Thursday, October 10, 2013

Lech Lecha and the God Particle

This week’s Torah portion is Lech Lecha and tells the story of Abraham’s call. “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” (Genesis 12:1) And Abraham went as God commanded.

Often when examining this story we look at the later success of the journey. We judge the trip by its destination. Abraham journeys to the land of Israel and there secures our attachment to this sacred land. But at the outset this is not assured. Still Abraham sets out on the journey, trusting in the promise even though he is unaware of the destination. God instructs him that the journey will conclude at a land that “I will show you.”

How often have we set out on a journey with the destination so unclear? I would guess, “Almost never.” In our goal oriented society we rarely if ever journey with no destination in mind. Yet the majority of the Torah is a record of our wandering through the wilderness. We are a people defined, especially in our beginnings, but also throughout our long history, by wandering. Still today we insist on setting goals. We must know the destination at the outset of our journey.

Abraham, however, sets out without knowing. He does not know where his wandering will conclude. Would we be comfortable setting out on road trip without a destination in mind? Would we remain at ease sending our children off to college with undeclared majors or without clear career goals? We forget that learning is about wandering. It is about a journey through unknown, and yet undiscovered, lands.

This week’s papers reported that Dr. Peter Higgs and Dr. Francois Englert were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the theory first elucidated in 1964 about the Higgs boson. The theory proposes that there exist undiscovered particles that lend mass to other particles. This past year the Higgs boson was finally detected at the CERN Large Hadron Collider. It took 10,000 scientists to build this collider and wade through some 2,000 trillion particles to find one Higgs boson. What was only a theory and invisible fifty years ago was now made clear.

Even more interesting was the fact that Dr. Higgs still does not know he won the Nobel; he still has not been told the news. Why? On Tuesday he told a friend that he was going away for a few days by himself and would not return until Friday. He told no one where he was going. He also does not own a cellphone or computer and so cannot be reached. One of the greatest minds in theoretical physics does not even use a computer and according to reports values being alone with his thoughts. He will not find out about his prize until tomorrow when he returns.

It occurs to me that great minds need to wander. Perhaps goals and destinations sometimes cloud our thinking. Even prizes divert our attention from the journey.

According to rabbinic legend, and in particular the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, Abraham discovered God during his wanderings. On his journey through the desert, he looked up to the stars and thought to himself, “There must be an invisible force that moves the stars. There must be a God moving the heavens.” It was then and there that he theorized that there must be only one God.

Wandering is indeed where great ideas are born.

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