Newton’s Third Law & Torah

Newton’s Third Law & Torah

From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon

I first began to learn the laws of physics in middle school. I was intrigued by Newton’s Third Law: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the interest of science, we conducted experiments to demonstrate its truth. But as a budding rabbi, perhaps, I felt that it was not just a physical law, but a meta-physical law, too. In human relationships, what one gives, I discovered, is what one gets. As a young boy, in direct response to behavior and discipline, it seemed true. Later, when I studied to be a rabbi, I came upon the text from Psalm 18, and Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 11.5, regarding Moses in his relationship to God. Here’s what I read:

Psalm 18:21ff:
“The LORD rewarded me according to my merit;
With the loyal, You deal loyally;
with the blameless man, blamelessly.
With the pure, You act purely,
and with the perverse, You are wily.”

In Leviticus Rabbah, Rabbi Nehemiah expounded the verses as referring to Moses. When he approached God with special courtesy, God treated him with special courtesy; when he came to God with frankness, God answered him with frankness; when he approached God with lack of directness, God countered him with lack of directness; when he sought a clear statement regarding his affairs, God made clear his affairs for him (Leviticus Rabbah 11.5).

The Midrash explains that Moses showed “special courtesy” to God when he said, “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” Then God decided to show Moses all God’s glory (Exodus 33:18-19). Moses showed “frankness” when he said, “Why doesn’t the bush burn up?” and God answered, “My glory is present therein.” Moses showed “lack of directness” when he said, “When they say to me, ‘What is God’s name, what will I say to them?’” God said, “This is My name for the time being: I am that I am” (Exodus 3:13-14). When Moses sought a “clear statement regarding his affairs,” God said, “I will send you to Pharaoh, that you may bring My people out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:10, 4:13, 5:23, 6:1) (Lyon, “God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime” JLP, 2011, pp. 68-69).  

Though Newton’s law can be calculated precisely, and Torah teachings can only be subjectively measured, there is ample evidence in our life experience to know that kindness begets kindness, and frankness begets frankness. It’s just as the Psalmist made clear, “The LORD rewarded me according to my merit.” The question for each of us is, “What is my merit?” By what measure will we be rewarded? Will it be for our kindness and compassion, or for our stubbornness and indifference? Though few things are black and white, Judaism all thrives in the gray areas, too. My advice: be deliberate about our best deeds and look forward with anticipation to our just rewards.


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