I was 226 meters beneath the earth's surface at the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa, touring what had been one of the most lucrative gold mines in the world. Felicia, our guide, explained that while the defunct mine still contained gold, it was too little to be worth mining. "You see," she said, waving her hand toward the wall of the tunnel we were walking through, "There is still gold here."
I pointed my flashlight at the rocky wall, where I indeed saw glittering specks of gold. "Yes, I see the gold," I announced, running my finger along the specks.
Felicia laughed. "That's not the gold. That's what they call 'fool's gold.' It's only 20% gold. People are fooled by its gold-like appearance."
"Then where's the real gold?" I queried.
How could something look so different than what it really is?
Felicia pointed to a shiny black spot of rock, as big as my fingernail. "This is real gold, 99% gold."
"But it doesn't look like gold at all," I protested. "It's black."
"That's right," Felicia agreed. "To make it look like gold, you have to go through a complicated process. First you crush the rock. Then you pulverize it, until it's like powder. Then you have to add cyanide, a deadly poison."
"And then the color turns to gold?"
"Not yet. At that stage, it looks like thick polish." Felicia went on to explain additional stages of the process until, finally, the gold looks like gold.
I stared at the shiny black spot on the wall, irked. How could something look so different than what it really is?
Physical Appearance vs. Scientific Truth
Appearances deceive. We seem to be stationary, but we are really sitting on a giant ball that is spinning at the speed of 1000 mph. Our planet itself is moving around the sun at 67,000 mph. Yet our perception swears that we are not moving.
The chair you are sitting on appears to be solid, but it is composed of spinning atoms, where the proportion of solid matter to empty space is much less than a fraction of 1%. The proportion of matter to space in the average atom is akin to a single baseball in the middle of a giant baseball stadium. In fact, scientists tell us that all the matter in the world would theoretically fit into a teaspoon. What you think of as solid matter is almost all empty space. But it appears, even to the trained physicist, to be so solid.
The final scientific death-blow to the world of appearances is quantum physics, with its mystifying, illogical, mind-boggling realities. Once thought to apply only to the micro-world of atoms and subatomic particles, quantum mechanics during the last decade has replaced classical physics (including Einstein's Theory of Relativity) as applying to the macro-world as well. As Dr. Vlatko Vedral, a physics professor at the University of Oxford, wrote in the June, 2011 issue of Scientific American: "Few modern physicists think that classical physics has equal status with quantum mechanics; it is but a useful approximation of a world that is quantum at all scales."
Thus the most advanced science substantiates the claim: We live in a world where appearances mask reality.
Physical Appearance vs. Spiritual Truth
From a Torah perspective, the most pernicious of all false appearances is the illusion of Divine absence, a world devoid of God. The Hebrew word for "world" is olam, derived from the root word meaning "hidden." God is deliberately hidden in our world.
God is deliberately hidden in our world.
Yet, in truth, God is not only the source of all that exists, but, as the Torah proclaims, Ein od milvado – nothing exists except God. This means that everything, including this phantasmagoric physical world, exists within God. Denying the existence of God is like a fish denying the existence of water.
This is not an abstract point. All the substantive choices we make are based on which world we believe in: the apparent physical world or its underlying spiritual reality. Yet, to penetrate beneath the mask of physical appearance requires a mental process more arduous than turning black rock into gold jewelry.
A world disconnected from its Divine source is a fool's gold world, which leads to choosing falsity over truth:
In a fool's gold world, if you steal money, you're richer.
In reality, if you steal money, you're diminished and poorer.
In a fool's gold world, if you deride and embarrass someone with a clever put-down, you come out on top.
In reality, if you deride and embarrass someone with a clever put-down, you damage yourself even more than you damage your victim.
In a fool's gold world, if you win an argument with your spouse, you've won.
In reality, every time you argue with your spouse, you've lost.
In a fool's gold world, cheating helps you pass your test.
In reality, if you cheat, you've failed your real test.
In a fool's gold world, if you give a large sum of money to charity, you have less.
In reality, if you give a large sum of money to charity, you have more. (As a wise woman said at the end of her life: "All I really have is what I gave away.")
In a fool's gold world, others in the same line of business are your competitors, and the more your competitor succeeds, the worse it is for you.
In reality, all of us are part of the whole, and the more the other succeeds, the better it is for the whole, which includes you.
In a fool's gold world, the worst eventuality is death.
In reality, the worst eventuality is a life devoid of meaning and purpose.
In a fool's gold world, your essential identity appears to be your body, so you invest your time, attention, and money in beautifying/strengthening/
In reality, your essential identity is your soul, so (while fulfilling the mitzvah to take care of the body) you invest most of your time, attention, and money in enhancing your awareness of and acting according to your soul.
Unearthing the real gold may require going deep below the surface and undergoing an intricate process of refinement, but is investing in counterfeit ever worth it?