Tag Archives: Chayei Sarah (Parasha)

Is Your Brain a Quantum Computer? (A Scientific Explanation for the Soul and Afterlife)

This week’s parasha, Chayei Sarah, begins with the passing of the matriarch Sarah. The Torah states that “the lives of Sarah were one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years…” Traditionally, two big questions were asked of this verse: the first is why the Torah describes her life as one hundred, twenty, and seven years instead of simply saying that she was 127 years old when she died. The second is why the Torah says these were the lives of Sarah, instead of life in the singular, especially in light of the fact that the parasha actually describes her death, not life!

The classic answer to the first question is that Sarah was as beautiful at 100 as she was at 20, and she was as pure at 20 as she was at 7 years old. The answer to the second question, as we’ve explored in the past, is that Sarah (or a part of her soul) was immediately reincarnated in Rebecca, and thus Sarah’s life and life’s work continued with her future daughter-in-law. In general, the word for “life” in Hebrew is in plural, chaim, which alludes to the fact that there are really two lives: the transient life in this current physical world, and the everlasting life of the soul.

Today, many question (or outright reject) the possibility of an afterlife. Such people argue that there is no evidence or scientifically plausible explanation for such things. When the body dies, the person dies with it, and that’s it. In reality, there is a great deal of evidence to support the notion of a soul and an afterlife, and even one solid scientific explanation that is slowly gaining popularity and acceptance.

The Quantum Brain

Although there have been millions of cases of “near death experiences” and medically-induced “clinical deaths”—many of which end with the victim or patient describing other worlds and relating accurate information that would have been impossible for them to know—these are all relegated to “anecdotal evidence” and generally not taken seriously in the scientific community. We can put all of that aside (together with countless people’s personal stories of prophetic dreams and premonitions, “out-of-body” experiences, miraculous occurrences, and other inexplicable phenomena), and focus strictly on accepted science.

In recent decades, neurologists studying the human brain have sought to uncover what it is that generates consciousness and actually makes the brain work. Why and how is it that this network of cells produces a “mind”? Biology and chemistry have given us the general mechanisms of electrical signals and neurotransmitters, but have not been able to answer the real fundamental questions. To solve the mystery actually requires the most complex of sciences: quantum physics.

In 1989, world-renowned physicist Sir Roger Penrose published The Emperor’s New Mind in which he argued that classical physics simply cannot explain consciousness, nor can the brain be compared in any way to a typical computer, or be explained with familiar algorithms. Penrose suggested that the only plausible explanation for consciousness can come from quantum physics.

To go into the major principles of quantum physics is far beyond our scope. Indeed, one of the great quantum physicists, Richard Feynman, once noted: “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Suffice it to say that quantum physics has completely revolutionized science and our entire understanding of reality. It has turned the universe into a funky place where just about anything is possible, and where things at the sub-atomic level behave in totally bizarre ways. Niels Bohr, one of the early quantum physicists (and a Nobel Prize winner) offered that “If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet.” Meanwhile, the man who is often called “the father of quantum physics”, Max Planck, stated:

As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.

From his lifetime of studies, Planck concluded that reality as we know it doesn’t exist, and all of matter is held together by some kind of universal mind or consciousness. Building on these ideas, and the complex math and science behind them, Penrose proposed that the brain is a “quantum computer” of sorts, and may be intricately linked to the very fabric of the universe.

Quantum Biology and the Soul

Penrose’s hypothesis inspired a psychology professor in Arizona named Stuart Hameroff. As a practicing anesthesiologist, Hameroff knew that anesthesia works by shutting down small proteins inside neurons called microtubules, and this shuts off a person’s consciousness. Penrose and Hameroff teamed up to continue researching the possibility of the brain as quantum computer. Incredibly, their conclusions suggest that the brain can actually store its quantum information in the universe itself, so that even if the brain was to die, its information would not die with it. That information can be held indefinitely in the universe, and can return to a revived brain, or even into another brain. This would explain near death experiences and clinical deaths, and provides a scientific explanation for reincarnation and a life after death. The death of the body does not at all mean the death of the person, or that person’s memories and thoughts.

