The Quantum Mechanics-Rosh Hashanah Connection (Rosh Hashanah 5781)
By Andrés Spokoiny
According to physicist Carlo Rovelli, the most radical discovery of quantum mechanics is this: Things don’t have concrete existence, but instead acquire proper entity only when they interact with other things. Like most concepts in quantum, this is mind bending. At the most basic level, quantum says, our world is not made of “things” but of relationships.
Despite this being a radical idea, we experience it in many ways in our daily life. Think of a TV: An electron collides with the material of the screen and only then it materializes into a dot of light that forms the TV image. If it didn’t interact with the screen, that electron would have remained in “indeterminate” state and never transformed into an image. It only “materialized” thanks to a relationship.
When I read that, bizarrely I admit, I thought of Rosh Hashanah. More precisely about the Torah portions that we read during the holiday. Rosh Hashanah celebrates a symbolic anniversary of the Creation of the World, so shouldn’t the most appropriate reading be Genesis I, the story of the Creation? Surprisingly, the Creation story is all but absent from the liturgy of that day. Instead, we read from the Torah about the rivalry between Sarah and Hagar, the conflicts between Isaac and Ishmael, and the perplexity of Abraham facing these tensions. We read about the fraught social dynamics between our patriarchs, and Abraham’s heart-wrenching decision to offer his son in sacrifice, only to have him saved in extremis.
So no, we don’t read about the philosophical and metaphysical questions of Creation; we read about relationships. Between husbands and wives, parents and children, Man and God, and, ultimately, people and their consciences. In other words, we are not talking about the world, but about the relationships within it. The message seems to be that relationships are more important than the actual Creation of the World, as if the world were not truly there until we created meaningful relationships with one another.
And this is important, because our Western industrialized world has a problem with relationships. Much of the modern world was built around the idea that relationships in general were oppressive and restrictive of one’s freedom. Family mandates, for example, limited who you could marry and what job you could do, the relationship to the Church limited your freedom of thought, feudal ties oppressed the individual, and your relationship with a nation limited your interaction with the wider world. In fact, much of the modern project of individual liberation consisted of shaking off those oppressive relationships, to gain the freedom to “be ourselves,” to be “authentic,” to “realize our destiny,” and to “maximize our potential.”
All those things are, of course, critically important. Most sane people don’t want to go back to a pre-modern world of obscurantism, social segregation, and religious oppression. But have we, maybe, over-corrected? Has the pendulum swung too far to the other side?
The dominant paradigm today is not that of the “relational person” but of the “self-built” person. The task of building our own identity is a personal quest, done in isolation from others, because others may make our choices less “authentic.” Being unique is a key value. We spend enormous amounts of energy building our “brand” or polishing our social media profiles to be “different.” We are strong believers in “autonomy” and see ourselves, and ourselves alone, as the sources of the law. We, in the intimacy of our minds, are the only arbiters of right and wrong.
And we did achieve autonomy and individual independence, but at the expense of our relations with others; at the expense of the links of solidarity that used to bound us. In the march towards individuation we became lonely and alienated, gradually eroding the capacity to form genuine relations of mutual care, solidarity, and even love.
During Covid we are seeing some grotesque manifestations of that existential libertarianism. We see people defending their “right” to not wear a mask, even though that puts others’ lives at risk. We see them proudly proclaiming that nothing, no link of responsibility to the other, can curtail their “freedom.” We see them demanding the right not to care about their neighbor, as if they were yearning to be that lonely electron lost in quantum space.
But also, during Covid, many of us are realizing that only meaningful relationships can get us through hardship. We are realizing how hard life is when our capacity to relate to others gets restricted. Some of us call our parents and grandparents more often, some rediscover the relationship with our kids, others find unsuspected joy in socially distanced walks with friends. The forced isolation is making us realize that life has meaning only when you share it, only when you fill it with relationships. We finally see that for us to fully exist in the world, we need others.
Some ancient cultures know that well. The Zulu greeting “Sawbona” gets translated today as “Hello,” but it literally means, “I see you, therefore I am.” We all know the Hillel quote that says, “If I’m not for myself, who will be?”, but we sometimes forget the second part of that phrase “But when I’m just for myself, what am I?”
Those Torah readings of Rosh Hashanah, almost pedestrian in their ordinariness, are totally bereft of metaphysical themes. They are about the importance and difficulty of relationships. They tell has that the meaning of life is not to be found in a philosophical treatise, money, success, or power, but in meaningful relationships: connections that will be messy, hard and complicated, but that will be the ultimate – and maybe only – affirmation of life.
When we thought that we could be perfectly happy as free-floating electrons, both Covid and Rosh Hashanah remind us that relationships are the only guarantee of a transcendent life. The mystery of the cosmos is not “how the world got created,” but how can we stay together and sustain one another in times of hardship.
May these trying times, and these holidays of awe, help us build stronger, more lasting, and more meaningful relationships. May our lives become richer from deep interactions with others, from feeling their pain, assuaging their sorrows and sharing their happiness. May we learn to balance our freedom with the need to be caring and responsible for one another, and may be discover that our capacity to build relationships is not finite, but gets bigger the more we exercise it.
Quantum mechanics say that things aren’t real until relationships make them so. The same is true for us: Without relationships, our lives are lone electrons looking for a screen to impact in the vastness of the universe. With them, however, they are bright and powerful, like a million dots of light.
Andrés Spokoiny is President and CEO of Jewish Funders Network.