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"What Can I Hope For?" - The Avot and Immanuel Kant

By: Rav Avigdor Meyerowitz

Immanuel Kant, the famous 18th century German philosopher, posed three basic questions:

  1. What can I know?
  2. What should I do?
  3. What can I hope for?

The first question relates to the ability (or inability) of man to truly know anything purely objective and true about anything since our perception of everything is by means of our subjective senses.

The second question relates to the problem of morality. What is the criterion for deciding whether an action is moral and therefore should be done or immoral and therefore should be avoided?

Kant then questioned what one could hope for as a result of living a moral life. Granted that society might be affected by the moral behavior of its members, does the physical natural reality respond to moral behavior? If not, what is the incentive to be moral? This lead Kant to make a sort of "leap of faith"[1] in God and the immortality of the soul. Thus in answer to the question “What may I hope for?” Kant replied that we may hope that our souls are immortal and that there really is a God who designed the world in accordance with principles of justice.

What's the connection between Kant's third question and Parshat Hashavua?

The Torah tells us:

"And there was a famine in the land, aside from the first famine that had been in the days of Avraham, and Yitzchak went to Avimelech the king of the Philistines, to Gerar."[2]

Yitzchak Avinu, just like Avraham Avinu wants to leave his place of residence in times of famine, evidently to reside in a place where there isn't a famine. Though Yitzchak is told by Hashem not to leave his place, Avraham does leave his place and travels to Mitzrayim. What's interesting about these episodes is that the Torah does not relate any details or information regarding the difficulty of the food situation prior to their decision to leave nor the subsequent resolution of the problem created by the famine. Both these instances are followed by incidents regarding interaction between Avraham and Yitzchak with Paro and Avimelech regarding their wives. Avraham thereafter leaves Mitzrayim and returns to Eretz Yisrael without any explanation as to how the famine issue was resolved. Likewise, after Yitzchak is told not to leave to Mitzrayim there is no indication as to how the famine problem was resolved.

The Midrash on the verse "And there was a famine in the land, and Avram descended to Egypt to sojourn there because the famine was severe in the land"[3] says:[4]

, , , , .

Until there was Avraham in the world, it was as if Hashem judged the world cruelly. The generation of the flood sinned – Hashem drowned them. The generation of the tower of Bavel sinned - Hashem dispersed them to the ends of the world. The Sodomites sinned - Hashem flushed them away with fire and sulphur, however, once Avraham came to the world, yissurin –agony, pain - come and precede the judgment as the pasuk says:  "And there was a famine in the land, and Abram descended to Egypt to sojourn there because the famine was severe in the land."

The midrash describes the famine as indication of yissurim (suffering) caused by sin. When Avraham and Yitzchak see famine, they understand that the problem is not the famine but rather what is causing the famine, sin. Their travelling to Mitzrayim is not to resolve their food issue but rather the root problem that has caused the imbalance in the world resulting in famine. They subsequently confront the inhabitants of the land regarding their moral standards.

' " ' ' ' ' ' . . :[5]

All the famines mentioned in the Torah are hints to thirst to hear the word of Hashem[6] as it says in the Midrash that there are ten types of famine in the world and the tenth will be a famine, not for bread nor a thirst for water rather to hear the word of Hashem. The midrash means to say that in the future will be revealed the inner essence of famine. If previously the famine took on a physical form, in the future it will be evidently spiritual. But essentially it is all one.[7]

The Sfat Emet explains, as we pointed out, that the physical manifestation of famine is the result of a lack of implementation of a G-dly truth in the world.

When Hashem tells Noach of the impending flood he says:


And G-d said to Noach, "The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth has become full of robbery because of them, and behold I am destroying them from the earth.

The end of the verse " " is usually translated as above "destroying them from the earth", however the simpler meaning is: "destroying the earth", and indeed that is the second explanation of Rashi: "Another explanation: means ‘together with the earth’ for even the three handbreadths of the depth of the plowshare were blotted out and obliterated."

Rav Kook explains:

, , , , . , , . , . , , '. , . .[8]

The Torah of Israel explains how the existence of the world and the human morality are dependent upon each other. Accordingly, it's understood that the improvement (or evolution) of the world and the improvement (or evolution) of morality are also permanently intertwined. This is the main "Knowledge of G-d" of Israel (in understanding His Ways). Man's mistakes (sins) harmed (the nature’s) morality as well, until the earth was "full of violence" and "corrupted its ways", “directing its thoughts and desires for evil”. The world itself rebelled against this; the Flood (inevitably) comes and erases the entire face of the earth. The root of mankind which survived (the Flood) improved their uprightness; their just ways strive to be connected with Hashem, arising and raising sacrifices to Hashem. The world becomes well-based, and (inevitably) the covenant is made for its existence, “as long as the earth exists”.[9]

"The main ‘Knowledge of G-d’ of Israel" is knowing and understanding the inherent connection that exists between the actions of man and the consequences of those actions not just on mankind and society but on the physical world we live in.

Though we have come to this conclusion with the help of the Midrash, Sfat Emet and Rav Kook, the truth is it is something we say everyday at least twice daily in Kriat Shema.






We are used to understanding that the pesukim are saying that for obedience to Hashem we are rewarded and punished for disobedience, but in truth the Torah is telling us that there is an inherent relationship between our actions and the consequences thereof on the world that we live in. Our forefathers understood this relationship and whenever there was a distortion in the natural world they sought out how to mend the moral decay.

Back to Immanuel Kant

Though immortality and the afterlife is a basic doctrine in Judaism, we are not in need of them to answer the question "What can I hope for?" for leading a moral life.


[1]" I had therefore to remove knowledge, in order to make room for belief.” Immanuel Kant

[2] Breishit 26;1.

[3] Breishit 12:10.

[4] Yalkut Shimoni, Ha'azinu 942.

[5] Sfat Emet, Lech Lecha 5654.

[6] "Behold, days are coming, says the Lord G-d, and I will send famine into the land, not a famine for bread nor a thirst for water, but to hear the word of the Lord". Amos 8:11.

[7] Sfat Emet, Lech Lecha 5654.

[8] Rav Kook, Shmonah Kevatzim 1;499.

[9] Thank you to Rav Shvat for the excellent translation.

[10] Devarim 11:13-17.


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