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In the Beginning and In the End
When the cosmos was about to be created — the fundamental forces of nature being unified in an exceedingly hot, dense point and galaxies, stars, planets, even stable matter itself yet unformed — there was no recognizable space, no measurable time. There was no darkness over the surface of the deep because there was no deep, no surface, no over and no under. No wind hovered over any water, as there was not yet any hydrogen or oxygen, much less any combination of them in the form of water. And there was no wind, either. What there was — all that there was — was chaotic, pulsating Potential.
At some moment, for reasons yet unclear, what was began to change into what is. Gravity separated first from the combined strong nuclear and electroweak forces. Then the strong force emerged and the electroweak force devolved into the electromagnetic force and weak nuclear force. The nascent universe, still small and unbelievably hot and turbulent, was an ever changing soup of energy and sub-atomic particles. It was all good, and about to become better.
Within one second from the mystery of beginning, our mini-universe inflated, and then started to expand. Its temperature dropped from an unfathomably hot state of 100 nonillion degrees Kelvin to only one trillion degrees, but that relative cooling was sufficient for sub-atomic particles to become protons and neutrons and other heavier particles. At the three minute mark, with the temperature now down to a cool billion degrees, particles fused into atomic nuclei, mostly hydrogen nuclei, some helium nuclei and other kinds as well. This, too, was good.
Between 380,000 and 400,000 years after creation, the temperature in the considerably expanded and expanding universe dropped to less than 3000 degrees Kelvin. Electrons now orbited the existing nuclei. Atoms formed. The universe was now transparent to visible light, but in the absence of stars still dark. This was still good.
A second stage in the life of the cosmos now began. In this interstellar stage, light elements, primarily hydrogen and helium gasses, begin to coalesce to form galaxies filled with stars. Over time, long periods of time, some stars died and in the process sent forth heavier elements created in their core. As that process repeated and repeated, the universe became seeded with heavier elements. This was very good.
One of the earliest galaxies to form was one now known as the Milky Way. Billions of years later, this galaxy assumed a spiral shape. On one of the outer arms of this spiral galaxy, light gasses gravitated together and then ignited to become a conventional yellow star called the Sun. Heavier stellar dust surrounding the Sun accreted into various objects, some large enough to be called planets. The third planet in orbit around the Sun is known as Earth. Due largely to its distance from the Sun, the temperature of Earth relatively soon came to allow for liquid water and a protective atmosphere. This was very, very good.
Shortly after conditions permitted, simple life emerged on Earth. Just as we do not know what initiated the explosive growth in the original small, hot and dense universe, we do not know exactly what forces changed inorganic chemical compounds into self-replicating lifeforms. All that we know is that the change was very, very good.
Life evolved over time, all kinds of life, slowly at first and then profoundly. Subsequent natural disasters caused mass extinctions of many lifeforms, but those situations also allowed others to flourish. Following the impact of an asteroid or comet on Earth about 65 million years ago, non-avian dinosaurs died, but small mammals now had an opportunity to multiply in number and evolve in form. And they did, ultimately generating a species of primates who could stand erect and wonder and think and speak and proclaim that all that had come before was very, very, very good.
Jewish tradition literally begins with the Beginning. The Judahites and Israelites and their ancestors who first began to contemplate the Beginning and their beginnings had no inkling either about the reality of the origin of the cosmos, or of the nature and duration of its development. But then, how could they have known what actually happened? Science as we understand it did not exist when the authors of the Torah stories put quill to scroll.
And, equally important, the purpose of those authors was not to observe, describe and test natural phenomena. Rather they were interested in the preservation and development of a particular people in a particular place during a particular period of time. Their collected story was not so much about fact, as it concerned faith and future. They were focused, to use the phrase of the Yiddish writer Isaac Leib Peretz, on “one God, one Law, one people, one land.”
Consequently, they chose to begin their national saga both by demythologizing the then current creation stories extant in the ancient Near East and asserting, though not consistently or in philosophical terms, the idea that there was and ought to be order in the universe, an order established by a single, powerful god. They wrote of a deity who not only operated in history, but who initiated history through a series of acts of creation, differentiation, separation and identification. (See Gen. 1:1-31.) With key elements of the universe both established and ordered, their tale of the development of humanity generally and the destiny of a particular family, nation and people could now unfold.
Still, while the creation story in Genesis is mythic (i.e., a traditional story that explains) and not scientific (i.e., not analytic and predictive), it is a powerful myth. It is one of the two interventions in history, along with the exodus story, that are invoked frequently as evidence of God’s powers and achievement. Biblical prophets like Isaiah (at, e.g., 40:12, 42:5) and psalmists (at, e.g., 8:2-4, 19:2, 102:26 and 121:1-2) maintained and embellished the theme of the creator God. That theme later became incorporated in the siddur, the Jewish prayer book, as part of prayers like the Sabbath Kiddush recited over a cup of wine, the evening prayer Maariv Aravim, the Sabbath morning Psukei D’zimrah (verses of praise) and the traditional closing prayers, Aleinu and Kaddish Yatom (the Mourner’s Kaddish).
