In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth. And the earth was desolate and void...
. . . Such startling findings about the changeable nature of the universe are appearing more and more frequently at the frontier of today’s mathematics. We know that rigid, predetermined, simple laws can lead not only to predictable, everlasting pattern but also to behavior so complex and irregular that it appears to all intents and purposes random. This phenomenon is called chaos.
DISCOVER, November 1992
The Torah’s portrayal of the first moments of creation is awesome. However, what is more important is that these initial verses are laden with crucial messages to help us lead purpose-filled lives, the underlying goal of Toras Chaim (literally, Instructions for Living).
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What does the opening statement of creation teach us about life? If the Torah’s main goal is to help us understand ourselves and our purpose within creation, then the Torah should have begun with:
And God said, "Let us make man in our image..."What do we learn from the fact that the original state of physical existence was chaos? Could not God have begun with an ordered creation?
(Genesis 1:26. This verse is the first one to describe man’s creation and essence, and therefore is the most relevant one to discuss first.)
What we learn, perhaps, is that not only was the initial state of existence chaotic, but that the natural state of creation is to tend towards chaos. It is true that the world displays a wonderful sense of pattern, and that life, on the surface, seems to be ordered, but that may be more an illusion than reality:
Chaos, being ubiquitous, strikes at the heart of what we think of as ‘natural laws,’ with their safe, predictable consequences. Though simple rules may govern individual atoms, nevertheless the behavior prescribed by those rules may well be chaotic. That implies that nature’s laws can’t be responsible for the simplicity you encounter in your daily life... (DISCOVER, Does Chaos Rule the Cosmos? November 1992. The edition of the magazine was a special issue titled, "10 Great Unanswered Questions of Science.")This phenomenon describes much more than the way one’s house gravitates towards messiness as opposed to tidiness, if left unattended:
To understand how chaos - and the questions chaos raises - affects your everyday life, consider the seemingly simple matter of your heart. Traditional science treats it as if it were a pump beating like clockwork, whose complicated cycles can be broken down by a number of simple waves of standard shapes. Real hearts are far more puzzling. Your heartbeat is triggered by signals from your brain, but the actual rhythmic contractions are the result of a democratic vote by millions of muscle fibers, all agreeing to contract in synchrony. Such a system is obviously far from clockwork. The rhythm of your heartbeat continually varies by tiny but measurable amounts. It’s not a variability imposed from the outside; even when your body is at rest, your heartbeat fluctuates. It is caused by chaotic internal dynamics. (Ibid.)From a scientific point of view, this state of existence is a marvel to be studied. From a Torah perspective, chaos is the setting into which man has been placed to fulfill a function. It is not until the third and fourth verses of the Torah that this function is stated:
And God said, "Let there be light", and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good... (Genesis 1:4.)Man, who was made in the ‘image’ of God possesses the capacity to behave in a God-like manner. God, as a result of a positive act of will, created light, which brought order to the existing chaos of creation. Man, who also has free will, can impose his will over creation, creating light that can direct the world away from chaos. This God calls "good", the quintessential good, the purpose of creation.
Light, whether it is physical or intellectual, brings order to chaos. Chaos is the disharmonious relationship of parts - clothing strewn on the floor, an argument between friends, etc. Light, on the other hand, facilitates the relationship of the parts.
For example, if you walk across a well-lit but unfamiliar room filled with furniture, you are able to maneuver and yet avoid bumping into items along the way. This is an aspect of harmony. However, turn off the lights in the midst of your walk, and all of a sudden you lose your way, bumping into furniture every which way you turn. This is an aspect of chaos.
Another example is two friends who argue. If each one is in the ‘dark’ about the negativity of arguing, they will continue to fight. But, enlightened about higher objectives, the chaos becomes meaningless, and they will rise to the occasion. This is called acting Godly.
The only difficulty about all of this is that, if one does not make an effort to behave this way, then chaos will naturally result. Chaos, therefore, becomes both the setting for free-will choices, and the negative result of not making proper free-will choices.
There are two specific incidents in the Torah that make this point very clear. The first is the account of the Flood that destroyed mankind (except for Noah and his family) in the year 2104 B.C.E., and the second incident is the one about the building of the Tower of Babel.
