The great Torah genius Rabbi Yosef Rosin (known as the “Rogachover Gaon”) once received a letter from the Russian government billing him for two types of taxes. He examined the bill and the detailed assessments, and concluded that one type of tax was legitimate and must be paid in accordance with the Torah ruling that “the law of the land is law.” The second tax, however, did not conform to Torah standards, and he refused to pay it. He was, at the time, living in Leningrad, a center of communist bureaucracy in the virulently anti-Jewish Soviet Union, under a regime famous for its ferocious hatred of religion in general and of Torah in particular. After several days he received a letter from the tax department of the Soviet government, not ordering him to Siberia, but rather apologizing for its erroneous assessment and absolving him of paying the second tax.

Sooner or later, everyone must come to grips with the Torah. Torah is the ultimate reality not only of Jewish existence, but of existence in general, and it simply can not be ignored. Moreover, the Torah was given specifically to the Jewish people, with the expectation that we would implement it and illuminate the world with it. For the past 3300 years this has been our consummate concern, and we have dedicated ourselves to this most difficult task in the face of incredible hostility. The world cannot exist without Torah, and it is our G‑d-given task to use it to refine and elevate the world. It is, therefore, imperative that we have some appreciation of what Torah is, and why it is of such monumental universal significance. Perhaps the easiest way to begin is by considering what the Torah is not.

We live on a miniscule speck of dust floating around in the infinite void we call the universe. Where are we? What does it all mean? Why are we here? What, if anything, are we supposed to do? A commonly held view is that the Torah is G‑d’s response to these questions. The homiletic, philosophical and mystical facets of Torah explain why and how creation is the way it is, whereas halachah (Torah law) instructs us how to operate in the world in a way consistent with the highest G‑d-given human potential. According to this view, the Torah could be regarded as a book of instructions from the Manufacturer, explaining exactly what we have and how to use it.

The natural, and seemingly logical, assumption in all of this is that the existence of the world, with its myriad details, complexities and possible problems, mandates the existence of Torah. For example, as every serious student of the Talmud knows, pits and oxen don’t mix. The regulations governing the potentially calamitous relationships between these two entities, as set forth in chapter 5 of Tractate Bava Kamma, are numerous and exceedingly complex. What is the extent of your liability if you dig a pit and my ox stumbles into it? It depends. How deep was the pit? Was the ox killed, or only injured? Did the ox fall into the pit because it was frightened by the noise of the digging? Did it fall backward or forward? And so on. One might reasonably suppose that since oxen and pits are facts of life, the Torah must implement laws to govern their many possible interactions, so as to insure harmony and justice in accordance with divine will. In fact, the situation is just the reverse.

Oxen and pits are not facts of life which the Torah must address; rather, the Torah is the fact of life that necessitates the existence of oxen and pits. Oxen and pits exist only so that some aspect of divine justice can be revealed and actualized through them. The world has no intrinsic reality. Its existence is required in order to provide garments in which Torah can be enclothed, and thus revealed to us within the framework of time and space. Torah, then, is not an allegorical exposition designed to explain and give meaning to life, but rather life is an allegory through which we can grasp and materialize the transcendent divine will and wisdom as set forth in the Torah.

This concept is very difficult to appreciate, for the simple reason that the world does not seem like an allegory that refers to some transcendent reality propounded in Torah. On the contrary, the world gives every appearance of being real in and of itself, whereas the Torah seems somewhat theoretical and abstract. It is hard to imagine that the world is only a parable invented to reveal the primary reality of Torah. Intuitively, the opposite would appear to be the case.

This paradox results from the natural tendency to confuse appearance with reality. We assume that what we see or experience is what there is. Experiential perception is immediate and compelling, whereas underlying causes which are accessible only through inference are frequently hard to accept. High school physics students, for example, are often troubled when they learn that, in a vacuum, a feather and a cannonball fall with equal speed. This fact, which is entirely acceptable to the intellect, conflicts with intuition derived from experience. Cannonballs simply should fall faster than feathers. We directly experience the world, and the instinctive infallibility of our perceptions compels us to take what we see as no more than what it appears to be.

