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Parashat 03/05/2010

Parashat Ki Tisa The Limits of Perception

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Our Sages recognize three dimensions of experience, summarized in the acronym Ashan (Ayin-Shin-Nun) which means “smoke” [as in the smoke of offerings or incense that rises].  They are Space (Olam = universe), time (Sha’ah = hour) and Soul (Nefesh) or the spiritual dimension.  All three of these dimensions have their effect on the prophetic experience, as we can learn from our Parashah.

Let us consider first the dimension of space.  One name used for Gd in Rabbinic literature is haMakom – “the Place.”  This is because Gd is the “place” in which the universe exists; the universe does not contain Gd.  Therefore Gd is present in every bit of space, and on every level of existence.  That being said, there are places where Gd’s Presence is more manifest to us.  Examples in our day may include places of worship or shrines of historical importance.  Wherever people are putting their attention on connecting to the infinite, the infinite has an opportunity to peek out from behind the curtain of materiality that cloaks it.  Conversely, a place that is used continually for purposes of holiness gains the ability to enable and enhance peoples’ ability to connect with Gd.  In our Parashah Moshe has a clearer vision of Gd on Mt. Sinai, where Gd rested His Presence, than he did in the camp (for example).  This is why Gd has him come up to Mt. Sinai to begin with.  The upshot of this consideration is that holy places should be kept holy!  If possible, it is best to have a fixed place where one prays or meditates, and where other activities are avoided (especially those that bind one to materiality).

Just as in physics, time is subtler than space, so here our consideration is subtler.  Certain times are holier than others; for example Shabbat is a holier time than the workdays, and holidays are holier times than non-holidays.  Our Sages express this by noting that on Shabbat we are (temporarily) endowed with an “extra soul.”  That is, our spiritual sensitivity is enhanced during this time.  As in the case with space, there is a self-referential effect.  If we honor Shabbat and dedicate our activities on that day to spiritual pursuits, we create holiness in time, which allows those spiritual pursuits to be effective.  If we treat it as any other day, it loses its effectiveness for us, and we don’t gain the advantage that it can offer.  In the same way, it is advantageous to get in the habit of praying at the same time every day.

In our Parashah we find another kind of holiness in time.  After pleading, successfully, with Gd to forgive the nation, Moshe began to ask Gd for deeper understanding and perception.  Rashi comments to verse 33:12 that “Moshe saw that this was a moment of acceptance (et ratzon) and that his words were received well [by Gd], so he began to ask [Gd] to show him His Glory.”  I have always been struck by the fact that after the egregious sin of the golden calf, it appears that our relationship with Gd became closer than it was before.  Perhaps this is the power of t’shuvah (repentance), as our Sages tell us:  Where the penitent stands, one who has never sinned cannot stand.  In any event, the nation’s t’shuvah created a special moment in time, which Moshe Rabbeinu was able to sense, and to use to his, and our, advantage to draw closer to Gd.

Finally we come to nefesh, soul.  It is clear that the state of the individual’s soul, that is, his or her level of spiritual development, will determine the quality of that person’s spiritual experience.  What is less obvious is that the level of one’s community can also have an effect.  Thus for example, the Talmud (Bava Batra 134a) tells us that Hillel had 80 disciples, 30 of whom were worthy of having the Shechinah (Gd’s Presence) rest on them as it did on Moshe Rabbeinu.  Rashbam comments that this didn’t actually happen because the generation was unworthy.  In the same vein, in our Parashah, after Gd informs Moshe that the nation has sinned, He tells him “Go, get down [from the mountain]” and our Sages fill in the conversation by having Gd say “I gave you greatness only for the sake of Israel; now that they have fallen, what do I need you for?!”  In other words, originally the exalted spiritual level of the nation supported Moshe Rabbeinu’s perception and communication with Gd.  When they sinned and fell, he fell with them, as his support had collapsed.  When they did t’shuvah it catalyzed a return of the closeness between Gd and Moshe Rabbeinu, which was needed for his continued leadership and our continued progress toward the Land of Israel and a life of spiritual growth.

There is one more limitation to our perception.  We are human beings, finite creatures, just like all the other creatures that Gd has made.  Since we are finite there is an inherent limitation to what we can grasp.  Even the most enlightened person’s perceptions will not be as full as Gd’s perception.  Torah expresses this in verse 33:20 – “You cannot see My face, for no human being can see Me and live.”  In other words, Gd’s essence is too profound for any creature to grasp, and this is a limitation that cannot be overcome.  It is built into the very nature of creature-hood.

Our tradition gives us the means to create and utilize space, time and soul/community to bring to fulfillment both our individual lives and creation as a whole.  We can live an ideal life, taking delight in Gd’s creation and giving Gd delight in us.  We can transcend at least the first three limitations and come into a close and loving relationship with Gd.  We just have to take the first steps, and then Gd will be more than happy to help us along.