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Torah and Science: The Contemporary Meaning of Faith in Heaven

Excerpted from a lecture by Rabbi Ginsburgh on the 8th of Nissan, 5783.

Good evening.* We are in the month of geulah (redemption), may it be the complete redemption and may it be quickly with the Mashiach.

The Chasidic Soldier

It is well known that when the Rebbe or the Frierdiker Rebbe would bless a child, and each one of us too, they would bless him that he should be a chasid, one who is God-fearing [lit., one who fears the Heavens], and a scholar (חָסִיד יְרֵא שָׁמַיִם לַמְדָן). The initials of these three spell the Hebrew word for “soldier” (חַיָּל). Indeed, we should all be soldiers of the Rebbe, soldiers of all the Rebbes, soldiers of the Ba’al Shem Tov, soldiers of Hashem, soldiers in the armies of Hashem. To be a dedicated and successful soldier, one needs to be all three: a chasid, a God-fearing person, and a scholar. There is a well-known saying from the Tzemach Tzedek that the sign that you are a good soldier is that your rank is constantly advanced, which means that you are given more responsibility and more duties. A good soldier is always marching forward, never standing still, always advancing.

In Hebrew, the holy language, there is an interesting relationship between the words for soldier (חַיָּל) and an emissary (שָׁלִיחַ)—a shaliach. What is a shaliach? If we look at this word in Hebrew with the “soldier” in mind, we see that it is an even better acronym for the three qualities: chasid, God-fearing, and a scholar, because we now have an extra letter shin (ש) that serves as the initial of the second word of “God-fearing” (יְרֵא שָׁמַיִם).

This requires some reflection. The simplest way to explain the relationship between the shin and the letters of “soldier”—chet yud lamed—is that the work of the “soldier” is done by the individual below and the result is the descent of the shin of the “heavens.” We need to find a similar idea that can we liken this to in order to better understand this image.

In parashat Tzav, we find the verse, “A constant fire will be kindled on the altar, it shall not be extinguished”[1] (אֵשׁ תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לֹא תִכְבֶּה). The sages explain[2] that even though the fire descends from heaven, there is a mitzvah to also bring fire from below, a human-lit fire. In fact, the fire kindled from below should be placed on the altar before the fire that descends from Heaven. As the Zohar says, “A spirit begets a spirit and draws down a spirit”[3] (רוּחַ אַיְּתִי רוּחַ וְאַמְּשִׁיךְ רוּחַ). What this means is that from the spirit that awakens below we beget a spirit from on high and from on higher. So, even though we receive many gifts from Heaven, they are all dependent on our work from here below. Thus, the soldier represents our actions from below—kindling the fire on the altar from below—which then draws down the dire from Heaven, i.e., the sense of being God-fearing or as it is in literal Hebrew, fearing Heaven.

Now, there is an interesting thing that though one can fear Heaven, there is no complimentary description that you can love Heaven. There is of course love of God, love of Israel, etc., but there is no love of Heaven. Fear of Heaven is thus the fire that descends from Heaven as a result of toil here below.

When we say that someone is Heaven-fearing (יְרֵא שָׁמַיִם), what does each word mean? The basis of “fear” or “awe” is the ability to sense some presence. I fear something that is present, either I fear it, or I am in awe of it, I am bewildered by this presence.

What does the word “Heaven” (שָׁמַיִם), shamayim mean? Of all the titles we have mentioned so far, this is the only one whose numerical value is a multiple of 26, the value of God’s essential Name, Havayah; it is the product of 15 (which itself is the value of the first two letters of Havayah: yud hei) and 26. Fear of heaven (to be God-fearing) means first and foremost to sense that there is a presence of Heaven down here below.

