I went today to Rav Chaim’s funeral. I was amongst over 750,000 people there. My left leg has been hurting me, but I was determined to go. I walked miles to get to the funeral. At a certain point, I began limping, and after I just couldn’t walk anymore, I sat down on some steps I found, took out my phone, and was inspired to write this.
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As an Orthodox Jew, I find the concept of evolution very interesting. What’s interesting to me is not what the actual theory purports: that all men are in essence animals; that all grandiosity of existence, from the trivial to the breath-taking, from the simple to the beautiful are simply a result of an evolutionary process. On the level of theory, evolution is very neat and sensible. It theoretically explains the immense problem of design. But when you begin to look at it more closely, the probabilities, the idea that consciousness somehow arose from matter, the staggering beauty of creation which is simply unnecessary – the theory of evolution loses its luster. There is much much more to say, but I do not believe a sensible person is compelled to hold the theory of evolution in its current form as complete and flawless. I find it grossly underwhelming in explaining the variety, the beauty, the endless wonder of life.
But what astounds me is, that despite the gaping holes in the theory of natural selection, is the fact that Darwin’s masterpiece “On the Origin of Species” is the most enduringly profound scientific treatise in history. Only time will tell if his work will continue to persist, but to the extent that it is here now, and taken seriously by a wide swathe of people, demonstrates a certain substance to the idea. The theory of evolution might be wrong but something about it must be right. Or else it could not endure to the degree that it has. A concept that is throughly false, without any merit whatsoever, would never have gained such recognition for so long that the theory of evolution has enjoyed.
So I’ve always pondered, what is the appeal of evolution that has captured the imagination of people for all this time when at best its insufficient? The idea that people are desperate to explain away the need for G-d is too cynical for me; not to mention that it is superficial.
This past winter, after many years, I sensed one possible answer. I went with my son to go see the legendary Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky in his small home in Bnei Brak. My son’s school arranged for his class to receive a blessing from him. We took the trip from Jerusalem up to suburbs of Tel Aviv in the soul-crushing traffic. I could only find parking far far away from his house. And once we got there, I beheld a daunting line which spiraled down the many steps to his home and running into the street. At that point, I began to wonder if this was all worth it. But I stayed because I really didn’t have much choice.
Some people inherently sense the holiness of places, others the holiness of people; I am most drawn to the holiness of ideas. I much prefer to find G-d in ideas than anywhere else. So I didn’t expect much before seeing him. But I’ll never forget …. when we finally walked into his house and I got to see him. I was struck by awe. There are no words that can capture what I sensed. I saw on old man at an advanced age in a barren home. But I felt I was in a palace and sitting before me was royalty. It was a truly majestic experience and one that overwhelmed me with meaning. Here was a man who in essence had no formal position, had no actual power, but had a radiating influence that spread throughout the world. No words can explain what I saw. I felt a sense of fear and wonder. Being in his presence was more than uplifting – I felt an actual high.
This brings me back to the truth within evolution. The profound truth of evolution and its charm is that man can become man. When we are born, we are born as animal. We are driven by our drives and instincts. We are self-focused, consumed by physical activities of eating and sleeping. Our main purpose, just like in the animal kingdom, is survival. But as we grow in age we can develop depth and character. We can recreate ourselves anew, becoming a person of immense refinement and wisdom. A person where our decisions are deliberate and not instinctual, where desires are spiritual and not simply physical, where we are ruled by the mind and not our urges. We can evolve from our animal state and become a human being.
To be human is no small thing. It’s a profound evolutionary process that there is no guarantee of achieving. But it is the purpose of life: that although we are born an animal we can become and die as a human.
That’s what I sensed that day when I saw Rav Chaim: a human being. A process of evolution, driven by the will to be, that yielded an unsurpassed beauty of a human being, adorned in its full glory. And unfortunately, with Rav Chaim’s passing, a close to extinct species.