A profound insight into G-d’s knowledge of the world, and the “mechanics” of reward and punishment, can be gained from the incident of Sodom and Gomorra, in which G-d first “heard” the outcry of the oppressed and then “looked” for Himself into what was happening.
THE STORY of Sodom and Amora (usually spelled “Gomorra” due to a technicality of Greek transliteration), the wicked cities that G-d destroyed for their sins, opens with G-d saying to Abraham (Genesis 18:21), “I will go down and see whether they have done according to the outcry which has reached Me, [in which case I will] destroy [them]; and if not, I will know.” Rashi’s commentary on this verse explains that it is a lesson to judges to learn from G-d’s example and not decide capital cases without first personally investigating.
On a deeper level, however, the verse is extremely puzzling. Are we not talking about G-d, the Omniscient? Surely, He already knows everything in the universe; He knows without having to “go” anywhere; He knew even before it happened. What in the world is the meaning of G-d saying, “I will go down and see…”?!
The answer requires understanding of a fundamental point of Jewish philosophy.
Philosophers have long struggled with the concept of Divine providence, the fact that G-d knows – actually directs – every single particular of existence. For example, our sages teach (Talmud, Chullin 7b; Zohar III, 274b), “A person doesn’t [even] bruise their finger below unless it was so decreed [in Heaven] above.” What troubles them is this: if G-d is one with a perfect unity, how can He turn His attention to and know the details of many individual things? Seemingly, if you say that G-d is exalted and aloof and uninvolved in the details of this world, that is one thing: He can be the one indivisible G-d, “one” with a simple and flawless unity. But if you insist that G-d knows what I am doing at the same time He knows what you are doing; that He is involved in this at the same time He is involved in that, does this not perforce mean that there is an aspect of plurality (G-d forbid) to G-d?
However, our sages intended to answer this succinctly by their wording of the expression (very common in the Talmud; see, for example, Eruvin 13b, Kiddushin 30b and 31a, Chullin 63b, Sanhedrin 76b; see also Derech Mitzvosecha, “Mitzvas Din Eved Ivri” chapter 2), “It is revealed and known before He Who spoke and the world came into being.”
For a person to know something, he or she must first learn it. That is, previously, the person did not know the thing in question; then, they turned their attention to it (or it came to their attention) and they acquired that knowledge. More specifically, in order to acquire the knowledge, they had to focus on it and concentrate upon it; some things for only an instant, perhaps unconsciously, other, more complex things, only after plunging their mind into the depths of the matter and giving it a great deal of conscious thought. In any case, the human mind must take some note of and register a thing, or it will pass totally unnoticed. This means that a person’s knowledge causes a change in that person: previously, they lacked the knowledge and now they have it; while not occupied in learning a thing, the mind is free, whereas while engaged in learning, the mind is occupied.
However, the above does not apply to G-d. In truth, it is only as a figure of speech that we say G-d “knows” anything at all. He is not a person (G-d forbid), and has neither body nor mind. Like every other anthropomorphism the Torah applies to G-d, the concept of G-d’s “knowledge” is merely a way to express something about G-d in terms we mortals can relate to. But in no way is G-d literally similar to us, and the spiritual concept we metaphorically call G-d’s “knowledge” is not at all like human knowledge, as Scripture specifically states (Isaiah 55:8), “For My ‘thoughts’ are not your thoughts.”
Now, one can certainly not say that G-d does not know what goes on, so we do speak of G-d as “knowing” things. However, He does not need to learn them, or find out about them. Instead, G-d “knows” all because everything is like an open book to Him: it is all plain and revealed before G-d by definition, and He does not have to “turn His attention” to things or “put His mind” to them in order to know. That is a function of human knowledge, not Divine “knowledge,” so there is really no philosophical dilemma at all.
That sounds well and good, but we cannot leave it at that. First of all, there is our verse to contend with: if G-d knows everything automatically – a fact which we knew all along, after all – why, again, does the verse speak of G-d wanting to “go down and see” what’s happening? Furthermore, it appears inconsistent with two other, almost identical, verses in Scripture, one of which (Zacharia 4:10) states, “these seven, the ‘eyes of G-d’ rove to and fro throughout the earth,” and the other of which (II Chronicles 16:9) says, “for G-d, His ‘eyes’ rove to and fro throughout the earth.” If G-d knows everything already, what are the roving eyes for?
