The First Law of Torah-Dynamics: Shelach Lecha 5774 by Cantor Lipp

Mon, 06/16/2014 - 9:31am -- AJ Blog

Mr.  Finkelstein is called as a witness in a trial. 

"How old are you?" asks the District Attorney. 

"I am, kaynahoreh*, ninety-one."

"Excuse me? What did you say?"

"I said, I am, kaynahoreh, ninety-one years old."

"Sir, the recording clerk can't type unusual words, please just answer the question with no embellishments," says the D.A. "I ask you again, How old are you!?"

"I told you. Kaynahoreh, I'm ninety-one."

The D.A. is really getting annoyed.

The judge is also losing his patience.

He instructs, “The witness will answer the question simply and plainly or be held in contempt of court!"

The defense attorney rises and says, "Your Honor, I think I can resolve this. May I ask the question?"

"If you can get this trial moving, please, be my guest."

"Mr. Finkelstein, let me ask, kaynahoroh, how old are you?"

Finkelstein replies, "Ninety-one.”


The First Law of Thermodynamics states: The total energy of a system and its surroundings remains constant. Also known as the Law of Conservation of Energy.

We have something like that in our parasha according to one commentator at least. 

You see, there’s a name change without explanation: Moses changes Hoshea bin Nun’s name to Y’hoshua -- Joshua. Many commentators say this is because Moses sees the objections of the other scouts to the Canaanite project coming and wants to prevent any chance that Joshua will fall in with the majority opinion. Y’hoshua = He [God] will save.

But there’s a First Law of Torah-dynamics put forward by the late-18th/early-19th-century Chatam Sofer to explain the name change building on an interpretation in the Jerusalem Talmud. Joshua received his added letter yod from Saray which was given up when she became Sarah. But how to explain the unusual vowel under the ב of ‘ben’ or ‘son-of’ which only has a chirik or single dot rather than the three of the segol. The Chatam Sofersays that since Saray’s yod had no vowel attached, and Y’hoshua’s has two, those dots have to come from somewhere else: The dots underneath the word ‘ben’ which are usually three. יְהושע בִן נון  instead of בֶן. 

3=1+2. The First Law of Torah-Dynamics: The total vowels of the letter of a name change will remain constant.

When it comes to the real First Law of Thermodynamics, 80 years ago two scientists posited that as matter could be converted into energy that light could be converted to matter. That has been a theory since then but this year it may become demonstrable fact as some researchers have figured a way to collide photons one against another. We’ll see soon whether they can make the c-squared as convertible to m as the other way around.

According to that First Law we have limited energy to accomplish all we want. But sometimes we surprise ourselves with what we can accomplish we thought we couldn’t.

The main point of our portion is that the Israelites don’t have the confidence to conquer Canaan. Yet if they were to apply an evidence-based approach from their own lifetimes, they would have had confidence in spades. After all, God had just rescued them from the most powerful kingdom of their experience with plagues and miracles that defeated an enormously powerful army. Certainly the taking over of Canaan would not be outside God’s purview. 

Shabbat is a time to remind ourselves of the infinite opportunities of energy and possibility that we have but don’t think to make use of, a taste of the infinite. 

It’s a moment to reflect on the evidence of what we have handled and might take on in the future based on those accomplishments. At the same time, we need to be aware that although there are limits to our energy, we are unlikely to know precisely where those limits lie. Sometimes we won’t know what we can accomplish until we challenge ourselves.

After all, the observable universe is only about 4% of what scientists assume exists; 23% they posit is dark matter and 73% is dark energy.

We might not be off by a factor of 20, but it’s worth considering: The energy of our imaginations might be able to create realities in the world that,kaynahora, matter in more ways than one 

Shabbat Shalom.

*Kaynahora literally means: Without the Evil Eye. It is a Yiddish expression intended to ward off bad luck. 

David Lipp