May 16, 2024
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So far, we’ve highlighted the Torah’s description of the Jewish people as Hashem’s army, explored three aspects of such a description, and provided two examples of what that looks like in practice. What needs to be done to bring this approach to life?

Two topics—one theoretical and one practical—need to be explored: First, what are the theoretical underpinnings that will animate the service of a soldier in the Great Battalion? Second, what practical preparation does he need to succeed? These points will determine the “basic training” that a soldier in the Great Battalion needs to undergo to prepare him for his service. We turn first to the theoretical: What principles underlie the worldview of a soldier in the Great Battalion?

As a general rule, accomplishment depends on having a goal to accomplish. The first step of any meaningful pursuit is clarifying the goals—how you “win.” Once you’ve identified the goals, you can then start figuring out how to get there—how you “play.”

A soldier in the Great Battalion must answer three questions before actually setting out on his service. Those questions are:

1) What is the purpose of life?

2) What is my role in accomplishing that goal?

3) What brings me toward that goal?

The first question asks, “How do you ‘win?’” The second, “How can I contribute toward ‘winning?’” The third, “How do you ‘play’—What will get me closer to my goal from where I am now?” Let’s consider each question separately.

 

Opening Up the Torah

Where does the Torah weigh in on this fundamental question, how to “win the game” of life? According to what we have been describing, we would expect it to be one of the first things we’re told. And in fact—according to Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch—the Torah’s opening episode reveals the Torah’s answer. This perspective reappears in a number of other “beginnings:” Hashem’s choice of Avraham to be the forefather of Bnei Yisrael and Hashem’s charge to the nation at Har Sinai.

 

Rav Hirsch: The Circle
(And Symphony) of Life

The Torah starts by describing the 10 stages through which Hashem created the world. Over the course of six days and culminating with the seventh, Hashem first built an infrastructure for the world, and then populated it with creatures. The last thing made—the apex of creation—was man. What is the relationship between the different elements of creation?

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch—writing in the mid-1800s—addresses this question with the benefit of an understanding not just of the Torah’s account of creation, but of creation itself (Letters 3 and 4 of his 19 Letters of Ben Uziel.) By observing the natural world, we can gain insight into Hashem’s intention when He created that natural world. One most striking characteristic of the natural world is the interdependence of all its parts; some even claim that the entire world consists of one ecosystem, where a change in one element triggers tremors throughout the rest of the system.1

 

Dust and Sloths

This point can be made in any number of ways, on both the macro and micro levels. Consider this example on a global scale: Incredibly, massive clouds of dust containing essential nutrients from the Sahara desert are responsible for the continued growth of the Amazon rainforest, which outputs 20 million tons of water a year. That output forms a river in the sky—the longest river in the world—which provides water for countries as far as Canada.2 On the micro level, space doesn’t permit me to wax poetic about my favorite animal, the laid-back sloth. Essentially, scientists fairly recently discovered a three-way partnership between sloths, a specific species of moth and algae.3 Suffice it to say that the moths need the sloth, the algae need the moths, and the sloth needs the algae—a circle of life in miniature.

These examples demonstrate a truth that holds at all levels of creation: Everything takes in order to give. Nothing in the circle of life exists strictly for itself; everything contributes in some way to the others in its orbit.

Similarly, the Torah describes the completed creation as, “Vayechulu hashamayim veha’aretz vechol tzvaam—And the heavens and the earth and their whole host were brought to their destined completion.” The word “tzava”—most familiar from descriptions of an army—but used in other contexts as well, denotes a group of individuals who have dedicated themselves to one commander.4

 

Man as Conductor

But wait—there is one exception: Man. Humans are the only creatures not naturally part of this circle of life; we have no natural predators, nor uniquely distinct prey. According to one study, if humans were to somehow disappear from the world tomorrow, the world would correct all of the damage we did to it—deforestation, species on the brink of extinction, depleted natural resources—over a couple hundred years—and then flourish as it never has before.5 If we are not naturally part of this symphony of the natural world, how do we fit into creation?

The answer—Rav Hirsch explains—is that we are not members of the orchestra; we are the conductors. With our free will, we are meant to proactively involve ourselves in protecting and supporting the world that Hashem created, giving significance and value to what would otherwise be a fantastically complex but inherently meaningless machine.

The creation story teaches that Hashem’s intention was for every element of creation, and especially every person, to figure out what their unique contribution could be—and then to go out and do it. Behold the Great Battalion!

Next week, we’ll demonstrate that this perspective recurs in Hashem’s appointment of Avraham Avinu as the first forebearer of the Jewish people, and then again at Har Sinai—as part of concretizing the mission of the chosen nation.


Tzvi Goldstein graduated from Yeshiva University with semicha and a degree in Psychology. After making aliyah, he taught in Yeshivat Hakotel for five years and now edits sefarim for a number of publishers. He recently published a sefer with Mosaica Press called “Halachic Worldviews,” exploring Rav Soloveitchik’s approach to developing hashkafa from halacha, and writes at tgb613.substack.com. You can reach him at [email protected].

 

1 https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.356.6335.258

2 https://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/nasa-satellite-reveals-how-much-saharan-dust-feeds-amazon-s-plants/

3 https://royalsociety.org/news/2014/sloths-moths-mutualisms/

4 See Rav Hirsch’s comments to Bereishis 2:1, 5.

5 https://www.bbc.co.uk/ideas/videos/what-would-a-world-without-humans-be-like/p078352j#:~:text=Global%20temperatures%20and%20sea%20levels,Animals%20and%20plants%20flourish.

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