To understand the answer, we must know something of the mystical concept of oros and keilim, “lights” and “vessels.”
As explained elsewhere, G-d chooses to manifest Himself within the universe in ten principal ways, known as the ten “sefiros.” These are referred to by names intended to hint at their respective spiritual natures: “wisdom,” “understanding,” “knowledge,” “kindness,” “strength,” “beauty,” “victory” or “eternity” [the Hebrew word for which, netzach, means both things], “glory,” “foundation” and “sovereignty.” Yet this (like the “knowledge” of G-d discussed above) does not imply any plurality in G-d Himself (G-d forbid), for these ten forms of Divine manifestation are only for our benefit: G-d Himself is not any of these, He is simply perceptible to us through them.
In a famous simile, the great Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero compared this to water contained in vessels of differently colored glass. Although the water in each vessel is the same colorless liquid, it appears white when viewed through the white vessel, red through the red vessel, and so on. The same is true of light viewed through differently colored lenses. Similarly, G-d – Who is indescribable and indivisible – is the same and unchanged regardless of which “vessel,” or sefira [the singular of sefiros] He is viewed through; it is only the vessels, not the “light” they contain, that are different.
The indivisible G-dly emanation (for even this is only an emanation from G-d, and not G-d Himself) which is, allegorically speaking, “contained” within the colored glasses is referred to as the Or Ein Sof, the “Light of the Infinite One,” while the spiritual parameters of its manifestation to us – the contours of the pitcher which shape the fluid inside; the color of the glass which is imparted to the contents – are called keilim, or “vessels” for that “light.” Thus, in speaking of the ten principal means of Divine manifestation, the ten sefiros, we must understand that each sefira consists of two components: the or, or “light,” within; and the keli, or “vessel,” without. The “light” in each sefira is the same; it is only the “vessels” which are different.
Now, G-d desired to create a finite world. In order to do this without causing the finite creations to be overwhelmed by G-d’s infinite radiance – His “light” – G-d channeled the light through the vessels, as explained above. Thus, each created entity receives its life-force from G-d in a manner suited to its particular qualities. For example, as our sages have taught, the archangel Michael (the archangel of kindness) and his host receive their creative life-force and sustenance from G-d through the vessel of kindness; whereas the archangel of strength, Gabriel, and his host receive their creative life-force and sustenance through the vessel of strength. This life-force could not be had directly from the “light” itself, but only by way of the vessels.
For example, it is impossible for the soul, a spiritual entity, to directly transmit gold and silver to a poor person. This can only be done as the soul is enclothed within the “vessel” of a body, which can give with a physical hand.
Thus, one result of the scheme of oros and keilim (lights and vessels) is that the created entities of the universe are able to receive their life-force without being overwhelmed by a direct infusion of G-dliness. Another aspect of the matter exists as well: it is through the vessels of the ten sefiros that the individual merit or guilt of each being rises heavenward. As is well known, when a person sins (G-d forbid), he or she thereby brings into being an “accusing angel” which would have that particular transgression counted against the sinner. In light of what we know about how each individual being receives its life-force through a series of spiritual intermediaries (e.g., the keli of kindness channeling it to the archangel Michael, from where it continues to the lesser angels in the “camp” of Michael, and on to lesser and lesser angels until it reaches the person him- or herself), this can be understood in an almost “mechanical” sense:
Transgressing the will of G-d means that the person has taken the spiritual life-force channeled to him or her through these angels and misused it, utilizing their vitality for evil instead of good. This, in a manner of speaking, “wounds” the angel serving as the conduit for that vitality, and disrupts the flow of G-dly energy to the person. And this has a domino effect: the next higher angel, in turn, cannot properly transmit the vitality to that angel, which affects the angel above that one, and so on until the effect of the sin reaches the very keilim of the ten sefiros (technically, the keilim of the ten sefiros of G-d’s attribute of Sovereignty within the spiritual realm of Atzilus, as they are manifest within the lower spiritual realms of Beriah, Yetzirah and Asiyah) – and within the keli, the Or Ein Sof itself is enclothed. In sum, through the vessels, the merit (for the same is true, in a good sense, when a person fulfils the will of G-d) or guilt of each person ultimately reaches to G-d.
