“When in response to Moses’ request, the Lord appeared to tell him what He is, did He say: I am the all-wise, the perfect, and of infinite beauty? He did say: I am full of love and compassion. Where in the history of religion prior to the age of Moses, was the Supreme Being celebrated for His being sensitive to the suffering of men?” (pg. 67)
“To the fatalist, mystery is the supreme power controlling all reality. He believes that the world is controlled by an irrational, absolutely inscrutable and blind power that is devoid of either justice or purpose. …To the notion of fate history is an impenetrable mystery, and man is in dark uncertainty with regard to the future. A tragic doom is hanging over the world, to which gods and men alike are subject, and the only attitude one may take is that of resignation. It is a view that is found in various forms and degrees in nearly all pagan religions, in many modern philosophies of history, as well as in popular thinking.
…The awareness of mystery was common to all men of antiquity. It was the beginning of a new era when man was told that the mystery is not the ultimate; that not a demonic, blind force but a G-d of righteousness rules the world. In Greek tragedy man is invariably the victim of some unseen power which foredooms him to disaster. “Awful is the mysterious power of fate.” “Pray not at all, since there is no release for mortals from predestined calamity.” (Sophocles)
In contrast, Abraham stands before G-d, arguing for the salvation of Sodom: “Far be it from Thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be it from Thee! Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?”
The theology of fate knows only a one-sided dependence upon the ultimate power. The power has neither concern for man nor need of him. History runs its course as a monologue. To Jewish religion, on the other hand, history is determined by the covenant: G-d is in need of man. The ultimate is not a law but a judge, not a power but a father.” (pg. 68)
I love how Rav Heschel makes a stark contrast between belief in G-d and your only other option. The lack of belief in G-d leads one to the darkest and most depressing of places. It’s a world devoid of love and compassion, justice and purpose. Nothing has any greater rationale or meaning. All of the worlds sophistication including our own – has no greater purpose and is victim to the random tides of time and space.
The bleakness and purposelessness of an existence based on such a model is truly bone chilling. The ability of atheists to find succor in the notion of being “free” from G-d paints an extremely short sighted picture. Their relationship with religion/notions of G-d is either a severely emotionally traumatized one which leads to just wanting “the monkey off their backs” without following through to its ultimate implications. Or it’s a simplistic inability to take the next step and think about the universal consequences beyond ones personal “freedom” of responsibility to G-d.
“Standing face to face with the world, we often sense a spirit which surpasses our ability to comprehend. The world is too much for us. It is crammed with marvel. The glory is not an exception but an aura that lies about all being, a spiritual setting of reality.
Blindness To The Wonder
The perception of the glory is a rare occurrence in our lives. We fail to wonder, we fail to respond to the presence. This is the tragedy of every man: “to dim all wonder by indifference.” Life is routine, and routine is resistance to the wonder. “Replete is the world with a spiritual radiance, replete with sublime and marvelous secrets. But a small hand held against the eye hides it all,” said the Baal Shem. “Just as a small coin held over the face can block out the sight of a mountain, so can the vanities of living block out the sight of the infinite light.”
The wonders are daily with us, and yet “the miracle is not recognized by him who experiences it.” Its apprehension is not a matter of physical perception. “Of what avail is an open eye, if the heart is blind?” One may see many things without observing them – “his ears are open but he does not hear.” (Isaiah)
“The word of the Lord came to me: ‘Son of man, you dwell in the midst of a rebellious house, who have eyes to see, but see not, who have ears to hear but hear not.’” (Ezekiel)
“Alas for people that they see but do not know what they see, they stand and do not know on what they stand.” (pg. 85)
From the delightful words of the Baal Shem to the many passages that warn against having audio and visual capabilities but being blind and deaf to our greater reality. I love how this concept is a central theme throughout Judaism. Nothing speaks more directly to this notion then the concept of Shabbos.
