L‑rd who made the lion and the lamb
You decreed I should be what I am
Would it spoil some vast eternal plan
If I were a wealthy man?

Philosophical profundity crops in up in funny places. Fiddler on the Roof is a sentimental, feel-good dollop of schmaltz that has warmed Jewish hearts for decades. Its enormous popularity has nothing to do with metaphysical content. The videocassettes are not rented by scholars in quest of ontological truths. Nonetheless, there it is, put into the mouth of Tevye the milkman by an unwitting lyricist, garnished with “yubba-buh”s and accompanied by an antic little jig: “Would it spoil some vast eternal plan / if I were a wealthy man?”

Tevye is no theologian. He is obviously not interested in discerning the Almighty’s ways. The question is rhetorical, intended merely as a little dig at G‑d for His apparent indifference to Tevye’s poverty. The proposition that the foundation of the cosmos would be shaken in some way if Tevye should come into a few rubles is clearly absurd, or so it would seem. In fact, Tevye has raised one of the most enigmatic and recondite issues in religious thought: What, if anything, is the meaning of finite physical existence? The impecunious milkman would undoubtedly be shocked to learn that the answer to his question is: yes, it would spoil some vast eternal plan if he were a wealthy man.

Tevye’s query is really the following: I inhabit a minuscule particle situated somewhere in an endless universe teeming with countless stars, galaxies and planets of mind-boggling proportions. I share this tiny speck with six billion fellow humans. I will live for no more than 80 or 90 years, which in cosmic terms is less then a blink of an eye. I am utterly dwarfed by the endlessness of time and the boundlessness of space. How is it conceivable that what I do, or what happens to me, is of any consequence whatsoever?

In order to address this question, we must first deal with a misconception that is deeply ingrained in the human psyche—the size fallacy. Briefly put, size matters. A child stubs his toe getting out of bed in the morning and cries in pain. On the same day a bomb scare at Kennedy International Airport delays flights and inconveniences thousands of travelers. Which of these two stories is likely to make the front page of the New York Times? Since, in either case, nothing of any lasting consequence occurred, why is the airport closure news and the toe-stubbing beneath notice? Why does the conquest of Mount Everest still excite the imagination, whereas the scaling of half a dozen more challenging peaks attracts no attention at all? Why are the Eiffel Tower, the Rock of Gibraltar and the Empire State Building major tourist attractions? Why should anyone spend time and money in order to see a stack of girders, a stone or an office building? The answer is that all of the above are big, and people instinctively (and mindlessly) equate size with significance.

If bigger is better, infinite is best. In the presence of the infinite, anything limited by dimensions, regardless of magnitude, is of no account. A galaxy and a speck of dust are indistinguishable before the endless expanse of the universe. Since Tevye is finite, neither he nor his circumstances make a dent. Whether or not he were rich could no more botch up G‑d’s vast eternal plan than would the removal of a drop of water from the Pacific Ocean.

Tevye’s first mistake is shackling G‑d with the limitation of infinitude. The term “infinite” defines a property, and it is, therefore, no less restrictive that its antonym, “finite.” The concept of properties or characteristics is inapplicable to G‑d. He is not infinite nor finite nor anything else. There is nothing within the realm of created being that applies to G‑d, and no term can describe Him. The names that we ascribe to G‑d do not denote His essence, but rather attributes through which he reveals Himself and with which He interacts with creation. Terms such as HaKadosh Baruch Hu (the holy one, blessed be he) and Hamelech Hameromam (the exalted king) define transcendent (infinite) manifestations of G‑dliness, whereas Shechinah (the divine presence) and Av Harachamim (merciful father) define immanent (finite) modes of expression.

Since Divine powers of transcendence and infinitude delineate G‑d’s essence no better than those of immanence, our erroneous tendency to identify G‑dliness with infinitude simply reflects a natural human bias. Significance, therefore, is determined not by size nor by any other property, but rather exclusively by the will of the Almighty. That is, an entity is significant if the Almighty so chooses. There is, accordingly, no basis for Tevye to assume that he plays a negligible role in G‑d’s vast eternal plan simply because he is small. On the contrary, the fact that the Almighty has chosen to create, sustain, and relate to a puny, frail, mortal creature such as Tevye indicates that he is of great importance to G‑d, if to no one else.

Tevye’s second error is his assumption that the “vast eternal plan” is modular, consisting of interchangeable, disposable parts. This misconception follows naturally from the observation that when a prime minister dies or a multinational corporation collapses, celestial orbits continue unperturbed, the laws of nature remain in force, and the world goes on pretty much as before. The totality of being is unaffected by individual occurrences, regardless of their local importance. To put it another way, the world appears to comprise a multiplicity of autonomous, self-sustaining components engaged in an endless variety of unrelated events. Thus, replacing Tevye the pauper with Tevye the magnate would have no impact outside of Anatevka, and should easily be accommodated by the vast eternal plan.

What Tevye does not understand is that creation is a form of language. The symbols of language, the letters and words, are chosen and arranged in such a way as to capture and reveal a thought or a feeling. Every word in a sentence, as well as its relative position, contributes to the intent and to the clarity of expression.

