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Parashat 12/23/2010

Parashat Shemot

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Our tradition never paints anybody as perfect.  Adam sins, despite having been created directly from Gd and knowing his Creator directly.  Noah plants a vineyard.  Avraham is criticized for his slight lack of faith that precipitated the Egyptian exile as we discussed in this portion last year.  Yitzchak is saved by his wife from bestowing his blessings on the totally unfit Esav.  Ya’akov gets furious with his beloved Rachel.  Even Moshe Rabbeinu, surely the most spiritually advanced person we know of, is not perfect.  He will not be permitted to enter the Land of Israel because of his indiscretion with the rock, as we find in BaMidbar (Numbers).  We are introduced to Moshe Rabbeinu in our Parashah, and it is the interaction of Gd, Israel, and Moshe Rabbeinu that forms the rest of the Torah, right to the very last verses.

Certainly Moshe Rabbeinu was born with some very special capabilities.  Playing on the verse (2:2) vatere oto ki-tov hu/And she saw that he was good (similar language to Bereishit 1:4), our Sages say that when Moshe was born the house was filled with light.  Yet there was room for growth, and one of the fascinating threads that runs through the Torah is Moshe’s growth from a tongue-tied shepherd, perhaps lacking in confidence, to the great lawgiver and orator of Deuteronomy.  The process starts with his encounter at the burning bush (3:2ff).

The Artscroll commentary paraphrases R. Bachya’s description as follows:

The Torah describes Moses’ vision in three different ways: a fire, an angel, and, finally, as Gd.  Because this was Moses’ first prophecy, he had to be exposed to it gradually, like someone in a dark room, whose eyes cannot tolerate an immediate exposure to blinding sunlight.  First, Moses was shown a fire that was strange because it did not consume the bush.  This excited his curiosity to investigate, something he would not have done had he realized that a Gdly holiness was resting upon it.  Then it was revealed to him that an angel was in the fire, and once he had become accustomed to this new phenomenon, he was given the vision of Gd Himself (R. Bachya)

Even so, the experience is a bit overwhelming, and Gd has to spend a fruitless week trying to convince Moshe to take on the mission of redeeming Israel before finally just commanding him to do so.

Gd takes a similar, gradual approach when He wishes to take Israel out of Egypt and then reveal himself to the entire people at Mt. Sinai: first there is a year of plagues of gradually increasing intensity, then a period of 7 weeks during which they are introduced to some mitzvot (at Marah) and culminating in three days’ preparation for, and finally experience of the Revelation and the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai (commemorated at Shavuot).  Even so, the experience of hearing Gd directly is too much for the people; Torah describes them as pulling back in fear and the Midrash comments that after hearing the first two Statements (I am H” your Gd and You shall have no other gods before Me) they all died and the angels had to revive them.  They then plead with Moshe to be their intermediary, which he at this point is able to do.

I might point out that even at Marah, when the manna begins to fall, Moshe still appears to be a bit overwhelmed by the prophetic experience.  Compare verses 16:6-7, which are spoken by Moshe and Aharon, and which are complete, simple, clear sentences, with verse 8 which is spoken by Moshe alone, and which, in translation, needs a number of words filled in to parse properly.  It is as if the great clarity of his vision, unmatched by any prophet before or since, is still difficult for him to articulate clearly to those of us (all of us!!) who are not at his level.

Why is this?  I am not a prophet, and I don’t want to speculate about anybody else’s experience or state of consciousness, particularly those very far above me.  But our tradition does give us some hints, as does our own experience.  Our esoteric tradition begins with Gd alone, contracting into Himself to leave, as it were, a “space” where He is not and into which He can radiate His light.  That light was supposed to be caught in “vessels” – containers of this Divine light as it were.  The most perfect container of the Divine light is the human being, who is capable of self-perfection (with Gd’s help!) and therefore can perfectly reflect Gdliness.  However the intensity of the Divine light was too much for the finite vessels, and they shattered, leaving sparks of the Divine wandering around a “vast wasteland” of shards, waiting for the vessels to be reintegrated.  This, by the way, is the traditional meaning of tikun olam / repair of the world, a phrase that has, unfortunately, been co-opted by various activists for causes, some of them worthy, but none approaching the cosmic value of the original.

I think a similar situation obtains with the individual human being.  Exposure to Gd’s light is at once a reward for past good action, and a means of purification for further growth.  But the purification must not be too intense, or it will destroy us.  For example, purification of certain metal vessels that have been exposed to non-kosher foods must be by heating the metal white-hot, as with a blowtorch.  If the metal is thin and/or soft enough, the blowtorch will be too intense and will destroy the vessel.  Chemotherapy and radiation therapy to rid the body of cancer are two more examples.

In general, the more supple a material is, the more intense use it can withstand.  Something that is not flexible is brittle and breaks easily with little pressure.  Something that can “bend with the wind” is more likely to be able to ride out the storm.  What Gd does with us therefore is provide us with challenges that force us to re-evaluate our view of the world, to expand, to become more flexible in our thinking (this does not mean compromising principles by the way).  Gd also gives us mitzvot that train our awareness to see through the surface values and perceive the inner meaning of both human life and the material world.

Our soul, which in its nature is infinite, is infinitely flexible – it is able to constrict itself into a physical body, yet maintain its essential, infinite nature.  It naturally wishes to see the body become softer, more supple, better able to support and reflect the soul’s inner nature.  When we do have moments of transcendence, in prayer or in meditation, or even in our daily activity, it is a time when Gd breaks through as it were, flooding our mind and body with infinity, stretching our boundaries, and perhaps most important, purifying us and making us more receptive to the next moment of transcendence.  Eventually the body is as purified and as integrated as anything material can get, and the mind is able to perceive with crystal clarity the true nature of reality.  The transcendent becomes primary, the material, limited world of boundaries becomes distinctly secondary.

Perhaps this is the process Moshe Rabbeinu went through, as well as the other prophets and sages of our tradition.  It may be beyond us, in our present world, to reach anything near those heights.  Yet just as our forefathers in Egypt did not give up hope and were redeemed, so we should ever keep striving upward along the path Gd has laid out for us and has transmitted to us through our great leaders, past and present.  As long as we do that we can be confident that we too, will be worthy of redemption.