Two Plus Two Equals Five: the Miracle of Limited Understanding

1921-22, among the Iglulik Eskimo (Inuit):

drawing by Eskimo of shaman, circa 1920
Inuk (Eskimo) Shaman

“I once went out to Aua’s hunting quarters on the ice outside Lyon Inlet… For several evenings we had discussed rules of life without getting beyond a long and circumstantial statement of all that was permitted and all that was forbidden. Everyone knew precisely what had to be done on any given situation, but whenever I put in my query: “why?”, they could give no answer. They regarded it as unreasonable that I should require not only an account, but a justification, of their religious principals….

It had been an unusually rough day… The brief daylight had given place to the half-light of the afternoon. Ragged white clouds raced across the sky… our eyes and mouths were filled with snow. Aua looked me full in the face, and pointing out over the ice, where the snow was being lashed about in waves by the wind, he said:

“In order to hunt well and live happily, man must have calm weather. Why this constant succession of blizzards and all this needless hardship for men seeking food for themselves and those they care for? Why? Why?”

We had come out just at the time when the men were returning from their watching at the seal blowholes on the ice, toiling against the fierce wind… Not one of them had a seal in tow; their whole day of painful effort and endurance had been in vain.

I could give no answer to Aua’s “Why?” but shook my head in silence. He then led me into Kublo’s house, which was close beside our own. The small blubber lamp burned with but the faintest flame, giving out no heat whatsoever; a couple of children crouched, shivering, under a skin rug on the bench.

Aua looked at me again and said: “Why should it be cold and comfortless in here? Kublo has been out hunting all day, and if he had got a seal, as he deserved, his wife would now be sitting laughing beside her lamp, letting it burn full, without fear of having no blubber left for tomorrow. The place would be warm and bright and cheerful. The children would come out from under their rugs and enjoy life. Why should it not be so? Why?”

I made no answer, and he led me out of the house in to a little snow hut where his sister Natseq lived all by herself because she was ill. She looked thin and worn. For several days she had suffered from a malignant cough that seemed to come from far down in the lungs, and it looked as if she had not long to live.

A third time Aua looked at me and said: “Why must people be ill and suffer pain? We are all afraid of illness. Here is this old sister of mine; as far as anyone can see, she has done no evil; she has lived though a long life and given birth to healthy children, and now she must suffer before her days end. Why? Why?”

This ended his demonstration, and we returned to our house…

“You see”, said Aua “You are equally unable to give any reason when we ask you why life is as it is. And so it must be. All our customs come from life and turn towards life; we explain nothing, we believe nothing, but in what I have just shown you lies our answer to all you ask…”

“We fear the weather spirit of the earth, we fear dearth and hunger in our igloos, we fear the great woman at the bottom of the sea that rules over all the beasts of the sea. We fear the sickness that we meet with daily all around us. We fear the evil spirits of life, we fear the souls of dead human beings and of the animals we have killed.”

“Therefore it is that our fathers have inherited from their fathers all the rules of life which are based on the experience and wisdom of generations. We do not know how, we cannot say why, but we keep those rules in order that we may live untroubled.”

From the book “Intellectual Culture of the Iglulik Eskimos”, by Knud Rasmussen, published in 1929


This Saturday is the anniversary of the death of my mother Tehilla. I would like to tell you about my mother, about her accomplishments, about my memories of her, how she guided and taught me.

I can’t.

My mother died of cancer when she was in her thirties and I was four years old. For much of those four years she was in hospital. We did spend time together, but I was too young to remember it. I know she did affect me, I know she shaped me, but I can’t tell you how.

My mother had her years taken from her. She died in great pain, she suffered. I shivered reading the medical reports from her final days, imagining the agony that was being coldly and clinically described.

Why did she have to suffer so? As far as anyone could see, she had done no evil. Why must people be ill and suffer pain? Why did my sister and I have to grow up without the one who bore us? Why?

Her earlier life was also difficult. Her father was hospitalized for many years. She and her sister were brought up by my grandmother Rivka in deep poverty. Why did she have to undergo that deprivation? Why?

You are equally unable to give any reason when I ask you why life is as it is. And so it must be. What can we know, what can we understand?

Can we understand an earthquake in India? “Amid an acre of blackened mounds sits Hauth Chand. Beside him is the body of his granddaughter Manisha and in his hand a surgical glove filled withdevastation from earthquake in India water to sprinkle over her body, according to tradition. At 5 years old, Manisha is too young to be cremated.” There are a hundred thousand other personal stories from that earthquake.

Can we understand the suffering of the wrongly convicted prisoner, freed decades later by DNA evidence, or God forbid, executed? The victim of a terrorist armed with a car or machete? It’s harder to remember that these are real people, with feelings and aspirations, just as you and me. They’re not just players in a television or internet news drama.

How do we understand Jewish history? From 1648 to 1653 the Cossaks, occasionally allied with the Tartars or Poles killed close to one hundred thousand Jews. They didn’t have the technology available to Hitler but their viciousness and cruelty might have even shocked the Gestapo. This period of suffering, known as Tach V’Tat gave rise to the false Messiah, Shabtai Tzvi, helped give birth to both Hassidism and the Haskalah, secular Judaism. Jews tried to find some answer, some explanation for their suffering. They asked “Why, why…?” Why does it appear that two plus two equals five?

