many of his own theories didn’t exist back then. But today, that technology is in place, and Rainer Weiss’s Nobel prize in physics was awarded because he had finally been able to scientifically prove some of Einstein’s ideas.
It is an astonishing thing to think about. Even with no way to test many of his theories, without any ability to do trial and error experimentation in a lab, the work that Einstein did more than a century ago has been proven right time and time again, and what is more, to this day remains the fundamental bedrock of modern physics. Einstein himself often spoke about thought experiments. He would, for example – in his mind! – put an imaginary person on an imaginary train, and then imagine that the train was moving at the speed of light. And then he asked himself questions. If it was possible to actually make this happen, how would the person on the train experience time and space? How would someone watching the person on the train experience the same things? And as Einstein answered these questions, his theories came together.
These thought experiments were so important to Einstein that some believe it was his ability to imagine these things, and not his ability to do complicated math, that made him the greatest physicist of all time. His original paper on the theory of relativity, written in 1905, is mostly prose with a few relatively simple algebraic equations sprinkled in. It wasn’t a math brain that set Einstein apart and that made him a genius – it was his ability to imagine things, to look at something that anyone could see, but to understand it and think about it in a totally different way.
It is a little bit like the way another genius, Michelangelo, approached his work. Art historians have long struggled to understand how Michelangelo created his great sculptures. To this day the particular techniques he used remain largely unknown. But the best possible explanation for his greatness may come from the way he was able to use his imagination. Speaking about one of his statues, he once said “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” You and I might look at the same block of marble and see it simply as a solid piece of stone. But Michelangelo’s imagination was such that in his mind there was a figure locked inside that block – and all he had to do was take the stone away to reveal that figure. In the same way Einstein could look out at the universe, and in his imagination he saw the physics in it that holds it all together and makes it work.
Einstein grew up in a secular Jewish household, with very little exposure to traditional Jewish life, and in fact he went to a Catholic school for his elementary education. But I’ve always wondered if his Jewish roots helped to free his mind and imagination, giving him the ability to see things differently than other people. Judaism would not exist without the ability of Jews and the Jewish people to look at the world at to imagine it in a different way – to use Michelangelo’s phrase, to ‘see the angel and to set it free.’
This is what Abraham was able to do, and Moses as well. Abraham looked out on a world of idol worshippers, where the people around him offered their children as sacrifices to the gods. But in his mind he imagined a different world, a world with a loving and forgiving God, a world where human sacrifice was forbidden, and a world where God was unique – where there was only one God. And because Abraham could imagine this world, could see it in his mind’s eye, he worked his entire life to make that world a reality.
It was the same for Moses. Moses was raised in the Egyptian palace, where Pharaoh was ‘god,’ in a culture where royalty was everything and slavery was part and parcel of every day life. But Moses could imagine a different world, a world where values like freedom and human dignity were lived and embraced, a world where slaves deserved to be free. And because Moses could see that world in his imagination when no one else was able to see it, he walked into Pharaoh’s throne room and demanded freedom for his people.
And that same sense of imagination is at the heart of the modern state of Israel. Herzl’s famous phrase was אם תרצו אין זו אגדה – if you imagine it, it will come into being. And he saw in his mind a Jewish state in the ancient land of Israel, when almost no one else at the time could imagine that possibility. The first settlers who came to the land looked out at a desert wilderness, a barren land, where nothing grew. But what they imagined was ארץ זבת חלב ודבש – a land filled with milk and honey. And in their mind’s eye they saw green fields, and orange groves, and vineyards. And if you go to Israel today, you’ll see with your own eyes how that vision becomes Israel’s reality.
Even our celebration of the festivals is grounded in our ability to imagine a different world. On Passover we sit at the seder table and imagine that we are slaves. On Shavuot we stay up all night studying Torah, and in that exercise we imagine that we are at the foot of Mt Sinai, waiting for God’s revelation. And on Sukkot, we build booths in our yards, eat and sometimes even sleep in them, and we imagine that we are wandering in the wilderness and searching for the Promised Land.
In each case the tradition asks us to look out at the world and to see what is – to acknowledge that fully and honestly – but at the very same time to imagine what could and should be. And then to imagine what role we will play in making that vision become a new reality for all. As Einstein himself said: “Logic will get you from A to Z, but imagination will get your everywhere.”
Shabbat Shalom, Hag Sameach