In a few weeks we will be celebrating the holiday of Shavuos. Starting just after Pesach 49 days of counting the Omer will culminate with the holiday celebrating God giving the Jews the Torah at Mt. Sinai. It is a integral belief in Judaism that at that event, God didn’t just speak to Moses, but actually revealed Himself to the entire nation as He directly told us the first two commandments.
The first of those two commandments?
I am Hashem, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.
It’s an interesting way to word a commandment. How do you do, “I am Hashem, your God”? It’s from this commandment that the Rambam begins his encyclopedic work, the Mishneh Torah saying, “The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of wisdom is to know that there is a Primary Being who brought all existence into being.”
You’ll notice the word that Rambam uses is know. Not believe, not have faith in. His interpretation of this mitzvah is that the way you perform it is to know that God exists and is involved in your life.
You’ll never know for sure.
As I’m sure you’ve heard, thought, said, or are thinking now, you can have faith in God, you can believe in God, but you can never know for a fact God exists. And anyone who actually thinks they know God is real is either crazy, dangerous, or watches The 700 Club too much.
God has not revealed Himself in centuries, if He ever did at all. And the preponderance of suffering in the world gives us plenty of doubt. The fact is, no one has ever died and come back to tell us what Heaven is like. Religious organizations have put together teachings or presentations (see Aish HaTorah’s Discovery seminar) which purport to prove God’s existence. And they certainly give you things to think about, but once again, they give no iron clad, litmus test, smoking gun. There is always doubt. So how does the Rambam demand such certainty?
What do you need to know to know?
We look for a definite proof that once and for all shows us God exists, but we’re looking for the wrong thing. The question is often asked, “If God wanted us to follow His laws, why doesn’t He split a sea or do the burning bush thing again?” And I’m sure we’ve all heard the answer, “Well if God did that, we wouldn’t have free will!” That answer always made me roll my eyes.
But in actuality it’s true. However you have to be hearing it from the right outlook. If we believe this world should be a happy wonderful place where no one goes hungry and the good live till 100, then suffering in the world would problematize the notion of a loving, all powerful God.
However if we look at the purpose of this world as growth and perfection in ourselves, then the paradigm changes. A TA in college once said to me, “The things you are struggling with now are the same things you’re going to be struggling with in 20 years.” That comment always stuck we me because it stung. We all think we’re going to figure out our issues sooner or later, or worse comes to worst we’ll see a psychiatrist and pay hundreds of dollars to finally tackle it. But even then, they offer therapy, not a cure.
As much as they hurt and torment us, deflate and disarm us, our flaws are what we were put here to fix. When we look at the events of our lives within the context of that struggle that is where we find God. It’s when I started to focus on making better choices and take my struggles head on, that’s when miracles started happening. As I started to believe God might be involved in my life, I saw Him more. I said I’m going to stop spending money on video games, but this game is 60% off! Then all of a sudden my internet starts being super slow. Or you decide to go do a mitzvah that seems impossible but everything falls into place. I once had a friend who was getting married, but she lived in New York so I disregarded the invitation. Then 2 days before, I found the wedding was here. The wedding was on a Monday and the only person who could cover my shift hated my guts. After asking everyone else I finally went to her and she reluctantly covered it. I brought her a box of chocolates as a thank you. She replied, “You didn’t have to do that.” To which I replied, “You didn’t have to cover the shift.” After that we actually became friends. So not only did I get to do the mitzvah of attending a simcha, it fixed another problem in my life.
When I moved to Los Angeles I met up with my cousin. He had grown up Orthodox and, much like his older brother, had stopped being religious. Now something to know about my cousin is that he is a smart guy. Like Harvard undergraduate and just got his PhD smart. So when I asked him over a beer if he ever came across anything that made him for sure know God didn’t exist, like some clear contradiction between science and Torah, his answer struck me. He said, “No matter how much you learn or research, there’s always enough doubt that you can go one way or the other.” I took from that to mean the way we see the world is a choice.
The reason why God doesn’t do grand miracles is because there always has to be an element of doubt otherwise the good we do won’t actually result in the type of growth that changes our soul. The fact is that we’ve all had moments like the ones I described above. Moments that are miracles. In isolation, they make great stories that are quickly forgotten. But when you see them through the lens that God is trying to guide you to be better, to grow, that’s when you start seeing them regularly. But it is up to you to codify those experiences and make them part of you. Know them to be true. Then let them change you.
How do you do that? Make a list. Put it on your wall. Review it daily. It is the first mitzvah of the 10 Commandments, and it is also a Constant mitzvah. Ones that you can do and should do at any time, at any moment. Doing so creates a space for God in your life that leads to mindfulness and receptiveness. Why won’t God give me a parking spot? vs What is God trying to tell me by not giving me a parking spot?, makes all the difference. And I promise you, once you change to that growth mindset, you’ll know He’s always there.