Dear Ask-the-Rabbi,

My rabbi visited my clinic today and asked me to wrap tefillin. He said it was for our boys in Israel. So I did.

On Friday my wife lit Shabbat candles—which she doesn’t always do. She said it was for our boys in Israel. Somehow that made sense to her. And to me.

But now I started thinking. I’m an educated man, a doctor, and I try to make sense of things. But once I’m thinking, I don’t have an explanation. How does it work? What’s the mechanism—the cause and effect? And why did it make sense before thinking?

—Puzzled Jew

Dear Puzzled Jew,

Yes, a puzzle—that’s a good example. A jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces connect to make a single whole. Same thing with Jews and mitzvahs. All of our people and all of our mitzvahs fit together to make a single, integral whole. And every piece is needed.Think of the entire Jewish people as a single living organism, and then it all makes sense.

But let me give you a better metaphor, something which you as a doctor can surely relate to. Think of the entire Jewish people as a single living organism, and then it all makes sense.

A living being, I’m sure you realize, is not like some clunky machine. For one thing, machines are made by putting parts together that originally had nothing to do with one another. Even once built, a machine is still a jumble of parts. But a living organism starts off as a single cell that then unfolds itself into an entire creature—and in such a way that even once fully developed and functioning, it remains a singularity.

In other words, unlike a machine, a living being is a single being.

And in a single being, locality is secondary. What happens in one part of a living being immediately changes the entire organism. Which is how the Jewish people works as well.

Okay, here’s an example you’re probably familiar with: Caenorhabditis elegans. I’ll bet you studied little C. elegans back in medical school—because it is holds the distinction of being the most exhaustively studied and exposed creature in the world.

C. elegans is a one-millimeter-long, transparent roundworm with exactly 959 cells (we human organisms have about 75 trillion cells). Researchers hoped that by starting with this one simple paradigm, eventually all the processes and rules that govern life could be explained. And so, by 1980, the fate of each of those cells from egg to adult was already mapped out.

But those researchers never got what they bargained for. In 2002, Sydney Brenner received a Nobel prize for all the time he spent with that little worm. Critics balked. They claimed Brenner hadn’t explained a thing—all he had done was to describe what goes on inside the little critter. And Brenner had to acknowledge they were right. “It’s not a neat, sequential process,” he explained. “It’s everything going on at the same time . . . there is hardly a shorter way of giving a rule for what goes on than just describing what there is.” (my emphasis)

Call that an irreducible singularity. Something whose only description is itself. Which means that if one part were missing, it would not be what it is. And whenever one part changes, the entirety has instantly changed.

Something like a symphony: You can’t provide me a mathematical equation that will produce Beethoven’s Pastoral. The only description I can have is by listening to it. And if one part is changed—a sweet note gone sour, or a thundering triad played softly—the experience of the entire symphony has changed.

Now apply that to the Jewish people. We are one—essentially and integrally one. We have one G‑d, one Torah, one story to tell and one destiny at which we will arrive. Each one of us has his or her integral part to play. And so, whatever any one of us does immediately redefines the state of our entire people.

Locality is meaningless—it’s not a case of cause and effect. It doesn’t take time for the signal to travel, it needs no medium to carry it, and it doesn’t diminish over space or time. Our entire people spread over the entire globe, from Abraham until you and me—we are all one irreducible singularity. One Jew has done a mitzvah—the entire people is immediately enriched, and that enrichment is felt in every individual.

Take it further: If you somehow connect with another Jew who is struggling with some ethical challenge in life, find that same challenge within yourself, fix it up—and you’ll discover that this other Jew now has an easier time overcoming that struggle. That’s how deeply we are connected.

That also answers your last question: Why did it make sense before thinking? Strange thing: I’ve also asked many Jews to wrap tefillin or light Shabbat candles or do some other mitzvah “for our boys in Israel.” Every Jew I have asked immediately gets it. “Of course,” they say. “It’s a mitzvah.”

Because a Jew feels the effect of the mitzvah. And a Jew knows we are a people above time and space.

We are one. Everything else is commentary. Now go do another mitzvah for our boys in Israel.

Mostly, this is based on the Rebbe’s maamar “Amar Rabbi Oshaya,” 19 Kislev, 5739. For an excellent discussion of the difference between organism and mechanism, see Stephen L. Talbott’s series of essays in The New Atlantis, especially What Do Organisms Mean? in the August 2011 edition. There is more fascinating material on this subject scattered throughout the Web.