According to Jewish tradition when saying the Shema, (Hear Oh Israel, God is our God, God is One) the cardinal statement of Jewish faith, we not only close our eyes, we also put our hand over them. Among the countless explanations for this custom is the understanding that, as the Talmud states, this world is “a world of lies” and only by stripping away the superficial exterior of the physical world can we hope to arrive at truth.
In certain cases, like reciting the Shema, this is done by delving deep within our own being in order to grasp what is real and true and not just an allusion. Thus, to deeply understand the oneness of God, paradoxically we close and cover our eyes in order to perceive this more clearly.
A Talmudic statement declares that a judge who renders true judgement is a partner with God. To bring the light of truth into a “world of lies” fulfills the very purpose of creation. Similarly we are taught that when reciting kiddush, the special prayer that sanctifies the Shabbat on Friday evening, we also become partners with God in the creation. The last words in the Torah describing how God rested on the seventh day, thus completing creation, concludes with the words “that he created to make.” The words “to make” implies “to rectify,” thus alluding to the fact that after the creation there is still much to do in order to rectify the world.
This theme of tikun olam, the repair or rectification of the world, appears throughout our tradition – from the five books of Moses, to the exhortations of our great judges and prophets and in the writings of our Sages, rabbis and mystics. Thus, when we as individuals confront apparent imperfection, or those who are challenged with physical and mental handicaps and disabilities, our natural response is compassion and a desire to help.
This response actually entails a great paradox – for if God is perfect, how can there be imperfection at all and if there is Divine Providence in all that happens, then who are we to not accept things as they are. Who are we to challenge, question or change what may appear to be a Divine decree. These questions lead us naturally to the further paradox of free will and determinism. This article cannot hope to solve these apparent existential contradictions, but we are forcefully bidden by our tradition to try to bring healing, rectification and redemption when ever and where ever possible. Though free will and God’s Providence exist simultaneously, we act in the present through our free will and after the fact realize and accept that “all is in the hands of heaven.”
Without these basic understandings a person could, for example, consider physical disabilities or sickness as either totally unfair, the result of cruel fate or as a righteous or vengeful payment for some sin in this or a previous life. A Jewish response should be not to judge but to reach out. Only God knows the reason for all things and in an upside down “world of lies,” that which may appear to be a punishment or a curse could just be a blessing.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, of blessed memory, would begin and end many a story with the words (and a soulful sigh) “what do we know, what do we know.” It was his way of emphasizing how elusive truth is when viewing life superficially. We are taught that one of the results of Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is that neither good or evil is absolute now; in all evil is hidden a kernel of good and in all good is the potential of evil. Therefore who other than God knows the real reason for any situation, trial or challenge.
In his classic story “The Seven Beggars,” Rebbe Nachman of Breslov presents a series of beggars, each one suffering from a serious physical disability. As the story unfolds though, it turns out that each beggars so called flaw is actually the source of his strength. This is a great lesson for us all, for who knows what rectification and purpose each of us has, why we have received our life’s circumstances and what is the ultimate reward for our trials and suffering.
We are taught in Chassidic thought that the way to identify our rectification and mission in this world is by those things that come the hardest. That is the sign of what we have to work on to complete our purpose. I am always inspired and in awe of those who, despite severe handicaps, not only reach great levels of accomplishment, but do so with a positive attitude that reveals no sign of bitterness or self-pity. I always think to myself, that if I was in the same position would I be able to rise to the occasion.
In Kabbalah this world is called the world of rectification. That is the purpose of all creation. Why the righteous suffer and the evil seem to prosper can only be understood when realizing that there is a world beyond this one and there is a judge and there is a judgement. Our Sages say this world is like a narrow corridor before the great expanse of the world to come.
Only when seeing the bigger picture can we even begin to understand the great mysteries hidden below the surface of “reality.” Our mission is to be a partner with God in the ultimate rectification of the world. It is for us to love and care for others, not to judge, for “the hidden things are to God…”
“What do we know…. what do we know…”