How can a physics experiment from the 1930's help us prepare for the new year?
Welcome to the most unusually timed Jewish year that many of us will ever experience! If you are here, that means that you did something a little unusual - you made your plans for Rosh HaShanah even before Labor Day Weekend. This year, we can expect Yom Kippur to fall in the first half of September, Sukkot and Simhat Torah will be over before the end of September, and Hanukkah will start on Thanksgiving Eve.
It just seems like everything is happening much sooner than we’re accustomed to. I know I’ve been told that time speeds up as you get older, but this is ridiculous.
I’m not the first person to notice this. The world’s very best writer about sports ever -- the late Bart Giamatti, president of Yale University and then Major League Baseball Commissioner, once wrote: “Somehow, the summer seemed to slip by faster this time. Maybe it wasn’t this summer, but all the summers that [in this summer] …. slipped by so fast. There comes a time when every summer will have something of autumn about it.”
So - with a perception that, for all of us, our experience of the passage of time is accelerating, there is a news story that caught my eye earlier this summer that seems emblematic for the cusp of this new year. This is the story of the longest-running science experiment in the history of scientific inquiry. Nearly 80 years ago, a physicist at the University of Queensland, in Australia, was studying how some substances which we think of as solids are actually liquids -- that flow very very slowly. And he said - one example of this is asphalt, or tar pitch. When it’s hardened, you can strike it with a hammer and it will shatter, as a solid would. But, he said, it’s actually a very very very slow-flowing liquid, and he devised an experiment to demonstrate this. He set some pitch in a funnel, put the end of the funnel in a beaker, and set it on a shelf -- to wait. And the weeks passed by - and the months - and the years - and about 15 years after this experiment had been set up, it became clear that he was right - the pitch was slowly, very slowly, flowing from the funnel into the beaker - approximately one drop every 10 to 15 years.
But one frustration was, in the nearly 80 years that the experiment was going on, no one ever actually got to see the pitch drop. This is not surprising when you consider that it would take up to 15 years for a drop to form, and for a period of several months it would appear that the drop was imminent, but the drop itself took about 1/10 of a second, and the scientists kept on missing it. You could see that it had dropped, but there was a tragic-comedic series of near misses. Once, a scientist saw that the pitch was going to drop imminently, but he had to go out for a cup of tea, and when he came back 15 minutes later, he saw that he had missed the pitch dropping. Or the time about 10 years ago when they set up two video cameras to record the dropping of the pitch, but both malfunctioned.
Well, there was an identical experiment in a lab in Dublin, at Trinity University, that was merely about 70 years old. And just about a month ago, the pitch dropped - but this time, because they had a webcam filming it, now anyone can see it, and see tangible evidence that pitch is in fact a very slow-moving liquid. (See an article about it, or this radio story, and/or see the video below.)
So why did this story catch my eye? Because I think it reflects something important about the seemingly paradoxical way that Judaism understands the passage of time. On the one hand, the experiment is an affirmation of permanence. A single science experiment sitting there on the shelf, as people are born, people die, there are wars, disasters, technological advances -- all while this little experiment sits on the shelf. And this reminds me of something especially notable, surprising and comforting for me about the role of Judaism in the life of my family. My grandfather, Louis Scheinberg of blessed memory, arrived to the United States in early 1913 - so his first Rosh haShanah in the United States was exactly 100 years ago tonight. There have been so many changes in our family over the last 100 years - but I am sure that that year 100 years ago, his family attended Rosh haShanah evening services that were quite similar to our services this evening. And the following day, they heard the shofar blown - and I am sure it sounded almost exactly like the shofar will sound here tomorrow. We can go back 200 years - 500 years - 1000 years - even 2000 years - in countries around the globe. Certainly there are differences, but it is unmistakably the same tradition, the same holiday, and many of the same words and the same observances. As we say repeatedly in our prayers: לדור ודור נגיד גדלך. We proclaim God’s greatness in every generation, and from one generation to another.
