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Pesach — First Day 5782 — 04/16/2022

Pesach — First Day 5782 — 04/16/2022

Beginning with Bereishit 5781 (17 October 2020) we embarked on a new format. We will be considering Rambam’s (Maimonides’) great philosophical work Moreh Nevukim (Guide for the Perplexed) in the light of the knowledge of Vedic Science as expounded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The individual essays will therefore not necessarily have anything to do with the weekly Torah portion, although certainly there will be plenty of references to the Torah, the rest of the Bible, and to the Rabbinic literature. For Bereishit we described the project. The next four parshiyyot, Noach through Chayei Sarah, laid out a foundational understanding of Vedic Science, to the degree I am capable of doing so. Beginning with Toledot we started examining Moreh Nevukim.

Rambam now turns to two words that are related to maqom / place – more precisely, to change in place. They are to descend [yarod] and to ascend [‘aloh]. The surface values of these words could apply to a ladder or a ramp or a mountain. We seem to have an instinct that “higher” is better in some way. We always strive to go “higher,” to “get to the top.” The view is most expansive from the top of the mountain, so perhaps that is why. We talk about “higher states of consciousness” because our vision is more expanded.

On the other hand, the reverse is sometimes true as well. The “depths” are more profound than the superficial. We speak of pure Being as underlying manifest creation. These metaphors generally take the ocean as the frame of reference – the deeper you go, say in meditation, the better. We don’t want to be superficial people after all. Since our national story as Jews is more oriented to the surface and above, up to the heavens, and less to the oceans, it is not surprising that the former metaphors dominate in Jewish thought.

Here is what Rambam says:

… the terms to descend [yarod] and to ascend [‘aloh].
   The two terms descending and ascending have been given in the Hebrew language the respective meaning of descent and ascent [RAR: Again, Rambam translates the Hebrew terms into their Arabic equivalents] Accordingly when a body moves from a certain place to a lower place, it is said to descend; and when it moves from a certain place to a higher place than the place in which it was, it is said to ascend.
   Subsequently these two terms were used figuratively to denote sublimity and greatness; so that when an individual’s rank was lowered, he was said to have descended; when, on the other hand, his rank became higher in respect of sublimity, he was said to have ascended. Thus Gd, may He be exalted, says: The stranger that is in the midst of thee shall ascend above thee higher and higher, and thou shalt descend, and so on. The text also says: The Lord thy Gd will set thee in ascendancy above all the nations of the earth. And it says: And the Lord magnified Solomon in ascendancy. You know also how often the Sages use the expression: With regard to what is holy, men may be made to ascend, but not to descend.
Similarly, the term [to descend] is also used to denote a lower state of speculation; when a man directs his thought toward a very mean object, he is said to have descended; and similarly, when he directs his thought toward an exalted and sublime object, he is said to have ascended.
   Now we, the community of men, are, in regard to place as well as degree of existence, in a most lowly position if we are compared to the all-encompassing heavenly sphere; whereas He, may He be exalted, is in respect of true existence, sublimity, and greatness in the very highest position – an elevation that is not a spatial one. And as He, may He be exalted, wished – as He did – to let some of us have knowledge deriving from Him and an overflow of prophetic inspiration, the alighting of the prophetic inspiration upon the prophet or the coming-down of the lndwelling to a certain place was termed descent; whereas the removal of this prophetic state from a particular individual or the cessation of the Indwelling in a place was termed ascent. In every case in which you find the terms descent and ascent applied to the Creator, may He be exalted, this last meaning is intended.
   Another similar case is that of a calamity befalling a people or a terrestrial zone in accordance with His pre-eternal will. With regard to this the prophetic books begin by stating, before describing the affliction, that He visited the action of these people and after that made their punishment come down upon them. This notion too is expressed by means of the term descent; the reason being that man is too insignificant to have his actions visited and to be punished for them, were it not for the pre-eternal will. This has been made clear in the books of prophecy, where it is said: What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son if man that Thou shouldst visit him, and so on. For this verse refers to this notion. It is for this reason that this is called descent. Thus, Scripture says: Come, let us descend, and there confound their language. … In all these verses the notion is that of punishment befalling people of low condition. As for the first meaning – I mean that which refers to prophetic inspiration and to ennobling – it is frequent. Thus: And I will descend and speak with thee; …And Gd ascended from Abraham. When, on the other hand, Scripture says, And Moses ascended to Gd, the third meaning of the term [to ascend] is meant; this, in addition to the fact that [Moses] ascended to the top of the mountain upon which the created light had descended. The verse does not mean that Gd, may He be exalted, has a place up to which one may ascend or from which one may descend; He is exalted very high above the imaginings of the ignorant.

The meanings that Rambam seems to hold most significant are:

  1. The literal meaning – going up or down physically
  2. The figurative meaning – going up or down in spiritual stature
  3. The prophetic meaning – Gd’s Indwelling (Shechinah) comes down on the prophet
  4. The Divine meaning – Gd, as it were, “comes down” to earth to reveal Himself or to otherwise act in the world.

Ascent and descent add a new feature to place. Generally, spaces have some way of measuring the distance between two points in the space. This function is called a “metric.” The metric in 3-dimensional Euclidean space is given by the Pythagorean Theorem: the distance between two points = √ (Δx^2 + Δy^2 + Δz^2). On the surface of a sphere the metric is given by the distance between the two points along the great circle that connects them. In fact, if a space is curved differently in different places, the metric may be a function of the position in the space – this is how General Relativity works.

A metric only tells us how far apart two points are. If we want to talk about ascent and descent, we have to add the concept of order. There is an ordering of points in the space, with some ranked above and others ranked below. The ranking will usually be with respect to some standard. On earth, “higher (lower)” mean “a greater (lesser) distance from the center of the earth.” Such an ordering is possible in physical spaces because metrics reduce separations to numbers and numbers are intrinsically ordered. (One of the most basic concepts in the development of the number system is the notion of a “successor” – the concept that every whole number has a “next” whole number.)

This works well when we are talking about the literal meaning of ascent or descent. When we are talking about spiritual ascent or descent it is not quite as clear which way is up, so to speak. Rambam gives us a hint: when a man directs his thought toward a very mean object, he is said to have descended; and similarly, when he directs his thought toward an exalted and sublime object, he is said to have ascended. We know that in the natural world creation is structured in layers – there is the gross, material layer, and there are subtler and subtler layers as well, for example the molecular, atomic and nuclear levels. Similarly, during the TM practice, we experience that there are grosser and subtler levels of thought. Rambam appears to be equating the subtler, more abstract levels of thought, and comprehension of more abstract, subtler levels of reality, with higher spiritual value. Since the subtle and abstract are definitely broader and more comprehensive, this definition makes perfect sense.

Beyond the subtlest level of relative creation is Gd’s realm – the realm of the transcendent. The transcendent is beyond any comparison to anything in manifest creation. It is supreme, sublime, unbounded, eternal and blissful. Gd is above and beyond our imagination. It is natural then, when Gd wants to act in the world, or when human beings have the experience of Gd’s imparting knowledge, the movement on Gd’s part is down, and the movement on our part is up. The more transcendence we experience, the more we are elevated, both on the experiential level, and indeed on the level of body and behavior as well, as we have measured over the years when contact with the transcendent has become more common. The natural tendency of life is an ascent towards higher states of consciousness.

Chag kasher v’same’ach!