Yisrael Torah Network
Kovetz Maamarim (Collected Essays)
Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman zt'l
Excerpts from: An Essay on Faith
[In paragraphs 1-4, Rav Elchanan
begins by asking a number of questions: What is the connection
between our thoughts and our emotions? How can the Torah command
us to believe in Hashem, something that is seemingly connected
to the heart? How can a child be required to believe in Hashem
when even the greatest philosophers have failed to grasp the
true faith? How can non-Jews be required to believe in Hashem
even if they have not been taught the truth?]
5. If you ponder it, however, you
shall find that the belief that the Holy One, blessed by He,
created the world is self-understood by any intelligent being
-- unless a person is a complete imbecile. And there is no
need for any [knowledge of] philosophy to grasp this principle.
The author of the Duties of the
Heart (Shaar HaYichud 6) thus wrote:
There are people who say that
the world came into existence by chance, without a Creator
who caused it and formed it. I wonder how any rational
being in a normal state of mind can entertain such a notion.
If one holding such a opinion would hear a person expressing
a similar view in regard to a water-wheel that revolves
in order to irrigate a portion of a field or garden --
and were to say that he thinks it had been set up without
any intention on the part of a mechanic who labored to
put it together and adjust it, using all his tools to obtain
this useful result -- the hearer would wonder, be exceedingly
astonished, and think the man who made such a statement
extremely foolish. He would promptly charge him with lying,
and would reject his assertion.
Now, if such a statement is
rejected in regard to a small and insignificant wheel,
the fashioning of which requires but little contrivance
and which serves for the improvement of but a small portion
of the earth, how can anyone permit himself to harbor such
a thought concerning the immense sphere that emcompasses
the whole earth with all the creatures on it; which exhibits
a wisdom so great that the minds of all living creatures,
the intellects of all rational mortals, cannot comprehend
it; which is appointed for the benefit of the whole earth
and all its inhabitants how can one say that it
came into existence without a wise and mighty designer
purposing and conceiving it? Whatever takes place without
purpose shows, as is well known, no trace of wisdom or
Do you not realize that if ink
were poured out accidentally on a blank sheet of paper,
it would be impossible that proper writing should result,
legible lines such as are written with a pen? If a person
brought us a fair copy of script that could only have been
written with a pen, and said that ink had been spilt on
paper and these written characters have come of themselves,
we would charge him to his face with falsehood, for we
would feel certain that this result could not have happened
without an intelligent person's purposeful action to produce
it. Since this appears to us an impossibility in the case
of characters whose form is conventional, how can one assert
that something far finer in its art, and which manifests
in its fashioning a subtlety infinitely beyond our comprehension,
could have happened without the purpose, power and wisdom
of a wise and mighty designer?
How could anyone say that the universe
came into existence on its own, seeing that everywhere we look
we see signs of such inconceivably profound wisdom? How wondrous
is the wisdom and design in the human body, how wondrous the
arrangement of its limbs and organs, as all doctors and surgeons
attest. How is it possible to say, with regard to such a wondrous
machine, that it came into existence on its own without a purposeful
designer? If anyone would claim that a watch had just come
into existence on its own, he would be considered insane.
We see this in the Midrash (Midrash
Temurah in Midrash Aggadot Bereshit):
An athiest came to Rebbi Akiva. "Who
created the world?", he queried. R. Akiva answered, "The
Holy One, blessed be He." The athiest replied, "Show me
proof." R. Akiva said, "Come back to me tomorrow and I
shall prove it to you."
When the man returned the following
day, R. Akiva began by asking, "What is that you are wearing?""A
piece of clothing,"the athiest replied."And who made it?" R.
Akiva continued. "The weaver", he replied. "Show me proof",
R. Akiva demanded. "But how can I show you proof if it
isn't already obvious to you that it is the work of the
With this R. Akiva said, "Have
you not heard what your own lips have spoken? Isn't it
obvious to you that the Holy One has created this world?
Doesn't the clothing testify to the weaver; the house and
the door to a builder and a carpenter? Just so does the
world testity to the One who made it."
Imagine a human being born with
a fully developed intellect. We can't imagine his great astonishment
upon seeing, suddenly, the heavens and their hosts, the earth
and all that is upon it. What would this man's answer be to
our question: Did the world that he is seeing now for the first
time come into existence on its own, without any conscious
intent, or is it the work of a wise Creator? Behold, without
a doubt, after contemplating for a moment, he would respond
that all this was made with wondrous wisdom and extremely subtle
[We find this concept expressed
in any number places in our classical literature.] The Psalmist
said, "The heavens declare the glory of G-d"(Psalms 19:2).
[According the Duties of the Heart 2:5] this is also the meaning
of Job's words when he declared, "From my flesh, I will see
G-d!"(Job 19:26) [The Psalmist saw proof of G-d's existence
in the magnitude of the universe. Job was saying that the very
fact that something as wonderful as his body could exist demonstrates
that it is the work of a wise Creator.]
In view of all this it is therefore
extremely puzzling, a great enigma: How could some of the greatest
philosophers who ever lived have concluded that the world was
brought into existence by chance?