For six days we toil by the sweat of our brow to provide sustenance and shelter. We are weary, overworked, and overwhelmed with practical responsibilities. Our hearts and brains have no time for deeper reflection. Particularly today, in our constantly on the go rat race society, where all our tools to increase efficiency only allows for more time to accomplish more career oriented tasks. The review, the bonus, the raise, the promotion – are all consuming.
Combined with the needs and demands of children, spouse, and family it is very understandable that we have eyes that can not see and ears that can not hear. The beauty is that G-d built in a solution to this serious problem; it’s called Shabbos, our day of rest.
On Shabbos we break from all the pressure and overwhelming stimuli – the blackberries, the faxes and emails, the urgent phone calls, the car, computer, and the television, all the efficiencies to speed up life are removed from our mindset. We stop focusing on HOW to conquer the world and we start examining WHY we are here.
We are once again able to see the greater purpose of creation with our eyes and hear the mystery and wonder of the G-d’s communication with our ears.
The Desanctification Of Nature
“Biblical thinking succeeded in subduing the universal tendency of ancient man to endow nature with a mysterious potency like mana and orenda by stressing the indication in all nature of the wisdom and goodness of the Creator.
One of the great achievements of the prophets was the repudiation of nature as an object of adoration. They tried to teach us that neither nature’s beauty nor grandeur, neither power nor the state, neither money nor things of space are worthy of our supreme adoration, love, sacrifice, or self-dedication. Yet the desanctification of nature did not in any way bring about an alienation of nature. It brought man together with all things in a fellowship of praise. The Biblical man could say that he was “in league with the stones of the field” (Job) (pg. 90-91)
“To the Biblical man, the power of G-d is behind all phenomena, and he is more concerned to know the will of G-d who governed nature than to know the order of nature itself. Important and impressive as nature is to him, G-d is vastly more so.” (pg. 92)
The Question Of Amazement
“…There is no word in Biblical Hebrew for doubt; there are many expressions of wonder. Just as in dealing with judgments our starting point is doubt, wonder is the Biblical starting point in facing reality. The Biblical man’s sense for the mind-surpassing grandeur of reality prevented the power of doubt from setting up its own dynasty. Doubt is an act in which the mind inspects its own ideas; wonder is an act in which the mind confronts the universe. Radical skepticism is the outgrowth of subtle conceit and self-reliance. Yet there was no conceit in the prophets and no self-reliance in the psalmist.
And so the Biblical man never asks: Is there a G-d? To ask such a question, in which doubt is expressed as to which of two possible attitudes is true, means to accept the power and validity of a third attitude, namely the attitude of doubt. The Bible does not know doubt as an absolute attitude. For there is no doubt in which faith is not involved. The questions advanced in the Bible are of a different kind.
Lift up your eye on high and see, Who created thee?
This does not reflect a process of thinking that is neatly arranged in the order of doubt first, and faith second; first the question, then the answer. It reflects a situation in which the mind stands fact to face with the mystery rather than with its own concepts.
A question is an interrogative sentence calling for either a positive or a negative answer. But the sentence “Who created these?” is a question that contains the impossibility of giving a negative answer; it is an answer in disguise; a question of amazement, not of curiosity.
This, then, is the prophet’s thesis: there is a way of asking the great question which can only elicit an affirmative answer." (pg. 98-99)
I hesitated to add this excerpt about doubt because it can seem confusing as it surfs on two different non-aligning concepts – doubt and amazement. In order to doubt, we need to come up with a formulation and then question its validity. This inherently implies that we can grasp this formulation with our minds.
Rav Heschel is stressing the point that the grandeur of the universe, of all creation, is a formulation that is far beyond our ability to cognizantly encounter. Our interaction with this question can not take place on the plane of doubt. We don’t have the knowledge and tools for it. To believe that we do would stem from conceit and vanity.
Rather it takes place on the plane of amazement. The grandeur, the wisdom, the sheer numbers of interlocking laws and intrinsic nature of life, the planet, and the universe; is beyond awesome.
“Who created this?”
Is not a question that lends itself to doubt, because we simply can not comprehend this elevated realm of existence that first requires comprehension in order to doubt. Rather, the question is intrinsically one of sheer amazement.