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Home » Education, The Jewish Faith, Yitro

Yitro: An Unpleasant Truth

Submitted by on January 24, 2016 – 6:03 pmNo Comment | 2,915 views


What is the difference between Torah truth and scientific truth? By science I mean every branch of human knowledge that isn’t Torah. One is pleasant the other is unpleasant.

The answer is best presented with a joke I’m sure you’ve heard. It’s about the Jew who was caught reading a Nazi newspaper in Berlin. When his friend asked why he was reading that garbage, he replied, I would rather read about Jews controlling banks and manipulating economies than Jews being arrested, tortured, downtrodden and annihilated.

There are two kinds of truths. Pleasant and unpleasant. It’s pleasant to read that Jews control the world, there is only one problem with it. It isn’t actually true.

The same applies to scientific and Torah truths. Science teaches that the world is magnificent; Torah teaches that the world is not magnificent. G-d is magnificent and its magnificence comes from Him. It is pleasant to revel in our own magnificence. There is only one problem. It isn’t actually true.

The G-d View

Suppose you imagine a jungle into existence. Now imagine the lions in your jungle discussing their own magnificence. One would say, “aren’t we magnificent?” The other would say, “Why, of course! Can’t you see our powerful biceps and beautiful manes?” All the while, you would have a nice little chuckle while you imagine the nonexistent debaters and their debate into existence.

Assuming you have a creative imagination, you are likely to imagine a magnificent world. The scientists in that world would study its intricate patterns, symmetry and symbiosis, its exactness and detail. They would be right to point out its grandeur and mystery. They would be right to marvel over its inexplicable design. They could be excused for assuming that this magnificence is inherent to their world. How could they know that you pull all the strings by imagining them, when they are one of those strings?

Then one day, you walk in and share your G-d view. You tell them that their magnificence is a figment of your imagination and that if you chose, you could re-imagine them into new form, in the blink of an eye. At first they would be thrown for a loop, but after a while they would start thinking and realize that if their creator said so, it must be true. It would change their entire perspective. Shift their entire paradigm. Reorient their entire approach.

The Torah is effectively that. Science teaches us about the intricacies of nature and nature is indeed intricate. Its patterns are perfect and its imagery is beautiful. But, it’s grandness is not its own, it derives from its creator. Science doesn’t breathe a word of its creator. It can’t. It doesn’t have the tools to measure its own creator. Just like you can’t jump over your own head, so can you not see above your own scope. How might science know, let alone teach about its own creator?

The Torah, comes along and tells us about creation and creator. Here we are taught that G-d made the world and designed its grandeur. That its magnificence comes from Him.[1]

Upside Down

But making that leap requires a complete reversal of approach. We mentioned earlier that it is not possible to jump above our own heads. Well, there is one way to make this possible. If we turn a summersault and place the head below the legs. Can we do something similar for cognition and perception? Is there a way to perceive that which is higher than our own minds?

Yes, there is. It calls for receiving rather than mastering. Scientific progress is made by exploration, analysis and experimentation. We use our brains to conceive of new ideas and our creativity to test them. Torah, however, cannot be learned. It has to be received. When we are ready to receive knowledge from a higher source and accept it, we are able to study Torah.

If we insist on subjecting every facet of Torah to the test of our own understanding before accepting it, we will never perceive our own nothingness, let alone our creator. How can our minds wrap around ideas that are larger than our minds? We can only perceive our nothingness, by receiving it from a source above us. This kind of learning leads to humbleness rather than hubris.

A Work of Art

Imagine standing in an art gallery studying the image of a flower. You study its lines and colors, shades and contours, supple nuance and grained texture. Then you step back and realize that the flower is sitting in a bed of flowers, each with its own intricate pattern. Your study scale expands, but can’t take in that much detail. You are now interested in the aggregate beauty created by all the flowers together.

You step further back and note that the flower bed lies in a field of flowers and now you are struck by the awesome array of colors and shades. They all meld and cling expressing individual and collective beauty simultaneously. You sigh in contentment when you take another step back and realize that this entire filed sits atop a precipice overlooking a huge valley, filled with color, light, warmth, shadow and every imaginable shade in between. You are no longer sighing in contentment. You are now gasping in astonishment. This is when you take your last step back and realize that this magnificent canvass is but one in a huge gallery full of similar images. The array of dizzying beauty and stunning vistas overwhelms you and renders you mute. You are silent and humble. You feel small and lost, absorbed and overcome as you take in more than your senses can handle.

You see the pattern. The higher you reach, the less you grasp. The higher you reach, the smaller you feel. But the higher you reach, the more you receive, and the more ecstatic your experience becomes.

Now imagine reaching for the highest of all. Beyond all color, beyond all imagination, beyond all understanding. Beyond even yourself. This cannot be mastered. This can only be received. It courses through you. It overtakes you. It becomes you. And you become it.

Imagine that, and you will have a smidgen of an image, a sliver of an idea, of what our ancestors experienced at Sinai.[2]

[1] We are like a ball thrown upward toward the sky. In flight, the ball assumes it has its own power of flight. But once the velocity of our throw is expended, the ball quickly discovers that its flight capability was borrowed from an outside source and that it has no independent flight capability. We too realize with sudden clarity as we study and delve into the Torah that our grandeur and even existence is borrowed, utterly contingent on an outside source, and that we are not independent at all.

[2] [2] Toras Menachem v. 15, p. 252.

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