The Prison of Nature

The Laws of Nature vs. Divine Providence: It’s Our Choice

Near the beginning of the first berachah before reciting the Shema in the morning, we praise Hashem by saying the following: וּבְטוּבוֹ מְחַדֵּשׁ בְּכָל יוֹם תָּמִיד מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית (and in His goodness, He renews [mechadesh] every day, constantly, the work of creation). Further, toward the end of this same berachah, we say these words: הַמְחַדֵּשׁ בְּטוּבוֹ בְּכָל יוֹם תָּמִיד מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית (the One who renews [mechadesh] in His goodness every day, constantly, the work of creation). The fact that we recite essentially the same words at the beginning of the berachah as we do at its end, suggests that this is a very important idea. Not only that, but we even quote a pasuk (Tehillim 136:7) as proof that this idea correctly describes the reality of our universe: לְעֹשֵׂה אוֹרִים גְּדֹלִים כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ (Who makes great lights, for His loving-kindness is forever)—not ‘Who made…’, but ‘Who makes…‘.

The question is, Do we really believe this?

Let’s consider. If it is true that there is a מְחַדֵּשׁ [Mechadesh, a ‘Renewer’] who renews the work of creation every single day, on a constant basis, then there’s really no such thing as cause and effect as we typically think of it. Let that sink it. It’s deep. Simply put, it means that whatever is happening right now in the physical universe is not a natural consequence or result of whatever just took place in the physical universe. The universe, i.e. space and time themselves (or better ‘spacetime’ itself) is not continuous. Distance and time exist as discrete little packets or ‘frames’ (called quanta by physicists) with ‘nothing’ between them, much like the separate frames on a movie reel. The only reason why the separate frames of a movie seem continuous to us is because they are flashing before our eyes, in a predefined sequence, at such a rapid speed that we don’t notice the individual frames. So it is with our physical universe. It only appears continuous because its separate frames are flashing before our senses so fast that we can’t perceive them as being discrete.

To put things into perspective, a standard movie today has only 24 frames per second, and that’s enough to give us the illusion of continuity. What about the universe? How how often does the Mechadesh renew the work of creation? A current estimate, based on ‘Planck time’, the indivisible quantum of time itself, would be about 5×1044 times per second. That’s a 5 followed by 44 zeros. No wonder we can’t perceive it. So why does our physical universe look like it’s organized and continuous, following some sort of logic based on apparent cause and effect? It is because the Mechadesh is kind and loving, for without it, life really wouldn’t be possible down here.

Let’s go back to our question. Do we really believe that the work of creation is renewed on a constant basis? We mustn’t be too hard on ourselves if we are now finding it a little hard to accept, since everything that we have experienced from the moment of our birth until now, seems to indicate otherwise. Even the greatest of our tzaddikim have had a difficult time accepting this from time to time. For example, in last week’s parashah when Hashem told Moshe Rabbeinu to tell the people that they were going to eat meat for a whole month, he questioned the feasibility of such a thing. Hashem told him (Bamidbar 11:23): הֲיַד יְיָ תִּקְצָר (Is Hashem’s power limited?). In other words, “Are you putting limits on Me? Do you really believe that there is something that I can’t do?” We read another example in this week’s parashah when the ten spies said (Bamidbar 13:31), לֹא נוּכַל לַעֲלוֹת אֶל־הָעָם כִּי־חָזָק הוּא מִמֶּנּוּ (We are not able to go up against the people for they are stronger than we [alternatively, ‘than Him’]).

These are not isolated cases, for lamenting about the conduct of B’nei Yisrael during the wilderness years, the psalmist wrote (Tehillim 78:41): וַיָּשׁוּבוּ וַיְנַסּוּ קֵל וּקְדוֹשׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל הִתְווּ (They turned back and tested G-d, and set a limit to the Holy One of Yisrael). What does it mean to ‘set a limit’? It means that they believed (as indicated by their words and/or actions) that Hashem wouldn’t or just couldn’t do everything. To put it in the context of the words of the berachah that we opened with, they had a hard time really believing that Hashem was the Mechadesh who renews the work of creation, day by day, on a continual basis.

Do you know what’s at the root of this mistaken belief? The belief in nature, or perhaps better, the belief in the necessity of the laws of nature. It’s as if we live our lives (subconsciously?) believing that nature is the Supreme Force, chas v’shalom, and that Hashem, so to speak, subjects Himself to it. This is the ‘limit’ that our ancestors set for Him, and it is the same limit that, sadly, we also set for Him. We bind Him and imprison Him within nature.