This, then, is what is actually meant by the “eyes of G-d” that rove to and fro about the earth. It is a reference to the keilim of the ten sefiros and the angels that receive from them, which are called “Masters of the Eyes” (see Or HaTorah, Eikev, p. 497). These rove to and fro about the land, as the saying goes (Mishna, Avos 2:1), “Realize what is above you: an eye sees, etc.” With respect to these “eyes” one can speak of their “knowledge” implying their plurality (and indeed, there are countless such angels), but not with respect to the Light of the Infinite One which is enclothed within the vessels. As far as that goes, all is “open and known” before the one and indivisible G-d automatically, for the Light is in no way of the same order as, or even comparable to, the vessels within which G-d has seen fit to enclothe it.
And yet – we still cannot leave it at that. For it is one thing to say that the scheme of oros and keilim is necessary to enable finite beings to receive their G-dly life force without being overwhelmed; that is eminently reasonable. That is, the hierarchy of angels channels
G-d’s vitality from above downwards, for the benefit of the recipients. But there still does not seem to be any satisfactory reason why this hierarchy of angels – the “eyes of G-d” – is needed to transmit knowledge of the world’s doings from below heavenwards. The original question has not, apparently, been answered: would not omniscient G-d have known anyway, with or without “reports” from His “roving eyes”? After all, as the verse says (Psalms 94:9), “… the One Who formed the eye, shall He not see?”
However, the matter will finally be understood when we consider the verse (I Samuel, 2:3), “For G-d is a G-d of knowledges.” The plural is used here to allude to the fact that there are two kinds of “knowledge” with respect to G-d.
The first, which may be termed “higher-order knowledge” (da’as elyon in Hebrew), is a transcendent, abstract knowledge in the sense that what is known has no effect on the emotions. A person, for example, might know, intellectually, that harmless microscopic organisms permeate the environment, but that knowledge does not give rise to concern, fear or any other emotion. The person simply doesn’t care about this “academic” fact; he or she considers it, for all practical purposes, irrelevant. With respect to G-d, this kind of knowledge is the source of forgiveness. G-d Himself is so exalted, so utterly transcendent over creation, that, although He does want us to observe the Torah and its mitzvos, it certainly doesn’t affect Him “personally,” so to speak, one way or the other. There is a level at which one can rhetorically say (Job 35:7), “If you are righteous, what have you given Him?” If one sins (G-d forbid), they have not “hurt” G-d either, as if such a thing were possible. Thus, when one sincerely repents, he or she will receive G-d’s forgiveness, because although G-d knows what the person has done, this knowledge – higher-order knowledge, da’as elyon – does not “force” G-d to punish the person, as it would have “inevitably” resulted in a disruption in the flow of spiritual energy to that person had it been the kind of knowledge transmitted through the “eyes of G-d.” Da’as elyon is independent of the “eyes of G-d,” and neither depends upon them for information nor channels consequences through them.
In fact, it is to this that Scripture refers in the verse (Numbers 23:21), “He [G-d] has not beheld [i.e., with His “eyes”] sin in Jacob [the Jewish people].” This does not mean that G-d is literally unaware; rather, it means that he takes no notice, as in the verse (Job 11:11), “He sees iniquity but takes no notice.” Similarly, we find (Habakuk 1:13), “You are of eyes too pure to look upon evil.” All these verses speak of
G-d’s “seeing” or G-d’s “eyes” not affecting Him, because da’as elyon is a level far superior to the keilim of the ten sefiros and the type of knowledge “seen” by the “eyes of G-d.”
That latter type of knowledge, through the “eyes of G-d,” is called da’as tachton, (“lower-order knowledge”), and is a necessary function of G-d’s wish that the universe include free choice and a “natural” system of reward and punishment for those choices. By a person’s actions affecting the spiritual energy flowing to them through the keilim of the ten sefiros and the hierarchy of angels called the “eyes of G-d,” good deeds “automatically” result in an enhanced flow of
G-dliness to the person, while sin (G-d forbid) “naturally” causes a disruption in that flow – unless the person repents sincerely enough to reach the level which transcends this natural spiritual order.
This explains why G-d’s foreknowledge of events does not force those events to happen, and why, on the other hand, reward and punishment can only come after the fact. G-d’s advance knowledge is on the level of da’as elyon, which has no connection to G-d’s conduct of the world and does not affect its inhabitants, while reward and punishment are literally caused by a person’s actions and their effect upon the keilim and the “eyes of G-d” – da’as tachton.
