It was a dark and stormy night; Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and her mother had come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack when they were upset by the arrival of a most disturbing stranger.
"Wild nights are my glory," the unearthly stranger told them. "I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me be on my way. Speaking of way, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract.”
In Madeleine L’Engle’s acclaimed science fantasy novel, Meg and her brother Charles must travel “through a wrinkle in time” as they search for their father, who had been investigating the tesseract before he disappeared.
Of course, the idea of a wrinkle in time is not only science fiction. The recent Nobel Prize in physics recognized the successful experiment that confirmed the existence of gravitational waves, distortions in space-time, ripples in the fabric of the universe.
The possibility of these wrinkles in time was originally suggested by Albert Einstein in 1916, who theorized that space-time was malleable. It could be squeezed and stretched, like a child’s bounce on a trampoline, sending gravitational ripples throughout the universe at the speed of light.
We, or course, understand this in a spiritual way, for we speak of God as sovereign of space-time—מלךהעולם. We praise God and say
המלךהמלךהימלוךלעולםועד ~~ הוא היה הוא הווה הוא יהיה
Time and space are pushed together by our words.
We know that ritual telescopes time and place, bringing together past, present and future, sacred space and where wherever we happen to be. Sukkot is not only a location on the Wilderness trek from Egypt to the Land of Promise. It is also the temporary shelter on that journey, the place where we ate lunch or dinner last week, and the hoped for sukkah of peace that we associate with the messianic moment. We experience Sukkot in Canada or Australia just as we celebrate the season of simẖah and harvest in the Land of Israel. We wave the lulav and etrog in all directions, acknowledging the presence of the Divine everywhere, even as we hold it into our own hands.
We constantly search for connections that bring together our experiences, so that past and present collide, creating wrinkles of time in our souls.
In her recent book, my colleague Rabbi Naomi Levi (who is also Larry Wallach’s cousin) writes of her own wrinkle in time. She came across a quotation from Albert Einstein. As she explored the quotation, she discovered that it was a short letter, written by the physicist on February 12, 1950. The correspondence was sent to Dr. Robert S. Marcus, World Jewish Congress, 1834 Broadway, New York 23, N.Y.
Rabbi Levy set out to learn what Marcus had originally written to the great scientist and humanist to stimulate this response. She discovered that Dr. Marcus was actually a rabbi and that he had been intimately involved in the post-Holocaust rescue and resettlement of European Jewish children.
It was the letter from Einstein that sent me on a journey into the workings of the soul. … And it was the missing letter from Rabbi Marcus to Einstein that tugged at my soul. I wanted to understand what he was asking of Einstein. … I searched, travelled to libraries and archives and conducted interviews and I got nowhere …
As she tells of her pursuit of Rabbi Marcus’ letter, Rabbi Levy also discusses her own life, the murder of her father, a subsequent loss of faith, an encounter with Elie Wiesel that brought her to the Jewish Theological Seminary, a search for love and her medical and other personal challenges. She uses her life and Rabbi Marcus’ story to discuss spiritual insights to help readers reclaim a soul-life and glimpse the underlying cosmic unity that Einstein’s letter points toward.
Who was Rabbi Marcus? A Reform rabbi who served as a chaplain during the second world war, he left his family back in the States to serve his country and the men and women in the Allied forces. After the war, he was one of two American Army chaplains who entered Buchenwald in April 1945.
Rabbis Robert Marcus and Herschel Schacter discovered 904 children in Buchenwald. Most were orphaned. In Buchenwald that April day, it seemed as though there was no one left alive. Schachter ran from barracks to barracks, crying in Yiddish, “Shalom Aleichem, Yidden. Ihr zint frei!” — “Peace be upon you, Jews, you are free!”
As he passed a mound of corpses, ... he saw a small boy, Prisoner 17030, hiding in terror behind the mound. … With tears streaming down his face, Rabbi Schacter picked the boy up. “What’s your name, my child?” he asked in Yiddish. “Lulek,” the child replied.
“How old are you?” the rabbi asked.
“What difference does it make?” Lulek, who was 7, said. “I’m older than you, anyway.”
“Why do you think you’re older?” Rabbi Schacter asked, smiling.
“Because you cry and laugh like a child,” Lulek replied. “I haven’t laughed in a long time, and I don’t even cry anymore. So which one of us is older?”
Working with Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants, the Jewish children's relief organization in Geneva, the two rabbis helped arrange for their transport to France, Switzerland and England. ... Lulek eventually became Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the Chief Rabbi of Israel. Another boy, Eliezer, became Elie Wiesel.
The story of the Buchenwald Boys has been documented in books, a photo exhibit and a film. The boys needed to relearn how to live in society. Rabbi Marcus established a structure with consistent discipline to bring these boys back to society. He accompanied some to Israel, went to work for the World Jewish Congress and came back to America. Rabbi Marcus was a Hesed hero.
