John Wheeler, who learned quantum mechanics from its creators, liked to summarize the two schools of thought on the question of reality. He gave the example of three umpires at a baseball game discussing the finer points of baseball. In making a decision, the three umpires say:
Umpire 1: “I calls ’em like I see ’em.”
Umpire 2: “I calls ’em the way they are.”
Umpire 3: “They ain’t nothing till I calls ’em.”
To Wheeler, the second umpire is Einstein, who believed there was an absolute reality outside human experience, an “Objective Reality.” The third umpire is Bohr, who argued that reality existed only after an observation was made.
What happens when the Torah shatters our image of reality? This week we will read the portion of the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer (Numbers 19), that is the paradigm of contradictions and a reality beyond our comprehension. We can’t, as Bohr would choose, observe the “reality” of Spiritual Purity, and there is none of Einstein’s “Objective Reality,” for that which purifies the impure, impurifies the pure.
We will also read the story of Nadav and Avihu (Leviticus 10), who, seized by the passion of “I calls ’em like I see ’em,” bring their fire to the Altar only to suffer the burning of their souls from their bodies because they were limited by what they observed. They could not discern the “reality,” that was beyond their ken. Imagine how they would have handled the Red Heifer! I am reminded of Chesterson’s wry comment, “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” Nadav and Avihu were desperate to get the heavens into their heads, “They saw the Lord of Israel, and under His feet was the likeness of sapphire brickwork, and it was like the essence of heaven in purity (Exodus 24:10),” (Talk about Objective Reality!) and their heads certainly split.
We stand everyday before the challenge of the Parah Adumah, the tug of war between reality and the heavens, wondering how to understand everything happening in the world and our lives; how to get our head into the heavens. We stand everyday as did Nadav and Avihu, searching to elevate our actions into meaning, desperate to ‘make a difference,” trying to get the heavens into our heads. I picture myself observing the offering of the Red Heifer, trying to make sense of its laws, and finding my sense of peace in the fact that this offering is not made inside the Temple, but from a distance. It is not a regular part of our service of God; it stands outside the boundaries of our immediate world. I do not picture myself at that moment as trying to get my head into the heavens, or getting the heavens into my head, but enjoying my reality, right here in this world, practically applying what I know and learn to my life, actions and attributes. I love the “secrets” of Torah only as they inform my immediate development. I cherish what I have yet to learn, I thrill when confronted by that which I have yet to understand, because they promise that there is so much more right here, to my life and aspirations. I do not need to bring any “strange fires (Leviticus 10:1),” to my service; the fire already burns within me, right here on earth.