Good, evil, success, failure. Life is full of challenges that distract us from the underlying truth that the only reality is God’s existence.
by Rabbi Noach Weinberg Ztl
Everyone is familiar with the Shema, the Jewish Pledge of Allegiance: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4).
“Oneness” is crucial to a proper understanding of God. In fact, Maimonides writes that the highest level of wisdom a human being can attain is to comprehend the oneness of God.
Why is “God’s oneness” so central to our belief? Why do we declare the Shema twice each day and aspire to say these as the last words before we die? Does it really matter whether God is one and not three?
ATTACHMENT VS. AUTONOMY
Before the creation of the world, only God existed. There was no separate entity in any form.
Even after creation, everything in the world remained part of God.
The only difference is that through the miracle of creation, God gave each human being free will. With this, we have the unique ability to think for ourselves and to act upon those thoughts. It’s as if from within God, we maintain a certain autonomy.
|Through the miracle of creation, God gave each human being free will, a certain autonomy.|
Yet we’re still part of God. Because that’s all there is.
So what was the purpose of making us a separate entity from God?
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (18th century Italy) explains in his famous book “Path of the Just”: The purpose of creation is to earn pleasure. The ultimate pleasure is attachment to God. Where is this pleasure most manifest? In the eternal World of Souls, where we have absolute clarity of God’s unity, and recognize that we are totally attached to Him, as we always have been.
The autonomy of this world — free will — can mislead a person into thinking there is something else outside of God. Therefore it is a constant, lifelong challenge to overcome this illusion — and see that the only existence is God. That God is one.
EVIL IS NOT INDEPENDENT
Constant Mitzvah #2 — “Don’t believe in other gods” — spoke about the Yetzer Hara, our self-destructive inclination to move away from God. We said that it is a mistake to follow the Yetzer Hara, because it is an illusion, a temporal gratification that is ultimately dissatisfying.
This mitzvah of “God is one” goes much further. If the Yetzer Hara exists, it must also be part of God. And if it’s part of God, it is by definition good. Which begs the obvious question: How can the Yetzer Hara be good?
Think of an athlete, a world-class high-jumper. When the coach raises the bar, is he trying to make life difficult — or is he drawing out the athlete’s potential? Of course the coach wants the athlete to succeed! And if he’s a good coach, he knows the right time and amount to raise the bar. Of course, the athlete might fail to clear that height. But the coach knows that with enough concentration and effort, the athlete will succeed.
|The coach knows that with enough concentration and effort, the athlete will succeed.|
Since the purpose of creation is to earn eternal pleasure, the purpose of the Yetzer Hara must be to enable us to earn additional pleasure. So although the Yetzer Hara seems to be pulling us away from God, it actually provides opportunities to grow closer. Evil gives you another struggle for truth — so you can take pleasure in that discovery.
Without “challenge,” there is no appreciation in doing the right thing. Instead, you’re just doing what you’d naturally do anyway. All the challenges, all the nuisances, are only designed to bring out the best in you — not hinder you.
It is an axiom of Jewish thought that God never gives you a challenge which is too difficult.
Learn to read life’s messages properly. When your Yetzer Hara comes and tells you to sin, he’s really saying, “Here’s a challenge. Let’s see you overcome this one!”
GOOD AND EVIL ARE THE SAME DIRECTION
We misunderstand evil because we take it seriously. We think it’s an independent voice. But that’s an illusion.
For example, what if you say, “I’d really like to learn Torah today, but I have a headache which prevents me from learning.”
This is a misunderstanding of “God is one.” Is the headache a nuisance that blew in from Mars? Of course not! This headache was especially designed to bring you closer to God — no less than prayer, charity, or any other mitzvah opportunity.
So why a headache? There are many different aspects to spiritual growth, and there’s a certain lesson that a headache is coming to teach you. Part of your job is to figure out what that lesson is.
Everything in life is part of the same system, stemming from the same source, with the same purpose. Obviously, there are different pieces to the puzzle, different spiritual muscles which need to be flexed and exercised. But “bad” and “good?” It all has the same goal.
In the times of the Temple, a person who emerged from a difficult situation — e.g. someone who was sick and then got better — would bring a “Thanksgiving Offering.” We could understand thanking God for getting better, but God is also the one who made us sick in the first place!
For that we are thankful, too. As difficult as it may seem at the time, the sicknesses and ordeals was somehow what this person needed in the overall scheme of life. Because of that ordeal, he is now a stronger person, a wiser person, a more compassionate person.
|Because of that ordeal, he is now a stronger person, a wiser person, a more compassionate person.|
We humans tend to look for the easy route, happy to find an excuse to “give up.” A headache makes it harder to concentrate — so we think that gives us an excuse to stop. But really, since it’s all part of “God is One,” it’s an opportunity to take on a new challenge.
This applies as well to setting goals in life. Of course we need to set milestones in order to make meaningful progress. But we mustn’t set these plans in stone. They should be flexible enough to accommodate new challenges. That’s God’s way of steering and guiding us. He may “change the weather” to make sure we’re heading in the right direction. But if plans are so clearly defined that they can’t accommodate changes, that’s a lack of belief in “God is one.”
We must constantly battle the illusion that the forces of good and bad are fighting each other. In reality, every occurrence in life is all pointing in the same direction. “Bad” is a challenge which brings us closer to God — by giving us the chance to make the right choice and earn that closeness.
OTHERS ARE ALSO OUR RESPONSIBILITY
The Talmud asks: “Why was Adam was created alone? So that every person should say, ‘The whole world was created just for me.'”
Isn’t that a bit egocentric?
