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Oct. 20, 2022

Wagon Wheel Effect (Bereishis 2022)

We have all observed the strange visual phenomenon of a car’s wheels appearing to spin backwards even though the car is actually moving forward! This is, of course, an optical illusion, which is often referred to as the wagon-wheel effect. The brain processes what it is looking at by filling in the voids between images, thus creating an illusion of continuous movement between similar images.

Video cameras record footage by taking a series of pictures in quick succession. Most video cameras use a frame rate of 24 frames per second, which means it takes 24 pictures per second. If the wheel rotates faster than the frame rate, then the wheel will appear to spin backward instead of forward! In reality, the car wheel is obviously moving forward, but we – in our limited capacity – perceive the wheel to be spinning backwards.

The Talmud (Pesachim 50a) tells of a fascinating story where Rav Yosef, son of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, became sick and almost died. Upon returning to good health, his father said to him: What did you see when you were about to die? Rav Yosef answered: עולם הפוך ראיתי – I saw an upside-down world. Those who were considered important and prominent in this world were below, while those who were seemingly insignificant in this world were above! His father replied: My son, you have seen clearly.

From the idealistic perspective of the Next World – the world of truth – our world is one of illusions and misperceptions. That which is truthfully moving forward, we perceive as moving backwards. This wagon wheel effect serves as a great mashol for this idea of our faulty perception of the world around us. When a car is moving forward, humans mistakenly see the wheels as spinning backwards. When a person is moving forward, doing good things, growing, and accomplishing spiritual goals, it is human nature to perceive this person as moving backwards, strange, and outlandish.

But the truth of the matter is that the truth truly matters. We need not wait for the Next World to see clearly and perceive this world from a lens of אמת. Hashem created this physical world in the realm of אמת, as the Baal Haturim points out that the end-letters of בראשית ברא אלקים spells אמת, which teaches us that Hashem created the world באמת, with truth.

So yes, it is human nature to have illusions and misperceptions about the world and what is truthfully important and holy. But Hashem created us in a way that we can rise above our own instinctive human nature. Hashem created אמת here on this world, and as such, we can experience life from a state of אמת and see spiritual success as above and on top.

The next time we view a spiritual accomplishment in a negative way, let us remind ourselves to change our perception from one of physical, mundane and illusional to one of spiritual, holy, and truthful.