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Knowing God


Bereishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

There is a huge difference between intellectually knowing that there is a Creator and actually living with that realization on a constant basis.

"Rebbe Yitzchak said, '[God] need only have begun the Torah from 'This month shall be to you" which is the first Commandment which Israel was commanded. For what reason did it begin with 'Bereishit (Genesis)...'? (Rashi, Bereishit, 1:1)

The first Rashi in the Chumash quotes Rebbe Yitzchak who tells us that there was no need for the Torah to begin with the account of Creation. Accordingly, Rebbe Yitzchak offers a reason why, nonetheless, the Torah had to begin with the Creation. The author of Darchei Mussar, Rabbi Yaakov Neimann, questions Rebbe Yitzchak's assumption; how can he say that there was no need for the Torah to begin with the foundation of Emunah (belief) that God created the world - surely that is the most fundamental aspect of knowledge that one needs to have!

The Darchei Mussar answers that of course it is essential to believe that God created the world, however, Rebbe Yitzchak's intent is that it was unnecessary for the Torah to tell us this fact because it is so glaringly obvious. He continues that anyone who has common sense can recognize that the incredible complexity of the world cannot have come about randomly, and that there is obviously a Creator behind the wonders of nature. Accordingly, Rebbe Yitzchak questioned why it was even necessary for the Torah to tell us about the Creation.[1] This explanation demonstrates that the question of whether there is a Creator that great philosophers have grappled with throughout history is in fact rather simple.

Indeed, Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman noted that the Torah could command a 12-year-old girl and 13-year-old boy to believe in God, even though great philosophers have been debating this basic fact. He explained that recognizing God exists is actually simple, but a person's bias can make such an obvious fact not so clear-cut. The implications of there being a Creator who demands something of human beings is not palatable to everyone, and that bias can blind someone from seeing the obvious.

There is a huge difference between intellectually knowing that there is a Creator and actually living with that realization on a constant basis. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, the Mashgiach of Yeshivat Be'er Yaakov, was having difficulty with a particular student. He traveled to the legendary Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein, Mashgiach of Yeshivat Ponevezh. At the end of their conversation Rav Chatzkel (as he was known) asked Rabbi Wolbe, "Tell me, do you know that there is a Creator?" Rabbi Wolbe did not understand the question; surely Rav Chatzkel did not doubt Rabbi Wolbe's belief in God. After a few moments, Rav Wolbe answered, "Yes." Apparently unsatisfied, Rav Chatzkel repeated, "Do you really know that the world has a Creator?" Once again, Rav Wolbe replied, "Yes, I know there is a Creator." "Good," replied Rabbi Levenstein, "then go back and tell your students that there is a Creator?" Rav Wolbe said that it took him two weeks to finally understand what Rav Chatzkel was getting at: "There are people who go through their daily lives studying Torah and performing mitzvot without feeling in the depth of their hearts that there is a Creator. Rav Chatzkel was telling me that I should be sure to imbue my students with the knowledge and feeling of God's existence."[2]

Rabbi Levenstein wasn't questioning Rabbi Wolbe's intellectual belief in God. He was emphasizing the importance of internalizing that belief in God and making it a living reality that penetrates one's emotions. That is the foundation of Jewish observance. The intellectual clarity that God exists is not so difficult; the far greater challenge is assimilating that knowledge so that it penetrates the heart.

Developing a genuine and constant awareness of God takes constant work. There are classic Torah works such as Chovot Halevavot (Duties of the Heart) and Mesillat Yesharim (Path of the Just) that delve into these issues. There are also contemporary works in English, like 'The Six Constant Mitzvot" by Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits,[3] and Constant Connection: Deepening Your Emunah through the Six Constant Mitzvos" by Rabbi Yitzchak Coopersmith, based on the teaching of Rabbi Noach Weinberg. These books provide a clear and deep explanation of each mitzvah and how to work on them, helping a Jew keep focus on the whole purpose of Torah observance, namely creating a relationship with the Creator.

May we all merit to constantly improve our relationship with God.


1. Darchei Mussar, Bereishit, p.27.
2. This story was told over by my Rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits, Rosh Yeshiva of Aish HaTorah, and is quoted in the book, 'The 6 Constant Mitzvos', (p. 61) which is a compilation of his lectures on this topic given in Aish HaTorah.
3. There are; Know there is a God; Do not follow other Gods; Know that God is One; Love God; Fear Gd. The sixth is; Do not follow after your heart and eyes.

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