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Parashat vaEtchanan 5772 – 08/01/2012

Parashat VaEtchanan


Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I am coming to you in the thickness of the cloud, in order that the people hear when I speak to you, and they will also believe in you forever.” (Ex 19:9)

Has it happened that a whole nation heard Gd’s voice speaking from within the fire, as you heard and are still alive? (4:33)

Today we have seen that Gd may speak with a human being and he will still live (5:21)

Consequently when Gd wished to give the Torah to His People, Israel, He gave it to them before the eyes of 600,000 adult men besides many women and children, so that they would all be credible witnesses to the event.  Furthermore, in order that the testimony be stronger and more credible, they all attained the privileged status of prophecy, because that which becomes known through one’s own prophecy can never fall into doubt.  And this is the meaning of, “so that the people will hear as I speak to you [i.e. to Moses], and they will also believe in you forever.” … for they will then know with reliable knowledge that Gd will speak with a person and he can live, and that your entire prophecy is true. (Sefer haChinuch [13th Cent.], Introduction)

Va’etchanan addresses the fundamental epistemological issue in dealing with religious faith – how do we ascertain the truth of religious teachings?  Jewish tradition appears to give two answers: (i) Gd revealed Himself to the entire nation at Mt. Sinai, thus creating a community of witnesses who could corroborate at least the basic elements of our doctrine (in the words of our Sages, the entire people heard and comprehended the first two of the 10 “commandments” directly from Gd, they heard the other 8 from Gd but required clarification from Moses, and the rest Moses heard from Gd and transmitted to the people) and (ii) knowledge is gained through personal experience.  The first is actually reminiscent of the methodology of modern science, while the second is what we often call “mystical” knowledge.  I’d like to suggest that perhaps, at least when we’re dealing with knowledge of the Divine, there is a convergence between these often opposing approaches.

Modern science as we know has at its core repeatable experiment.  The word experiment comes from a Latin root that means “experience,” and when I was in Israel I often heard the two words confused (I believe the same modern Hebrew word is used for both, not unreasonably given the fact that both English words have a common root).  A scientific theory has to withstand the test of experience, even if the experience is not that of ordinary, unaided human sensation (see large hadron collider ).  Furthermore, as you may have seen in the popular press’ coverage of the “faster-than-light neutrino,” the experiment has to be repeatable.  If someone else does the experiment and gets a different result, then either the two situations must be shown to have had differences in setup that account for the different results, or else one of them is wrong (in this case the finding that neutrinos could travel faster than light, in opposition to many other long-established results, was shown to be due to a glitch in the sensors detecting them).  But “repeatable experiment” can well be rendered “experience shared by a community.”  Of course a repeatable experiment is something that can be “experienced” at any time (provided we have the requisite equipment to do the experiment!).  To take a simple example, we all experience that the sun appears to rise in the East every morning, and to set in the West.  Thus the statement of shared belief that “the sun always rises in the East” is based on shared experience among those who are able to get up early enough to have that experience.

When we come to the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, we have the element of shared experience to be sure, but the experiment is hardly “repeatable” in the scientific sense.  Gd vouchsafed us as a nation a one-time experience, with the stated intent that its shared nature be a guarantee that future generations will continue to believe in the principles and commandments taught at that time, and by Moshe Rabbeinu in general.  Ramban explains:

For when we also transmit the matter to our children, they will know that the matter is true without doubt, as if they – all generations – saw it themselves.  For we would not give false testimony to our children, nor would we bequeath to them words that are “worthless foolishness,” [cf. Jer 16:19] and they will not doubt our testimony that we tell them at all, but will believe with certainty that all of us saw with our own eyes what we related to them.

For better or worse, our generation gives us a hint of the limitations of this approach.  Had the Jewish people continued to live in the Land of Israel, quietly farming, celebrating the holidays, worshiping at our holy Temple, having children and teaching students year after year, in an unbroken chain of transmission (“chain of custody” for you Law and Order buffs), then perhaps this chain of testimony idea would be perfectly clear.  In fact, Gd has seen fit to challenge the Jewish people with a series of tests that have driven us to virtually every part of the globe, into every society, under all kinds of physical conditions, the majority of them ranging from pretty bad to impossible.  Under such circumstances, many Jews never were part of this chain of transmission – the link had been broken, in some cases, some generations before (in my case, between my great-grandfather and my grandfather).  In such cases, each “broken link” has to be repaired by the individual involved.  This can only be done on the basis of personal experience.

The Sefer haChinuch thus says, Furthermore, in order that the testimony be stronger and more credible, they all attained the privileged status of prophecy, because that which becomes known through one’s own prophecy can never fall into doubt.  In other words, “hearing” Gd speak has an external, objective aspect to it – the thunder and the lightning, the fire and deep darkness on the top of Mt. Sinai, but it also has an internal, subjective aspect.  This internal aspect involves direct perception of the Divine.  In some cases this perception is wholly internal, on the level of our individual mind.  Our mind expands more and more, eventually identifying with its infinite basis.  At this point we perceive ourselves as completely silent and unchanging, while all the activity of the world, including our own bodies and our own thought processes, as if go on by themselves.  We simply witness this activity from our perch in infinity.  We know that we are infinite, for it is our direct, constant experience on the level of our minds.

With further development, we begin to perceive subtler and subtler levels of the objects of perception until eventually we evaluate everything in our environment as made up essentially of the same infinite “stuff” that we ourselves are made of.  This is direct perception of the Divine nature of every form and phenomenon in creation, and since it is a direct perception, it does not have to be explained or defended.  It is pure knowledge.

I believe that Moshe Rabbeinu must have had this level of knowledge; he spoke and taught with the authority of one who knows directly, not simply one who has read something in a book (or on two tablets) and is transmitting it.  It appears from his exhortations throughout the Book of Deuteronomy that he expected us all to rise to that level, although he also sees, to his chagrin, that we would fail to do so, with the consequences we read about in the later prophets.  But if he had this expectation, and he certainly knew that his nation was not yet at that level, then it follows that he must have brought a technique or a series of techniques, to take the people from where they were to where they needed to be.  Whether those techniques have been lost, or misinterpreted or are in the hands of a select few initiates I don’t know.  The state of the world is such that we desperately need to restore our connection with the Divine.  Our Sages tell us that Mashiach will only come to a generation that is either completely righteous or completely wicked.  Let us hope we will see Mashiach soon, and for the former reason!


Pirke Avot, Chapter 3

Mishnah 1

Akavya ben Mahalalel says:

Consider three things and you will not come into the hands of sin:

Know where you came from, where you are going, and before Whom you will have to give a judgment and reckoning.

R. Lau points out, following Midrash Shmuel, that this part of the Mishnah is speaking about the individual soul.  Where does it come from?  It is carved out from under the throne of glory and breathed out from Gd Himself; it is, as it were, a part of Gd.  The soul, being life, lives forever.  Where is it going? Your soul’s destination after it has ginished its role on earth is the eternal world of souls.  Finally, when it arrives at its destination, it will have to give an accounting to Gd for what it did when it was housed in the body – that is, how it acted in the world of action.  The soul is a bit of the infinite, which sojourns for some time in the realm of the finite, where it has the job of uplifting the finite to its own infinite value, before returning to its infinite source.  If it has succeeded in its mission well and good.  Performing our mission should be our sole focus in life, waking or sleeping, working or playing, studying or teaching.