What are the consequences of this heresy? R’ Nachman explains that the essential reason for galut is nothing other than a deficiency of emunah, and that emunah itself is an aspect of tefillah. Therefore, a deficiency in tefillah leads to galut. Explaining the essence of tefillah, he writes (Likutei Moharan 7:1): וְזֶה בְּחִינַת נִסִּים לְמַעְלָה מֵהַטֶּבַע כִּי הַתְּפִלָּה לְמַעְלָה מִטֶּבַע כִּי הַטֶּבַע מְחַיֵּב כֵּן וְהַתְּפִלָּה מְשַׁנָּה הַטֶּבַע, וְזֶה דְּבַר נֵס, וְלָזֶה צָרִיךְ אֱמוּנָה שֶׁיַּאֲמִין שֶׁיֵּשׁ מְחַדֵּשׁ וּבְיָדוֹ לְחַדֵּשׁ דָּבָר כִּרְצוֹנוֹ (This is an aspect of miracles, ‘above nature’ [i.e. supernatural], for tefillah is supernatural, for nature dictates a certain thing but tefillah [can] change nature, and this is a miraculous thing, but emunah is needed for this, i.e. that a person would believe that there is a Mechadesh and that it’s in His power to renew something according to His will). But what does this have to do with going into galut?

When Hashem told Avraham (then Avram) that he was going to inherit the Land of Canaan, he responded by asking (Bereshit 15:8): בַּמָּה אֵדַע כִּי אִירָשֶׁנָּה (How will I know that I shall inherit it?). The question seems innocent enough, doesn’t it? However, R’ Elazar asked (Nedarim 32a): מִפְּנֵי מָה נֶעֱנַשׁ אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ וְנִשְׁתַּעְבְּדוּ בָּנָיו לְמִצְרַיִם מָאתַיִם וְעֶשֶׂר שָׁנִים (For what reason was Avraham Avinu punished in that his descendants were enslaved in Egypt for 210 years?). Different answers are offered in the Gemara there, and among them is Shmuel’s answer: מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהִפְרִיז עַל מִדּוֹתָיו שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: בַּמָּה אֵדַע כִּי אִירָשֶׁנָּה (Because he was mafriz regarding the attributes of Ha-Kadosh baruch Hu, as it says [Bereshit 15:8]: ‘How will I know that I shall inherit it?’). What does mafriz mean? The Ran says שהרבה להרהר על מדותיו של הקב”ה (that he pondered a lot about the attributes of Ha-Kadosh baruch Hu). According to this explanation, B’nei Yisrael were sent into galut because Avraham pondered too much about Hashem’s promise. This seems incredible, yet for such a great man, wondering or thinking too much about what Hashem says, especially when it pertains to Eretz Yisrael—the place for cultivating true emunah (Tehillim 37:3) and elevating tefillah (Bereshit 28:17)—is considered a flaw in emunah itself. In the words of R’ Nachman in L.M. 7:1: וּבִשְׁבִיל זֶה כְּשֶׁפָּגַם אַבְרָהָם בַּמָּה אֵדַע וּבָזֶה פָּגַם בִּירֻשַּׁת אֶרֶץ שֶׁהִיא בְּחִינַת אֱמוּנָה בְּחִינַת תְּפִלָּה, הָיָה גָּלוּת מִצְרַיִם (And because of this, when Avraham erred by asking ‘How will I know?’, he blemished the inheritance of the land, which corresponds to emunah and tefillah, and he brought on the galut of Egypt). Therefore, a blemish in emunah leads to galut.

Now let’s think this through. Since a deficiency in emunah leads to galut, and we are still in galut, it follows that we have yet to repair our deficiency in emunah. Therefore, the moment we are made whole in emunah we will come out of galut, literally, in the blink of an eye. And how are we made whole in emunah? As we saw above, by repairing the blemish in tefillah. But what’s wrong with our tefillah? We don’t really believe that there is a Mechadesh who renews the work of creation, day by day, on a continual basis. We have been subject to the belief in the supremacy of the laws of nature for too long. It’s very difficult to break out of this way of thinking. “Science, science, science. Science says such and such. Believe in science.” We are subjected to this mantra day in and day out. Who can go against it? Therefore, why pray? Why bother? (Chas v’shalom a thousand times over!)

But we are making a big mistake believing in the supremacy of nature (and an even bigger mistake believing in its well-paid interpreters). As R’ Nachman explains elsewhere (L.M. 8:7): כִּי תְּפִלָּה הוּא בְּחִינַת חִדּוּשׁ הָעוֹלָם כִּי תְּפִלָּה הוּא שֶׁמַּאֲמִין שֶׁיֵּשׁ מְחַדֵּשׁ אֲשֶׁר בְּיָדוֹ לַעֲשׂוֹת כִּרְצוֹנוֹ לְשַׁנּוֹת הַטֶּבַע (For tefillah corresponds to renewal of the world, for tefillah necessitates that one believes [has emunah] that there is a Mechadesh Who has the power to do as He wishes to change nature). It’s even more than this, as R’ Nachman explains in L.M. 9:5: וְאֵלּוּ בְּנֵי־אָדָם הַמַּכְחִישִׁים כָּל הַנִּסִּים וְאוֹמְרִים שֶׁהַכֹּל דֶּרֶךְ הַטֶּבַע, וְאִם רוֹאִים אֵיזֶהוּ נֵס הֵם מְכַסִּים אֶת הַנֵּס עִם דֶּרֶךְ הַטֶּבַע, שֶׁאוֹמְרִים שֶׁזֶּה דֶּרֶךְ הַטְּבָעִים – נִמְצָא שֶׁפּוֹגְמִים בַּתְּפִלָּה כִּי הַתְּפִלָּה הִיא נִסִּים שֶׁמְּשַׁנָּה אֶת הַטֶּבַע; וּפוֹגְמִים בָּאֱמוּנָה שֶׁאֵין מַאֲמִינִים בְּהַשְׁגָּחַת הַבּוֹרֵא יִתְבָּרַךְ (And these people who deny all miracles and say that everything happens through nature, and [even] if they see some miracle, they cover the miracle with the laws of nature, and say that it just happened through natural means. As a result, they blemish tefillah, for tefillah is [all about] miracles, that it changes nature; and they blemish emunah in that they don’t believe in the hashgachah [direct supervision, Divine Providence] of the Creator, may He be blessed).