Discoveries in science over the last few centuries, and especially in the last few generations, have challenged the literal Genesis text. For some, the biblical story nevertheless remains the accurate report of events which took placed some 5776 years ago, and they have rejected modern science. For others, the story retains vitality and they have strained to reconcile the ancient words with contemporary knowledge. For still others, though, people who embrace modern science without reservation, the biblical myth serves as the basis for what some call creation or process theology or evolution theology or eco-theology. These approaches seek to integrate newly revealed science with certain philosophical or theological perspectives. They incorporate the facts that we are all stardust, all related members of the same evolutionary tree of life. And they assert that we are bound by our connection to the Earth to preserve and protect it. Contemporary Jewish thought demonstrates that the biblical creation story still resonates.
Yet, if for over two and a half millennia Jewish thought has engaged energetically and enthusiastically with the beginning of time, it has been less concerned about confronting the end of time. To understand just how limited Jewish thought is regarding the end of time, it will be helpful to understand what modern science teaches about our future, and that of our planet, our solar system, our galaxy and the universe itself.
Putting aside the possibility of worldwide death by disease and the perhaps greater possibility of global demise due to thermonuclear war (the Doomsday Clock now sitting at only three minutes to midnight), history evidences no less than five mass extinctions of life in the last four hundred and fifty million years. The last of these extinctions occurred about 65,000,000 years ago when, as noted above, an extraterrestrial object hit Earth. The force of the blow, on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, was perhaps a billion times more powerful than the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima in World War II. The impact crater it created, known as the Chicxulub Crater, is about 110 miles in diameter. While our shrew like ancestors survived, and we ultimately evolved, there can be no guarantee that we would survive the next such event. After all, Chicxulub may not even be the biggest impact crater on Earth.
Moreover, even assuming that we avoid disease, war and asteroids, human life on Earth, indeed Earth itself, is still doomed. Our Sun is about halfway through its own lifecycle. By most estimates, it has only another five billion years, give or take, to live. During that time, it will consume all of its hydrogen, collapse, begin to fuse helium, and then expand into an immense red giant star. As the solar death process unfolds, the Sun will expand first to reach Mercury’s orbit, then that of Venus and finally Earth’s. The atmosphere will dissipate, the seas will evaporate and Earth may well spiral into the enlarged Sun and vaporize. Ultimately, the Sun itself will collapse into a white dwarf with a carbon core.
Perhaps humankind will have left Earth by then and established bases on more distant planets or their moons or even in other star systems in the Milky Way. Yet that may not be enough to save our species. Our spiral galaxy is on a collision course with our nearest and much larger galactic neighbor, Andromeda. Andromeda is presently about 2.5 million light years away from us. That equates to over seventeen trillion miles, a goodly distance. But we are approaching each other at about a quarter of a million miles per hour. So, in about four to five billion years the two star systems will collide. According to Harvard astronomy professor and theoretical cosmologist Avi Loeb, the result will be a new spheroidal shaped galaxy (3/12). Of course, by then, as we have seen, our birth planet and our Sun will be dying and taking Earth with it. Will the new worlds on which we have landed survive the twists and turns of intergalactic gravitational forces?
But wait! If an intergalactic collision is much too much to contemplate, there may be less, much less, in our longer term future. In recent years, science has come to understand what the late, great New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, with no earned academic degrees, knew all along (though he may not have been the first to say so). “The future,” Yogi once said, “ain’t what it used to be.”
Edwin Hubble’s discovery in 1929 that galaxies in general were moving apart from each other was astonishing enough. It indicated that our universe, space itself, was expanding. Less than twenty years ago, in 1998, astrophysicists determined that the rate of expansion is not steady as once supposed, but is in fact accelerating due to a repulsive force of gravity called dark energy. Because dark energy is not well understood, there is no consensus as to what the future holds for our home universe, but of many possible scenarios three (each with variations) are most discussed. They are often called the Big Crunch, the Big Rip and the Big Freeze.
In the Big Crunch, at some point trillions of years in the future, perhaps because dark energy is less pervasive than thought or ceases to be as powerful as thought, gravity overcomes the expansion of the universe, a process of universal collapse and consolidation ensues, all that is rushes back ultimately to a hot, dense state similar to that from which the universe emerged.
In the Big Rip, the expansion of space proceeds to the point where first galaxies, then stars and planets and ultimately the atoms of elements themselves cannot hold together. They simply rip apart, leaving a vast expanding universe of drifting subatomic particles. One estimate is that this scenario could unfold over a period running from about 22 billion to 62 billion years from now.
In the Big Freeze, the universe continues to expand, but not sufficiently fast to cause cosmic suicide. As galaxies become more and more separated from each other, and stars within galaxies do as well, our descendants, if any, will lose the ability to see them and the evening sky will become darker and darker. As the universe gets larger, its temperature will approach absolute zero. Existing stars ultimately will die and no more will be born. The universe will suffer from heat death and become an infinitely large area of dark husks and waste.