Denying the Existence of Heaven

We are now just after Purim and the mitzvah on Purim is to annihilate Amalek. On Pesach, we also annihilate something: chametz (leavened dough). The two are compared to one another.[4] Amalek casts doubt in our souls and weakens our enthusiasm for serving God and therefore needs to be annihilated. The usual order is to first, “refrain from evil and [then] do good”[5] (סוּר מֵרָע וַעֲשֵׂה טוֹב). However, the Ba’al Shem Tov taught that there is a path of Divine service: By doing good, one can refrain from evil. This is the path that we seek to follow. Still, refraining from evil is necessary either by submitting to the evil or by transforming it. With the latter, the evil itself becomes “a seat for good.”[6]

How does Amalek fulfill his duty in our age? There are some participants here who write and deal with the study of Torah and science. As we said, Amalek's role is to cast doubt; he denies faith (כְּפִירָה). He denies all. What does that mean today? To deny “all” means to deny the word “all” that appears in the verse, “For all in the Heavens and on the earth”[7] (כִּי כֹל בַּשָּׁמַיִם וּבָאָרֶץ). Amalek today is one who denies the existence of the Heavens.

There are many stories about great tzaddikim who by merely looking at the heavens (at the sky) attained a state of being God-fearing, which again, is literally, Heaven-fearing. That is how they attained their awe of God. This is the reason why a synagogue should have 12 windows, corresponding to the 12 Tribes. These are the windows or gates through which prayer rises. By seeing the heavens, we receive Heavenly inspiration.

What is the scientific claim today? Science argues that there is no Heaven. Not just “heaven” in the sense of where the soul goes in the afterlife, but what the Rambam writes[8] about the Heavens—that the Heavens are something else. The Torah begins with “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the earth.” The heavens and the earth are two different realities. Just like a man and a woman are different. They are not the same.

“The Foundation of the Earth is One”

The principle argued by all of secular science in our times is: universality, which means that the universe is the same everywhere—the laws are the same, matter is the same, etc. Whenever we encounter a scientific or cultural idiom, we need to find its corresponding notion in Torah. The principle of universality corresponds to the Talmudic dictum that, “the foundation [lit., anvil] of the land is the same everywhere”[9] (סַדָּנָא דְאַרְעָא חַד הוּא). What this principle (which the halachah, the legal ruling, follows) argues is that if there are 10 separate fields in 10 different countries (apparently this reflects the 10 sefirot) and I pay for all of them together then even if I perform an act of possession on only one of them, I have purchased them all. This only works for parcels of land. When it comes to other items, such as animals, etc. this principle does not hold. I need to take possession of each one separately because they have “separate bodies,”[10] according to the sages. The reasoning is that since all the fields are sitting on the same foundation, on the same base, which is the Earth and there is only one such base or foundation, I can take possession of one parcel of land and through it take ownership over any other parcel of land that I have purchased.

What does modern science want to do? It wants to make exactly this argument regarding the physical laws of the universe. It argues that the laws of nature are the same everywhere in the universe. What this means is that even in the “heavens,” there is only matter. Today, every child knows that the stars that are seemingly billion of light years away are all made of the same elements as the matter from which this table is made of. This is an example of direct brainwashing by science. If someone would today say that a star or the moon is composed of different elements—like a “fifth element” (like the Rambam writes[11])—that there is something different that could be described as relatively “spiritual,” such a statement would be ridiculed. By claiming Universality as the foundation of all nature, science is claiming there is no “heaven,” that “earth” is all there is—all is based on the same foundation of the earth. What we see here below is what there is “above.” It is in essence “earth,” all the way up. Here we have electrons and other elementary particles and that is all there is “above.” Even when science speaks of phenomena that are somewhat concealed, like dark energy or dark matter, it is the same everywhere. The bottom line is that modern science claims that there is no more heaven, everything was taken away and all we are left with is earth.

“The heavens” represent the belief that there really is something different in reality. We, as human beings, are part of the “earth.” We are fashioned out of matter, and the “end of all flesh is decomposition.”[12] Yet, we believe there is a heaven, which means that there is something after we finish our physical life; there is a heaven, and there is a World to Come. Heaven means that there is spirituality—a spiritual dimension. The heavens represent the belief in another reality apart from our own mundane reality. Our present consciousness is the consciousness of earth. But a scholar of Torah—the individual who is a talmid chacham—belongs to the heavens. He is in a different dimension. Amalek’s goal in these generations—over the past few centuries of scientific development—is to nullify the duality of the heavens and earth. From now on, it claims, there is only the earth.

