Divine Timelessness

Bereishis Rabbah( 5:5):

G-d made the creation of water conditional on its splitting before the Jews when they left Egypt….It was not just with the sea that He made a stipulation but with everything that He created during the six days of creation…. G-d commanded the sea to divide, the heavens and earth to be silent before Moshe…the sun and the moon to stand still before Yehoshua, the ravens to feed Eliyahu, the fire not to burn Chananya, Mishael and Azariyah, the lions not to harm Daniel, the Heavens to open before Yechezkeil and the fish to spit out Yonah.

(See also Rambam Shemoneh Peraqim, ch 8, his commentary on Avos 5:6, and Rabbeinu Bachye on Avos 5:8. Sources posted to Avodah by R’ Daniel Eidensohn.)

The problem with miracles is that they seem to imply that G-d changed His Mind between establishing the natural order and choosing to perform that miracle. However, G-d is timeless.

G-d’s timelessness seems to also pose problems with free will. How can I be free to choose when G-d already knows what my choice will be? Rabbi Aqiva seems to simply take it as a divine mystery, “hakol tzafui vehareshus nesunah — all is foreseen, but freedom is granted.” The Rambam, in Hilkhos Teshuvah, also describes it as a Divine Mystery. If we can’t understand what it means that He knows something, where He and His Knowledge are one, and where learning (which is a process of change, and therefore of time) is not involved, how can we discuss mysteries about how that knowledge interacts our free will?

The Or Samei’ach explains it slightly differently. Just as His Knowledge of the past does not change the nature of the present, so too His Knowledge of the future. Because to Him, past and future are the same.

Rav Dessler writes that our perception of the flow of time is a product of eating of the tree of knowledge. With eating the fruit, man’s free will became centered on a progression from desire to effort to fulfillment or frustration. This gives our concept of time a flow, a direction. Rav Dessler compares our perception of time to looking at a map through a piece of paper with a small hole in it. One can move the hole from city to city along the roads. But that progression is a product of how we’re looking at the map, not the map itself. Adam saw “from one end of the world to the next”, an expression also used of a baby’s soul before birth. They see the map without the paper in front; all of time from one end to the other.

Rav Dessler’s metaphor is akin to Paul Davies’ description of Einsteinian spacetime. In relativistic physics, the universe is a four dimensional sculpture. We think of it as a 3d movie, with time having a flow that the three spatial dimensions do not. But that’s an illusion of our perception.

From this perspective, the Or Samei’ach’s answer is compelling. G-d is like an observer, looking at a sculpture. Yes, the observer could look at one point in the height of the sculpture while touching or moving a lower one. Just as G-d could Know the entirety of history while interacting with any one point in it.

G-d doesn’t know today what I will decide tomorrow, because G-d doesn’t have a “today”. G-d simply knows. The nearest way in which we can assign a point in time to His knowledge is when speaking of when His actions impact creation. And Hashem assures us, using Yishma’el as an example, that man is judged “ba’asher hu sham as he is there” not based on his future. Within time, the direction of causality is preserved.

Similarly, our opening issue. Miracles were written into creation because Hashem has no “initially” and “later”. The decisions were made “simultaneously”, for want of a better word to say “not separated by time”. And in fact, they were therefore the same decision.

This is true for every event of all of creation. God created a 4d sculpture. Not a watch that He could then leave to run on its own. (The use of the word “then” in the previous sentence is a tip-off. It makes sense only in the context of time.) Picture the printing of a timeline in a book. The spot of ink representing 1702 was printed in the same act as the spot representing 2004. Because from the perspective of His Action there is no time, all of the history of the universe is equally ma’aseh bereishis — the act of creation. Our persistence from one moment to the next is the same “strike of the printing press” as the six days at the far end of the timeline. Deism is simply not tenable if time is a created entity.

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  1. R’ Sir Jonathan Sacks makes almost the same point in this week’s issue of “Covenant and Conversation”.

    However, R’ Sacks makes a point I didn’t:

    “Then I shall take away My hand, and you will see My back, but My face cannot not be seen.” (Exodus
    33: 23)
    Only looking back do we see G-d’s providence interwoven with our life, never looking forward (“My face
    cannot not be seen”).

    Not just a distinction between free will within time and omniscience beyond it — even within the human world, we only see the Divine Plan in retrospect, not in the same looking forward with which we make our decisions.


  1. February 19, 2007 – א׳ באדר תשס״ז

    […] 2004 Rav Dessler’s Approach to Creation January 28th, 2005 1:04 am See also Different Approaches to Creation, a survey that just toucheson a variety of opinions, as well as Divine Timelessness.I think that in order to understand Rav Dessler’s position about the nature of time during ma’aseh bereishis one needs to start with MmE vol II pp 150-154, aptly titled “Yemei Bereishis veYemai Olam”. Comments of my own that I feel can’t wait for the end of the maamar are in square brackets.Rav Dessler opens by defining the nature of time-as-we-know-it. In the first two paragraph he establishes the connection between time and free will. The flow of past to future is that of desire to fulfillment.In the section “Havchanas haZeman”, Rav Dessler points out that time passes as a function of the number of experiences we have. When we have more experiences, we have more opportunities for choice, for fulfilling desires. […]

  2. October 28, 2008 – כ״ט בתשרי תשס״ט

    […] Divine Timelessness, Jan 14th […]

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