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LESSONS FROM THE HONEYCOMB





Every year, we are given the opportunity to go back to the basics – the basics we were taught as young schoolchildren back in kindergarten.

The end of our beautiful holiday season not only brings us back to our ordinary routine, but also brings us back to the beginning of the Torah, to Parashat Beresheet, to the very beginning of time and the story of the world’s creation.  Right away on Simhat Torah, as soon as we complete the reading of the Torah, we immediately rush to start again, and read the first section of Parashat Beresheet, excited as we are to return to the beginning and start it all anew.  And that beginning, of course, is the most fundamental belief that we Jews are to embrace: “Beresheet bara Elokim et hashamayim ve’et ha’aretz – In the beginning, Gd created heaven and earth.”  As we begin anew the yearly Torah reading cycle, we return to the basics, to the most elementary tenet of Jewish faith – that our universe was created by Gd.

Yisrael

King Shlomo teaches us in the Book of Kohelet – which many communities will read this month, during Sukkot – “asah haElokim et ha’adam yashar vehemah bikshu hishbonot rabim – Gd  made man straight, but they sought many different considerations” (7:29).  This has been explained to mean that our minds are naturally “yashar” – reasonable and logical, predisposed to accept the basic axioms of Jewish faith.  It is natural and sensible to look around the world and acknowledge that it was created by a Supreme Being for a purpose.  It is reasonable and intuitive upon observing the staggering brilliance of the natural order to conclude that this could not have come into being by coincidence, by some accidental chemical reaction.  “But they sought many different considerations.”  People question, doubt or deny the truth of creation because of “many different considerations,” for a very wide variety of reasons.  The natural and intuitive stance, however, is that our magnificent world was created by a Divine Being.

This concept is embedded within our nation’s very name, Yisrael, which is the combination of the words yashar and Kel.  Our mission is to be yashar, to follow the straight path of belief in Kel, an omnipotent Gd.  Our nation was founded by Avraham Avinu, who was raised in a family, a society and a world that denied the existence of a single Creator and ridiculed such a notion.  Avraham courageously stood alone in his opposition to paganism, for which he was taunted and persecuted, and for which he was chosen by Gd to produce an eternal nation that would represent Him to the world.  And he implanted within that nation the wisdom and courage to follow his example of steadfast devotion to this belief even in the face of scorn and derision.  As the descendants of Avraham Avinu, bearers of the name “Yisrael,” our duty and challenge is to perpetuate the “straight” and sensible belief, the basic tenet of monotheism, that Gd created the universe.

This is why it is so important to go back to the basics each year with the reading and study of Parashat Beresheet.  Unquestionably, the stories told in this section are exceedingly difficult, and the greatest minds have struggled to shed light on the mysteries of creation and early years of human history as told in the Torah.  But, on the other hand, these stories lay the foundation for everything else we believe and practice as Jews, and thus for good reason, we teach them to our children already when they are very young, and we review them ourselves every year, each of us on his or her own level of understanding.

This undertaking is especially vital nowadays, in our generation, when faith and religion are increasingly under attack and subject to ridicule.  For many centuries, Jews faced a variety of very difficult challenges, but for the most part, the fundamental principles of faith were not among them.  True, there were periods of religious persecution when, tragically, significant numbers of Jews succumbed to the overbearing pressure and renounced their faith, and we, who enjoy the freedoms guaranteed by the United States Constitution, cannot possibly judge them.  But these were the exceptions.  The rule was steadfast, unyielding belief in Gd and in Torah.  In modern times, however, this belief is being rattled among many, including among those who were born and raised in our and other Torah communities.  This is happening not because of persecution or coercion, but rather due to a much more subtle kind of pressure.

