Yom Kippur is about teshuvah — the possibility of repentance and the exercise of free will. Jonah ran from God’s instruction because he believed in teshuvah, and — according to the rabbis — because he did not want the people of Nineveh to repent and thereby embarrass Israel. Unlike events of nature, which are prescribed by physical laws, human actions are free; they are not predetermined. Shockingly, the turning point of the story of Jonah — his admission of guilt — does not come as he asserts his free will but the opposite, when he realizes that the free course of nature has been constrained by the sailors’ casting of lots. What must Jonah have thought when against all odds he picked up that short stick? Uh-oh: Random events are not accidents. A sailor’s ritual, a game of chance, has marked him. God’s hand is in
everything! Jonah is not free to flee.
The motif of chance resonates throughout Yom Kippur. In the morning, we hear about the “lots” used in the high priest’s selection of the goat for Azazel. And Hasidim note that even the sound of the name, “Yom K’Purim,” alludes to lots (“purim”), and to the mysteries that define the seemingly opposite holiday of Purim in which God remains hidden.
Atheists and pantheists believe that all events are determined by the laws of nature. Most scientists, perhaps most Sh’ma readers as well, would also agree. Known laws (and the laws of nature are known) can be used to predict future results. When a system is complicated, however — for example, because trillions and trillions of atoms are jostling around — its evolution is too hard to calculate exactly, and we rely on statistical analyses to compute the most probable outcome. But the most probable outcome may not be the actual outcome. The result, though predetermined, is a chance (random) event.
The behavior of chance — the occurrence of one choice from many possibilities — has assumed remarkable new significance in modern science. A feature of our universe acknowledged universally by physicists, the Anthropic Principle, states that the universe is perfectly adapted to nurture intelligent life. If any of the physical parameters of the cosmos — for example the speed of light, the charge on the electron, the strength of gravity, the size of Planck’s constant, or the details of the big bang creation — differed in value even slightly from what they actually are, we could not exist. There is no known reason why the physical constants should take the values they have — or, indeed, why they should take any particular values. All possible numbers are equally likely. So why do they have these numbers that
enable life? Put another way, why are we here?
There are only two answers to this dilemma. The religious answer is that the universe was designed this way, to be perfect for life. The scientific alternative is that there exists a nearly infinite number of universes — the “multiverse” — each one with randomly different numbers for these physical parameters. Each universe is equally probable and life cannot take root in most of them. We just live in the one that works. There is no design in the scientific picture, only chance and the fact that even extremely unlikely situations will happen if given adequate opportunity.
For me, this is an incredible realization, as shocking as Jonah’s when he got that short straw. Science, as the result of recent discoveries in cosmology and physics, has a credible and detailed explanation for why we are here and how we got here: luck. So who needs God? Are physical laws indeed all there is? Are all events (even ones too complicated to predict) predetermined? Is teshuvah possible?
The Anthropic Principle remains today a fundamental challenge. Whether we are scientifically or religiously inclined, we need to ask ourselves: What explains the universe — purposeful or random activity, a guiding hand or a multiverse? I do not believe that the scientific answer is more rational. In fact, it may be less rational because of its complexity.
Teshuvah is a similar mystery. While free will seems impossible in a world ruled by the determinist laws of nature, we nevertheless imagine that we exercise it with every breath. Can we, like Jonah, influence our own destinies? Does the sudden realization that something else is afoot, that perhaps nothing is accidental, lead us to greater self-awareness or to less? Science, like the book of Jonah, does not definitively answer these questions,
but it does frame this ancient issue in a modern context, and it does so in the starkest, most dramatic way, teaching us that the principles we struggle with on Yom Kippur are … cosmic.