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Big Bang Bentsching: Celebrating the Beginning Again

Sep 24, 2013 | Updated Nov 24, 2013

Once after eating a meal on our porch in the festive tent in which we celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, my then ten-year-old son announced that he was not so interested in saying the blessings after the meal, sometimes known as birkat or bentsching. I asked him if he was grateful for what we ate and wanted to say words of thanks to more than just his parents who provided the meal. He told me that his food was the result of the big bang and so that pretty much covered it. I invited him to replace his prayers with a detailed account of every step he could think of between the initial moments in which we understand the universe to have burst forth out of a singular dense point of matter to the evolution of the various species that made up our meal (mainly ziti, fish and vegetables) and the various social conditions that made it possible.

What followed was for both of us a new appreciation for what it means to appreciate what we have. We went back and forth having fun listing the various scientific hypotheses running through the birth of the universe and eventual formation of a planet capable of life, formation of single cell organisms and DNA, the evolution of and extinction of the dinosaurs, emergence of mammals and, in time intelligent apes, gradual development of agricultural techniques including cheese production, and just to be thorough: the discovery of refrigeration, establishment of supermarkets and invention of plastic containers... The whole thing had to have taken at least a half-hour, far longer than couple of minutes it takes to recite the Hebrew singsong of the blessing after meals. Rather than take away the rationale for saying words of thanks and acknowledgement for the food we eat and its Source, I found it even more awesome to trace the unfathomable occurrences that are now thought to have brought about life as we know it and celebrate the innovations that have led to the modern state of food production and the community we enjoy. And my son experienced a religious moment in a language that at that moment made more sense to him. He also acknowledged that it might be a good idea to have a ritual shorthand like the Blessings after Meals rather than recite the multimillion year history of the world as we understand it.

So perhaps the obvious question is can we talk about the Big Bang, dinosaurs and evolution in the same breath as Blessings after the Meal whose content are a declaration of G*d being the Source of All and the One to Whom we direct our prayers for continued sustenance? Let alone can we refer to a universe that has aged millions of years on the doorstep of this coming week when Jews celebrate with the scrolls of the Torah, the five Books of Moses, and begin again to read about the six days of Creation that seem to set the universe's stopwatch at no more than Five Thousand Seven Hundred Seventy Four years elapsed? The best answer I can think of is "Of course!"

The significance of both perspectives speak for themselves. The book of Genesis and the rich interpretations that have come from it provide profound understanding into the dizzying fragility of our existence, the challenge of acting righteously despite temptation, and possibility of experiencing the presence of the Divine in our lives. At the same time, we are called to respond to a human fascination with the world around us and use our intellect to try to explain and predict the workings of the universe. The stories in the Torah and its descriptions of the world do not supersede what we discover through science and the results of scientific inquiry do not have to take away from the insight that arises from the Torah and its traditions.

As we approach this week and return to the beginning, we are reminded that both science and faith are ways of making the world meaningful and neither science nor faith is able to tell the whole story. May we always find new ways to perceive the miraculous universe we inhabit and new languages to express our appreciation for it.