While there are those who are quick to criticize the theory and reject it, no one has been able to actually refute it. In fact, since the theory was first proposed, more and more evidence has accumulated to support it. In 2014, quantum biologist Anirban Bandyopadhyay (based in Japan’s National Institute for Materials Science and a visiting professor at MIT) successfully demonstrated the quantum activity of microtubules.

It appears that science has finally discovered the soul. There are now valid, empirical evidence-based theories to explain the existence of an eternal mind or spirit, a universal consciousness, the possibility of an afterlife and reincarnation. The scientific community needs to stop aggressively denying anything that seems “spiritual”, and instead delve deeper into this exciting and promising new field. This sentiment was already expressed long ago by Nikola Tesla, considered by many to be the greatest scientist of all time: “The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.” It was the genius Tesla who first noted that his brain “is only a receiver,” and stated that “In the Universe there is a core from which we obtain knowledge, strength, inspiration. I have not penetrated into the secrets of this core, but I know it exists.”

Abraham on Intermarriage

לעילוי נשמת פאינה בת אוג’ול, תנצב”ה

This week’s Torah reading is Chayei Sarah, which begins with the narrative describing the passing of Sarah, the first Matriarch of Israel. In the past, we’ve written of Sarah’s spiritual make-up and legacy. We’ve explored the significance of Me’erat HaMachpelah, the Cave of the Patriarchs where she was buried, as well as the nature of death and the afterlife in Judaism.

'Eliezer and Rebekah' by Gustav Doré

‘Eliezer and Rebekah’ by Gustav Doré

Following the passage of Sarah’s death, the bulk of the portion’s remaining narrative deals with the marriage of Isaac, her only son. Abraham commissions his trusted servant Eliezer to find Isaac a proper wife. He makes Eliezer swear to bring a woman from his own home and extended family back in the land of Charan. Abraham cautions his servant not to bring a foreign woman under any circumstances, and to ensure her willingness to move to the Holy Land of Israel. If Eliezer cannot find such a woman, Abraham absolves his servant of his oath.

Eliezer goes on his way with a caravan of ten camels. He prays that God will give him a sign to find the right one, and God doesn’t disappoint. Rebecca comes forth and provides the weary Eliezer with a drink. She then fills the troughs for his camels, too. On average, a typical camel will drink over 100 litres of water in under 10 minutes. Rebecca had to draw over 1000 litres of water from her well to quench Eliezer’s ten camels! Not surprisingly, the Torah tells us Eliezer was simply astonished (Genesis 24:21). He knew immediately that God had answered his prayers, and Rebecca – so kind, patient, and strong – is undoubtedly the one. Eliezer introduces himself and follows Rebecca home. At this point, it becomes quite clear why Abraham specifically wanted a daughter from his own family back in Charan.

Making Souls

Jewish texts tell us that Abraham was a passionate educator from a young age. His life’s mission was waking people up to God’s existence, to end their idolatry and immorality, and to inspire others to take upon themselves a higher sense of responsibility and righteousness. Abraham and Sarah were very successful in this task, so much so that the Torah describes them as having “made souls” (Genesis 12:5). Rashi explains that this refers to their role as spiritual parents, as if Abraham and Sarah themselves brought all those people to life. The Torah specifically says this occurred in Charan, and the message was evidently taken up by his own extended family.

After Eliezer explains to Rebecca’s father and brother what had transpired, the two answer: “This has come from Hashem… let [Rebecca] be a wife for your master’s son, as Hashem has spoken” (24:50-51). The family was one that recognized God and His greatness. They were moral and good people, too, welcoming Eliezer into their home, and even offering Rebecca the final choice on whether to go with Eliezer or not (as opposed to forcing her into marriage, as was common in those days). Rebecca herself decided to go with Eliezer immediately, and not wait another year as the family suggested. When the caravan finally returned to Israel, we see that the righteous Rebecca instantly recognized Isaac’s holiness (see Rashi on v. 64). In her modesty, she quickly veiled herself. The two were happily married, monogamously, and as we’ve written before, symbolize a most perfect bond and love, unlike any other described in Scripture.