Contemporary society has turned everything upside-down, considering it intelligent and sophisticated to believe that the universe came about on its own, by coincidence, and considering it primitive and foolish to believe that the world was created by an all-powerful Gd.  In our day and age, the teachings of Charles Darwin and his school are axiomatic, embraced without any second-guessing or hesitation.  And our youngsters are fed this atheistic diet on college campuses each day.  The circumstances in today’s world offer the Satan countless ways to interfere with our religious commitment, among the more alarming of which is in the area of faith.  It is alarming because this is the very bedrock of Judaism, which must remain sturdy and firm if we are to live meaningful Jewish lives in accordance with Torah law.  And this foundation has become an easy target in our times, when the belief in Gd and creation are viewed with such derision.  Today more than ever, we must reinforce our most basic, core beliefs, and equip ourselves and our children with the spiritual and ideological ammunition we all need to resist the pervasive forces of atheism that threaten us.

The Honeycomb Conjecture

I am not a scientist, so I cannot and do not claim to have extensive knowledge about any area in the natural sciences.  But whenever I happen to read or learn about something in the natural world, I find myself awed and amazed.  I am in awe of the intricacy and profundity of Gd’s creation, and I am amazed that anyone could think this is not the handiwork of a Supreme Being.  My awe and astonishment are then compounded exponentially when I remind myself that what I had learned or discovered is just one tiny sample, hardly even a fraction of a percentage point, of the complexity and brilliance of the natural world.

A little over 2,000 years ago, there lived a brilliant Roman scholar named Marcus Terentius Varro, who wrote dozens of books on many different subjects.  One of the natural phenomena he studied, and which fascinated him, was the honeycomb.  Honeycombs are wax structures built by bees where they store the nectar they collect from flowers, and the honey that they produce from the nectar.  Varro was curious about the structure of the honeycomb, specifically, the fact that all honeycombs are comprised of cells which are perfectly “hexagonal.”  A “hexagon” is a structure with six equal sides, and each and every cell of every honeycomb is a perfect hexagon, adjoining on all sides with neighboring cells.  This is true of every honeycomb in the world.  Wherever on planet Earth there are bees producing honey, the honey is stored in a honeycomb which is comprised of hexagonal structures made of wax.

This observation led Varro to postulate a theory that has become known as the “honeycomb conjecture.”  The theory states that geometrically, the hexagonal structure is the most efficient way to construct adjoining cells.  If the cells were circles, there would be empty space in between the cells, which would be wasted.  And although wasted space could be avoided by using squares or triangles, Varro conjectured that the use of hexagons was the most efficient method.  Meaning, the best way for the bees to capitalize on their wax was to use hexagons, which created the most space with the least amount of wax.

Varro’s hypothesis remained speculative for many years – nearly 2,000 years, in fact.  In 1999, a mathematician named Thomas Hales, who received his doctorate from Princeton University, proved the honeycomb conjecture to be mathematically accurate.  He showed mathematically that, indeed, adjoining hexagons is the most efficient way to use material to create storage space, and this must be why all bees throughout the world utilize this method.

How is it possible that every bee on earth instinctively knows something which took expert mathematicians millennia to figure out?  How could it be a coincidence that each and every bee that ever lived knows that the way to maximize its wax is by making hexagons?  And how is every bee capable of constructing geometrically perfect hexagonal structures?  What explanation can there possibly be, other than that a Creator brought the bee into existence and endowed it with this instinct?  Which belief is more rationale – that this system was set up by Gd, or that this occurred randomly, as a result of some accidental chemical reaction?

Vestigial Organs

Not surprisingly, much of the “evidence” that has been presented to prove anti-creation theories has since been debunked.