The world in which we live is referred to by the Zohar as alma d’shikra, “the world of illusion”—or, to be less magnanimous, “the world of lies.” Paradoxically, in spite of very real, truly stunning advances in science and technology, this description has never been more appropriate than it is today. Obviously we are not suffering from a lack of information. Moreover, the Torah (of which the Zohar is a component) insists that the world is objectively real in some absolute sense. What, therefore, is meant by the term “illusion”?

As is often the case, the concept can be best approached through a concrete example. If you look in any histology text published within the past several decades, you will find that the enamel layer of the tooth consists of crystals which are hexagonal in shape. With the invention of the electron microscope, it became possible to visualize and to photograph these exceedingly minute structures. Neither calculations nor conjectures are necessary in order to conclude that the crystals are hexagonal. One does not have to be an expert in order to look at a picture of these crystals and to see for oneself that they are hexagons (see fig. 1).

This clear and obvious fact has served as the basis for numerous grant proposals, models for the process of calcification, theories of tooth decay, etc., and it has been taught to medical and dental students for many years now. It is also wrong.

Enamel crystals are rectangular, not hexagonal (as was subsequently demonstrated by Dr. Hershy Warshawsky of McGill University). How is this possible? The error is in the confusion of observation with reality. The electron microscopic images of enamel crystals are not enamel crystals. They are two-dimensional shadows of enamel crystals. The enamel crystals themselves are three-dimensional structures. If you project a shadow of a rectangular solid (three-dimensional) onto a plane (two-dimensional), you lose an edge, and the resulting figure is hexagonal. This can be easily demonstrated by simply observing the shadow of a rectangular block (see fig. 2).

This rather remarkable error nicely exemplifies the nature of the “illusion” mentioned in the Zohar. The hexagonal image of the enamel crystal is not itself false. On the contrary, if interpreted properly, the two-dimensional shadow image affords an excellent opportunity to gain insight into a structure that can not be directly observed, i.e., the three-dimensional crystal. The “lie” is introduced by the observer who fails to appreciate, or remember, that the electron microscopic image is not reality, but rather that it faithfully and accurately refers to reality. Someone who understands that he is looking at a necessarily distorted representation of something that is otherwise inaccessible will apply the appropriate mental transformation in order to arrive at an accurate conceptualization of the underlying truth. On the other hand, someone who takes the observation at face value, i.e., assumes the representation to actually be the entity that it represents, lives with a lie of his own making.

In a similar vein, this so-called “world of illusion” is not inherently false, and it is certainly not meaningless or insignificant. On the contrary, the world is the means with which we can ultimately actualize and experience the absolute truth as embodied in Torah. Herein lies the rub. It is only a means, which must be properly interpreted and utilized in order to realize the end. The world is a shadow image that refers to reality. The appropriate rules and transformations must be applied in order to actuate the image and to thus grasp its ultimate cause. The problem is that, as in the case of the electron microscopic image of the enamel crystals, the world looks so substantial and appears so emphatically real.

If worldly life is a shadow, the crystal of truth that gives rise to it is the Torah. How and why this is so can perhaps best be appreciated by means of a parable. This particular parable, in a somewhat more abbreviated form, frequently appears in chassidic discourses dealing with the paradoxical interaction between divine manifestations of immanence and transcendence, as embodied in the names Elokim and the Tetragrammaton respectively. It is also very applicable to our subject.