Kindness, modesty, faith – these are central traits embodied by Rebecca, as the Torah so thoroughly describes, and traits that are found deep within the hearts of all Jewish women that descend from her. This is ultimately the reason why Abraham was so strict about Isaac not intermarrying with the locals. To ensure Isaac would be able to maintain the divine covenant, and to continue in the holy work of tikkun olam, and of spreading truth, morality, and righteousness, it was absolutely essential that Isaac had a partner that was equally up to the task. After all, it is well known (and repeated countless times in Jewish texts), that all the power lies within the woman.

It was Rebecca that ensured the divine blessings would pass on to the righteous Jacob, and not the wayward Esau. It was the wife of On ben Pelet who saved him from joining Korach’s rebellion against Moses and God, while Korach himself was brought down by his own spiteful wife (Sanhedrin 109b). It was Zeresh that stood behind Haman to annihilate the Jewish people, while Esther prevented a holocaust. And when Abraham worried about what to do with his unruly son Ishmael, God told him: “Everything that Sarah tells you, listen to her voice” (Genesis 21:12).

Intermarriage Today

It is therefore not surprising that Jewish law is unequivocal on the fact that the spiritual heritage of Judaism is passed on through the mother, and never through the father. Having said that, fulfilling God’s covenant requires two partners, which is why intermarriage from either direction is spiritually so tragic. (Just like every Jewish woman has the traits of kindness, modesty, and faith, the Talmud tells us that every Jewish man, too, has three traits embedded in his soul: empathy (or mercy), modesty, and kindness. The Rambam famously goes so far as to say that one who does not show these traits should be suspected of not really being Jewish!)

The latest statistics show that the rate of intermarriage is now at 58%, and among non-Orthodox Jews, it is an astounding 71%. Since the year 2000, 80% of Reform weddings were intermarriages. Together with their low birth rate of just 1.7 children, Reform Judaism (which is still considered the largest denomination in America) is dwindling. Only 4% of Reform Jews regularly attend religious services, and a meagre 29% believe in God. Jews that are totally secular and unaffiliated are not even on the map or in the statistics.

Abraham, the one who started it all, history’s first Jew, cautioned us so explicitly about intermarriage. The Torah spends a whopping 67 verses to describe this narrative in detail, making it among the longest chapters in the Torah. It goes without saying that we should all be doing everything we can to prevent intermarriages (including to inspire proper conversions where necessary). And Abraham gave us all a blessing to do this, just as he blessed Eliezer, who wondered how he would accomplish this seemingly difficult task: “Hashem, God of the Heavens… will send His angel before you…” (24:7).

May God’s angels help us all find our true soulmates, and give us the strength and wisdom to fulfil our divine task in this world.

 

A Mystical Journey through the Lives of Sarah

This week’s parasha is called Chayei Sarah, which literally means “the lives of Sarah”. Why does the Torah speak in the plural? Should it not have said “the life of Sarah”? An even greater peculiarity is that despite being named in her honour, the entire parasha essentially says nothing of Sarah, or of her life! It begins by briefly stating that she passed away, and describing how Abraham purchased a burial plot for her. Following this is a very long narrative that takes up the bulk of the parasha, relating in detail the journey of Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, who was instructed to find a bride for Isaac. His mission was successful: Eliezer finds Rebecca. The story ends by telling us that “Isaac brought [Rebecca] to the tent of Sarah his mother, and he married Rebecca, and she became his wife, and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for the loss of his mother.” (Genesis 24:67) Why did Isaac take Rebecca into his mother’s tent? And how did this comfort him?

Who is Rebecca?

At the conclusion of the last parasha we were told the story of the Akedah – the binding of Isaac. The parasha ends by telling us the progeny of Abraham’s brother Nachor, ending with the birth of Rebecca. This sets the stage for the story in this week’s parasha, where Rebecca and Isaac are united. Why was the passage regarding Rebecca’s birth given at the end of the last parasha, immediately following the Akedah? Rashi answers that this implies Rebecca was born at the time of the Akedah.

We know of one other event that happened at the same time: the passing of Sarah. Rashi quotes the Midrash as saying that Sarah passed away when she heard that Isaac was taken to be sacrificed. Thus, three events happened at the exact same time: the binding of Isaac, the passing of Sarah, and the birth of Rebecca.