However, a few years later, Rabbi Robert Marcus faced tragedy. He wrote to Albert Einstein after his son, Jay, had succumbed to polio. The grief-stricken father sent this letter to the great scientist:
"Dear Dr. Einstein,
Last summer my eleven-year-old son died of polio. He was an unusual child, a lad of great promise who verily thirsted after knowledge so that he could prepare himself for a useful life in the community. His death has shattered the very structure of my existence, my very life has become an almost meaningless void—for all my dreams and aspirations were somehow associated with his future and his strivings.
I have tried during the past months to find comfort for my anguished spirit, a measure of solace to help me bear the agony of losing one dearer than life itself—an innocent, dutiful, and gifted child who was the victim of such a cruel fate. I have sought comfort in the belief that man has a spirit which attains immortality—that somehow, somewhere my son lives on in a higher world. …
What would be the purpose of the spirit if with the body it should perish? … It is a law of science that matter can never be destroyed: things are changed but the essence does not cease to be … Shall we say that matter lives and spirit perishes; shall the lower outlast the higher?
I write you all this because I have just read your volume “The World as I See It", ... you stated: “Any individual who should survive his physical death is beyond my comprehension … such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls.”
And I inquire in a spirit of desperation, is there in your view no comfort, no consolation for what has happened? Am I to believe that my beautiful darling child … has been forever wedded into dust, that there was nothing within him which has defied the grave and transcended the power of death? Is there nothing to assuage the pain of an unquenchable longing, an intense craving, an unceasing love for my darling son?
May I have a word from you? I need help badly.
This is what Einstein wrote in response:
"A human being is part of the whole world, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.
With my best wishes, sincerely yours,
These are not words of consolation—there is not even an expression of sadness—and we have no indication of Rabbi Marcus’ reaction. Many years later, reflecting on the correspondence, Rabbi Levy was affected by Einstein’s sense that there was a deep unity to all existence, one that transcended our sense of radical individualism and separateness . She found in Einstein’s words less condolence and more “as aspirations, as a way to see connectedness everywhere.” A scientific perspective comparable to religious mysticism.
Adding to the tragedy, eleven months after receiving the response from Einstein, Rabbi Marcus, a young father, died of a heart attack. His wife, Fay and two daughters, Tamara and Roberta, born after her father’s death, were left bereft.
Rabbi Levy experienced her own wrinkle in time. She thought of the death of her own father. She acknowledged that Einstein’s letter would not have brought her comfort as a teen, but from a distance of thirty-seven years, I see Einstein’s words in the scheme of my life and the greater whole I have come to know in the intervening years. I can see now that my father has never left me. … I can see hints of eternity now that I had no access to then. … The years and all the souls I’ve met and loved and lost have left their imprint upon me, and my soul has learned to speak more compassionately about eternity and oneness . My heart has softened and my hands are open for receiving what life sends me day by day.
And then, in the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, she found another letter from Rabbi Marcus.
"Today was Thanksgiving, my son, our first Thanksgiving without you and three months since you left us. ...
Today we missed you, more than ever, my precious child – all of us, even Tammy. Sitting in the restaurant we felt your presence near and when we went to the movies to see ‘Ichabod And Mr. Toad’ you were on the seat beside me. ...
… I see you swimming in every lake I pass and hear your voice calling to me from the distance asking me to come to you. ...
Since you have left me, dear child, I have dwelt for many hours on the meaning of immortality. ...
… I have sustained myself with the hope and consoled myself with the belief that somehow, somewhere we shall meet again. My unceasing love for you is immortal, my son: it is a stream direct from the fount of God and can never dry up; it must be satisfied in eternity; in that higher life to which death opens the door. I believe all this, my precious Jay. ...
… we shall once again be united in eternity, my darling. May God redeem my soul from the grasp of the grave as I know he has received you, my precious child, into the house of everlasting life and has breathed into you the breath of life eternal."
Before his death, Rabbi Marcus had found and written an answer to his question. He didn’t need the response from Einstein. Rabbi Marcus knew it deep within himself.
Years later, Rabbi Levy brought together all the correspondence she had found as a gift of hesed and consolation to Rabbi Marcus’ daughters. As she comments, “Within us there lies a soul that is eternal and immortal. A soul full of wisdom and love that emanates from the Creator. A soul that links us together in life and can never be extinguished.” Sometimes we feel that soul reaching out to us through a spiritual wrinkle in time.
On Sukkot and Sheminee Atzeret, we experience the wrinkle of time that Einstein imagined and that the Nobel laureates proved to exist. We bring our past, present and future together. We bring the ancient Wilderness trek with sukkot for shelter together with our current struggles and journeys. We bring the Land of Israel into our sukkot in Canada.
All this ripples through us. Perhaps we feel that larger cosmic unity. Hopefully, we experience that greater cosmic consolation. Now, it is time for Yizkor, to experience our own personal wrinkle in time.
Alice Calaprice, Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein's Letters to and from Children (Prometheus, 2002)
Naomi Levy, Einstein and the Rabbi (Flatiron, 2017)