“There were seven things created before the world was created…”
BT Pesakhim 54a
This week, The Washington Post reported that new scientific findings have shed light on some of the noted phenomena of near-death experiences. Those who have researched near-death experiences when the heart stops, describe people “floating” out of their bodies often to a gathering of ancestors and a burst of light – among other patterns in testimonies. Now we may be able to understand these experiences through a scientific lens. When the heart stops, it seems, neurons firing in the brain create an amazing side-show effect. Neurologist Jim Borjigin explains that a lot of people believed they were getting a taste of heaven because science could not come up with a plausible explanation of what was happening physiologically.
The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, based on peak experiences right before death of rodents. This may explain what happens to people neurologically before they die, but there is still a long way to go before we reach true understanding. Even so, it is a comfort to know that before the brain shuts down finally, there may be a powerful resurgence of mental activity.
Some people will read these findings and say that it is only a matter of time before science explains away every unique spiritual phenomenon. I am a skeptic. We will understand much but never everything, and when we do understand a process neurologically or scientifically, it only offers more wonder at the capacity of the human being and animal to function in this world. “The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery,” wrote Anaïs Nin.
This week, in the daily Talmud study cycle, we visited a number of texts that contemplate when various foundational aspects of Judaism and the world were created. The Talmud posits, for example, that there were seven things created before the world was created: Torah, repentance, the Garden of Eden, Gehenna, the Throne of Glory, the Temple and the name of the messiah (BT Pesakhim 54a). What is this passage really saying since it is not a comment about scientific creation?
I believe it is telling us that there are certain concepts that transcend creation or are so essential to the spiritual development of the world that they are not of this world. They abide in eternal mystery. The Torah is a map for ethical and spiritual living that speaks to us through law and story. Repentance is the mechanism that tells us that not only is change possible; it is desirable. The Garden and Gehenna may be references to reward and punishment, systems of justice that so often elude human understanding. The throne and the Temple are physical/metaphoric repositories of the human heart in its connection with the divine. In other words, they represent the holiness of space. The name of the messiah as opposed to the messiah itself represents the longing for salvation and redemption, particularly when hope feels distant. We can reduce any of these to a cluster of scientific or psychological needs and it still would not take away the significance of any of them for a life of meaning and spirit.
Richard P. Feynman, a theoretical physicist and writer who died in 1988, described his friendship with an artist who criticized him for taking apart the beauty of a flower and reducing it with science to “a dull thing.” Feynman was not only insulted at the thought that beauty would only be available to artists. He claimed that as a scientist, he could appreciate the flower’s beauty and so much more. “I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty…All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts.”
Life offers us the gift of so much mystery, no matter who we are, no matter what we do. Embrace the gift of scientific understanding and its human limits. Science can be a platform to achieve great holiness because it does not take away the wonder. It enhances it. It adds without subtracting.