In the story of the Flood, the Torah teaches that mankind had given up on morality. Rather than use their free will constructively and act ‘orderly’, mankind became chaotic. God’s response to this was:
Behold, I will bring a [mabul] flood ... (Genesis 6:17)Rashi comments on this verse and explains that it was called mabul because the waters cast everything into confusion (bolal). Thus the Flood was creation’s chaos in return for the chaos mankind created, or rather, the order he did not create.
Three-hundred-and-forty years later, man-kind still hadn’t mastered their use of free will. This time, they used their Godliness to challenge God by trying to build a tower that could reach into heaven. From a Torah point of view, this was chaos, and God’s response was:
‘Behold, it is one people, and they all have one language, and this they begin to do?... Come, we will go down and confound [v’navlah] their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ (Genesis 11:6)Since the beginning of history, year after year, century after century, millennia after millennia, chaos has insidiously eroded efforts to civilize mankind. You would think that after thousands of years of killing one another, we’d give up on war as a means for making the world a better place. You’d think that after seeing the negative effects of greed, we’d finally start sharing with the needy once we have enough for ourselves.
Yet, at this time there are no less than one hundred major conflicts taking place around the world. Greed runs unchecked, masses of people are starving, and the streets have become less safe as civilization moves towards the twenty-first century. There is order in the world, but there is also far too much chaos.
And from the midst of the chaos and the damage it does and the tragedies it creates, mankind looks heavenward and in indignation cries out, "Where is God?" God, in the meantime, looks ‘down’ from heaven and asks, "Where are you? Where is your Godliness" (See Genesis 3:9, where God calls out to Adam after he ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, "Where are you?" But did God need to ask Adam where he was to find out his location? Rather, the question could be understood to mean, within the purpose of creation, where have you gone?)
We pay a heavy price for the order we don’t impose, in the form of sickness, decay, and tragedy. These are the effects of the causes we create. On the other hand, truth-seeking leads to morality; morality leads to positive acts of will, which lead to order, health, and ultimately, to immortality:
And all the people saw the thunderings and the flaming torches, and the voice of the coronet, and the mountain smoking... (Exodus 20:15.)But, as the Torah and Rashi point out, even the seemingly randomness of chaos can miraculously accomplish the goal of creation:
And all the people saw ... This statement teaches us that there was not a blind person amongst them. And where do we learn that there was not a dumb person amongst them? Because it states, And all the people answered (24:7). And where do we learn that there was not a deaf person amongst them? Because it states, We will do and we will understand (ibid.). (Rashi on 20:15. The midrash also explains that at this time, the Jewish people returned to the state of mankind before the sin, which was immortality. The sin of the golden calf made the people mortal once again.)
And if a man does not lie in wait [to trap and kill the person], but God let him fall into his [killer’s] hand... (Exodus 21:13.)In conclusion, it is not safe to assume that order will result without sufficient effort to create it. It is certainly not safe to assume that if the Jewish people don’t assume the role of being a ‘light unto the nations,’ that the light will come on its own. This is the portent of the following admonition:
What is this verse referring to? It refers to two men, one of whom killed a man with premeditation, and the other who killed inadvertently. In neither case were there witnesses to the deed, and consequently, the former could not be put to death for premeditated murder, and the latter could not be forced into banishment to a refuge city, as is the law for accidental murderers. (See Numbers 35:11 regarding this law.) How does God accomplish justice in this case? He brings them together at the same inn, and arranges it so that the one who killed with premeditation happens to sit under the ladder while the other who killed inadvertently ascends the ladder. When a rung on the ladder happens to break, the accidental murderer falls on the murderer and kills him. This time, however, there are witnesses present who can testify against the inadvertent killer, forcing him to flee to the refuge city. Thus the one who killed with premeditation is killed, and the one who killed inadvertently is banished to a refuge city. (Rashi on 21:13.)
Rabbi Jose, the son of Elisha taught, ‘If you see a generation overwhelmed by many troubles, go forth and examine the judges of all Israel, for all retribution comes to the world only on account of the judges of Israel ...’ (Talmud Shabbos 139a)We have a role to play in the history of mankind. The Torah, and our own history, make perfectly clear that a lot more is riding on our fulfilling that role than we might ever imagine. (Anti-Semitism can be viewed as the net consequence of not being a light unto the nations. The Torah is objective morality, without which mankind has difficulty remaining civilized at all times. The Jew, who, historically has symbolized objective morality, stands to suffer the most when chaos runs unchecked, the same way the disciplined child gets it the worst once the teacher leaves the room and the students act up.)