Recently there was a delightful episode of RadioLab, an NPR podcast that discusses scientific topics in quirky and unexpected ways. The host, Latif Nasser, had shared that in his two-year-old son’s bedroom, he had put up a poster of the solar system. Aside from the usual planets and some of the larger moons, right next to Venus was a moon called “Zoozve.” The problem? Venus doesn’t have a moon. That name seemed oddly specific and not a name someone would have just made up, so he Googled it, called astrophysicists, and even reached out to the illustrator to find out what precisely happened, but couldn’t find an answer.
Eventually, an astronomer friend realized that it wasn’t a moon called “Zoozve” but an object that had been discovered in 2002 (near Venus), so it had been temporarily called “2002-VE.” The illustrator had seen it on a list of moons online, wrote it down, couldn’t later read his own handwriting, and wrote it down as “Zoozve.” But as Nasser went deeper into the rabbit hole to find out why this weird object was listed on his son’s bedroom poster, his most interesting discovery was that Zoozve was the first “quasi-moon” discovered – it orbits both the sun and Venus, which means its trajectory is essentially impossible to predict. (It’s essentially an example of the “three-body problem.”)
Zoozve is so fascinating not only because of its typo-inspired name but also because of how weirdly a quasi-moon acts. We think of astronomical laws as unchanging – so predictable that we use their regularity to help us predict the future. We used the Earth’s rotation on its axis, the moon’s rotation around the Earth, and the Earth’s rotation around the Sun to form the basis of our days, months, and years. But every so often, something completely unpredictable happens, as it probably will with Zoozve. At some point, this quasi-moon will leave Venus’ orbit – but we have no idea when it will leave or where it will go.
This week’s portion, Mishpatim, is a collection not of astronomical laws but of human laws – specifically, ones that help us respond when the unexpected happens. In a classic text, Exodus 21:28-29, the Torah outlines a series of rules of what happens when an ox gores a person. Oxen were crucial for farming and making labor easier and were usually quite docile, but they could also be very dangerous and act in surprising ways. The text brings up two different sets of rules for when an ox might kill someone:
When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox is not to be punished. If, however, that ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner, though warned, has failed to guard it, and it kills a man or a woman—the ox shall be stoned, and its owner, too, shall be put to death.
There’s an expectation here that in the community as a whole, it’s a question of “when” and not “if” an ox might unexpectedly kill someone. But there is much more severe punishment if the individual owner of the ox knew in advance that the animal was likely to be particularly dangerous. There’s a similar distinction in Exodus 21:35-36, here between an ox that unexpectedly injures another ox and one that was known to be “in the habit of goring.” While the farmer wouldn’t know precisely which ox might gore, or when, or why, the rules here help us know what to do. They expect the unexpected.
The Rabbis build on this text to talk about laws of negligence and our responsibility to protect others and their property. Our social laws are there to help us lessen the chance of physical harm, but laws exist only because we agree they exist. You might say, “Wait a second – stopping at a red light isn’t a suggestion,” but in fact, it is. If you chose to, you could (in theory) run a red light. You may have even done it accidentally or sped up as the light was changing from yellow to red, but you just missed it. But if you do run a red light, there’s a potential physical consequence. You might T-bone another car or run over a pedestrian; there would be damages and punishments, and a court system would make a decision and mete out the ruling. These social laws are created to protect people’s physicality and so that “justice” doesn’t turn into a vendetta. The Rabbis spend much of these chapters in the Mishnah and Talmud outlining who would be responsible for any damages, how to calculate them, and suggestions for preventing them from happening in the first place. While these two verses are short, they create the basis for a whole new set of laws.
Both our physical world and our social world need understanding to help us manage the unexpected. Zoozve the quasi-moon reminds us that even in a deeply-ordered solar system, we may discover surprises. But the name “Zoozve” is equally surprising, taking Latif Nasser on a wonderful journey through typos and conversations with the International Astronomical Union (you’ll have to listen more to fully understand how terrific this story is). As the laws of the ox remind us, we can’t always predict what will happen in individual cases, but a general understanding can help us know what to do when the unanticipated happens.
The dance between regularity and the unforeseen is what makes our lives so challenging and so rich. We strive to both create and understand laws that help us not only keep our society running smoothly but also gain more knowledge about the natural and social worlds. And as with all laws – both scientific and religious – the more we understand the normal and usual, the more we can learn from the surprising and unexpected.
Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman is the Founding Director of Sinai and Synapses, an organization that bridges the scientific and religious worlds and is being incubated at Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and served as Assistant and then Associate Rabbi of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester. In addition to My Jewish Learning, he’s written for The Huffington Post, Science and Religion Today, and WordPress.com. He lives in Westchester with his wife, Heather Stoltz, a fiber artist, and their daughter and son.