A brilliant and accomplished sage, versed in the deepest mysteries of existence, had a little student whom he loved dearly. Because of his deep affection, he yearned to share with the student his profoundest insights. He wanted to give the student his most precious possession, his wisdom. The problem was how to go about it. The limitless understanding of the sage was totally beyond the exceedingly limited intellectual capacity of the student. The student simply had no means of grasping even the simplest thoughts of his exalted teacher. The sage, therefore, took only the superficial aspects of his wisdom, and these he enclothed in a series of allegories. However, he realized that even these were far beyond the grasp of his student, so he systematically reduced and simplified the concepts further, while amplifying and elaborating the allegories, analogies and metaphors. Finally, after a very long series of mental steps in which the wisdom became progressively masked, the sage spoke and told a long story that the student could comprehend.

It would appear that in attempting to communicate such sublime wisdom on such a low level by concealing it so deeply in parable and allegory, the original purpose must be lost. The truth is, however, that although profoundly obscured in a highly dissembled guise, the original crystal of wisdom is there. Moreover, every detail of the story told by the sage corresponds to, and is therefore the key to, some specific aspect of the original wisdom. If the student understands the intent of the story, he will apply himself with singleminded devotion to unraveling it in order to find the hidden gift. As he develops his intellect, and as his mind matures, he will begin to see progressively deeper levels of meaning; and gradually, through great effort, he will arrive at the wisdom in its undisguised and unadulterated form, which was initially so far beyond his grasp.

In this parable, the sage is the Almighty, and the little student is us. The precious wisdom that the sage desires us to have is Torah, and the long, involved story that serves as the vehicle is the world.

If we understand the intent of this incredible story called worldly life, we realize that each detail corresponds to some aspect of divinity, and was thought up by G‑d only in order to provide a garment with which it can be grasped. In this story, for example, there is something called “money,” through which an individual can unite with the divine attribute of mercy, by giving or lending in accordance with Torah. There is something called “business,” through which specific aspects of G‑dly justice can be realized by the application of Torah to daily, seemingly commonplace commercial life. It is possible in this story to take a little fruit called an etrog, and, at specific times, use it to bring down on oneself and the rest of creation transcendent levels of the divine attribute of sovereignty. For that matter, one can use a carrot to reveal the creative power of G‑d in creation, by simply making the appropriate blessing before eating it. Money, carrots, stock options, oxen and pits are all metaphors enclothing specific aspects of the Creator’s will and wisdom.

Furthermore, the detailed features of each constituent of creation are uniquely designed to conform to particular requirements of Torah. For example, the fact that the brain has two cerebral hemispheres, that the average period of human gestation is nine months, or that most varieties of apples are red, all represent, and are caused by, specific modes of divine revelation, with which students of the Torah’s mysteries are familiar.

The catch, however, is that the story is very realistic and interesting as it is, and we are intuitively inclined to take it at face value. As is the case with the enamel crystals, we presuppose the image to be the reality. It is easy to forget that the world is not inherently real. It is natural to see money not as an instrument through which the divine attribute of mercy can be realized, but simply as a means to acquire things. Instinctively, one views an etrog as no more than an overpriced piece of fruit; and it is inconceivable, on the intuitive level, that a carrot is really a garment that conceals a divine potential. In addition, the story itself can be quite enjoyable and engrossing. In this story, for example, it is possible to be a corporate executive, a respected and affluent physician, or even a senator. All of this creates a powerful illusion of intrinsic reality and importance, which, if succumbed to, results in detachment of the world from its true cause, which is Torah. The product is an engaging piece of fiction, often absurd, frequently tragic, occasionally funny, but essentially meaningless in itself.

Thus, although the opportunity is stupendous, the danger of error is very real. This might be viewed as a major disadvantage, an unfortunate and inescapable consequence of the process of divine concealment. In truth however, it is a remarkable blessing, in that it affords us free will. It confers upon us the responsibility of deciding what the world will be.

In the last analysis, how we view the world and how we operate in it decide its fate. We determine whether the world is the “world of lies” described in the Zohar, or whether it assumes an entirely different cast, also expressed in the Zohar: “G‑d looked in the Torah and created the world, so that man looks in the Torah and keeps the world alive.”