One of the alleged proofs noted by evolutionists to support their theory is the existence of so-called “vestigial organs,” parts of the human body that appear to serve no practical purpose in the body’s functioning.  The claim was advanced that these organs are vestiges, or remnants, of the human being’s previous physical form.  According to evolutionist theory, human beings evolved and continue to evolve from more primitive creatures.  As this process unfolds over the course of millions of years, these theorists believe, the human body gradually transforms, and so in the current phase of human evolution, we have vestiges of our previous form which have not yet disappeared.  The organs often viewed as “vestigial” were the appendix – a pouch situated where the large intestines and small intestines meet – and the tonsils, which are a part of the throat.  As we know, many people undergo surgery to have these body parts removed due to inflammation, and they live perfectly normal, healthy lives afterward.  It was thus believed that these organs serve no purpose, and are thus evidence of the human being’s previous life form, which necessitated these body parts.

However, in 2007, a team of scientists found that the appendix indeed provides a useful function in storing beneficial bacteria.  The tonsils, too, were discovered to serve as one of the body’s first lines of defense against harmful pathogens.  The fact that people survive without them does not mean they serve no purpose; after all, a person can live after the amputation of a hand or foot, too.

The human body, like the rest of the natural world, is so complex and intricate, with millions upon millions of different parts working together harmoniously to keep a person alive and able to function in the world.  Could these complex systems have been created randomly?  Can a random, indiscriminate process produce something so perfectly structured and ordered?

Bringing Gd Into the World

Later in the Book of Beresheet (24:7), we read of Avraham sending his trusted servant to travel to find a suitable bride for Yitzhak, and he tells his servant that Hashem, “Gd of the heavens, who took me from my father’s home,” would assure the success of his mission.  Curiously, Avraham refers to Gd in this context as “Gd of the heavens,” and not – as Gd is usually referred to – as “Gd of the heavens and Gd of the earth.”  Quite obviously, Gd rules over and controls the entire universe, which includes both heaven and earth.  Why, then, does Avraham here describe Gd only as “Gd of the heavens”?

The Kerem Shlomo(a work by one of the Rebbes of Bobov) answers, insightfully, that Avraham speaks here of the time when Gd summoned him to leave his father’s home and relocate in Eretz Yisrael, and at that time, Gd was, in a sense, only “Gd of the heavens.”  During that period, Gd was not recognized here in this world.  His existence was denied, and Avraham fought all alone in his quest to disseminate the belief in a Creator.  At that early stage, before his efforts bore fruit and monotheistic belief spread, Gd was confined, so-to-speak, to the heavens, as His existence was not acknowledged here on earth.  Avraham succeeded in bringing Gd into our world through his courageous work defying the pagans and disseminating the truth of Gd’s existence.

The Torah alludes to this role of Avraham already in Parashat Beresheet (2:4), when it says, “This is the story of heaven and earth when they were created…”  The Zohar comments that the word “behibar’am” (“when they were created”) has the same letters as the name “Avraham.”  The Torah here subtly conveys the message that it was Avraham who, in a sense, completed the process of the creation of heaven and earth.  He brought Gd into the world by making people aware of His existence, after many centuries when paganism was universally accepted, and thus he is credited with “behibar’am” – making the creation of the world complete.

By strengthening and reinforcing our belief, and by doing what we can to transmit this belief to our children, to our peers, and to the world, we fulfill the mission charged to us as the descendants of Avraham, the mission of completing creation by spreading faith.  This was Avraham’s life’s work, and this is the most basic mission that we must devote ourselves to as his descendants and the bearers of his legacy.

By reflecting on our roots, on our role as heirs of Avraham Avinu, we will not feel discouraged by the hostile attitude towards faith and religion that we witness, or by the fact that we comprise such a small minority.   Avraham, too, was a lone voice and endured a great deal of scorn and torment because of his beliefs.  The nation he produced was likewise destined to be a small minority to which the majority would not always look upon very kindly.  Just as he fearlessly persisted, confident in the truth of his faith and in the importance of his mission, we, too, must be firm and courageous as we proceed with complete confidence and firm conviction to practice and disseminating our beliefs.  We must remind ourselves time and time again that logic in on our side, that our belief system is the rational one, and that embracing and spreading this truth is our nation’s sacred mission for all eternity.