This is also the meaning of the verse (Exodus 2:25), regarding G-d’s taking note of the Jewish suffering in Egypt, “And G-d saw the Children of Israel, and G-d knew.” This does not mean that G-d did not know beforehand or that He needed to “see” in order to know. Rather, although He did know, that prior knowledge was on the level of da’as elyon, and did not bring about any action on His part (i.e., to punish Pharaoh and reward the Jews). However, once G-d “saw” – after the fact, by means of his roving “eyes” – what the Egyptians had done to the Jews, then His knowledge took on the aspect of da’as tachton – “and G-d knew.”
Now, the level of Divine oversight associated with da’as elyon – the level at which G-d “overlooks” one’s shortcomings – may be characterized as G-d’s looking “with a benevolent eye.” This advantage is conferred upon the righteous, as it says (Psalms 33:18), “The eye of G-d is upon those who fear Him,” and (Numbers 14:14), “You [G-d] are seen eye to eye.” For example, the righteous Joseph, who sustained the starving Egyptians with food, merited this thereby (see Idra Rabba 130a), as it says (Proverbs 22:9), “He that has a generous eye shall be blessed, for he gave of his bread to the poor.” The people of Sodom, by contrast, were distinguished by their stinginess, their unwillingness to extend the slightest kindness, their looking at everyone “with a malevolent eye.” They thereby forfeited the possibility of having G-d’s “benevolent eye” overlook their sins, and they were destroyed.
There are several further points that can be made in elucidation of our verse (“I will go down and see…”).
The twin verses (Zacharia 4:10 and II Chronicles 16:9) about “the ‘eyes of G-d’ [which] rove to and fro throughout the earth,” are noteworthy in that the verse in Zacharia refers to the “eyes of G-d” in the masculine form, while that in II Chronicles uses the feminine. This is because, even within the category of “the eyes of G-d,” that is, even among the keilim of the ten sefiros and the hierarchical structure of angels proceeding from them, there are two ways of “looking” at something: with a kindly eye or a critical eye.
There are two main groups among the “emotional” (as opposed to intellectual) sefiros: the first six (from chesed (“kindness”) and gevurah (“strength” or “judgment”) through yesod (“foundation”)) – collectively referred to as ze’er anpin (“minor countenance”) or by the abbreviation z”a – and the seventh sefira, that of malchus (“sovereignty”). In our context, the sefiros of z”a are associated with kindness and those angels proceeding from them are the “kindly eye,” while the sefira of malchus is associated with judgment and those angels associated with it are the “critical eye.” That is, in both cases, the knowledge of events filtering up through these angels is knowledge through G-d’s “eyes” – knowledge which, as explained above, has consequences and affects reward and punishment – but even so, there is room for either leniency or severity. One may be viewing the very same thing, but if one views it with a kindly eye one will incline toward a favorable interpretation and leniency, whereas if one looks at it with a critical eye, one will incline toward severity.
This is illustrated by the fact that in Genesis 6:5, G-d saw that antediluvian Mankind was so evil that “all the impulse of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continuously.” As a result, He said (Genesis 6:7), “I will eradicate Mankind….” However, in Genesis 8:21, after smelling the pleasing savor of Noah’s offering,
G-d says “I will not again curse the ground anymore on account of Man, for the impulse of Man’s heart is evil from his youth.” The very same consideration first caused G-d to destroy Mankind and then to resolve to sustain him. The difference is that Noah’s sacrifice elicited a favorable response from G-d, causing Him to “view” the very same thing which He had formerly seen with a “judgmental eye,” now with a “favorable eye.”
G-d’s attribute of malchus is associated with femininity, and the “eyes of G-d” anthropomorphically referred to in II Chronicles as “feminine” are those which proceed from that sefira – i.e., the “critical, or judgmental, eye.” On the other hand, the attributes within the grouping of z”a are associated with masculinity, and it is the angels proceeding from z”a that the verse in Zacharia refers to in the masculine form. This is alluded to by verses and Torah expressions linking malchus, or sovereignty, with judgment, for example (Proverbs 29:4), Melech b’mishpat ya’amid aretz “the King establishes the land with judgment,” and dina d’malchusa, “the law [judgment] of the kingdom.”
