February 21st, 2014

Trying to contemplate the universe in its entirety is impossible.

We are able, on a dark night, to see a few thousand stars. But there are literally hundreds of billions more. Yes, hundreds of billions! And each star, we can presume, is at the center of its own solar system of planets.

And that is just in our galaxy, the Milky Way. There are, it is calculated, 170 billion galaxies in the universe, give or take a few billion, each with hundreds of billions of solar systems of their own.

What is so fascinating – and this we know through the wonders of science – is that every atom of every molecule in every bit and part of these billions and billions of galaxies is made up of the same or slightly different variations of the exact same neutrons and protons and electrons that we are familiar with.

Imagine that – hundreds and thousands of light years away, whatever is out there, is basically, at its core, just the same as the stuff here on Earth.

This incredible fact may help us to understand a mysterious statement made by the sages of the Talmud. In the Torah portion of Vayakhel we are told about an extraordinary artist who was engaged by Moshe to construct the Mishkan, the wilderness sanctuary that housed God’s presence, as it were. This artist’s name was Betzalel. The Torah informs us (Ex. 35:30):

וַיְמַלֵּא אֹתו רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים בְּחָכְמָה בִּתְבוּנָה וּבְדַעַת וּבְכָל מְלָאכָה  “God filled Betzalel with wisdom, insight and knowledge of every kind of craft and artistic talent required for the job at hand.”

In Tractate Brakhot the Talmudic sages interpret this to mean that Betzalel knew how to combine the letters with which heaven and earth were created. These letters – the letters of the Hebrew alphabet – when they are combined in the required sequences, are the building blocks of God’s creation.

That sounds pretty mystical, and quite deep. More importantly, though, it does not seem to reflect the reality of what was required of Betzalel. What he needed to know was the advantages and disadvantages of different kinds of materials, and how best to get them to work according to the design of the Mishkan as prescribed by God. Knowledge of the secrets of creation seems pretty obscure, and not much help for the task at hand.

Our modern understanding of science can help us understand this better. Spiritual elements are the parallel of physical elements. These elements – spiritual neutrons, protons, and electrons – are the part we don’t see, but it is what animates nature and the functioning of our gigantic universe.

This spirituality is represented to us in the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. It was a deep knowledge of individual component parts, both spiritual components and physical components, that was the essence of the wisdom required of Betzalel, in order to enable him to put together a sanctuary that reflected the need to physically house the spiritual presence of God.

To contemplate the big picture is impossible. To construct a big picture out of small components, components that you have an intimate knowledge of, was the only way to get the job done.

There is a profound lesson in this. We often give up on our Judaism, or on any grand scale project, because we are only looking at the big picture. If, however, we would focus on the details, detail by detail, we would find, before too long, that the whole thing has come into focus.

Whether it’s building a Mishkan, or a shul, or studying Torah, or educating one’s children, or maintaining and sustaining relationships – trying to contemplate the big picture is not going to produce the results.

In order to succeed, we need to focus on the little things, and then do them one by one.

Photo: View of the Milky Way over the Elqui Valley in Chile. Copyright: Jesse Kraft

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