“Now these are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom…” (36:31)
Why do Jews believe that there is a G‑d?
The famous English physicist Sir Isaac Newton had a colleague who was a staunch atheist. Newton would frequently cross swords with his colleague on this subject.
One day, when the atheist came to visit Newton in his library, his eyes fell upon a most beautiful sight. Sitting on Newton’s desk, basking in the rays of the afternoon sun, was an exquisite astrolabe — a brass machine that depicted the solar system in three dimensions.
“How beautiful!”, remarked the atheist.
“You haven’t seen anything yet,” said Newton. “Do you see the small lever on the base? Move it towards you.”
As the atheist moved the lever, the entire engine slowly came to life. At its center the orb of the sun started to revolve. Further out, turning on brass cogs, the earth and the planets began their revolutions around the sun; each planet accompanied by its own moons, all moving in wonderful precision.
“This is amazing!” remarked the atheist. “Who made it?”
“No one” replied Newton, deadpan.
“What do you mean ‘No one’?”
“No one. It just sort of fell together, you know.”
“No, I don’t know! I insist you tell me who the maker of this priceless object is. I refuse to believe that this object merely ‘fell together’.”
“This...” said Newton, pointing to the astrolabe, “This you insist has to have a maker. But this...” Newton spread his arms wide, indicating the Creation, “how infinitely more beautiful and complex! This you insist has no Maker?”
You don’t have to be able to invent the First Law of Motion to read the world like a book.
Just as the book testifies to the existence of its writer, so too the world testifies to the existence of a Divine Author.
Yet, however compelling is the evidence of design in the Creation, this is not the reason that the Jewish People believe in G‑d.
We believe in G‑d because the entire Jewish People had a first-hand experience of the Divine during the Exodus from Egypt, at Sinai and the forty years of daily miracles that followed. Ah, you will say, that was them — what about me? What connects my belief in G‑d to the experience of people I never met a couple of thousand years ago?
The answer is that parents don’t lie to their children about essential life information. If indeed G‑d did speak to the Jewish People at Sinai and miraculously guided us through the desert, if He indeed gave us a Torah which tells us how to live our lives, then this certainly qualifies as information that our forbears would deem essential to pass on to us.
“Tradition” is infinitely more than the rhapsody of a Russian-Jewish milkman named Tevye. “Tradition”, the passing over from parent to child of that encounter at Sinai is the lifeblood of Judaism.
One of the ways we express that link is by referring to ourselves as the son/daughter of so-and-so. For example, my Hebrew name is Yaakov Asher ben Dovid. Yaakov Asher the son of David. My father’s name is Dovid ben Shmuel, and his father’s name is Shmuel ben Tanchum Yitzchak. An so on.
My name — who I am — is inextricably linked with from where I come. I am a link in a chain that spans the millennia. My very name says that.
At the end of this week’s Torah portion, there is a list of the kings of Edom. If you look at this list you’ll notice that not one of these kings was hereditary. Every one of them founded and finished his own dynasty.
Edomis descended from Esav. Esav despised the birthright and sold it to Yaakov. Esav viewed heredity as disposable, insignificant. He was prepared to sell it for a bowl of lentils. Esav’s worldview is that of unmitigated meritocracy. Nothing else counts. This is his view to this day.
Meritocracy has much to recommend it. However, when you are building a belief system which will rely on a chain of transmission spanning millennia, to despise dynasty is to disqualify yourself from the job at hand – the eternal witnessing of G‑d’s interaction and interest in Mankind.
- Thanks to Rabbi Mordechai Perlman