Accurately sending a message across vast distances, to people with different languages and cultures, is a hard thing to do. But, what if you needed to send a message to people living so far into the future that they may as well be aliens?
Imagine you’re stranded alone on a desert island. Your only means of communicating with the outside world is to place a note in a bottle and cast it into the ocean currents, in the hopes that it will be carried to a far-off shore and found by some well-meaning soul. This is an image with which we are all familiar, from popular movies, tv shows, and cartoons.
And, this is precisely the situation dealt with in this week’s Torah Portion (Parshah Vayeira – Genesis 18:1-22:24). Only, rather than needing to send a message to some far-off place, we find Avraham needing to preserve an important message for people living in the far-distant future. Just like the man stranded on that desert island, he had no way of personally reaching out and delivering his message, but instead had to cast his message into the currents of time and hope that it would reach its destination intact.
Fortunately for Avraham, he had God’s help, who provided him with a brilliant solution. But, in order to better understand the complexity of the problem Avraham faced, and the beauty of God’s plan, it would be instructive for us to look at how people have dealt with a similar problem in more modern times.
The Atomic Age
Since the beginning of the Atomic Age, the world has been faced with the problem of how to safely dispose of the by-products and waste created during the manufacture of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. This waste can’t be incinerated or dumped in existing garbage dumps, as the radiation would leak into the surrounding air and water, with deadly results. So, the best solution, in most cases, has been to bury this waste deep in the ground in long-term storage facilities.
In the 1970s, the US Department of Energy began a project to build the largest such facility in the world, known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, in an isolated and uninhabited region of New Mexico. Their plan was to house the worst of these radioactive waste materials, encased underground in solid salt rock, until they no longer posed a threat to human life – more than 10,000 years in the future!
Surprisingly enough, one of the most daunting problems they faced was how to clearly communicate to future generations that the materials buried in this location are harmful to them, and that they should avoid digging them up. This becomes an increasingly difficult problem when you consider that these future generations won’t speak any language that exists today, will have cultures completely alien to us, and may not even have the scientific knowledge needed to understand why the materials buried in this place are dangerous.
To tackle this problem, the US Department of Energy appointed a panels of experts, including anthropologists, astronomers, archaeologists, linguists, material scientists, and environmental designers, who came back with a detailed proposal on how to solve this problem. Among the issues they discussed were how to ensure the physical survival of the medium on which the message was inscribed (1)Not just making sure the materials physically endure for 10,000 years, but also making sure that they aren’t recycled or scavenged for raw materials by future generations.; how to ensure the message was intelligible to people unfamiliar with any modern language (2)And who may also be totally unfamiliar with any glyphs or iconographies that we take for granted today.; how to create a physical monument that wouldn’t inadvertantly attract people to dig in that area (3)Consider that most monuments built by ancient cultures house very valuable treasures inside, so the assumption of future cultures would likely be that this monument marks the spot of our greatest treasures. And, so it might entice them to dig and find out what we had buried – precisely the opposite of what we intended!; and, how to make sure that future generations take the message seriously (4)After all, how seriously do Archaeologists take the warnings of curses inscribed on Egyptian tombs? And, would a description of radiation (ie. “invisible deadly rays that will make you sick or kill you”) really sound any different to future generations who don’t possess nuclear science?. The solution they came up with would be the largest monument ever constructed in human history, and it remains to be seen which parts of their proposal, if any, will be implemented.
While the nature of Avraham’s problem was somewhat different than this, he faced the same conundrum of how to effectively communicate with future generations.
The Avrahamic Age
In Avraham’s time, humanity was at a cross-roads. The great prophets Adam and Noach had received God’s instructions for the human race, and had successfully passed this information along for 20 generations. However, as evidenced in the horrific destruction about to be visited upon Sodom and Gemorrah, it was clear that the vast majority of mankind was not on the verge of accepting God’s instructions any time soon. And, the old scions of the tradition, Shem and Ever, were quickly losing the battle for hearts and minds to self-styled man-gods such as Nimrod and Pharoah.
However, God could see that all hope wasn’t lost. As evidenced by Avraham, who had pulled himself up out of the muck of idolatry to become a shining beacon of righteousness, it was clear that humanity was on the right track. But it would likely take them several thousand more years to slowly ascend to the point where they would choose to accept the Seven Mitzvot which God had commanded them.
The problem God faced was how to preserve the knowledge that Avraham had worked so hard to acquire. How would He transmit this information to people thousands of years in the future, considering that those future generations wouldn’t speak any language that existed in Avraham’s time, would have cultures completely alien to them, and would have completely different ways of looking at the world than the people of Avraham’s time?
As we see in this week’s Parshah, God had a plan. As it says:
And Hashem said: “…Avraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him; because I have known him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they will guard the Way of Hashem, to do righteousness and justice; and Hashem will bring upon Avraham that which He has spoken of him.”
This plan, as we know, was to create a great nation from Avraham’s descendants – the nation of Israel. So, in the future, when humanity was finally ready, they would come to Avraham’s descendants to learn the Way of Hashem, and bring blessing upon themselves.
Why was Avraham chosen for this task? Because, as it says, God saw that Avraham would successfully command his descendants to guard His Ways (5)Derekh Hashem, or “The Way of Hashem”, is a Hebrew way of referring to “Judaism”., and that they would be successful in handing down these traditions through the ages in an unbroken chain.
The beauty and genius of this plan to create a Nation of Priests (Exodus 19:6) was that this nation would have the ability to overcome all the problems normally faced in transmitting a message into the far-distant future. As Torah scrolls naturally decayed over time, Israel’s scribes would make new accurate copies. As new technologies and legal cases arose, Israel’s sages would delve into the Torah for answers, and record their findings for the benefit of future generations. As the languages and cultures of the nations changed and evolved over millenia, this priestly nation would serve as humanity’s living bridge between the ancient and modern worlds, delivering the message of God’s Torah to modern man in a form he could easily understand.
The Noahic Age
Today we see scores of Noahides from every language and culture, striving to learn God’s Mitzvot as they apply to them. They are diligently learning the authentic traditions of Torah from its original guardians. Since I started my Noahide journey decades ago, the numbers who have returned to the Way of Hashem has increased by leaps and bounds. And, it’s becoming clear that Avraham’s “message in a bottle”, guided by God through the currents of time, has finally made it successfully to humanity’s shores. May we truly take this message to heart, doing righteousness and justice, and thereby bring great blessings upon ourselves and the world!
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Not just making sure the materials physically endure for 10,000 years, but also making sure that they aren’t recycled or scavenged for raw materials by future generations.|
|2.||↑||And who may also be totally unfamiliar with any glyphs or iconographies that we take for granted today.|
|3.||↑||Consider that most monuments built by ancient cultures house very valuable treasures inside, so the assumption of future cultures would likely be that this monument marks the spot of our greatest treasures. And, so it might entice them to dig and find out what we had buried – precisely the opposite of what we intended!|
|4.||↑||After all, how seriously do Archaeologists take the warnings of curses inscribed on Egyptian tombs? And, would a description of radiation (ie. “invisible deadly rays that will make you sick or kill you”) really sound any different to future generations who don’t possess nuclear science?|
|5.||↑||Derekh Hashem, or “The Way of Hashem”, is a Hebrew way of referring to “Judaism”.|