Shoftim: On Wonderment

In an attempt to determine if the aesthetic would vanquish the banal, Washington Post journalist Gene Weingarten conducted an engaging experiment wherein world-class violinist Joshua Bell played six classical masterpieces in a busy subway entrance during morning rush-hour.

The question was: “Do you have time for beauty?”

The raw data speaks for itself: “In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute.  Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run – for a total of $32 and change.  That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.”

The experiment, surprisingly, resonates with the command:

“Thou shalt be tamim (whole-hearted) with the Lord thy God”
(Deuteronomy 18:13).

Taken in context, the command refers to being whole with God in not resorting to various pagan practices, consulting the dead and divining the future.  Nachmanides expands on this when he explains that the verse constitutes a genuine command:

“The eighth commandment: … that we direct our hearts exclusively to God, believing that He alone is the Doer of all and it is He who knows the truth regarding the future… We should not consult soothsayers nor believe that their words will be authenticated, but rather realize that everything is in the hands of Heaven…”

Nachmanides goes on to explain that this command to the Jewish people is the selfsame command that was made to Abraham upon entering the covenant of circumcision:

“I am God Almighty (El Shadai); walk before Me, and be tamim
(Genesis 17:1).

Quoting the Midrash, Nachmanides relates how Abraham, in spite of being raised amidst idol worshippers who attributed powers to “the sun, the moon and the stars,” recognized that there was a Power above all these.  Abraham’s greatness stemmed from his ability to recognize God as being the power behind all of creation; and it was for this very reason that God chose to communicate with him and bid him to leave his country for a new land.  The next time God commands Abraham, it is to “be tamim”; that is, explains Nachmanides, to ever realize that Creator of the world is the sole power animating everything.

Now, while Nachmanides understands the command as a charge to realize God’s power behind everything, I believe the command also calls for man to see God in everything.  This subtle distinction is reflected in the dispute over how old Abraham was when he made his monumental discovery, essentially founding monotheism.  Rabbi Yohanan maintains that Abraham was forty-eight years old, whereas his student, Resh Lakish, claims that Abraham was a mere three years old!  With his teacher asserting a perfectly reasonable age to intellectually discover God, why would Resh Lakish aver that Abraham was three years old?

Let us return to the subway experiment.

There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.

The most tenacious child, highlighted in the article for his unremitting wonderment, was a little boy named Evan, who was, coincidently, three years old.  A three year old, unburdened by the constraints and pressures that bear upon adults, is open to the wonder of the world around him.  This is what Resh Lakish is communicating about Abraham.  At three years of age, he had not become moribund in the pagan routine – he could look at “the sun, the moon and the stars” and ask, in wonder, “Can these move without a mover?”

Appropriately, Aristotle writes that wonderment is at the root of philosophical investigation: “It is through wonder that men now begin and originally began to philosophize; wondering in the first place at obvious perplexities, and then by gradual progression raising questions about the greater matters too, e.g. about the changes of the moon and of the sun, about the stars and about the origin of the universe” (Metaphysics, 982b).[1]

Maimonides (Hilchot Avoda Zara 1:3) explains that Abraham began to think about this question “day and night; and it was wondrous (temi’ah).”  Abraham discovered God because he was able to tap into his wonderment; and this, I suggest, is an important element of the command to be tamim with God.  The word tamim, while clearly meaning “whole”, also shares root letters with “temihah”, “timahon”, “histomemut” – all of which translate to “wonder”, “amazement” – “wonderment.”

Children have an innocence, a temimut, that allows them to be moved to wonder.   We are reminded of the four sons: the wise, the wicked, the tam (innocent), the one who cannot ask.  The tam, unlike his younger brother, does ask; not in sophistication like the wise or the wicked, but in sheer wonderment.  Perhaps this is what God commanded Abraham when He asked him to enter into the covenant:  “You are now ninety-nine years old, nevertheless, maintain your wonderment, continue to see Me in everything as you did when you were three years old.”[2]

A hint to this can be seen in Rabbi Hirsch’s comments on the use of the name “El Shadai” in the command to Abraham.

“Look about in My World!  Everywhere you see stamped on the whole and on every part of it: “Shadai” [meaning] “it is sufficient”; and this [divine aspect] “sufficient” reveals Me.  If heaven and earth are the product of a blind force of nature – as the old hoary wisdom of human error says they are – why do these creative forces not go on creating, what has set the end of their creation during the thousands of years of their existence…”

Now, as Nachmanides noted, the command made to the Jewish people was the same as that made to Abraham.  As such, the Jewish people are bidden, as was Abraham, to realize God’s power behind everything and to see God in everything.  It is really thus that one develops a relationship with God, coming to love and fear Him.  Maimonides (Hilchot Yesodei 2:1) explains this as follows.  First, when one looks at the wonders of creation, he comes to realize the great wisdom of the Creator and is thus overcome with love of God.  Second, when one contemplates these wonders, he is overwhelmed with fear and awe, realizing how small he is and how wanting is his understanding before the tamim deot – the wondrously all-knowing Creator.

These two approaches, I submit, parallel the two types of aesthetic experience described by Kant: the Beautiful and the Sublime.  Kant explains that, “The Beautiful prepares us to love something disinterestedly, … the Sublime prepares us to esteem something highly…”  The beauty in creation, then, evokes love of the Creator and the sublime, an awe of Him.  Appropriately, the command that enjoins man to be tamim with God actually says to be tamim with “the Lord thy God” (Hashem Elokecha).  Could these two names not be referring to the two approaches to God – one through love (i.e., Hashem – God exhibiting His mercy) and one through awe (i.e., Elokim – God exhibiting His judgment)?

To achieve love and awe of God is really the “whole” and “wondrous” objective of man – to which comes the command: “Thou shalt be tamim with the Lord they God.”  The command is an appeal to maintain that childlike wonderment at all of creation.  It is the call to perceive God in everything and not be drawn after the idols of the day.  It is the cry to allow the aesthetic to vanquish the banal.

The question is: “Do you have time for beauty?”



[1] I want to thank Prof. Sam Fleischacker for pointing me to this source.

[2] The relevance to the covenant is that, now, upon being promised offspring, Abraham needed to arouse the wonderment in order to be able to pass on the monotheism he had discovered in wonderment.


About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at