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Parashat 12/21/2011

Parashat Miketz 5772

In loving memory of Stephen Smallow

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

That is beyond me.  Gd will answer to Pharaoh’s welfare (41:16)

Since Gd has informed you of all this, there can be no one as discerning and wise as you (41:39)

Ya’akov saw that there was food in Egypt.  (42:1)

It means as if he saw in a holy mirror [i.e. prophetic perception] (Rashi ibid.)

Dreams are 1/60th part of prophecy (Talmud)


When we are dealing with Torah, we are dealing with a profound level of knowledge – the knowledge of the inner workings of creation from its infinite source to all its varied surface manifestations.  This knowledge had to be revealed to us by Gd, through the most exalted of the prophets – Moshe Rabbeinu.  It is not something that is accessible to those who are not prepared to receive it, and it is not the kind of knowledge that is available strictly through intellectual striving.  I’d like to consider why this should be the case.


Modern Western civilization is built upon science and technology.  Science is based on the process of measurement, be it simple measurements of distance and time, or extremely complex measurement of elementary particles made in huge particle accelerators.  Now the process of measurement is the process of comparing some property of the object or phenomenon under consideration with a standard.  For example, when we weigh something, we are comparing the force of gravity on that thing with the force of gravity on a standard piece of material (a cylindrical piece of platinum-iridium alloy, about the size of a golf ball) that sits in a vault at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Sèvres, France.  When we measure length we are comparing the distance between the two endpoints with another standard, in this case the distance traveled by light in 1 / 299,792,458 sec.  Until 1960 a somewhat more intuitive, but less precise standard was used, viz. the distance between two marks on a platinum-iridium bar, which was probably also kept in Sèvres.  Incidentally, from the late 1800’s the standard meter came to be based on the wavelength of a specific emission line of a certain specific atom kept at a standard temperature and pressure.  This method was devised by Albert A. Michelson, who proved that the speed of light in a vacuum is a constant.  He was the first American to receive a Nobel Prize in the sciences (1907).  He was also Jewish. (see


The point of this discussion is that by comparing an object with a standard, the process of measurement is intrinsically limited to the finite.  There is no comparison of anything to the infinite, as the Israelites sang after crossing the Sea: mi kamocha ba’elim H”?!  Who is like You H”?  And we sing the answer at the end of Shacharit on Shabbat and Festivals: Ayn kelokeinuThere is none like our Gd!  (I should point out that in mathematics there are an infinite number of different infinities, some larger than others, and there are different infinite sets that can have the same size.  Since the process of creating larger infinities can be carried out ad infinitum I would conclude that the Infinity we approach in prayer is bigger than anything mathematics can come up with.)


The other part of the scientific method is to link the measurements together to create a model of the system under study.  These models are mathematical in nature; that is they are structures of human awareness that somehow map onto our perceptions (taking measurement as an extension of perception) of the external world.  In any event, creating these maps is, in one sense, an intellectual pursuit.


Now the intellect is that faculty of our mind that makes distinctions.  The Hebrew word for intellect is binah which comes from the root meaning between.  The intellect decides between A and B, which means that there must be a difference between A and B, and as long as there are differences, we are dealing with the world of the finite.  In order to grasp the infinite, it is necessary to transcend the limits of the intellect; perhaps this is why Zen Buddhism uses conundrums (koans) like “what is the sound of one hand clapping” to lead the student past the intellect and into the infinite.  In our own tradition, perhaps we can gain a greater appreciation for “Talmudic hairsplitting” from this discussion.  Talmudic debate often centers around reconciling two apparently opposite rulings by showing that they apply to two different situations.  Sometimes there is little apparent difference between the two situations, but our Sages are showing us that by applying the intellect to discern ever subtler distinctions, we can eventually reach a point where, to quote Reb Tevye, “There is no other hand!”  At that point the intellect is transcended and the infinite is directly experienced by the mind.


In our Parashah, the Torah appears to be telling us that there is another way of gaining knowledge, namely, revelation directly from Gd.  So when Pharaoh summons Yosef to explain his dream, he assumes that, like his wise men, Yosef will use his individual intellect to figure out the symbolism of the dream.  Yosef quickly disabuses him of this notion – rather the interpretation will come directly from Gd.  That is, although Yosef’s individuality would be involved, he would not be “figuring out” what Pharaoh’s dream would mean.  Rather it would be a case where Yosef would know intuitively exactly what the interpretation was and how to speak it out.  To paraphrase Chevy Chase: “Hear the dream, be the dream.”


In English the word “intuition” is significant – it signifies that the knowledge comes from within the knower, not from any external modality.  Great artists and great scientists have all testified that the most important driver of their work is their intuition.  When I was an undergraduate, the great physicist I. I. Rabi retired.  One of my professors, himself a Nobel laureate is reported to have said: I. I. Rabi is not a great experimental physicist.  I. I. Rabi is also not a great theoretical physicist.  But if I. I. Rabi were on an electron in an electromagnetic field, by Gd he’d know which way that electron will go!


In our tradition, this kind of inner knowledge is called ruach hakodesh, the Holy Spirit.  If well enough developed, it is called prophecy.  I believe we can understand how such knowledge is possible when we understand that there is a profound parallelism between the structure of human consciousness and the structure of “external” reality.  It is this parallelism that allows us to construct predictive, mathematical models of physical phenomena; these models are constructions of our consciousness, yet they map to the structure of objective reality with astounding accuracy.


Naturally, intuitive, ruach hakodesh knowledge comes in degrees.  The more finely attuned one’s mind is to the subtle workings of the universe, the greater the degree of intuition.  This can be in a limited field, where after months of work on a particular problem one has an “aha” experience, where everything falls into place.  It can also be a broader experience, where one’s entire personality gets refined to the point that knowledge of all aspects of the cosmos is open to him.  In our tradition the zenith of this refinement occurred in Moshe Rabbeinu; he is described as speaking with Gd “face to face, as one would speak with a friend.”  That is, his individuality had become so identified with the infinite that he was able to convey all levels of knowledge to k’lal Yisrael for all generations.


It should also be pointed out that the environment in which one operates can either enhance or detract from this kind of identification.  Praying with a congregation enhances our prayers – the mutual focus on Gd benefits everyone; the purity each member of the congregation gains lifts up the rest of the congregation. On the other side, prophecy has not been available since the destruction of the (Second) Temple – the purifying effect of the Temple Service has not been available, and spiritual contamination has been building up in the atmosphere since the Romans destroyed it, as a quick glance at the newspaper will verify.  Even in Moshe Rabbeinu’s case, as soon as the incident of the golden calf took place Gd immediately told him “Go down” – on the surface, go down from the mountain, but on a deeper level “go down” from your level of communion with Me; If Israel has sinned, what do I need you for?!  As a wise man once said, in a smoky room, even the most clear-sighted individual cannot see clearly.


We cannot control our environment to such a great extent, but we certainly can control ourselves.  Our Tradition gives us time-tested procedures for attuning our individual minds with Gd’s Mind.  Although we know we will never reach the level of Moshe Rabbeinu or the other great Sages and prophets of our tradition, still we can continue to strive in that direction and we will surely come closer to our goal.