3.7 - Examining Creation to Perceive God

Sources refer to Rabbi Bachaye ibn Pakuda's Chovos HaLevavos (Duties of the Heart)


The Essence of Examination (Chapter 1)

The essence of examination is to contemplate the signs of God’s wisdom that can be observed in creation and to appreciate them to the extent one can perceive them. This wisdom varies in appearance through different works of creation but it is still essentially one thing. This is comparable to the way we can view the different colors of the spectrum when light passes through a prism: different aspects of a unified thing become apparent. If you’ll consider God’s creations, from the smallest to the largest, you will find that this is also the case with God’s wisdom.

Since the signs of God’s wisdom can vary, we must wonder why this is. After all, had the signs of His wisdom been identical throughout creation, it would be readily apparent to all! The reason the signs of God’s wisdom vary is this: If something always behaves in the same manner, we conclude that this is simply its nature and not an act of its own will. Fire by its nature burns; water by its nature extinguishes. That’s just the way they are. A person, on the other hand, has free will and does not always have to behave in the same manner. God likewise has free will; this is demonstrated through the variety in creation. To this end, King David wrote, “Whatever God desired, He did, in Heaven and on Earth” (Psalms 135:6).

The Obligation to Examine Creation (Chapter 2)

A person is obligated to examine creation in order to uncover the signs of God’s wisdom. We are so enjoined by logic, from the Bible, and by a received tradition.

Logic dictates that we do so because our minds tell us that a sentient being is superior to a dumb one by virtue of its ability to reason. The Book of Job (35:11) tells us that God “teaches us more than the beasts of the earth and makes us wiser than the birds of heaven.” When a person investigates the signs of wisdom in creation, the better he understands things, the more elevated he becomes over the animals. We see this from Isaiah 1:3, “The ox knows his owner and the donkey his master's stall but Israel does not know. My people does not consider” (i.e., when the Jews don’t recognize God, they are no better than the beasts).

The Bible obligates us to examine creation through such verses as:

  • Raise your eyes on high and see Who created these” (Isaiah 40:26);
  • “When I see Your heavens - the work of Your fingers – the moon and stars, which You have formed” (Psalms 8:4);
  • “…let the living place it in his heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2);
  • and many others.

We have a received tradition that we are obligated to examine creation as seen through such Talmudic dicta as:

  • “How do we know that we are required to calculate the cycles of the calendar? Because the Torah says (Deut. 4:6), ‘Keep them and perform them because this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations….’ What wisdom and understanding is in the sight of the nations? Let us say that it refers to calculating the calendar” (Shabbos 75a);
  • “Had the Torah not be given to the Jews, we could have learned modesty from the cat, sexual propriety from the dove, proper conduct from the rooster and not to steal from the ant” (Eiruvin 100b);
  • among others.

We therefore see a threefold obligation to examine creation for signs of God’s wisdom.

Looking for Signs of Wisdom (Chapter 3)

Examining creation requires in-depth investigation of the world’s various components, as well as of the end result of combining these parts, the characteristics of each component, their uses, and the signs of wisdom that are evident through all these things. Doing so entails becoming aware of both physical and spiritual aspects, causes and effects, the animate and inanimate, and more, then realizing that the Creator of the world assembled it perfectly. The world is so beautiful and intricate that His input is obvious, like a painting could be recognized as the work of a master artist.

The signs of wisdom are of three types:

1. Clear and evident signs that even the most foolish person could not miss, let alone a knowledgeable person. Such signs include the benefits we reap from the sun’s daily trek across the sky, as per Psalms 104:22-24, “The sun rises, they slink away and lie down in their dens. Man goes forth to his work and his labor until the evening. How manifold are Your works, Hashem! In wisdom You have made them all; the earth is full of Your creations.”

2. Signs that are overlooked by the average person but that particularly insightful people can appreciate. An example of such a sign is death. The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 9:2) expounds on the verse “God saw all He had made and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). “It was very good,” they say refers to death, which is important and necessary for the world. 

3. Signs that can be seen from one perspective but not from another. The average person is likely to overlook such signs until he pays careful attention and scrutinizes them. An example of such a sign is the changing of the seasons. (Rabbeinu Bachaye does not offer a supporting verse for this example.)

Observing these signs, an insightful person will be able to infer knowledge of spiritual and elusive realities, which he can ascend step-by-step until he acquires proof of the Creator. One will devote himself to the service of God proportionate to his understanding of God’s goodness, which he observes through God’s interactions with His creations, and his realization that God bestows upon us manifold favors even before we can do anything to try to deserve them.

Such a person will only pursue the material things he requires to support himself, eschewing luxuries that distract a person from their dedication to God. Pursuit of material wealth become a goal to the exclusion of securing one’s spot in the Next World, so a person who is committed to God only takes what he needs from the physical world.

On the other hand, a person who is blind to the signs of wisdom inherent in creation considers the physical world to be his true home and his ultimate destination. Such a person invests all his effort into acquiring material things under the impression that this is his life’s objective. He neglects things that will earn him life in the Next World and he doesn’t even realize that everything he collects will simply go to others when he dies.

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