Of course, much of this is speculative. And there are variations on these themes as well as other scenarios. For instance, some believe that the Big Crunch could lead to a Big Bounce and renewed life for the universe. Others talk about a Big Change or a Big Slurp, where a bubble in our universe or from another universe suddenly appears and annihilates our universe. That said, and with all possible caveats, the Big Freeze scenario appears, for now, to be the most probable of all futures.
Needless to say, the authors of the Torah knew nothing about an expanding universe, or dark energy, or Big Crunches, Rips or Freezes. If they ever conceived of the evolution and ultimate fate of their universe at all, they said nothing. For them, as it is most of the time for most of us, all concerns, like all politics, were local.
Similarly, Biblical prophets and poets, and later Talmudic and medieval sages, were no more informed about modern astrophysics as it applies to the future and ultimate death of the universe than they were to the physics that applied to the origin of the universe or the biochemistry involved in the evolution of life. But they did speak on occasion about acharit hayamim, meaning the end of days or the days to come, an unspecified time in the distant future. Even as they did, though, they created no complete narrative analogous to the creation stories, nothing that described the end of life on our home planet, much less the death of the universe as we know it.
When the days to come were envisioned in the book of Isaiah, they were seen as an idyllic time when the house of the God of Israel would be established on the highest mountain, God’s word would go forth from Jerusalem, and none but the God of Israel would be worshipped. (Is. 2:2, 3, 17.) At that time, the many nations of the world would beat their swords into pruning hooks and forego war (Is. 2:4), and the wolf would dwell with the lamb, just as the leopard would lie down with the kid (Is. 11:6). Similarly, on that day, the dispersed people of Israel would return from Assyria, Egypt and other lands, and Judah and Israel would be reunited. (Is. 11:11-13.) The reunited community would be rewarded with everlasting joy and gladness (Is. 51:11), with the smallest becoming a mighty clan, and the least, a mighty nation (Is. 60:22).
Invoking the metaphors of dried bones and sticks, Ezekiel, too, foresaw the reunification of Judah and Ephraim, never again to be divided. (Ezek. 36:24, 37:1-23.) Given a new heart and new spirit, the people would be cleansed and their land would once again become like the Garden of Eden, with abundant fields, but now populated and fortified. (Ezek. 36:24-27; 36:30-35.) In Zechariah’s words, when the dispersed returned home, the squares of Jerusalem would be filled with old men and women with their staffs in hand, and crowded with young boys and girls playing. (Zech. 8:4-5.)
While the exile of Judahites to Babylon did end, and a Second Temple was constructed, ultimately that period ended in destruction and dispersal as well. Not only had the prophesied time of peace and prosperity neither come nor been sustained, the rabbis in the Talmudic period (c. 50 – c. 500 CE) were faced with communal concerns quite different than those confronting the ancient prophets. They continued to discuss and elaborate on a hypothetical end of days, which they extrapolated into a Messianic Age, one which would be presided over by the anointed one, the Mashiach or Messiah, and come, by some interpretation, no later than 6000 years after creation, a view maintained by some today. By a traditional count, the birthday of the world is dated to Rosh HaShanah in 3761 BCE, meaning that the Messianic Age would arrive no later than Rosh HaShanah in the year 2239 CE. The rabbis were giving themselves and the Messiah plenty of slack.
But as the great medieval scholar Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as the Rambam or Maimonides, observed, whenever the Messianic Age might commence, even while there would be greater peace and more wisdom, there would also still be rich and poor, strong and weak. The essence of the Messianic Age for the Rambam (at 19-20/38) was that Jews would return to the land of Israel and regain their independence. Life would go on. Even as some imagined horrific battles or other conditions that would presage the Messianic Age, there was no narrative about mass destruction during the Messianic Age itself. The whole point was the reconstitution of a united Jewish People in their ancestral homeland, free to build their society in peace.
How could it be otherwise? After all, if it were foreseen that the entirety of what is, including life itself, would someday cease to be, and cease irrespective of the scope of adherence to a particular set of commandments, laws and instructions, how would rabbis of that time have explained the purpose of the original creation? What would such an anticipated end say of the Creator of the Beginning? Or of God’s later promise to Noah, his descendants and all living creatures, symbolized by the rainbow, to never again destroy the world? (See Gen. 9:8-17.)
Of course, the same questions can be asked of rabbis today and they have less of an excuse of ignorance. At the same time, perhaps the Messianic Age is too important a topic to be left to theologians. Perhaps it is for poets to provide the compelling lesson, as Danny Siegel does here:
If you always assume that the man sitting next to you is the Messiah,
Waiting for some simple human kindness,
You will soon come to weigh your words and watch your hands.
And if he so chooses not to reveal himself in your time,
It will not matter.