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Beauty, Meet Truth
by Dr. Arnie Gotfryd

One may not adopt certain truth criteria when it is convenient and then drop them when it is not. - The Rebbe, Mind Over Matter, p.8.

Abraham Principle

Yes, Abraham's style was beautiful, but he didn't stop there. His commitment went far beyond his natural goodness, far beyond his kind and wise nature. His commitment was ultimate, and that can look scary... very scary. - Part 10.

 

Beauty, Meet Truth 

 

I am not a Kabbalist. Nor a philosopher.

 

If I were, I could speak of sublime realities like beauty and truth in something approaching an authoritative fashion. But all I can muster is a few life lessons and some Torah gleanings.

For instance. Sometimes truth is ugly.

Take Abraham for example. Here is a man who is everybody's hero. Who else could be adored by Christian, Muslim and Jew? Founder of ethical monotheism, host par excellence, educator, iconoclast, at once challenging men to rise above their mediocrity, yet challenging G-d to descend from His uncompromising excellence and value us for who we are.

Yes, Abraham was beautiful, but he didn't stop there. His commitment went far beyond his natural goodness, far beyond his kind and wise nature. His commitment was ultimate, and that can look scary, very scary.

Abraham's biggest test, the binding of Isaac, is not the kind of deed one calls wise, or kind, or sane for that matter. I recall studying the Akeida, the story of the binding of Isaac, with a brilliant scholar who loved nothing more than Torah. But this story bugged him, no, actually haunted him. "He was wrong! He had no right to do it!" The story drove him nuts. Here's why.

Abraham built his entire life on promoting G-d in the world. He weaned the Middle East off of idolatry, taught people, fed them, nurtured their faith in an all-knowing, just and benevolent Creator. He was a living model of the good G-d about Whom he preached.

Then came his big test: To offer up Isaac as a sacrifice. Which sounds a lot like this: Commit murder. Kill a human being. Kill your own son. Your only son. The one you love. The promised father-to-be of your millions of children. Go ahead. Make me a liar. Tie him up and slit his throat. Watch him bleed to death. Trash your life, trash My reputation, and don't ask why. Just do it.

Well, you may recall, in the end it wasn't so bad. At the last moment, G-d said "Stop". He just wanted the offer, not the deed. Yes, G-d was beautiful, but Abraham did not want to stop there. "Let me take just a drop of blood." Even then, Abraham was ready to serve in truth, ultimate truth. And that ain't pretty.

But then again, I'm not a philosopher, nor a Kabbalist.

If I were, I might see the beauty within the ugliness, the virtue of sacrificing a beloved child. But guess what. I can't. All I know is "G-d said so." And in truth, that's enough.

If the eyes of the beholder belong to G-d, it just may be that truth is beautiful. If I had His eyes, I'd think so too. But I'm standing too close to the brushstrokes, and that crimson rose petal looks like a drop of blood to me.

 

Truth be Told: Stories

The colleagues of the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, once had a discussion about how each of them would run the world if he were G-d, each offering their opinions on how things could be improved upon. When they were done, the Alter Rebbe said his piece. "If I were G-d, I'd do things just the same as He does them."

This same Alter Rebbe wrote the primary resource for Chassidic philosophy, the Tanya, and in it enshrines service in truth as the Jewish way. The present Rebbe writes that if he would have left that out of the Tanya, he would have had another 50,000 followers. But truth is not for sale.

I've checked my toolkit for a nice big yardstick and I haven't yet found one big enough to measure G-d's beauty, nor his truth for that matter. But is it He that must pass my tests?

My mother, may she live and be well, rarely speaks of her war experiences, so when, as a child, she chose to share with me a lesson from the Lodz ghetto, it made a lasting impression. What got her going was me telling her exactly what I would do if there were a fire at that moment. She said, "Don't be silly. You don't know what you would do in a big test like that."

"When I was in ghetto," she continued, "Two men were arrested by the Nazis for the 'crime' of possessing a radio. Before they were hauled off for interrogation as to who else could be implicated, the younger of the two, a strong, handsome young man said, 'Let them do what they will, they'll never get any information out of me!' The elder detainee said nothing. He was old and wizened, and looked like you could blow him over.

"That very afternoon, the burly youth returned having told everything he knew about everyone with a radio, just under the threat of torture. The elderly Jew returned only three days later, his fingernails pulled off and his eyes gouged out.

"So," concluded my mom, "Don't say you know what you will do under a test, because you just don't know."

