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Parashat Yitro 5782 — 01/22/2022

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.

Shemot 18:1-20:23
A few weeks ago I wrote about a beautiful interpretation of a Talmudic dispute about a verse in parashat Shemot: And Moshe hid his face, for he was afraid to look at Gd. The dispute (Berachot 7b) centers around whether Moshe is to be praised for his humility in forbearing to approach the Divine too closely, or criticized for not seeking to get closer to Gd when he had the chance. Rav Kook relates this dispute to a deeper question – what is human perfection and how is it achieved.

On the side of praise of Moshe is the notion that man’s purpose on earth is to refine his middot, character traits. Humility is the most important character trait we can have – it is the basis of harmonious relations with others, with the environment and with Gd. In fact, the Midrash tells us that Gd declares, “There is no room for both Me and the proud man in the world.” When we pray in the Amidah, Do not send us away empty from before You, it implies that we should come into the prayer “empty.” If we come full of ourselves, Gd figures we’re OK as is and sends us out the same as we came in. If we come in truly empty, Gd can fill us with His Divine Grace. Rav Kook associates this approach with the author of Duties of the Heart (Chovot haLevavot, by R. Bachya ibn Paquda (11th century).

On the other side there is the perspective that a human being’s highest gift is the intellect, and the highest state one can reach is one where one has perfect intellectual apprehension of Gd – that is, we know Gd as perfectly as we can. In such a case, humility is irrelevant, and can even get in the way of a true apprehension if it causes us to back away from where speculation may lead us. Rav Kook, quite naturally, associates this approach with Rambam.

Rambam himself, in Chapter 5 of Part 1 of the Guide, seems not to be 100% behind the “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” approach. Here is what he writes:

In the same way we say that man should not hasten too much to accede to this great and sublime matter at the first try, without having made his soul undergo training in the sciences and the different kinds of knowledge, having truly improved his character, and having extinguished the desires and cravings engendered in him by his imagination. When, however, he has achieved and acquired knowledge of true and certain premises and has achieved knowledge of the rules of logic and inference and of the various ways of preserving himself from errors of the mind, he then should engage in the investigation of this subject. When doing this he should not make categoric affirmations in favor of the first opinion that occurs to him and should not, from the outset, strain and impel his thoughts toward the apprehension of the deity; he rather should feel awe and refrain and hold back until he gradually elevates himself. It is in this sense that it is said, And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon Gd, this being an additional meaning of the verse over and above its external meaning that indicates that he hid his face because of his being afraid to look upon the light manifesting itself – and not that the deity, who is greatly exalted above every deficiency, can be apprehended by the eyes. [Moses], peace be on him, was commended for this; and Gd, may He be exalted, let overflow upon him so much of His bounty and goodness that it became necessary to say of him: And the figure of the Lord shall he look upon. The Sages, may their memory be blessed, have stated that this is a reward for his having at first hidden his face so as not to look upon Gd.

It seems that Rambam’s approach is nuanced here. Certainly, as Rav Kook says, he holds that intellectual apprehension of Gd is a human being’s highest aim. However, he also holds like the Indian proverb, “First deserve, then desire.” It is impossible to leap from an ordinary way of thinking directly into a state of divine wisdom. Just as in any other endeavor, one must be prepared for the challenges one will face along the way. Therefore, the mind must first be prepared to apprehend Gd.

Rambam details this preparation: “When, however, he has achieved and acquired knowledge of true and certain premises and has achieved knowledge of the rules of logic and inference and of the various ways of preserving himself from errors of the mind, he then should engage in the investigation of this subject.” Since we are talking about intellectual understanding here, then clearly the preparation that is necessary is going to be intellectual preparation – logic to deduce consequences from premises, and a knowledge of premises that are “true and certain.” How one arrives at a set of axioms that are “true and certain” is another question, and one that is probably beyond the realm of logic, as Gödel’s Theorem indicates.