On the contrary. It is a recognition that everything in the world — including the needs of every other human being — was created for you. If someone needs help, it is part of your challenge. Everything on earth, including all the problems, as well as the beauty, offers new opportunity. All of it was tailor-made by God.
Every experience you encounter is something that you need to learn from, at the time you need it most. Look around at absolutely everything and ask, “What is this saying to me? Why was this sent as part of my road to perfection?”
If God is giving you many responsibilities at the same time, then you have to figure out which one He wants you to choose. What’s the proper balance? The dilemma itself was sent by God, in order to help you grow. It’s not the result of some opposing force that’s getting in your way. It’s not that there are different aspects of life and we have to learn to compromise one for another: “I would have liked to, but…” There is no such thing. You’re given the whole array of possibilities, and based on your capabilities, there is one clear answer for you.
The key is to be objectively honest with yourself, and not choose physical or emotional comfort over facing the challenge.
Here’s an example. We say: “I know I ought to learn Torah and help others, but if I do, I won’t be able to earn a living.” Are you saying there are different forces? Let’s put it all into the equation: God has given you the responsibility of supporting a family; God has given you the responsibility of helping repair the world; God has given you the responsibility of getting to know Him through His Torah.
Now how do you manage all that? What does God want you to choose? And in what proportion and when? Those are your questions.
We say the Shema twice each day to review the concept of “God is one.” That’s because we have to live with this reality 24 hours a day — and fight the constant temptation to say: “I’d like to learn, but I’m tired. I’d like to do this mitzvah, but I’m not feeling well.”
“God is one” demands that we put everything, including the headache, into the equation, and work out the right approach. We don’t lead dual lives, one for ourselves and one that’s religious. It’s all one.
EVEN DEATH CAN BRING YOU CLOSE TO GOD
The Talmud tells the amazing story of Rebbe Akiva. Almost 2,000 years ago, the Romans tried to obliterate Judaism and made the study of Torah illegal. Rebbe Akiva could not bear the idea of abandoning Torah, so he gathered together his disciples and taught them Torah.
The Romans arrested Rebbe Akiva and executed him by brutally tearing the skin off his body with iron forks. As he was being tortured, Rebbe Akiva joyously recited the Shema — “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
His bewildered students asked, “Rebbe, how can you praise God amidst such torture?”
Rebbe Akiva replied: “All my life I believed that a person has to give 100 percent to God. Now that I have the opportunity, I joyously perform it!”
Didn’t Rebbe Akiva want to live? Certainly “dying” is not the goal of life! We seek to become closer to God — and once you’re gone, you can’t achieve any more. It would seem that death is one aspect of life that moves us in the opposite direction. Everything else can be seen as a challenge, an opportunity, a way of getting closer to God. Except death. Death stops the growth process. You’ve only reached the level you’ve attained during your lifetime — and that’s it for eternity.
So if there’s one thing a person should not want, it’s death. That’s why Rebbe Akiva’s students were puzzled. They asked, “Rebbe, we understand the power of dying in sanctification of God’s Name. But where does the joy come from? There’s nothing left of you to grow!”
There’s no question that Rebbe Akiva wanted to live, and that he appreciated life more than we ever will. Yet Rebbe Akiva was teaching his students that even though it seems death goes against the whole growth process, sacrificing even the growth process for God is in itself the highest level of growth! Are you willing to give up all those opportunities to come close to God simply because that’s His will? This gets you as close as you can get. You’re actually moving at hyperspeed in the right direction.
|Sacrificing even the growth process for God is in itself the highest level of growth.|
When something stops us from learning or growing comfortably, we are tempted to view it as emanating from another source. But Rebbe Akiva taught us a key lesson in “God is one.” Regardless of circumstances — even if it makes it more difficult to learn, to grow, and to be aware — it is still an opportunity, another step in coming closer to God.
Of course, a headache is different than dying. But philosophically, it’s the same concept.
WITH GOD IS ONE, THERE’S NOTHING TO FEAR
In the afternoon service on Shabbat, we say, “You are one, and Your Name is one, and who is like Your people Israel.” This prayer speaks about the End of Days, when the Jewish people will be united, working in harmony for one goal, and when all humanity will recognize that everything comes from God.
In daily life, we’re often torn because one day we’re moving in one direction, and the next day another. But how about when we see the singular purpose to everything? The prayer tells us the result of this exalted state is Menuchat Shalom — total tranquility. Peace of mind.
We get caught off-guard with different challenges than we expected. That’s when we start picking up the wrong messages. But if you know the truth, you won’t fear any surprises. If you know that whatever “gets in your way” is all part of God’s plan, then actually nothing can get in your way.
This outlook brings a deep sense of security. If you know that everything God sends is for your good, then there is nothing to fear.
King Solomon says there’s only one thing to fear: Forgetting the oneness of God.
The Shabbat prayer also speaks about Menuchat Emet V’emunah — true peace and security. On Shabbat, we step back from our daily efforts to shape the world — and instead let things flow in their natural order. That is when we most intensely perceive that God created the world and there is one purpose to everything.
The clarity of “God is one” gives us this peace of mind seven days a week. Of course, we still have to struggle to figure out what’s right, and then we have to find the strength to stand up for that. But at least we don’t feel like we’re fighting against some outside force. Your goals can never get derailed because “things didn’t work out.” There’s simply no such thing. Difficulties are merely a new challenge in your journey toward perfection.
The only possible setback is self-imposed — by not focusing on how the challenges are sent by God to guide us.
So why is “God is one” so important? Because in reality, there is nothing else. God is everything.