Who is more beautiful? The strong, handsome youth who spoke? Or the, blinded and maimed old man who didn't?

Life is not simple.

But let's put it into terms that a child could understand. The teacher turns his back on the class and a bunch of kids act up, making lots of trouble. Most of the class starts giggling. Things get out of control. After his call for order falls on deaf ears, the teacher calls out, "That's it, class detention. No recess today."

"Whoa! Why? That's not fair! I didn't do it! It was him! Why should I get in trouble for something I didn't do? Why should I behave good? I see it just gets me into trouble."

"I'm sorry class, but I've told you many times. We are all in this together. We all have a responsibility, and if the class can't move forward, you have to make up the time."

Life is not fair, at least not to our standards of fair. But if we recognize where our knocks are coming from, we will take them with humility. If it's from G-d, it's good. Does that make it beautiful? In truth, yes. But in our eyes?

We Jews are an interesting lot. We are proud of our faith despite the bitter exiles, the terrible pogroms, the unspeakable evils of the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and the mess we are in today. Yet as soon as it touches us personally, there are questions.

One last story. I heard it at an event marking the first anniversary of passing of a wonderful young man who was killed by a train in a freak accident. He had been on his way to synagogue to help make up a quorum for communal prayer. That young man was my son's Grade 5 teacher, every kid's favorite teacher, the kindest person you'd ever care to meet. R' Yosi Jacobson spoke at the memorial and shared this story with the huge crowd gathered there.

There was a Chassidic lumber merchant over a century ago, who was famous for two things. Loads of cash and unstinting support of Torah study in his town. He funded an entire study hall of bright and dedicated Torah scholars and whenever he could, he would join with them in exploring the truth and beauty of the Torah.

One year he had a great idea. Instead of buying one boatload of lumber, he'd buy three, so when he sold it, he'd make lots more money and be able to do so many more good deeds with the charity he could spend. He spent all his savings on this grand project, and once the three ships were laden and sailing off to their foreign markets, he happily settled back into his satisfying communal and spiritual life.

But not for long. One of the local Torah scholars got wind of the storm first. The boats had all capsized. All the lumber was lost. Their gracious benefactor was ruined, but he didn't know it yet. Who would break the terrible news? And how?

Finally one young man agreed to shoulder the painful task. He conferred with his colleagues, planned his pitch and went off to see the lumber merchant at his home. "I have a question on a difficult piece of Talmud. Can you help me?"

"Me? Help you? I doubt if I can solve something you don't know, but since you're here, let's give it a try. You know I'd help you any way I can."

"Well, it says over here that we are obliged to bless G-d for the bad, exactly as we bless him for good? How is that possible?"

"That's your question?" asked the merchant. "Well, I'm no expert in Talmud but I think I can help you on this one. You see everything comes from G-d, so when bad things happen, they aren't really bad. They just seem bad to us because we have a very limited point of view. G-d has a big plan for everything, so knowing this we can feel secure and even happy that this apparent bad is deep down positive, and G-d is really doing us a favor by treating us in this way. Do you get it."

"Well, yes and no. I understand and believe that it's all for the best and all, but my difficulty is being just as happy about bad news as good. I mean, picture this. Say you married off a child and you were at the wedding. Would you dance from joy?"

"Of course I would! Who wouldn't?"

"And if all your boats loaded with lumber were to capsize en route to market leaving you penniless, crushed in debt, and without means to climb out of it, would you dance from joy?"

"Uh... ..dance from joy? Well, uh.. ..I see what you're getting at. But if you think about it, the One Above knows what's best for us and he has our good at heart. In fact when things turn out bad in our eyes it's actually a sign that the goodness within is much greater than a revealed good. It's all explained in Chassidus."

"Yes but would you dance?"

"If all my ships suddenly capsized leaving me flat broke and in debt up to my eyeballs? Well, yeah.. ..yeah. I wouldn't normally think about it in those terms, but now that I am, yes I guess I would dance."

"Just as much as at the wedding of your own child?"

"Yes! Yes! Just as much, and maybe even more!"

"Well, start dancing. There really was a storm at sea. A messenger came to the study hall and told us. I verified the story myself and it's true. All your lumber has been lost."

The merchant fainted on the spot. When he came to, he said, "You know. At this moment, I'm having trouble with that Talmudic passage myself!"

 

To read previous installments and other Torah and Science related articles, or to comment, or to contact the author, visit www.faithandscience.com.

 

 


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