6. The resolution of this enigma
can be found in the Torah. The Torah reveals something profound
about human psychology when it commands, "Do not take bribes,
for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise!" (Deuteronomy 16:19).
What is bribery? In legal terms,
the smallest amount necessary to constitute a bribe is a "shaveh
prutah"(not much more than a penny), similar to the minimum
amount needed [for a court] to find a person guilty of stealing
or of taking interest. This negative commandment, to never
take a bribe, is directed not only at a judge, but at every
man, even the wisest of men, even the most righteous, even
Moses himself. Yes, if it could be imagined, even if Moses
would take the tiniest bribe, a prutah, his perception of reality
would be distorted; he would be incapable of bringing forth
a just ruling.
At first sight, this is nothing
short of amazing. Can we imagine Moses or Aaron twisting the
law and judging falsely merely for the sake of receiving such
miniscule benefit? But the Torah itself testifies to the possibility,
and "the testimony of G-d is trustworthy" (Psalms 19:8).
We must therefore say that it is
a psychological law: A person's will or desire [to gain some
benefit] influences his mind [his ability to think straight].
Of course, it depends how strong the desire and how resolute
the mind. A small desire will not exert much influence on a
great mind, whereas on a lesser mind it will. A powerful desire
[for gain] will exert even more influence. One thing is certain:
no matter how miniscule, a desire for gain will always have
some affect. Even the tiniest desire can cause the greatest
mind to waver a fraction.
This is exemplified in the Talmud
Rebbi Yishmael bar Yossi had
a land tenant who used to bring him fruits from his [R.
Yishmael's] orchard every Friday before Shabbat. Once,
he came on a Thursday. R. Yishmael asked him: "What's changed
this week?" "I have a court case this week", he answered."Since
I was coming to town anyway, I thought I would bring you
your fruits."R. Yishmael refused to take the fruits [even
though they were his]. "I am disqualified from judging
your case."Two [other] rabbis sat and began to hear the
land tenant's case. R. Yishmael sat [on the sidelines]
watching. At every turn in the discussion, R. Yishmael
felt himself wanting to give advice to his land tenant. "If
only he would say this now... if only he would say this..."After
the case was decided, he exclaimed, "O that the spirit
of those who take bribes would explode! I refused to take
what was rightfully mine [and I still couldn't help being
biased and wanting to see him come out winning]. How much
more those who actually take what it is not theirs!
It is known that the sages [of the
Talmud] were angelic in terms of their expanded consciousness
and saintly character. We nevertheless see that the smallest
degree of bias could cause them to incline away from the truth.
How much more so the rest of us who are sunken in the desires
of this world! The desire for gain literally bribes us, saying, "Hey,
look, the world is free to do with as you please!"How powerful
this bias is! How easily it distorts our perception and blinds
us! For when a person has "bought into"a certain bias, he is
incapable of recognizing any truth that flies in the face of
that bias. As far as that truth is concerned, he might just
as well be in a drunken stupor. He doesn't recognize its existence.
Now, of course, we shouldn't be
astonished that so many great philosophers had difficulty believing
that the world was created by a Purposeful Creator. Their minds
were surely great, but their desire to gain benefit from the
pleasures of this world overcame their ability to think straight.
Such a powerful bias can divert a person's mind to the point
that he can say two plus two does not equal four, but five.
A person cannot judge whether something is true unless his
mind is free from any distorting influence vis a vis the thing
he wishes to judge. On the contrary, if recognizing a particular
truth in any way contradicts a bias that a person has bought
into, no amount of intellect, even the intellect of a great
person, can remove or overcome that bias.
7. We learn from this that the foundations
of true faith are simple and unquestionable for anyone who
isn't an idiot. It is simply impossible to doubt their veracity.
This is only true, however, on the condition that one does
not allow oneself to be bribed. One must be disinterested in
and free from the desires and allures of this world, and his
own personal desires [for gain].
If so, the root of God-denial lies
not in the distortion of the intellect in and of itself. It
lies in the heart, i.e., in one's desire to gain benefit [from
this world], which distorts and blinds the intellect.
It is clear now why the Torah commands, "Do
not stray after your hearts..." (Deuteronomy 15:39), concerning
which the sages commented, "Do not follow after the heart's
desire to deny G-d"(Sifri Shlach 15:70). A person is obligated
to subdue and sublimate his desires [for personal gain], because
this is the only way his intellect will be free of any blinding
influence! He will then automatically recognize the truth of
the existence of a Creator. This is what Rebbi Akiva meant
when he said that the world attests to the Holy One, blessed
be He, who created it.
God-denial really has no place in
a person's mind. Its place, if man allows it to exist there,
is the heart; in a person's desire for gain. And if one would
be careful not to allow his desires to overcome him, he could
never come to deny G-d's existence or atttribute reality to
any form of idolatry. It is a sign that one's desires have
grown out of proportion if one is incapable of understanding
this simple truth.
And the commandment to believe in
G-d? It is a commandment not to allow one's desires to overcome
his intellect so that he will automatically come to believe.
In other words, there is no need to struggle to believe. One
must simply remove the obstacles that stand in the way of believing.
It will then come naturally, of itself...