It is a common observation that man is profoundly insignificant in the universe – a mere mote of a speck living on a rock far from where the real action must surely be going on. It thus follows that our lives are similarly unimportant. We must be, therefore, ultimately powerless.
This is the view of many atheists, scientists, and others who measure the world using a physical yardstick. Their view is, in some ways, an echo of that of standard nature-worshippers: the deities are manifested in their natural forces: a sea god, and a sun god, and a god who controls the rain or the wind. No man can stand against a tornado or an earthquake. It therefore follows that mankind is nothing as compared to the forces of nature, let alone those of the galaxy.
They would not be wrong, of course, if the only data we had available is what can be measured or perceived using our instruments. But of course, there is a whole world that is not in the physical realm, but is no less available to our consciousnesses: ideas like love and fidelity and liberty. Our tribes and associations, relationships and rivalries all may have no physical manifestations whatsoever, but they are no less real for it.
I would go even further than this: we may be physically insignificant in the universe. But while we can detect galaxies and quasars and countless other things that are immeasurably larger than we are, we have yet to see any sign of actual intellect off-planet. And on planet Earth, it is our intellect, our ability to think, that has made our relative physical weakness against animals and even the elements a mere footnote. We can – and have – made ourselves highly resistant to the elements: housing, clothes, heat, air conditioning, food. Our modern world has even eliminated nature-caused famine. It is what lies between our ears, not any specific physical prowess, that has made this possible.
It is no accident that Western Civilization is founded on the Torah, a collection of nothing more than words, the ultimate lack of physical manifestation. The Jewish people have no ancient buildings, no colossus or cathedrals, not even a single enduring institution. Our religion lives only in our hearts and minds, constantly nurtured by the words of the Torah.
But that is not true for most people. So when the Torah talks of the plagues G-d levied on Egypt, those plagues are all physical attacks of one kind or another. The plagues were to show physical superiority over each of the Egyptian pantheon of gods, ending with Pharaoh himself. But in all of these cases, the audience was NOT the Jewish people at all – the audience for the plagues were the Egyptians themselves, and any other peoples who were paying attention.
For the Jewish audience, the message was only one of words: “G-d is going to fulfill the promise to your forefathers.” It is a message of hope, with no direct physical deliverance until the splitting of the sea, a one-time-only event. From then on, G-d’s hand is always far more subtle, found primarily and most importantly in the words and the text itself. In any way we can measure, G-d works most often through people: inspiring them to love and care, to seek and grow relationships with each other and with the divine. These are all inspired by words, in the text of the Torah, or in the words we use with each other.
So the world has no shortage of physical power: both within nature and even through the might of armies or construction teams, we can blast and build on a scale never imagined in the ancient world.
But what matters continues to be the power of ideas. Hope and freedom and love motivate mankind, the things for which we are willing to lay down our lives if we must. Mankind is also capable of being motivated by evil ideas: think of honor killings or wars of supremacy or scientifically-inspired eugenics. Either way, though, it remains true that the real power in this world is not, after all, found in natural forces. Real power is found in the ideas that inspire and guide us.
The Torah is consistent about this. Think back to the Garden of Eden. It is not merely that Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit: they ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They ate the fruit, and gained the power to reason, to think, to assess and to judge. It is amazing to me that while mankind may be physically insignificant on a galactic scale, our intellect has yet to find something in the physical realm that we are unable to probe, challenge, and eventually understand. Eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil made us capable of understanding everything we direct our enquiries toward. They achieved the potential to become full partners with G-d.
Note that G-d then expelled mankind before we could eat from the Tree of Life: the fruit that would have made us immortal, to similarly stand above nature. The text says that if we had eaten both fruit, then we would have been similar to G-d Himself! Which tells us that eating the one fruit brought us halfway to a divine level: we are not immortal, but we possess the mental powers that allow us to comprehend everything that G-d has made, and all the ideas that He has given us.
Without the fruit of the tree of life, mankind remains limited by one key natural limit: death itself. We cannot fully ignore nature. But neither must we be enslaved to it like primitive pagans. The difference comes down to our ability to discern. And that ability stems directly from eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
So mankind, even primitive mankind, has the ability to listen, to think, and to know. Which is why G-d’s interactions with Avraham, Isaac and Jacob were verbal. If G-d performed miracles for them, these interferences in the physical realm remained subtle, arguable, in the same way that there is no ironclad physical argument for the existence of G-d today – if there were, then we would have no intelligent atheists.
A non-corporeal deity is not easy to wrap one’s head around. Primitives cannot get there: for them, power IS reality. Pharaoh could argue that the god of an enslaved people must not be very powerful, and a deity who does not have his own physical manifestation does not, in any measurable way, even exist.
It is similarly no surprise that every primitive society is racist and sexist. After all, if we measure everything by their force and size, then larger/faster/stronger men are indeed superior to women, and different races can be usefully compared and judged. Not until the modern world and the technology unlocked by our mental efforts, did the physical differences between people become perishingly unimportant.
The basis of the Torah and Western Civilization alike are founded on the idea not that a person is valued because of their strength or beauty, speed or color or sex, but that each person is endowed by their Creator with a soul. And on that basis, we are all equal in the eyes of G-d. When we use that soul, and our ability to think, then there is rightly no hierarchy between people based on their physical characteristics.
In the physical world, mankind is indeed insignificant. But in the realm of ideas, we appear to have been gifted unrivaled capabilities, able to understand, communicate, and grow together with the Creator of the world.