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Seize the Days

by | Feb 19, 2004

Thoughts of consequence can sometimes arise from the most mundane experiences, even something as unremarkable as a headache.

Opening the medicine cabinet one day in search of relief, I was struck by a sticker on a prescription container. I had seen both the container and the sticker countless times, but the full implication of the message on the latter had somehow always escaped me.

“Not for use by pregnant women,” the caveat read.

“And why not?” a part of my aching but still functioning head wondered.

Because, another part answered, a fetus is so much more sensitive to the effects of chemicals than a more developed person. Partly, of course, because of its very tininess, but more importantly, because it is an explosively, relentlessly developing thing. When organisms undergo a process of development – especially as furious a process as a single cell growing to a many-billions-of-unbelievably-variegated-cells organism in a matter of mere months – they are easily and greatly affected by even the most subtle stimuli.

Which thought led, slowly but inexorably, to others, about the creation of the world – which we will soon be recounting in the weekly Torah portion – and about the beginning of a new Jewish year.

“The Butterfly Effect,” is the whimsical name science writers give to the concept of “sensitive dependence on initial conditions” – the idea that beginnings are unusually important things. A diversion of a single degree of arc where the arrow leaves the bow – or an error of a single digit at the beginning of a long calculation – can yield a difference of miles, or millions, in the end. For all we know, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings halfway around the world yesterday might have yielded a hurricane in the Atlantic today.

The most striking butterfly effects take place during formative stages, when much is transpiring with particular rapidity. Thus, the label on the medication; the gestation of a fetus, that single cell’s incredible journey toward personhood, is strikingly responsive to so much of what its mother does, eats and drinks. The developing child is exquisitely sensitive to even the most otherwise innocent chemicals because beginnings are formative, hence crucial, times.

Leaving the realm of the microcosm, our world itself, too, had a gestation period, six days’ worth. Interestingly, just as the initial developmental stage of a child takes place beyond our observation, so did that of the world itself. The event and processes of those days are entirely hidden from us, the Torah supplying only the most inscrutable generalities about actually took place then. Thus, the Talmudic rabbis applied the verse “the honor of G-d is the concealment of the things” (Proverbs, 25:2) to the days of creation. Honest scientists admit the same. E.A. Milne, a celebrated British astronomer, wrote “In the divine act of creation, G-d is unobserved and unwitnessed.” The physicist Richard Feynman once remarked about quantum mechanics, the physical system underlying matter, “I think it is safe to say that no one understands [it].”

Despite our inability, however, to truly know anything about the happenings of the creation week, to think of those days as a gestational time is powerfully enlightening. It may even help explain the apparent discrepancy between what we know from the Torah is the true age of the earth and what the geological and paleontological evidence seem to say.

Consider: what would happen if the age of an adult human since his conception were being inferred by a scientist from Alpha Centauri, a hypothetical intelligent creature with no familiarity whatsoever with our biological world, using only knowledge it has of the human’s present rate of growth and development? In other words, if our alien professor knew only that the individual standing before it developed from a single cell, and saw only the relatively plodding rate and wholly unimpressive degree of change in its subject, it would have no choice but to conclude that the 30-year-old human was, in truth, fantastically old. What the Alpha Centurion is missing, of course, is an awareness of the specialized nature of the gestational stage of life, the poignantly pregnant period before birth, with its rapid, astounding and unparalleled rate of development.

If we recognize that a similar gestational stage existed for the world as a whole at its creation – and the Torah tells us to do precisely that – then it is only reasonable to expect that formative stage to evidence a similarly accelerated rate of development, with the results on the first Sabbath seeming in every detectable way to reflect millions of years of development, eons that occurred entirely within the six days of the world’s explosive, embryonic growth.

The holiday we have just celebrated, Rosh Hashana, is called “the birthday of the world.” But the Hebrew word there translated as “birth” – haras – really means the process of conception /gestation. And so, annually, at the start of the Jewish year, it seems we relive the gestational days of creation. But more: those days are formative ones, the development period for the year that is to follow. Beginning with the “conception-day” of Rosh Hashana itself, and continuing with the “gestational days” leading to Yom Kippur, in which we now find ourselves, the period of the early new Jewish year is to each year what the creation-week was to the world of our experience: a formative stage.

All of which may well lend some insight into a puzzling Jewish religious law.

We are instructed by halacha to conduct ourselves in a particularly exemplary manner at the start of a new Jewish year. For each year’s first ten days, we are encouraged to avoid eating even technically kosher foods that present other, less serious, problems (like kosher bread baked by a non-Jewish manufacturer), and to generally conduct ourselves, especially interpersonally, in a more careful manner than during the rest of the year.

It is a law that bothers many. What is the point of “pretending” to a higher level of observance or refinement of personality when one may have no intention at all of maintaining those things beyond the week?

Might it be, though, that things not greatly significant under normal circumstances suddenly take on pointed importance during the year’s first week, because those days have their analogue in the concept of gestation?

Might those days, in other words, be particularly sensitive to minor influences because they are the days from which the entire year will develop?

Observance and good conduct are always in season, but our tradition is teaching us that they have particular power during the “ten days of repentance.”

And so we would do well indeed to regard these special days with the very same vigilance and care an expectant mother has for the rapidly developing, exquisitely sensitive being within her. Let us seize the days and use them to the fullest; for they are conceptual butterfly-wings, the first unfoldings of a new Jewish year.


[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs at Agudath Israel of America. A longer version of this essay appears, under the title “Great Expectations,” in the current issue of The Jewish Observer.]