We are now in a position to appreciate the precise wording and grammar of the verse, “I will go down and see whether they have done according to the outcry which has reached Me, [in which case I will] destroy [them]; and if not, I will know.” The Hebrew words for “outcry which has reached Me” literally mean her outcry – using the feminine form throughout that phrase. This refers to the “report” coming up to the Or Ein Sof (“which has reached Me”) by way of the “roving eyes” of “feminine” malchus – the critical eye. (Note that the report “came up”: this type of knowledge, that gained through the transmission heavenward of the actions of mortals, is considered as progressing from below upward, in the manner known as or chozer, “reflected light.”) However, since there also existed the possibility that, viewed from another perspective, the very same facts could be viewed with leniency, G-d, Who is fair and compassionate, said “I will go down and see,” that is, I will also apply the perspective of the kindly eye (which is considered to proceed from heaven downwards, in the manner known as or yashar, “direct light”) and determine whether there might not be some mitigating factor, some merit, that could temper the judgment. Had there been such a factor, such room for leniency, Sodom would have been spared.
The above sheds light on the meaning of Rabbinic statements (see Zohar I, 105b) that what G-d meant was “I will go down from the aspect of compassion [and apply its outlook] to the aspect of judgment.”
As noted at the beginning of this synopsis, Rashi explains the verse to teach that judges “should not decide capital cases except by sight,” that is, by a personal visual inspection. We may also gain greater insight into this teaching in light of the following:
The Kabbalah (Introduction to Tikkunei Zohar) teaches that the ten sefiros can be thought of as being aligned into three rows, “one long, one short and one medium.” These “rows” refer to the configuration of the sefiros into groupings that (for reasons beyond the scope of this synopsis) reflect certain similarities among them. The three sefiros of Wisdom, Kindness and Victory/Eternity are aligned in the right-hand row, or column, which is the “long” one, meaning that its influence extends farther. For example, one can do an act of kindness (like holding a door open for someone) to anyone, rich or poor: kindness extends to everyone. By contrast, the middle column, which includes the sefira of tiferes (“beauty”), which is associated with compassion, does not extend as far: one has compassion on a person for whom that is appropriate, like a poor person, but not on someone who does not require compassion. The left-most column, comprised of the sefiros of Understanding, Strength/Judgment and Glory, is considered the shortest, because its reach only extends to those particularly suited therefor.
Now, “sight” is said to derive from the attribute of Wisdom (which is in the long, right column), and “hearing” from the attribute of Understanding (which is in the short, left column). Therefore, sight (which, scientifically, requires light to shine onto the object being viewed) is considered to proceed from above downwards (from the observer to the observed). (Although it is true that the light must then be reflected back to the observer, the source of the light (except in the case of inherently luminous objects) is projected onto the object being viewed.)
By contrast, sound waves originate at the source of the sound and proceed to the hearer (except in the case of an echo), and are therefore considered as proceeding from below upwards (from the thing being heard to the hearer).
Also, sight extends farther in the sense that it can perceive all there is to perceive; it can discern actual physical – visual – objects. Hearing, though, only extends so far as to pick up the sound of an object, but cannot pick up the visual component.
All this explains a final nuance of our verse. G-d heard the “outcry,” which was of course audible, which had ascended to Him, and responded by saying that He would descend and see – visually. This is because, as explained earlier, the first “report” to reach G-d, in a manner of speaking, was that coming up, characteristically, to him through the attributes of Understanding and Judgment, which are in the left column. But these have a limited range, and something might have been left out, something that might have mitigated in favor of leniency. G-d therefore wished to then go down (also characteristically) and see, i.e., to examine the situation from the “visual” perspective (as Rashi suggests) of the attribute of Kindness, which, coming as it does from the right column, is applicable over a broader range than Judgment and might have uncovered some merit.
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Ó 2001 Dach Holdings, Ltd. Please note that the foregoing is an informal synopsis by a private person, and that, therefore, errors are possible. Also, the Hebrew original contains much more than could possibly be presented here, and constitutes a much more direct transmission of the Alter Rebbe’s teachings. Thus, for those with the ability to learn in the original, this synopsis should not be considered a substitute for the maamar. Good Shabbos!