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Parashat 11/30/2011

Parashat VaYetze
Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

And behold! A ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached the Heavens.  And behold! Angels of Gd were ascending and descending on it.  (28:12)

Two years ago we discussed the fact that this ladder was “tilted” a bit, due to the fact that Ya’akov had to return from Charan to Jerusalem to pray on what would become the Temple Mount.  This tilting means that the Heavenly Jerusalem was no longer properly “aligned” above the earthly Jerusalem, weakening its heavenly protection and eventually leading to its fall.


What do our Sages mean when they talk about “heavenly Jerusalem”?  I’m not nearly on their level, so I truly don’t know.  I do know some Physics however, so I can give what I hope will be an accurate analogy.  We know from Physics that creation is structured in layers.  These layers range from gross and concrete to subtle and abstract.  On the surface we have all the concrete forms and phenomena that our unaided senses convey to our awareness – the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees and the moon up above, etc.  We understand from experiments that all these forms and phenomena are made up of thousands of different types of molecules (there are intermediate layers of course, especially when we are discussing biological phenomena), the molecules are made up of about 100 different types of atoms, and the atoms are made of up a couple of dozen “fundamental” particles – electrons, quarks, gluons.  Deeper than the layer of the fundamental particles is the layer of fields – in fact, all the subatomic particles we know of are actually manifestations of underlying, abstract fields.


It has been the fervent hope of physicists since Einstein and the early developers of quantum mechanics, that ultimately all particles could be described in terms of one unified field; all the fields of which we are now aware would themselves be manifestations of this one underlying field.  That is, if the unified field behaves in one way, it is “perceived” (through experimentation) as one kind of particle/field, and if that same unified field adopts a different mode of behavior it is “perceived” as a different kind of particle.


The point I want to emphasize here is that all these different “layers” of creation in fact interpenetrate one another.  It is not the case that the surface level is “up here” and the putative unified field level is “down there.”  The unified field, assuming it exists, is right here, right now, vibrating in whatever way it has to in order to give the appearance of a lighted screen and a keyboard in front of me, and a computer at my feet, and nerve impulses giving me information and making my mind think and my body move so that in a few months you will read these words.


The different “layers” of creation are not really different at all.    Rather they are simply different descriptions of the same phenomena, viewed from different perspectives of length, time or energy.  (This might be clearer if we take a somewhat less ethereal example – objects are made of molecules and molecules of atoms, yet obviously the objects and their molecules and their atoms all coexist very nicely in the same place and time!)  One might say that these “layers” are the creations of human consciousness, for it is only when we take a specific perspective that they exist.  Nature itself simply behaves as it does, apparently irrespective of our taking notice of that behavior, or our trying to describe it.


Our tradition tells us that just as physical nature appears to have this layered structure, so does spiritual nature.  Our esoteric tradition describes four “worlds” – the world of physical phenomena (Asiyah from the root meaning “to make” or “to do”), the world of forms (Yetzirah from the root meaning “to form”), the world of ideas (Beriyah from the root meaning “to create”) and the world of the transcendent (Atzilut meaning closeness, i.e. to Gd, the ultimate Transcendent Being).  I think it is clear from the above discussion that these four worlds and all the layers within are not stacked like stacking trays at a furniture store, nor even like Ukrainian nesting dolls.  Rather the Transcendent (Atzilut) is present in every form and phenomenon that exists, as are all the other “worlds.”


When we want to speak about the structure of creation we may, for purposes of conceptualization, describe layers, but the ultimate reality is that there is just the transcendent, behaving within itself, that we perceive as a layered structure.  But it appears that these layers are a function of our finite, human perception, not of the ultimate nature of reality.  Thus it seems that even great men like Avraham and Ya’akov perceive nature as layered:  Ya’akov as in our opening quote, sees a ladder connecting earth (surface layer) and heaven (transcendental layer), and there is an apparent distance between them.  When Avraham is going to the Akeidah, on the third day he lifts up his eyes and saw the Place at a distance.  Here the plain meaning of “the place” is the mountain on which the Akeidah will take place, but our Sages also interpret it as haMakom, an appellation of Gd’s having the meaning the Omnipresent (the One Who is in all places, or, Who is the Place of the world, the world is not His place).  Thus Avraham too apparently perceives the transcendent as separate from the manifest creation.


Now to return to the “heavenly Jerusalem.”  I am writing this just a few weeks after Tisha B’Av.  During minchah of Tisha B’Av we say a special prayer asking Gd to comfort us for the loss of the Temples during the b’rachah for the rebuilding of Jerusalem.  As I was reciting this prayer and contemplating the state of Jerusalem, it flashed on me that in fact the “heavenly Jerusalem” for which we all long was not distant from us – it is right here, right now.  So why don’t we see it, and why is it not manifest on the material level?


The traditional answer is “because of our sins we have been exiled from our Land and distanced from our soil.” (Artscroll translation from the Festival Mussaf prayers.)  Our sins are those actions which cloud our perception, which limit us to seeing only that which is “distant” from the ultimate, transcendental reality.  Our Sages tell us that any generation in which the Temple is not built is held as accountable for its absence as the generation in which it was destroyed.  Perhaps what they mean is that the same sins that eventually obscured our perception of the “heavenly” Temple, thus causing its “earthly” counterpart to be destroyed, are still clouding our perceptions and preventing its full manifestation.  With Gd’s help we must all take ourselves in hand and work to purify ourselves of the sin and impurity we have imbibed in our long exile.  We must clean the windows of our perception, so that Gd’s transcendent existence may become a continual perception of ours.  On that day Gd will be One and His Name will be One.