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Parashat Bo 5772 – 01/25/2012

Parashat Bo

Submitted by
Robert Rabinoff

And they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.  (13:16)

  Therefore, because a constant awareness of the principles of faith is the best bulwark against heretical thoughts, [the Sages] stated: Be as scrupulous in performing a minor commandment as in performing a major commandment (Avos 2:1), for all of them are in fact major and exceedingly beloved, [my bold] since through them a person is constantly acknowledging his Gd.  For the ultimate objective of all the commandments is that we should believe in our Gd and acknowledge to Him that He created us…

  And that is in fact the ultimate objective of the Creation itself, for we have no other explanation for the first creation, and the Most High has no desire for earthbound creatures except this, that man should know and acknowledge to his Gd that [Gd] created him.  And the purpose of raising one’s voice in the prayers, and the purpose of synagogues and the merit of communal prayer, is this: that people should have a place where they can gather and acknowledge to Gd that He created them and caused them to be, and where they can publicize this and declare before Him, “We are Your creationsl”…

  Through recalling and acknowledging the great, manifest miracles of the Exodus a person ultimately acknowledges the hidden, miracles of everyday life, which are the foundation of the entire Torah.  For a person has no share in the Torah of Moses our Teacher unless he believes that all our affairs and experiences are miracles, that there is no element of nature and “the ordinary course of the world in them at all, whether regarding the community or the individual.  Rather, if one observes the commandments his reward will bring him success, and if he transgress them his punishment will destroy him  all by the decree of the Most High, as I have already mentioned.  (Ramban ad loc, Artscroll translation)

One of the great beauties of Ramban’s commentary on Torah is he takes the opportunity to explicate the Jewish view of the fundamental questions of religion, and indeed, the fundamental questions of life.  There is no more fundamental question than “Why?” (as every two-year-old knows).  Why did Gd create the universe?  Why did he create human beings?  Why do human beings suffer, and perhaps more to the practical point, why do human beings cause other human beings to suffer, whether intentionally or unintentionally?  Science can attempt to answer the question “How?”  How did the human body evolve on earth?  How did the stars form?  How does the ecosystem function and how can we avoid shifting it to a different style of functioning that will be to our detriment?  But the question why we are here and what we should be doing with our lives is the realm of the spirit, immeasurable and therefore beyond the purview of science.


Ramban takes as his starting point the mitzvah of tefillin, which is the way we fulfill the command “you shall bind them as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.”  One of the four passages in the tefillin (there are the two in our Parashah; the other two are the first two paragraphs of the Sh’ma, which are found in Devarim / Deuteronomy) indicates the purpose of wearing tefillin – “so that Hashem’s Torah should be in your mouth” – that is, always with you.  That is, Torah is telling us that the ideal of life is one in which our awareness is constantly on Gd’s Word, and by extension, on Gd Himself, to the extent that we can have such an awareness.


In the passage I have quoted Ramban gives us an explanation of why this is the ideal of life and how we can get there.  Ramban states that the purpose of creation is that “we should believe in our Gd and acknowledge to Him that He created us…”  While we associate belief with blind faith, I think that to our Sages it meant something much more – it was a faith born of experience.  We can truly hold a belief only so long without corroborating experience, and while people have a tremendous ability to distort their perception of reality to match their preconceived notions, still, at some point reality does intrude.  So when Rambam says we need to have “correct opinions” about Gd, and when Ramban tells us that we need to “acknowledge Gd,” I think they are both saying that we need to have deep enough experience of Gd and His interaction with the world that we know that Gd exists and that He created the universe and that He takes personal charge of everything that goes on in the universe.


Why is this so important?  Ramban states that this was Gd’s desire in creating the universe “for we have no other explanation for the first formation, and the Most High has no desire for the lower worlds except this… .” [my translation].  Why then does Gd desire that human beings attain knowledge of Gd?  Certainly Gd has plenty of angels who know Him a lot better than we know Him, or ever will know Him!  I think that the answer may lie in the fact that human beings have free will.  It is not possible for an angel to not know Gd – the proximity is too close, perhaps we could say that Gd’s light is so strong and unobscured on the celestial planes that any falsehood would immediately be flushed out, and could not sustain itself.  In the lower worlds however, there is considerable hiding of Gd’s light – our tradition calls this hester panim / hiding of Gd’s Face.  In this situation, falsehood can flourish, particularly near election time, and one has enough freedom that one can, and must, choose whether or not to go for the truth or otherwise.  The more we go for the truth, the more we find it – that is, the closer we become to Gd, the Truth with a capital T.


Apparently it is in the return to Gd from the extreme distance of the lowest world that gives Gd the greatest pleasure, so to speak.  As Ramban points out, Gd has no need for any of creation.  Gd is infinite and beyond any limitation, beyond pleasure or pain.  Further, as our sages tell us, “Gd is the Place of the world, the world is not His place.”  Yet in some way, it appears, the distancing of the creation from Gd and its subsequent return, at least on the level of human awareness, completes the circle of creation, thus fulfilling Gd’s original plan.  We have no words to describe this level of reality; we can only give it the human term “pleasure.”


We have a bit of evidence that Ramban’s assessment of Gd’s “motives” is correct in the fact that Gd has given us a procedure to return to Him.  That procedure is called mitzvot, as Ramban points out.  One meaning of the root of the word mitzvah is “signpost.”  As Ramban describes, each mitzvah we perform is a signpost pointing our way back to Gd.  Whether the mitzvah is “major” or “minor,” it focuses our awareness on Gd.  Thus, since a Jew’s day is full of mitzvot, we are constantly training ourselves to be aware of Gd and to act in accordance with Gd’s Will.  This opens our mind and heart to Gd until gradually, in the fulness of time, we begin to have glimpses of His presence among us and His direction of our lives.  That is why, as Ramban says, all mitzvot are major.  Each one is a step in training ourselves and purifying every aspect of our personality, so that we can reflect Gd’s greatness most fully in our awareness.  Whether this gives Gd pleasure I certainly can’t say.  But it certainly is the most pleasurable way to live for us!