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Parashat 02/05/2010

Parashat Yitro 5770

Knowledge is Structured in Consciousness

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Parashat Yitro is arguably the climax of the entire Exodus; in fact, it is the climax of creation, as our Sages tell us, had Israel not accepted the Torah from Gd, the universe would have been returned to primordial Nothingness (Tohu vaVohu).  The ultimate purpose of creation according to our tradition is universal recognition of Gd’s existence and sovereignty over the universe, and the Revelation at Mt. Sinai was, and is, the most exalted mechanism by which this purpose can be fulfilled.

We have been discussing over the last few Parshiyot that the Egyptian exile and redemption from it was a rectification of Avraham our Forefather’s slight lack of faith.  Through the exile and through the process of the plagues in Egypt and the splitting of the Sea, the nascent nation of Israel learns to have faith and trust in Gd, a faith that is based on experience.  However, in reality, Gd’s plan calls for something greater – not so much faith in Gd as knowledge of Gd.  In fact, throughout the experience of the plagues in Egypt, Gd continually states that the purpose of the plagues was the either the Israelites or the Egyptians, or both, would “know that I am Gd.”  Similarly, Gd tells Moshe that He would descend to Mt. Sinai so the people would hear Gd speaking to Moshe, so that they would believe in him [i.e. in his prophecy] forever – a belief based in clear knowledge based on direct experience.  In truth, the greatest rectification to lack of faith is certain knowledge based on experience.

As one might imagine, there are numerous traditions surrounding the 10 “commandments” given at Mt. Sinai.  (The actual term in Hebrew is Aseret haDibrot or “the ten utterances” – harking back to the 10 utterances with which the universe was created.)  One tradition of especial note is that the first two “commandments” were heard by the entire people from Gd directly, and the rest were heard from Moshe Rabbeinu.  (This is derived partly from the text – the people acknowledge that the experience of hearing Gd directly is beyond their capability and ask Moshe to be an intermediary, and partly from the fact that the numerical value [gematria] of the word Torah is 611; since there are 613 mitzvot in Torah the two extra must have come from Gd directly, and not Moshe, and these two are identified as the first two of the Aseret haDibrot.)

There is a dispute about the first “commandment” – whether or not it is a commandment at all.  The text reads: I am H” your Gd who took you out of the Land of Egypt, the house of bondage. This appears to be more of a statement than a commandment; those who do take it as a commandment assert that it is a commandment to believe in the existence and unity of Gd.  Those who dispute this position argue that before you can have a commandment, you must acknowledge the existence and superiority of One Who commands; hence implicit in any one of the commandments is belief in Gd; this belief does not have to be explicitly mandated.  In fact however, one could argue that the commandment is not to believe in Gd, but to come to know Gd, to the extent humanly possible.  In other words, the first thing that Gd spoke directly to the nation of Israel was that they should come into as close a relationship as possible with Gd.

Now one would think that it is impossible for a finite creature to come into a relationship with the infinite Creator, and indeed on the level of logic that might be so.  But consider Malbim’s approach in his comment to our verse (Shemot 20:2) (my italics):

This [knowledge of Gd] is innate in man’s intelligence (b’sichlo) – H” implanted in man’s intelligence from birth, from the womb, this knowledge. The soul brings with it from the place from which it is hewn, that there is a unitary, divine existence.  So anyone who looks around with the eye of intellect into the houses of his soul, will find [this] knowledge buried there — in the soul of every person, and in the roots of all souls, like the original knowledge (sichlut harishon).  And we didn’t need to receive it from Moshe through the medium of faith … and therefore this commandment was given to us directly by Gd [i.e. not through Moshe Rabbeinu like the 611 other commandments in the Torah – RAR].

What I believe Malbim is saying here is that innately structured in the consciousness of each individual is knowledge of the infinite, and that by turning within ourselves we will discover it there.  It is open to direct experience by anyone, and does not require any intermediary.  It is “original knowledge,” that is knowledge that is part of the very fabric of creation and part of the fabric of our individual consciousness.  It merely requires that we search within ourselves to uncover it.

In this approach, the Revelation at Mt. Sinai begins with both a commandment and a reassurance – the commandment to know Gd, and the reassurance that this knowledge is possible.  Gd created the entire Creation for the purpose of reflecting His glory, and at Sinai he conveyed to us the knowledge and the experience, albeit fleeting, of being perfect reflectors, through whom the purpose of Creation is fulfilled.  The rest of the story is now up to us!