Yom Kippur, Black Holes, and Repairing the World: Wisdom and Beauty in the 21st Century

Do you realize that if you fall into a black hole, you will see the entire future of the Universe unfold in front of you in a matter of moments and you will emerge into another space-time created by the singularity of the black hole you just fell into? (Neil deGrasse Tyson)


Yom Kippur is a solemn holy day for Jewish people, perhaps the most solemn of our religious observations. It is a time of deep personal reflection with the aim of atonement achieved through fasting and asking G_d for His forgiveness. I won’t go into the historical/biblical roots, but I do think it’s still a highly relevant lesson for our modern society because we all fall short of the glory of G_d, so asking for forgiveness creates a space for humbleness, and from that state of modesty, we take stock of our life, of our shortcomings, and we hopefully take measures to improve ourselves, and by extension, the world. 

As author Naomi Wolf put it, “Every Yom Kippur, Jewish tradition requires a strict spiritual inventory. You aren’t supposed to just sit around feeling guilty, but to take action in the real world to set things right.”

Still, I often wonder, how exactly, beyond the prayers and fasting and self-reflection, do we achieve this state? Then, I read about how scientists have discovered something new about the nature of black holes, and my strange mind made an odd connection, something it does not infrequently.

I don’t want to get too technical, not only because it would kill the brevity of my message, but also because I don’t have the mental capacity to wax astrophysics. The bottom line of the discovery was that black holes apparently exert a type of pressure on the space around them. Here’s what happened. 

Xavier Calmet and Folkert Kuiper, a pair of physicists and astronomers at the University of Sussex in the UK, were using calculations to study the phenomenon of entropy, the tendency of systems to go from order to disorder, as it relates to the functioning of a black hole, when they made an unexpected discovery.

As sciencealert.com reports, “While they were performing these calculations, Calmet and Kuipers kept running across an additional figure that appeared in their equations, but it took a while for them to recognize what they were looking at – pressure.”

This was a moment of cognitive crystallization. As Calmet said, “The pin-drop moment when we realised that the mystery result in our equations was telling us that the black hole we were studying had a pressure – after months of grappling with it – was exhilarating.”

Moreover, not only did Calmet and Kuiper discover that black holes exert pressure, they determined that the pressure is negative. What this means is that black holes are not expanding, but theoretically, shrinking. 

Now, here’s the connection. If our sins, our misdeeds, were to be treated like black holes, then they could theoretically shrink, as well. Stay with me here, I beg you. What I am proposing fits in with what Wolf proffered, that we take an active role in managing our sinful nature, that we take pains to make amends.

In doing so, we stem the force of entropy, by bringing order, harmony, and even beauty into this world. Consequently, we effectively shrink the black hole, a figurative repository for all of our accumulated, and ongoing sins. In essence, we exert negative pressure on our sins by expanding the life force of goodwill through helping others, thus balancing the cosmic scales. 

Yes, I realize that on some fundamental, Torah-based orthodoxy I could be wildly wrong. Atonement for Yom Kippur is centered around seeking forgiveness directly from G_d, a sort of spiritual cleansing mediated through fasting and prayer. But I don’t think I am that far off base, at least if we’re looking at the spirit (if you will) and not the letter of the law. 

black hole
Yom Kippur recognizes the act of atonement
Source: niagarafoundation.org


In fact, my supposition about doing good to reduce the bad in the world is highly aligned with the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, the mystical belief in “any activity that improves the world, bringing it closer to the harmonious state for which it was created.” In other words, the world is inherently out of order (entropy), but by doing good work, by uplifting others, we “not only fix any damage, but also improve upon it [shrinking our black hole of sin], preparing it to enter the ultimate state for which it was created.” This is why tikkun olam literally means “to repair the world.” 

Heavy stuff, I know. But it doesn’t have to be so grandiose, at least not in our daily interactions.

black hole
A rendering of a black hole
Source: universetoday.com


The reality is that most of us are not going to establish major charities, or adopt children from neglected homes, though many people do, and they truly shine in the light of tikkun olam.

We all are, however, capable of improving the world in little ways. Perhaps it’s paying for the elderly couple’s groceries who seem to be struggling to get everything they need in their tight budget. Maybe it’s helping someone fix a flat tire, or leaving a 50% tip for a waitress because she is struggling to put food on the table to feed her kids. It could even be just giving someone who seems deeply down a sympathetic ear and some words of genuine encouragement that everything is going to be okay, and if they need someone to talk to, “here’s my phone number.”

It really doesn’t matter at the end of the day. You’ve practiced tikkun olam. You have helped ease the pain and struggle of an individual, or a family, and you may have even provided the greatest gift of all: hope and faith that things will get better.

After all, the Talmud, a source of Jewish mysticism and philosophical wisdom, says, “He who saves a single life saves the world entire.” So whether it is one small act, or better yet, many small acts of goodness, you may have very well saved an individual’s life by giving them hope and faith, and in doing so, repaired a world that is increasingly broken. 

black hole
The Talmud is a collection of writings that covers the full gamut of Jewish law and tradition, compiled and edited between the third and sixth centuries.
Source: timesofisrael.com


Or, put another way, by exerting negative pressure on the black holes of our sins, we reveal the heavens, the stars, and the universe, thus ultimately honoring the G_d who created them. Gmar Hatimah Tova.

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