No Differences and Inter-inclusion

There is another way in which the principle, “the foundation of the earth is one” is used. This usage is similar to the meaning of the verse in Ecclesiastes that states, “there is nothing new under the sun.”[13] In this vein, the principle means that the customs of all the lands on Earth are in the end, the same. The corollary is that there is nothing new (under the sun). Once again, we have an understanding that there is nothing new, no novelty, and no differences.

We need to take into account that everything is inter-included. Therefore, since there are both the heavens and the earth, then there is also the aspect of the heavens in the earth, and vice versa, the aspect of the earth in the heavens. One example of this is in the Alter Rebbe’s explanation for the Torah’s injunction, “You shall choose life.”[14] He explains that these words represent a call to pursue the inner essence of reality. Or, to put it in terms of the relationship of the heavens and the earth, to seek the inter-included aspect of the “heavens” within the earth.[15] He tells us that if you penetrate reality deeply, you will find “living waters” and these waters are themselves the heavens in the earth (since “the heavens” are composed of both fire and water[16]).

What exactly is this aspect of the heavens in the earth? The non-complex view of the earth leaves it in a state of being entirely without change—“there is nothing new under the sun.” So the external aspect of the earth itself is void of renewal. It can only die. But the earth’s inner dimension is different. That is where these “living waters” are, where the heavens within the earth can be found, and that is where you can feel a constant pulse of renewal.

Another way to think of this is that the earth and the heavens are akin to the natural order of things and to miracles, respectively. We are in the month of Nissan, the month of renewal, i.e., the month of entering the internal. Science continues the ancient Greek traditions. The ancient Greeks’ opposition to our faith was that they argued that there could be no renewal.[17] The ancient Greeks believed that there is no renewal, no inner dimension, no life, and no heavens; there is only the earth with its universal and single foundation.

The rectification for all this depends on taking the claim itself and transforming it, just as we mentioned regarding the Ba’al Shem Tov’s of transforming evil into good and darkness into light. In the end, it will be revealed that there is indeed a single, unifying principle that unites everything. This principle is Godliness, about which we say, “I Havayah have not changed.”[18] To reach this you must first annihilate Amalek. If you don’t annihilate Amalek first, then you end up with Spinoza’s pantheism. You need both halves of the famous principle that, “God is all” and “All is God.” The “all” is the “all” in, “All is God” and only then can you see the superiority of the principle that “the foundation of the earth is one.” Indeed, everything is “earthly,” and everything is fields, parcels of land, and not free-standing possessions.

All this was to say that “the heavens” represent the experience that another dimension exists. So, if we take corporeality as our starting point, we believe that there is also spirituality. Why do I experience fear of Heaven when looking at the sky? Because the sky awakens my belief. First, I believe in God and then I fear God. The main type of fear is the fear of God’s loftiness. I fear God and then I am drawn to pursue God.

Image by giografiche from Pixabay

* Excerpted from a lecture by Rabbi Ginsburgh on the 8th of Nissan, 5783.

[1]. Leviticus 6:5.

[2]. Eiruvin 63a.

[3]. Tanya ch. 47 and elsewhere based on Zohar 2:162b.

[4]. Bnei Yissachar, Adar 3:1, and elsewhere.

[5]. Psalms 34:15.

[6]. Keter Shem Tov §26 and §70.

[7]. 1 Chronicles 29:11.

[8]. Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 3:3 and 3:9.

[9]. Kidushin 27b. Baba Kama 12b.

[10]. Kidushin ibid.

[11]. Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 3:3, 3:9, and 3:10.

[12]. Avot 4:4.

[13]. Ecclesiastes 1:9.

[14]. Deuteronomy 30:19.

[15]. As in Ibid. 11:21.

[16]. Bereishit Rabbah 4:7 and elsewhere.

[17]. A topic we studied out of the writings of the Sefat Emet (see lectures on this topic from 5774).

[18]. Malachi 3:6.

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