The Lives of Sarah

Rashi continues to quote from the Midrash, explaining what happened when Isaac brought Rebecca into his mother’s tent. The Midrash says that while Sarah was alive, a certain blessing was felt in her tent, a flame burned perpetually inside it, and a cloud of holiness hovered above it. When Sarah passed away, these miraculous signs ceased. At the moment that Isaac brought Rebecca into Sarah’s tent, the flame was reignited, the blessing returned, and the cloud reappeared. The Midrash concludes: Rebecca was Sarah!

This is precisely why Rebecca was born at the same time that Sarah passed away. And this is precisely why the parasha is called Chayei Sarah – the lives of Sarah. Sarah’s life did not end in her death, but continued in the life of Rebecca, who is the central figure of this parasha. When Isaac saw the miraculous signs reappear in the tent, he knew that Rebecca had the spirit of Sarah within her, and would successfully continue the divine mission. He was finally comforted, knowing that Sarah’s spark had not been extinguished.

How Old Was Rebecca?

Another major question commonly asked here is: how old was Rebecca? Tradition holds that Isaac was 37 years old at the Akedah, and the Torah tells us explicitly that he was 40 when he got married. If Rebecca was born at the time of the Akedah, this makes her just 3 years old! Could it be that Isaac married a three year old? This makes little sense, which is probably why a parallel tradition holds that Isaac was 26 years old at the time of the Akedah, making Rebecca around 14 years at marriage. But if that’s the case, the connection between Rebecca and Sarah is diminished, since Rebecca would have been born long before Sarah’s passing, and therefore could not be her reincarnation. How do we solve this conundrum?

Levels of Soul

People like to think of a soul as a single entity. In reality, the Kabbalists explain that the soul is a mosaic made up of many different parts. The simplest conception of the soul describes it as being divided into 5 hierarchical levels. The lowest is called the nefesh, corresponding to the basic life force. Above this is the ruach, referring to the “spirit” of a person, which animates them, and gives them their positive and negative inclinations. Higher still is the neshamah, the “essence” of a person which makes them absolutely unique and governs the majority of their inner traits. Beyond these are the chaya (one’s “aura”, and the part that can be said to interact with other souls) and the yechida (the highest level of soul that unites one directly with the Divine, like a spiritual umbilical cord).

These five parts of the soul are dynamic, and flow in and out of a person. For example, it is said that while one sleeps, the four upper souls leave the body and only the nefesh remains – keeping a person alive, but otherwise unconscious and “dead”. Each morning, Jews recite the prayer of “Elohai Neshamah”, thanking God for returning these souls back to the body.

The Gate of Reincarnation

The dynamism of the soul is also reflected in the fact that the five souls “enter” a person’s body at different phases of their life. This is explained in the Jewish manual on reincarnation, Sha’ar HaGilgulim, written by the 16th-century sage Rabbi Chaim Vital, the primary student of the Arizal, perhaps the greatest mystics in Jewish history.

There it is written that a person is born only with a nefesh, and receives the ruach at their bar or bat mitzvah. It is only at age twenty that one can finally access and express their neshamah, which is why the Torah considers an adult one who has reached twenty years of age. This can be seen in the fact that the many censuses taken in the Torah only numbered those individuals over twenty, and the Midrash describes how Adam and Eve were created as twenty year olds.

Rebecca and Sarah

Knowing this, we can finally solve the problem of Rebecca and Sarah. The Arizal explains that what Rebecca received was the ruach of Sarah. Of course, Rebecca could not be exactly the same person as Sarah, with the exact same soul. (That would be quite weird, suggesting that Isaac somehow married his own mother!) No, Rebecca was her own individual, with her own special essence – a unique Mother of Israel. What she carried on was the spirit of Sarah; this is what Isaac saw, and this is what reawakened Sarah’s tent.

And when does one receive the ruach? At the age of bar or bat mitzvah! This means that Rebecca was twelve years old when Sarah passed away, and at that point received her ruach. Therefore, Rebecca was “three years old” only in the sense that it had been three years since she was spiritually reborn as Sarah’s successor. Rebecca got married as a fifteen year old.

And the marriage that ensued was the most beautiful of all those described in Scripture. (And the topic of next week’s blog post.)