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Parashat Vayigash 5772 – 12/28/2011

Parashat Vayigash

Submitted by
Robert Rabinoff

Then the spirit of their father Ya’akov was revived (45:27)


The commentators generally agree that this means that Ya’akov’s prophetic ability was restored.  Ramban points out that had Torah wanted to tell us that he was cheered up it could have just said Then their father Ya’akov was revived, without mentioning the word spirit.  He therefore takes spirit (ru’ach) to refer to the holy spirit (ru’ach haKodesh), which is a form of prophecy.  Where did his prophetic gift go?  The Talmud tells us that prophecy or the Shechinah (the immanent – as opposed to the transcendental – value of the Divine) does not rest on one who is depressed or mournful, as Ya’akov had been since he had been bereft of his son Yosef for the past 22 years.  And in fact we do not find that Gd communicated with Ya’akov until he set out for Egypt to see his long-lost son.  Why should this be?


The Artscroll Series Bereishit to our verse refers us to Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed), 2:36.  I found a copy online for free download at – if you can read Hebrew pretty well check it out – many of the editions are decades or even centuries old, almost all from Europe, and they are just scanned in as is.  I think they have a project to run the volumes through OCR software, but from my experience with OCR software, doing this and then correcting the results will be a massive undertaking.


In describing the process of receiving prophecy, Rambam emphasizes that three things are necessary.  The first is completeness of knowledge – that is, correct conception of reality.  (Perhaps this is why, until recently, different religions fought tooth and nail over what appear to us to be mere intellectual postulates – in fact they are entirely different views of reality, and, if they oppose one another, they probably cannot both be correct, which implies that one or another [or both!] of the adversaries is basing their existence on false premises.  No wonder people kill each other over this stuff!).  The second is refinement of character traits, so that one has gained mastery over his senses and desires, and directs them away from mere sensual pleasure to the more ethereal, and therefore more permanent realms.  With these two factors in place, it appears that Rambam is saying that one gains a connection to the Heavenly worlds; that is, he can perceive their existence and structure.


However to be a prophet, one must be able to communicate that perception, and for this it is necessary to have fully developed what Rambam calls the imaginative faculty (ko’ach ham’dameh).  As one can discern from the (English) root of the word imaginative, this faculty allows one to take a subtle perception and express it in images.  In other words, it appears that the first two qualities we mentioned allow one to “enter the garden” while the imaginative faculty allows one to “exit the garden” with some of its fruits intact.  As the story of Rabbi Akiva and his three colleagues (Chagigah 14b) will attest, this last point is crucial. Of the four who entered, ben Zoma went insane, the experience apparently overwhelmed him as it transcended logic; in the current lingo “he couldn’t get his head around it.”  Ben Azzai died; some say the experience was so overwhelmingly blissful that he didn’t wish to return.  It should be noted that ben Azzai was not married, and therefore had no anchor in the mundane world.  Elisha ben Abuya became an apostate; he apparently came to the conclusion that he knew better than Gd how to run the world.  Only R. Akiba “entered in peace and returned in peace.”


If I understand the Moreh Nevuchim chapter correctly, Rambam holds that the imaginative faculty is a physical faculty (ko’ach gufani) and that at times of sadness or mourning this faculty is weakened (along with our other physical abilities, as anyone who has experienced any kind of depression knows all too well).  With the imaginative faculty weakened it is no longer able to pick up the subtle structures at the finer levels of creation and form them into concrete images or words so that the perception can be communicated to others, or even appreciated by the prophet himself.  It is hard to focus when your eyes are filled with tears.  According to Rambam, even Moshe Rabbeinu did not receive prophecy during the entire time in the desert from the sin of the spies till the end of that generation (shortly before entering the Land), even though his perception was by far more clear than any other prophet’s and did not depend so much on the imaginative faculty.  Perhaps in this case the issue was more environmental than internal as we discussed last week; in the expression of our Sages prophecy was withdrawn due to Israel’s sins.


Note that prophecy ceased with the destruction of the Temples.  When Jerusalem was destroyed, all our eyes filled with tears and remained so, and will remain so until the Redemption.  If our eyes are not filled with tears over our exile from our Land, and from our Father in Heaven, then surely we are not sensitive enough to even consider prophecy to be within our range of possibilities!


I am writing this on Motza’ei Yom HaKippurim, having just spent an entire day considering who I am and what my relationship to Gd is.  Whether or not prophecy is possible in our time, it is certainly possible for us to work on all the components of prophecy.  Are we studying Torah enough?  Are we growing in our ability to study?  Do we seek out teachers to learn from?  Do we try to spend every free minute learning Torah?  It’s Gd speaking to us, are we listening?


Second, are we working on our character?  Do we understand where we need to improve?  Have we identified those areas where our bodies are running the show, rather than our souls?  When we think of the word pleasure, do we think of the pleasure of coming closer to Gd, or the pleasure of coming closer to DisneyWorld?


As for the imaginative faculty, I don’t know how one develops that, except perhaps by teaching.  In my own experience, I only really learned my field (Physics) when I began to teach it.  A wise man once said, “The mind can’t make a mood on an abstract basis.”  If we really want to know something, we have to express it; the expression concretizes it in our minds and makes it real.  This is one reason we davven using our mouths – we don’t just read or recite the words in our mind (if we do we have not fulfilled the mitzvah).  In the same way we learn best out loud; the bet midrash is not like a library!  If we make a point, whenever we have an insight, to speak it out, describe it to someone, we will be exercising and developing our imaginative faculty.


It is not clear whether or not one can develop prophecy or if Gd grants prophecy to one who has developed the capacity for it, only at His own time and for His own purposes.  What we can surely do from our side is set greater closeness to Gd as our one goal in life, and use the time-honored techniques of our tradition to move in that direction.  However far we get, we will be better human beings than we are today.