But then again, this experiment also demonstrates that even as we experience stability, our lives are characterized by constant change - even though we may never actually witness it. Most of the important transitions in our lives happen right before our eyes, and yet we usually don’t see them, because. they happen gradually, imperceptibly. I think it’s wise that in Jewish tradition, most important transitions don’t happen in a split second; they happen over the course of a period of time.
For example: when does Shabbat start? Well, 20 minutes before sundown, it’s still Friday. And about an hour later, it’s just about completely dark, so it’s clear that Shabbat has begun. but during that intermediate time, which is referred to in Hebrew as bein ha-sh’mashot בין השמשות - ‘between the suns’ - it’s basically Shabbat, but not 100% Shabbat yet. Friday fades into Saturday which fades into Sunday.
Or this new year. Unlike the secular year, when we have the countdown and the ball falling, and we make a clear delineation of when it’s the old year and when the new year begins, traditionally speaking the Jewish year fades from one year to the other. When we began this service, it was still the year 5773. And gradually over the course of the last half hour, the year has morphed into 5774. But when exactly the year changed - no one can point to the particular moment.
Or think about the life cycle. When does a baby turn into a child? It happens so gradually and imperceptibly that you can’t see it happening - especially if you are spending a lot of time with the child.
Or similarly - when does a child become an adult? Not in one dramatic moment, but gradually and imperceptibly - like tar pitch gradually adopting a new shape, one slow drop after another.
We tend to prefer to pretend that these transitions take place more quickly than they actually do. And so we telescope the transitions. We have a ceremony called a ‘bar mitzvah’ and we proclaim that that’s the moment when the child becomes an adult, even though it’s a gradual process over the course of several years. Or similarly, we have a ceremony called a ‘wedding’ when we say, this is the moment when these two beloved friends have become a single family unit, even though we know that that is a process that takes several years, usually beginning long before the wedding ceremony, and actually, usually not complete until several years thereafter.
But the most important resonance for me of the pitch drop experiment is that it reminds me that we may look like we are solid, and we may feel solid, but each of us is actually a slow-moving liquid. We are constantly changing, flowing, even though we may not perceive it as it is happening. We’re more likely to notice that we HAVE CHANGED, than to perceive the changes while they’re going on.
This is true about individuals and about communities. Take, for example, my grandfather’s first Rosh Hashanah in this country. On the one hand, Jewish tradition is stable, the same, from generation to generation. But at the same time, those traditions have changed, at least a little bit each generation or each year, such that if we look back 100 years, or 500 or 1000 years, the way Jews in my family (or any other family) practiced Jewish traditions is unmistakably in the same continuity, and yet also, unmistakably different from today.
And this is a key message of these High Holy Days. If we think that we are solid rather than liquid, it is only because we lack the kind of time lapse camera that is useful for detecting changes in experiments that last for 70 to 80 years and more. Just as we usually don’t feel ourselves suddenly becoming adults, or suddenly being in love, we don’t feel ourselves growing into new values. Or shedding old values.
Or losing hold of traditions and practices and habits that have strengthened us in the past, or slowly adopting new habits, some which may strengthen us and some which may set us back. These changes happen imperceptibly, but on the High Holy Days we are called to take note of them and seize control of them.
Perhaps the most important word in the passages of the torah describing the covenant between God and Israel is the word היום ‘hayom,’ meaning ‘today.’ Because the way we change - our trajectory of change - depends on the little decisions we make each day.
You may know the outstanding story in the Talmud about the extraordinary and surprising power of very small gradual changes. It’s a story about an illiterate shepherd named Akiba, who never had any formal education. Until one day, when Akiba was standing by a well and noticed water dripping out of the mouth of the well. Akiba followed the trickle of the water and saw that it led to a hollowed out stone, shaped like a bowl. He marveled at this. and said: מי חקק אבן זו? Mi chakak even zo? “I wonder who hollowed out this stone. I wonder how they did it!”