An ancestor of mine, Rabbi Yom Tov Lippman Heller, the Tosafot Yom Tov, theorized that Tach V’Tat was a punishment to the Jews for talking and light-heartedness in synagogue. He instituted a prayer to be recited in honor of people who undertake not to talk during prayers. It’s still used in many institutions.

And of the holocaust? Eliezer Berkovitz, in “Faith After the Holocaust” says that he stands in awe before the memory of the holy martyrs who walked into the gas chamber with the Ani Ma’amin, I believe, on their lips. Berkovitz goes farther, however. “…so also is the disbelief and the religious rebellion of the concentration camps holy… Those who were not there and, yet, readily accept the holocaust as the will of God that must not be questioned, desecrate the holy disbelief of those whose faith was murdered. And those who were not there, and yet join with self-assurance the rank of the disbelievers, desecrate the holy faith of the believers.” Berkovitz continues that “…the disbelief of the sophisticated intellectual in the midst of an affluent society- in the light of the holy disbelief of the crematoria- is an obscenity.”

That disbelief can be holy, teaches that you are not obliged to shut your eyes, to erase your mind, to ignore your heart. If anything, we must keep ourselves open to truth. Torah is truth.  Two plus two equals five.  Is this the reality?

Gerald Schroeder, a physicist at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, tries to explain suffering in the book “The Science of God.” The geological forces that give rise to earthquakes are necessary for the conditions that allow life to exist. He says that stars without lethal radiation that lead to mutations and birth defects would not be natural. “Obviously, an omnipotent Creator could remove all randomness from nature… But the price would be too high.” Randomness is necessary for free will. Free will and the potential for tragedy go hand-in-hand. Schroeder describes this randomness as an aspect of the divine contraction that allows our universe to exist.

what do we really know about the universe?
What do we really know?

Randomness? Schroeder is attributing randomness to the true Judge, whose every action is just? God could just have easily made a world supporting life without earthquakes. Stars without radiation could have been just as natural seeming as what we know and are familiar with. In fact, the only difference between nature and miracles is that we are so used to certain miracles, such as air, water, life, thought, that we consider them natural. A leading mathematician marveled at the fact that two plus two equals four. There is no intrinsic reason for it to be that way, he explained. Two plus two could have just as easily equaled five. God made it four, and we take it for granted.

The book Ethics of the Fathers asks “Why did God create the world with ten utterances? What does this teach us? He could have created it with one utterance?”

God could have created a world without cancer. He could have created a world without hunger, with good weather, without suffering. He could have made a world without terrorism. He could have made a world with free will, yet without random pain. God had all kinds of leeway in making the world. He is the One who can do whatever He wants. What does his choice of design come to teach us?

“Rabbi! I am forced to think and think constantly, and I cannot find peace of mind.”

“About what are you thinking so much?” inquired the Kotzker Rebbe.

“I am wondering if these is a Supreme Judge, who deals with the world justly,” replied the hassid.

“What does it matter to you?” asked the Rebbe?

“Rabbi, if there is no Judge and no justice, then what sense does the Torah make?”

“And why does it matter to you?” insisted the Rebbe.

“How can you say that? Surely it matters to me.”

“If you are so concerned, then you must be a good Jew. A good Jew is allowed to think,” consoled Rabbi Menachem Mendel. “Now go and learn.”

The Kotzker didn’t tell the hassid he would find an answer to his question. The inability to have such understanding is explained in the Bible according to the Kotzker by God’s pronouncement to Moses: “And you shall see My back- but My face shall not be seen. This means that although so many things in this world appear to be the reverse of what they logically should be, that is because the world stands with its back to the logical truth. The difficulty of the situation is that the “face” of God’s guiding light is hidden; it is far removed from human comprehension… it cannot be seen, for it is too bright for our eyes.

Albert Einstein deals with this difficulty: “The only incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” Putting the Kotzker Rebbe and Einstein together, we learn to appreciate our limited understanding, appreciate that He has given us the opportunity to glimpse his back, to see the refined light of his wisdom, albeit filtered and reduced, such that we can achieve at least some level of comprehension.


my mother

My mother was an ardent Zionist, deeply involved in the creation of the modern state of Israel. She was a writer and a translator, having published an English edition of Yitzchak Leib Peretz’s The Three Canopies. She was cut down before reaching her potential. May her memory be a blessing.

I was too young then to say “Baruch Dayan Emet. Blessed is the True Judge.” I say it now.

I do not understand what happened to my mother or why. I do not understand why two plus two equals four.  But we are taught that by definition, everything that God does is good. That’s a difficult formula to grasp.

One thought on “Two Plus Two Equals Five: the Miracle of Limited Understanding

  1. This is the most beautiful eulogy I have ever read or heard. Your mother would have been rewarded for her sorrows by these words and by the son who utters them here. I am in awe. With your permission, I would like to have a copy of this text, so I may continue to learn its wisdom whenever life will inevitably present me with another “Why?” In the future. You are truly wise and gifted. I am profoundly grateful to know you.

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