BY RACHEL LaVICTOIRE / AJT //
I have limits. I admitted this startling fact about myself weeks ago when we read the parsha of Ki Tasa. This week, I’m unveiling another unexpected twist in the human condition:
We all have limits.
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We’re limited as to how well we can hear, how high we can jump, and – though we may try to fight it – how many hours we can stay awake. On top of that, we’re also restricted by outside limitations: A car’s 15-gallon tank, a soccer game’s 45-minute half and, ultimately, the earth’s 24-hour days.
Almost everything in our life has its limits. This is why the notion of infinity can be such a difficult concept to grasp.
We spend childhood learning to count things, sort them and give them names. If I have two beans and you give me three more, I have five beans; if you give me five more beans, I have 10, and if you give me 300 more. I have 305 beans.
And as far as I was concerned, I was always going to be able to tell you how many beans I had, no matter how large the number. But then there comes the “infinity-plus-one” stage when I, as a kid, saw infinity as a number so big no one can name it.
The problem would most often rear its head when a friend tried finishing arguments with statements like, “I could do it infinity times,” and I routinely responded, “I could do it infinity plus one times.” In my limited way of thinking, even if their number was huge, mine was one number huge-er.
Though I can say that my original idea of “infinity” was completely wrong, I can’t say for certain that it’s a concept that I fully grasp – even now! The truth is that the idea of something or someone being entirely limitless is nearly impossible to conceptualize.
Of course, here I am, a faithful Jew prepared to say with confidence that G-d is infinite: omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. But still, even for those of us who take the initial step of believing G-d’s infinity, we struggle with the meaning of that belief.
Does it mean G-d can see everything, and therefore I should be scared of messing up? Or does it mean G-d has to control everything, therefore He won’t care about the small happenings in my life?
This week’s Torah portion, Korach, is named after a man who accepted the latter interpretation, thinking G-d only cared for the most high and most holy. We read that, having gathered together 250 men, Korah – a Levite – confronted Moses and Aaron, saying:
“The entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s assembly? (Numbers 16:3)”
Korah’s attitude, as I see it, was a reflection of his jealousy. He wanted to believe that Moses had merely appointed himself as the leader of the community and that he, Korah, was in reality just as high and holy as Moses.
And to prove it, Korah and his 250 men ignored the laws forbidding outsiders from burning incense and joined Aaron the next day to burn incense before G-d.
Moses then said to the congregation:
“You shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these deeds, for I did not devise them myself…if the Lord creates a creation, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them and all that is theirs (Numbers 16:28-30).”
Immediately, the earth swallows the men and their houses, and we know that G-d did in fact seek out Moses to be the leader of the Israelites.
Though there are many things to be said about the death of the rebels, I find their initial frustration with and challenge to Moses’s position to be the most interesting here. It’s something I think every religious person struggles with, making him- or herself heard; so many people, like Korah, feel as though they need to be important in order to be heard.
We may lose faith in prayer because our problems “aren’t big enough,” or “G-d has other things to deal with.” I know I often used to begin bedtime prayers by apologizing to G-d for distracting Him from other things and by promising that my prayer would only take a few minutes.
But this Korah-like mindset only stems from our limited ability to understand the concept of infinity. We imagine G-d’s work as similar to our own, scribbled out on a “to-do” list with each demand ranked by priority.
And because we often see it this way, it’s easy to reason that someone with Moses’ status would be higher on G-d’s priorities list, and therefore Moses would worthy of envy. However, that’s not really the case.
It wasn’t until I read Adin Steinsaltz’s “Simple Words” that I finally understood that G-d’s infinity means He has no priorities.
“It is a basic mathematical fact that compared to infinity, every other number is zero, and every other size is equal. One million, or two thousand quadrillion, when compared to infinity, are both exactly zero.
“Theologically, saying that G-d is infinite means that all the details become equally insignificant, regardless of their size…Therefore, if it makes sense for G-d to care about what happens to a galaxy, it makes exactly the same amount of sense for G-d to care about what happens to a blade of grass” (89).
So yes, G-d does “have other things to deal with,” but because He is so big, everything else seems relatively small – and therefore just as large – as anything else in the world.
Now we see: I don’t have to be in deep suffering in order to ask G-d for help, and Korah didn’t need Moses’ status in order to be cared for by G-d.
Rachel LaVictoire (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a graduate of the Davis Academy and Westminster High School, recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University of St. Louis and an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. She was recently named to the board of St. Louis Hillel.