Someone else heard Akiba’s question and told him, “there’s no PERSON who hollowed out that stone. : המים שתדיר נופלים עליה בכל יום. It’s the constant drip of the water, day after day, which created the hollow in the rock.”
And at that moment, Akiba came to a realization: הרך פסל את הקשה….., Given enough time, something soft, like water, can carve something hard, like stone. And he said: “My mind can’t possibly be harder than stone!” And he decided: Maybe, at age 40, I can actually learn to read! Maybe I can actually learn Torah!
He went immediately to the school where his son was learning. And in the next few days, Akiba learned the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. (That’s actually not so special. once you decide to do it, most adults can in fact learn the basics of how to read Hebrew in just a few days.) And then he moved up into another class, and began to learn to read from the Torah. Eventually he learned the entire written Torah, and then the entire Oral Torah. (Well, that part is kind of special.)
Perhaps you know the conclusion of this story. Today, we don’t refer to this shepherd merely as Akiba. We refer to him as RABBI Akiba, one of the greatest sages of our history. And it never would have happened if he hadn’t noticed changes in something that he had thought was unchangeable -- if he hadn’t noticed that the constancy of the dripping water could wear away even the hardness of rock.
And It never would have happened if he had not imagined that perhaps he was like that rock;
perhaps he was not as unchangeable as he had assumed. Perhaps he was liquid rather than solid.
At this time of year, Jewish tradition invites us to think of times when WE feel that there’s some quality we have, or some limitation that we have, simply because that’s the way we are. Maybe Rabbi Akiva’s experience can inspire us to find a strategy to accomplish our goal.
You may have seen a recent book by Charles Duhigg, called The Power of Habit, about the processes people go to change their habits, as well as how businesses spend a lot of money to try to get us to adopt new habits that we might not actually choose for ourselves. His findings are, in fact, that human beings are liquid rather than solid; we are constantly changing and flowing. He writes: “Every [human] habit, no matter its complexity, is malleable…”
However: we may be liquid, but like the asphalt, we are usually quite slow-moving liquid. Habits we seek to change can only be changed with real work, real effort, and real understanding. According to Duhigg, what is the magic ingredient that makes someone able to change? -- BELIEF. Not necessarily religious belief, but belief in the possibility of change. As he writes: “Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives, until they started believing they could change. Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.”
Great people are not impervious to changing, at ANY point in the life cycle. I heard from one of the students of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, one of the towering intellects of American Judaism, and the teacher of many of my teachers, that when he taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary, he taught a class in which he would share his interpretation of that week’s Torah portion every Monday. And then on Wednesday, it would be a student’s turn to offer his own perspective. Kaplan was a very demanding teacher and always found reason to criticize the student presenter. Until one clever student who was assigned to speak the following Wednesday decided, on Monday, to write down Dr. Kaplan’s interpretation verbatim. That Wednesday he repeated Kaplan’s presentation word for word.
After he finished, Dr. Kaplan said, “that was terrible.”
And the student said: “But Dr. Kaplan, that is exactly what you said on Monday!”
And Kaplan replied, “I know! But I have grown so much since Monday!”
And one final story about change: The great rabbinic sage Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883) was once spending the night at a shoemaker's home. Late at night, Salanter saw the man still working by the light of a flickering, almost extinguished candle. "Rabbi Salanter went over to the man: 'Look how late it is; your candle is about to go out. Why are you still working?'
“The shoemaker, undeterred by the rabbi's words, replied, 'As long as the candle is burning, it is still possible to mend.'
For weeks afterward, these words became Rabbi Salanter’s mantra: 'As long as the candle is burning, it is still possible to mend.'
May the new year 5774 bring blessing, peace, and fulfillment to us, our families, the Jewish people and the world. May it bring many beautiful moments of continuity, and outstanding moments of change. And may it bring us closer to flowing into the people we are meant to be.