True apprehension of Gd, according to Vedic knowledge, is primarily experiential. This experience is partly perceptual, as we purify and refine our organs of perception to perceive the finest level of creation – the first murmurings of absolute, unchanging Pure Consciousness as it begins to manifest itself. It is also experienced on the level of consciousness itself, first when we experience Pure Consciousness as the all-time reality of our Self in Cosmic Consciousness, and more fully when we recognize the same unbounded Pure Consciousness as the nature of every object of perception. When we perceive the entire cosmos as nothing other than Pure Consciousness both our perception and our intellect are involved – we experience Wholeness as the only thing that is truly real, and we understand as well the mechanics by which this Wholeness rises in waves to create the world we perceive around us. This is the highest level of human apprehension of Gd.

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Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Yitro

Yitro, the name of Moses’ father-in-law, means “abundance, plenty.”  Supremely Abundant and Plentiful is Gd so this parshah’s name suggests that even as human beings we can rise to the level of Oneness with Gd, the level of Oneness in which the duality between Gd and us exists as a play, some fun in which our individualities learn to play better and better with the Gd, the Supreme Player.

Yitro was priest of the Midianites – Midian was a son of Abraham and Keturah and his name is commonly translated as “strife, contention,” What kind parents would give their son such a name? Just as“Yisroel” (Israel) is usually translated as “wrestled with Gd” or “prevailed over Gd” and yet it is better to translate it as “embraced Gd,” “united with Gd” so it is better to translate “Midian” as “evaluate, judge, play.”

This meaning is especially apt because in this parshah Yitro, hearing the news of Gd’s triumph over Egypt (Mitzraim, “Restrictions”) evaluates this victory, declares that the Gd of Israel is Supreme, and begins to worship Him and also apt because, using his evaluating ability, he recommends to Moses that he not act as judge in all cases brought to him but that he appoint a hierarchy of judges who can evaluate the less complicated cases and only those which require the full attention of Moses’ Consciousness, need be brought to him. Then Moses, when a case is brought to him can fully “make known Gd’s statutes and teachings.”

This sets up the central portion of Torah, the Divine Situation in which Gd Himself makes known His Primary Teachings and not only Moses but all our ancestors get a view of Gd and hear His Voice.

This Blessing is something Gd has prepared Moses for but the other Children of Israel He has not yet fully prepared and so they are frightened and say to Moses (paraphrasing) “You listen to Gd and tell us what He says; if we hear Gd directly, we will die.”

They say this after Gd appears to them as Fire, and they hear His Voice as He gives out the fundamental principles of our faith (actually, of any moral life) what are commonly called the “Ten Commandments” but which literally mean “the ten words” or “the ten sayings.” And, though they are guides to Holy Living, they are most importantly descriptions of qualities of Fully Enlightened people.

Moses responds” “Fear not for Gd has come to exalt you in order that His Awe shall be on your faces and you shall not sin.”

Nonetheless, the people remain away from the mountain, as Gd commanded, while Moses approaches Gd and Gd tell Moses what further to say to His people.

Since the purpose of life is to return to the Primordial Oneness in which the separation between individual and Gd does not exist, we must find some way that we can experience Gd without being afraid and then to dissolve the separation – to not stand in the way when Gd dissolves the separation – between us.

The Ten Sayings can be looked at as descriptions of how we live when we are in harmony with Gd and when Oneness dominates in our awareness; they can also be looked at as guides to behavior so that we rise to the level in which the Harmony is Full and the separation dissolves, both from our side and from Gd’s.

This is the level when all our behavior is fully an expression of Oneness and even though we appear to each other’s senses as limited individuals, with limited physiologies, in reality we are Totality, All-in-All, Oneness behaving as finite individuals while remaining All.

Just our simple, innocent, decent lives raise us in this direction, return us little by little and in a way, a lot by a lot, to Love, Joy, Wholeness, Oneness.

Our prayer books (siddurs), Torah, words of the wise (Kabbalah), weekly services, special holidays all add extra delight, comfort and speed to this Restoration.

Let’s continue!

Baruch HaShem