Consider the verse, Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad. It is well known that this ultimate statement of Jewish faith expresses the unity of G‑d, that He is the only true existence and that all other apparent existence is merely a reflection of His true being. Suppose a scribe made a small error and substituted the letter aleph for the letter ayin at the end of the word Shema. Since the other 24 of the 25 letters (in the Hebrew version) are written correctly, 96% of the verse is just fine, and the inadvertent substitution should have a minimal effect. In fact, this little alteration not only changes the meaning of the verse, it perverts it entirely. The word Shema with an aleph means “perhaps,” so instead of “Hear O Israel, the L‑rd is our G‑d, the L‑rd is one” the verse now translates into “Perhaps, O Israel, the L‑rd is our G‑d, the L‑rd is one.” Thus this little isolated change has transformed the great statement of faith into a great statement of doubt. It is true that substitution of other letters of the Shema may not result in such a dramatic distortion in meaning. Nevertheless, the transposition, substitution, elimination or deformation of any individual letter is sufficient to render tefillin, a mezuzah, or an entire Torah scroll invalid.

Just as every letter of Torah captures an essential aspect of divine will and wisdom, so is each detail of creation a vehicle or a “letter” through which a facet of G‑d’s will and wisdom, as expressed in Torah, is embodied, objectified and introduced into our physical world. In the words of the holy Zohar, “He looked into the Torah and created the world.” This explains why halachah (Torah law) governs every minute detail of life in this world, and why no object, act or event is beneath consideration by the vast corpus of Oral Torah known as the Talmud. Inasmuch as each particular of creation is mandatory for the realization of G‑d’s “vast eternal plan,” Tevye has no case. He and the details of his life are critical to the purpose of creation. He is not only important, but in a very real sense, the very fabric of the cosmos depends upon him.

It is hard to imagine that such a complex and abstruse concept as man’s place in creation emerged fortuitously from a Broadway musical. In fact, Tevye’s query did not originate with Tevye. As is the case with any matter of substance, the source is the Torah. The Talmud (Taanit 25a) relates that Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat, who was exceedingly poor, once fell ill and required bleeding, a common medical treatment in ancient times. Following the procedure he wished to strengthen himself by taking nourishment, but he was so poor that all he had was a garlic peel. He ate the garlic peel and fell into a faint, during which he had a vision of the Divine Presence (Shechinah). He inquired of the Shechinah how long he was to be subjected to such grinding poverty, and was answered: “Elazar my son, do you wish that I destroy the universe and reconstruct it, so that you can perhaps be created in a time favorable to prosperity?”

The implication is obvious. Rabbi Elazar’s penury is essential to the vast eternal plan. Since Rabbi Elazar plays an integral role in the Divine scheme, were his situation to change, the macrocosm would have to be redesigned so as to conform to his new standing. In other words, the “story” of creation would have to be rewritten so as to square with Rabbi Elazar’s altered situation. Similarly, the writer of Fiddler on the Roof could very well have recreated Tevye a wealthy man, but then he would no longer have a play, and a new story would have to be devised in which Tevye’s affluence is meaningful.

Where then, does all of this leave Tevye, and for that matter, the rest of us? Must we live lives of rigid predestination, locked into roles demanded of us by the vast eternal plan, prisoners of our own indispensability? We can not, after all, expect the Almighty to restructure creation in order to adjust to our individual desires. Or can we?

Consider prayer. If a friend lacks a livelihood (G‑d forbid), we pray that he be helped. In view of the implications of Tevye’s query, prayer is really nothing less then a request to the Almighty to reconstruct the universe. What we are saying to G‑d is that we are dissatisfied with a cosmic order in which our friend is destitute, so would the Almighty be so kind as to scrap it and invent a new one in which his circumstances include a reasonable income.

Although this outlandish request seems like the ultimate in chutzpah, we are not only entitled, but obligated to submit it. Praying for those in need is not optional, it is a mitzvah, which is to say that G‑d commands us to do it. Moreover, the Torah assures us that prayer does not go unanswered, although the results may not be readily apparent. It would appear, then, that we are not only characters in the divine drama, we are co-authors.

Although, as presupposed by Tevye’s query, we are puny, feeble, vulnerable, fallible mortals, there are universal consequences to everything that we do. Every prayer, every mitzvah, every act of kindness, every attempt at self-improvement, redefines an individual’s role in life and necessitates a corresponding refinement in the cosmos consistent with his or her new status. The divine plan is thus constantly being amended to adjust to the improvements introduced by ourselves, and we are therefore truly partners with the Almighty in the progressive ongoing process of creating a perfect world. With each positive act and subsequent revision of the divine script, we advance ever closer to the final draft.

Several years ago I asked a noted Kabbalist why Torah assigns the term “nature” to the workings of the physical world, whereas the higher spiritual realms, antecedent to the physical universe, are considered above the natural order. Are not these “worlds” also orderly, consistent, and governed by immutable laws of cause-and-effect, and do they not therefore run according to a type of nature? He smiled and answered that every time someone puts a coin in a charity box, or dons tefillin, or lifts someone’s spirits with a kind word or a smile, angelic vehicles of divine grace are created, and new channels of G‑dly effulgence are opened, in these worlds. Since every mitzvah produces radical innovations, higher worlds are in a constant state of reorganization, and they have no stable nature. On the other hand, in this “natural” world the revolutionary changes brought about by performance of Torah, mitzvot and prayer are concealed by the coarseness of material existence and, although very real, they are not apparent, at least not yet.

It is therefore clear that not only do our actions effect changes in the vast eternal plan, we have been placed here specifically for that purpose.