We are used to the miraculous and the scientific existing at two opposite extremes. On the one side are those out-of-this-world stories and moments in life - then on the other, the very much in-the-world discipline of science. But Jewish mysticism teaches that the desired outcome is that the miraculous should become included within the physical. That those events that first appeared to break the laws of nature, become included within them. But this process of miraculous to natural can take time. In our present example, we are going on close to 300 years.
Leap of distance
There is a recent video where NASA physicist Harold White briefly explains the physics of creating a space-warp space ship. First it should be noted that the video didn’t speak about traveling through worm holes, so we while we discussed tearing the fabric of space-time previously, presently we will be following Harold’s lead and speaking about the warping of space-time.
To sum up Harold’s presentation, by surrounding a space craft with rings of negative energy density (or negative pressure), with enough power, and according to General Relativity, space could be made to expand behind the space craft, and contracted in front. For those following, this would allow for faster-than-light travel, and more timely inter-planetary or inter-galactic travel.
Now the interesting thing for us is that while Harold presented some new, nifty artist renderings of what this space craft may look like, many of us are familiar with the original. While there are hundreds of miracle stories told about the Baal Shem Tov – founder of the Hasidic movement – one of the consistent themes are stories that take include trips on his wagon.
While his gentile wagon driver Alexi slept, turned backwards to face the passengers, or was otherwise distracted from the task of driving, the Baal Shem Tov’s wagon sped at wondrous speeds in a process known as, “leap of distance” (kefitzat haderech).
But until today there was a question, a question that even a very young child can ask. If this wagon miraculously leaped distances, why did it need to be a wagon at all? Like a kid who climbs into an open soapbox and travels to distant lands, why not jump into a box and take off from there?
While miracles certainly help to arouse the heart, it is said that the most important lessons learned from the Baal Shem Tov are from how he interacted with school children, how he meticulously observed every detail of Jewish law, etc. While these miracles are exciting and wondrous, the intent was to make this world a dwelling place for God.
Why were wheels needed?
According to the Smag (an acronym for the Medieval index of commandments called: Large Book of Mitzvot), this is one of the 613 commandments. In his words: “It is a positive commandment to compute tekufot and mazalot and moladot….” These three words “tekufot, mazalot, moladot” refer to the various cycles of the stars and planets (today, we call this astrophysics).
On the verse, “for it is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the nations,” Rashi writes that science is “recognizable wisdom,” because all the nations of the world can recognize it. Science has an advantage over the wisdom of the Torah because it predicts. The Torah does not appear to predict anything and only the Jewish mind fully appreciates it. Torah is like concealed wisdom compared to science. As we know, the strength of any scientific theory is its power of prediction. So, according to the sages, the most important scientific endeavor is astrophysics, which it is a commandment to pursue.
Now, tekufot, which literally means “cycles,” are a time image and mazalot, which literally mean “star constellations,” or “galaxies” are a space image, which also implies that it is a mitzva to unite time and space. This appears at the end of the discussion in the Talmud regarding the tearing of the fabric of the tapestry of the Tabernacle, which corresponds to the fabric of space-time.
This is all written here in short, but the lesson in that according to the Smag it is a positive commandment to compute the various cycles of the stars and planets, to learn astrophysics.
Spaceships need wheels
The hope for these miracles is that the wonder and excitement lead to an increased commitment to God and His Torah. But there is another point, and that is that the Baal Shem Tov was meticulous in every aspect of Jewish law. Thus if it is a positive commandment to learn astrophysics (as it is according to the Smag), and as he was warping the fabric of space-time during his journeys, we would expect to find the laws of physics alluded to in his wagon itself. Although it would take close to 300 years to realize this, his reliance on wheels while traveling at “warp speed” appears to have a basis in scientific theory.
In NASA's recent rendering of what a warp-drive space craft would look like, the ship is nestled at the center of two enormous rings, which create a warp bubble. Thus we would assume (perhaps someone can find an allusion to this) that the wheels of the Baal Shem Tov’s wagon also created a warp bubble when traveling at warp speed. We also need to explain why there are only two rings in the artistic rendering instead of the four that most wagons are outfitted with Will an updated rendering include four rings? All this needs to be explained now according to science.
So while it took close to 300 years, and while we don’t yet have warp-drive space crafts, at least we can now appreciate some of the physics behind the leaping wagon.
To end on a personal note: I heard about the new space craft model this morning, then shortly thereafter, found out that I also had to travel on a bus today. Appreciating the relationship between the two, I decided to write the article about the importance of riding on wheels, while riding on wheels.
Freely adapted and inspired from material in Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh’s Lectures on Torah and Modern Physics.
Yonatan Gordon has spent most of his past 14 professional years in the world of Jewish publishing. He was the Marketing Manager at Kehot Publication Society (publishing arm of Chabad) for the better part of six years. He is founder of the website Community of Readers. Visit Yonatan's new Jewcer campaign The Kabbalah of Business Book here.