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The odds of a man deciding that he will jump off a building and try to fly like Superman are much better if the man is convinced that he is, in fact, Superman. In other words, what we attempt to do — regardless of whether we succeed or get scraped off of the sidewalk — is governed by what we think we can do. Our worldview is an essential precondition for the actions we voluntarily undertake.
Our beliefs matter. Even whether or not we have beliefs matters: A person who thinks that G-d loves him and is involved in every facet of his life will act differently than a self-described rational atheist. True, an accountant in a big firm may make the same decisions whether or not he believes that G-d exists. But in other situations, a person’s beliefs can make all the difference in the world. It is the religious person who will take risks that a rational person will not: Perhaps committing to an early marriage, starting a business, or in trying to invent new things. A leap of faith requires faith.
None of this is speculation or even particularly novel: It is merely an observation of what we already know. And I think that, at least at some level, causality is equally as obvious as the correlation. People who blow themselves up to kill random strangers are often driven by a sincerely-held belief that it is the right thing to do. People who do not share those same beliefs about the virtues of suicide bombing do not become suicide bombers.
To go even further in this summary of what should be blindingly obvious: The beliefs that lead a person to take a risk do not need to be based in provable fact. This is convenient for those of us who are religious, because we cannot logically prove to the satisfaction of every thinking atheist in the world, the existence of G-d.
I have a friend who — many years ago, when we were both in university — decided to become an observant Jew. He explained himself as follows:
“I don’t know what I believe. But I do know that the facts are plain enough: I look around campus, and I see that the kids who are working hard and avoiding overuse of alcohol and drugs are the orthodox ones. So, if I want kids like that, I should be observant, too.”
A purely utilitarian defense of religious observance was a strange argument to me but, in the years since, I’ve found it makes an increasing amount of sense, because it speaks to the primacy of outcomes.
As my friend might have put it: Some beliefs, regardless of any underlying truth, lead to far more successful results than others.
I happen to believe that G-d is intimately involved in my life, and this belief changes just about everything. The way we see the world dictates how we act in it. If, when I wake up at 3 AM, I think it is merely accidental, then I am likely to promptly go back to sleep. But if I think there must, somehow, be a reason that I have woken at 3 AM, then I will check my email first to see if there is something I am supposed to do. Confirmation bias kicks in, and I rarely regret waking at 3 AM.
The same applies to “stray” thoughts that come to me, usually in prayer. I could shrug these thoughts off as a distraction (most people do), or I can choose to see them as things I am supposed to consider or act upon. It all comes down to one basic question: Do I believe that my present existence is essentially the result of a long series of coincidences, however improbable? Or do I think that a Creator is responsible, a Creator who can be intimately involved in every aspect of my life, seeking to grow and develop together with me?
There is no way to prove whether G-d exist and I am satisfied with that; If we could prove this either way, then we would not have the freedom to choose what we believe. And there is far more beauty in choosing a relationship than in one that is imposed.
But I think that it is equally obvious that the decision to have a relationship with G-d or not should be a central question in our lives. Religious people make very different choices than do atheists. We are more able, paradoxically, to make changes in our lives because we are listening for, and give serious consideration to, stray thoughts.
It stands to reason that a person’s ability to grow becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some believe that people cannot change and I am willing to accept that, in their case, this is so. After all, by stating that belief, they have created that reality for themselves. But I also know, from first-hand knowledge of myself and countless others, that if we believe that we can change, then it surely is true.
Here is the punchline: There are chapters in the Torah (starting at Lev. 26:21) dedicated to explaining G-d’s perspective on these dueling worldviews. The end of Leviticus tells us that G-d wants us to hearken to Him and His commandments, to live as if G-d is involved in our lives. Not surprising. But the Torah in these chapters tells us about the alternative as well: The contrasting position is to act with keri, a word that appears in a tight cluster seven times in the Torah (26:21, 23, 24, 26:27, 26:28, 40, 41), and nowhere else in the entire document. (The number seven corresponds to seven days, which could be understood as “all the time”, as in 24×7.)
What does keri mean? Maimonides translates it as “chance,” the idea that events in our world are purely statistical, that everything that happens is nothing more or less than the result of impersonal forces in the universe. In other words, the Torah is warning us against what is today the normative secular view that G-d either does not exist, or does not care about us. How could an all-powerful deity care whether I thank him for my food, or consider what he will think if I say an unkind word about someone? And to even ask that question is to wonder whether keri is really the governing principle, not a Creator at all.
Why does the Torah care how we see things? The answer connects directly back to the beginning of this essay: G-d knows that we can grow as individuals — and improve the world around us — if we believe such growth and improvement are possible.
The lesson is simple enough: Our lives have meaning if we think that they do. Our thoughts create our reality, not the other way around.