Acentral lesson that emerges from the episode of the Meraglim is that people choose to view situations from vastly different perspectives depending on the pre-existing mindset they bring to the endeavor. On their mission to scout out Eretz Yisrael, the spies encountered inhabitants they saw as fearsome and invincible, but only because they had already lost their bitachon in Hashem’s ability to give them the Land. 

Once the conclusion was reached that Hashem could not be relied upon, rendering the attempt to take Eretz Yisrael suicidal, all data was processed through that narrow, distorted lens. The funerals the Meraglim had witnessed taking place all over the Land were marshaled as only further evidence of its lethal nature rather than being seen as a Divine kindness , intended to keep the locals distracted and unaware of the Meraglim’s presence. 

The Midrash observes that although the pesukim in Eichah proceed alphabetically, the pasuk beginning with the letter pei precedes that beginning with ayin, rather than following it. This inversion conveys the idea that the Meraglim — whose actions precipitated the Churban that Eichah laments — employed their “peh” before their “ayin.” 

Rav Moshe Shapiro shlita explains that the tragedy was not merely that they spoke of things their eyes had not seen — i. e. , falsehoods. Were that the case, Eichah would have omitted the “peh” entirely. Instead, the placement of the peh ahead of the ayin conveys that they allowed the narrative they had crafted based on their pre-existing biases to determine what it was they would thereafter see. The narrative was that this was a “land that devours its inhabitants,” and they took the funerals they witnessed as substantiation of that, rather than as confirmation of precisely the opposite conclusion — that Hashem would do anything necessary to ensure their safety and success. 

Their loss of bitachon in Hashem’s omnipotence led, in turn, to a gnawing internal sense of insignificance. As famously explicated by the Kotzker Rebbe, the Meraglim’s declaration that “we were in our eyes as grasshoppers, and so were we in their eyes, too” was a classic expression of the idea that what begins with a person’s self-devaluation ends with others seeing him as well as devoid of worth. 

Rav Tzaddok HaKohein (Tzidkas Hatzaddik 154) writes that second only to emunah in the Borei Yisbarach is emunah in oneself. The latter flows ineluctably from the former. That there is a Creator means that I must be quite a worthwhile creature; why else would He want a relationship with me? 

Which brings us to an essay in a recent issue of the journal New Atlantis by one Marcelo Gleiser, a professor of natural philosophy and physics at Dartmouth. He observes: 

In the almost five hundred years since Copernicus published his landmark treatise on the heavenly spheres, we have learned much about the universe and about our seemingly insignificant place within it. We live on a small planet around a small star, in an average-sized galaxy among hundreds of billions of other galaxies, in an expanding universe made mostly of dark matter and dark energy — mysterious ingredients of yet unknown composition. 

The stuff that we are made of — electrons, protons, and neutrons — comprises a small fraction of what fills the universe. On the face of it, science appears to decree our insignificance; the more we learn about the universe, the more insignificant we seem. 

But all it takes is a small shift in our thinking to turn the very vastness of the universe that supposedly spells our insignificance into the most powerful argument imaginable for our awesome, unique significance. Gleiser presents one such paradigm shift: 

However, this way of looking at things is misleading. Our significance should not be measured by our size relative to the rest of the cosmos, but rather by how different we are from everything else in it. As with precious gems and metals, it is our rarity that makes us special, and one way to express what is rare about us is that we have enough self-awareness to ask questions about our origins and place in the cosmos. 

But pace the professor, while our “self-awareness to ask questions about our origins and place in the cosmos” is certainly one aspect of humans’ rarity, it is not the most precious one. What we ought to celebrate far more than the mere ability to question where we came from and why we’re here is our ability to answer those questions in a way that fills us with the most profound sense of meaning. The most important rarity of humanity is the fact that out of all that fills the universe, we alone are the only known beings to engage in making moral choices, and as a result, we alone have the capacity for goodness. 

But an even more transformative shift in thinking would be to posit the existence of a Creator. Once one does so, two things happen to the “problem” of human insignificance that Gleiser posed. 

First, the basis for the problem evaporates. After all, is it even possible to speak seriously of the vastness in either space or time or complexity of the universe, or any number of universes, in the presence of an infinite G-d? All is child’s play for Him, the universe a silly little movie set replete with cute pyrotechnics, which He wills into being at His whim. The same “snap of the Divine Fingers,” so to speak, that brought us into existence can just as easily and quickly bring an untold numbers of galaxies and universes into being, too. 

But more: Once we posit a G-d Who creates humans and places them in a world whose purpose is to be His hiding place as He waits for us to seek Him out, all the rest of Creation can be seen as a prop in the great morality play that is human life on this planet. G-d creates the lifeless, amoral cosmos to serve as a dramatic contrast with ever-dynamic, morally alive man and impress upon him his own uniqueness. 

Indeed, the more seemingly endless the universe is discovered to be, the more it puts into stark relief the singularity of man as the one tiny spot of moral freedom and potential moral greatness within an otherwise vast wasteland. That’s the kind of effect that can only be pulled off by a Cosmic Set Designer Who has entire universes to play with — and He does. 

By acknowledging Hashem, we can answer the single most difficult question there is to be asked about the universe: Who needs the whole thing? The answer might just be that we do. What purpose could all those gargantuan, inert stars possibly serve? They help us appreciate the utter uniqueness of our planet as a place of infinitesimal physical size but of immense moral potential, for both good and evil. 

Once we let G-d in, Professor Gleiser’s “problem” doesn’t merely disappear — it is stood precisely on its head. Not only are we not insignificant vis-à-vis the universe, but the universe as a whole acquires its significance from us, by serving as a tool to remind man of just how unique he is. 

Of course, Hashem isn’t Someone Whose existence we posit in order to make sense of a seemingly purposeless universe or answer the question of a professor at Dartmouth. We met Him at Sinai, and we’ve continued to meet Him throughout Jewish history. We encounter Him every time we open a Gemara or marvel at how Torah has people all figured out. We glimpse Him every time we open a window into the breathtaking natural world or simply ponder the equally breathtaking creation called the eye that enables us to behold that natural world. 

So, it all comes down to one’s starting point. One person begins with a world in which Hashem is, chalilah, absent. This itself reduces man to irrelevance, and when he now looks at the universe, he, unsurprisingly, finds evidence of that very irrelevance. His “peh” has guided his “ayin” to a finding of human irrelevance. 

And truth be told, he is very comfortable being morally irrelevant — it sure beats being morally accountable. As Rabbi Motty Berger once observed: Although Viktor Frankl’s seminal work Man’s Search for Meaning posits the discovery of meaning as an essential human need, modern man is embarked on an equally urgent quest that could well be termed Man’s Search for Meaninglessness. 

The Torah Jew knows Hashem and, consequently, sees inestimable value in his own existence. No wonder, then, that he sees in the universe a resounding affirmation of his own worth. To know one’s value in Hashem’s eyes is surely daunting in its implications, but is just as surely the only pathway to deep wellsprings of meaning and joy.