So what’s the solution? We must come out from under nature.

When Hashem told Avraham that he would have a son who would be his heir, the Torah says the following (Bereshit 15:5): וַיּוֹצֵא אֹתוֹ הַחוּצָה וַיֹּאמֶר הַבֶּט־נָא הַשָּׁמַיְמָה (And He took him outside and said, ‘Please [alternatively, Now], look down toward heaven…’). What does it mean that He took him outside and told him to ‘look down’ toward heaven? Shouldn’t He have told him to ‘look up’ toward heaven? R’ Yehudah said in the name of R’ Yochanan (Bereshit Rabbah 44:12) that Hashem took him out from his way of thinking, out from being ‘under nature’, and placed him ‘above nature’, לְמַעְלָה מִכִּפַּת הַרָקִיעַ [above the dome of the heavens] and had him look down toward the heavens, which was now below him. What does this mean? It means as the rabbis said there that Hashem was telling him: נָבִיא אַתְּ וְאֵין אַתְּ אַסְטְרוֹלוֹגוֹס (You are a prophet and not an astrologer). In other words, “If you are a prophet, then you should think and behave like a prophet. Don’t place yourself under the laws of nature. Don’t believe in this phony illusion called ’cause and effect’. It has nothing to do with you. The astrologers [the ancient term for ‘scientists’] believe in it and are governed by it, but you, as the progenitor of the Jewish People, are under My personal hashgachah.” This is the meaning of what is written in Yirmeyah 10:2: כֹּה אָמַר ה’ אֶל דֶּרֶךְ הַגּוֹיִם אַל תִּלְמָדוּ וּמֵאֹתוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם אַל תֵּחָתּוּ וגו (So says Hashem, Do not learn the way of the goyim and don’t be dismayed at the signs of heaven). As the midrash says there, בִּימֵי יִרְמְיָהוּ בִּקְּשׁוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל לָבוֹא לִידֵי מִדָּה זוֹ וְלֹא הִנִּיחַ לָהֶם הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא…כְּבָר אַבְרָהָם אֲבִיכֶם בִּקֵּשׁ לָבוֹא לִידֵי מִדָּה זוֹ וְלֹא הִנַּחְתִּי אוֹתוֹ (In the days of Yirmeyahu, Yisrael sought to adopt this mindset, but Ha-Kadosh, baruch Hu, didn’t let them…already Avraham your father sought to adopt this mindset, but I didn’t let him).

Even though the ‘laws of nature’ dictated that it was impossible for the biology of the man known as Avram to father a child through the body of the woman known as Sarai, Hashem was telling him, “Why are you paying attention to nature? What does that have to do with anything? I have placed you above nature, for I am above nature!” (see Shabbat 156a-b where this is explained further).

All of this is to say that nature truly is a prison and believing in it and relying on it is a heresy that incarcerates us to its prison guards. Everyone must make his own choice if he wants to remain in prison or if he wants to be freed and placed directly under Hashem’s hashgachah. If we really want the geulah, then we need to pray like we’ve never prayed before, and plead with Hashem to take us all out of this prison (just like He did with Avraham). Then perhaps we’ll merit the final and complete geulah when Hashem will cancel the laws of nature completely and rule the world only through His direct hashgachah, as it is explicitly stated in Likutei Moharan 250: וְדַע שֶׁזֹּאת הַהַשְׁגָּחָה הוּא מַמְשִׁיךְ מִסּוֹף הָעוֹלָם כִּי לֶעָתִיד בְּעֵת הַקֵּץ יִתְבַּטֵּל הַטֶּבַע לְגַמְרֵי וְלֹא יִהְיֶה רַק הַשְׁגָּחָה לְבַד (Know that this hashgachah is drawn down from the end of the world [i.e. from ‘out of the blue’, from no natural cause], for in the future, at the time of the end, He will cancel nature totally, and there will only be hashgachah).

May the end come speedily, soon in our days. Amen, selah.

  1. האיש

    The Planck time t P is the time required for light to travel a distance of 1 Planck length in vacuum, which is a time interval of approximately 5.39×10−44 s. No current physical theory can describe timescales shorter than the Planck time, such as the earliest events after the Big Bang.

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