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Parashat Bereshit 5777 — 10/29/2016

Parashat Bereshit 5777 — 10/29/2016

Bereishit 1:1 – 6:8

Another cycle begins. As is my wont, I have chosen another great commentator to try to understand and, hopefully, elucidate for you and for myself, some new aspects of Torah. This year it is Ramchal, R. Moshe Chaim Luzzato, 1707-1746, who was an Italian Kabbalist, mostly known for his classic works on living a holy life: Mesillat Yesharim (The Path of the Just) and Derech Hashem (The Way of Gd). (Here’s the Wikipedia article: His teachings were so profound that no less a luminary than the Gaon of Vilna stated that were Ramchal still alive he would walk from Vilna to Padua to study with him (~1800 km, an 18+ hour drive). Unfortunately Ramchal lived in the aftermath of the failed Messianic movements of the prior century (Shabtai Zvi/Jacob Frank) and any study of Kabbalah was looked on with great suspicion. Many of Ramchal’s works were suppressed, and the grief he got from the Rabbinic establishment may also explain why did not live to see his 40th birthday.

The volumes of Ramchal on the Torah comprise selections from Ramchal’s writings and those of a very close disciple-colleague, R. Moshe David Valli. They were selected and translated by R. Herschel Berkin, and by his own admission are just a few selections from a vastly larger corpus of material. I suspect that is because without extensive training in Kabbalah, most of that material is incomprehensible, whether in the original Hebrew or in English translation. In any event, there appears to be plenty to chew on in the parts I have read, so we’ll see how it goes.

There are currently 4 volumes of Ramchal on the Torah available: Bereishit, Shemot, Vayikra and Bamidbar, and Devarim should be out next year (2017), according to the folks at Targum press.

Gd created the physical as well as the spiritual world following a specific pattern. The physical ordering is a mirroring and manifestation of the spiritual ordering – based on units of three. These units are similar to a scale with a right and left side, and a middle which is the balance of the two. …

The units of three – left, right, and center are based on three of His attributes. These are chesed – kindness – to the right, din – judgment – to the left, and rachamim – mercy – providing the balance in the middle… (R. Moshe David Valli)

Initially the entire land was covered with water, eventually being confined to one area. The water represents the abundance of influence in the spiritual realms which was to be showered onto the world. The creation was unable to survive with such abundance, for just as it is impossible for the world to stand on evil, it cannot survive on too much good. … Should the dry areas remain that way for eternity, the world would be unable to survive without any abundance. It was therefore necessary for the dry land to receive abundance in the form of rain. However, an overabundance of rain sufficient to fill the world would be detrimental. The Great Flood, in fact, represents destruction resulting from an excess of abundance. (Ramchal)

Ramchal lived in 18th century Italy, but I would caution that his discussion of the three-fold pattern at the basis of creation almost certainly does not bespeak Christian influence. Indeed, this idea of a three-fold pattern has been embedded in Kabbalah from long before Christian times; perhaps the early Church was influenced by Kabbalistic teachings (in fact, it most likely was, as its earliest adherents were Jews in the Land of Israel who were steeped in Kabbalistic teachings). I would like to suggest that Ramchal is describing a view of reality, using both Kabbalistic notions and Scriptural verses, that is objectively real, and should be open to experience by anyone, in any culture.

How might this work? The “problem” Gd faces in creating the world is how to create multiplicity out of Unity. Rambam tells us that Gd’s Unity is absolute – it is not a unity that is made up of parts. There is no trace of duality in Gd, yet we see that there is duality all around us, and it is an article of faith that Gd is intimately involved in the running of the world. How can Unity and mulitiplicity coexist?

Consider the following: Human beings are conscious beings. We can be conscious of other things in our environment, and we can also be self-conscious – aware of ourselves. Certainly Gd must therefore be conscious. But if there is nothing but Gd, then it must be that Gd is self-aware – there is nothing outside of Gd to be aware of. Now awareness, at least as we know it, has two components – the subject, or knower, and the object, that which is known. The two are related by the process of knowing.

I think we can make a correspondence between the object of knowledge and the quality of din, in the following manner: din, or judgment, is in the realm of boundaries. The quality of din is what says, “thus far and no farther.” Din is also associated with the laws of nature, which are notoriously unforgiving and inflexible. On the other side, the subject is that which goes out to the known and would therefore correspond to chesed in Ramchal’s schema.

Ramchal identifies the quality of rachamim, mercy, as that which coordinates and harmonizes din and chesed. In our schema, that would correspond to the process of knowing. The process of knowing adds a subjective touch to the hard boundaries of the object. When we see someone or something that we love, for example, we treat it with a tenderness that belies its hard boundaries, because we have infused some of our subjective feeling into that object. This is justice tempered with mercy, a mercy that coordinates between the unbounded outflow of kindness and the strict boundaries of judgment. In the Kabbalistic “Tree of Life” diagram of the 10 Sefirot, instead of din the side of judgment is expressed by the sefirah of gevurah, strength, which again projects the idea of boundaries in which the flow of chesed can be channeled to good purpose. Rachamim is replaced by tiferet, or beauty, as the harmonizing factor, or the synthesis of chesed and gevurah/din.

In the case of Gd’s absolute Unity, we have to try to modify our conceptions a little bit. Since Gd is Unity, which is something that we cannot fully comprehend, for the sake of discussion we say that in His state of Self-awareness, Gd takes on the aspect of Knower and also the aspect of the Known. Gd’s Knowledge, which is not separate from Gd’s essence in the way that we speak of our own knowledge, is then that which represents the relationship between Gd’s two aspects. All these terms of course are terms that have their basis in our dualistic experience. Perhaps it is best conceived in terms of “virtual reality,” although in fact Gd is the ultimately real reality – to Gd, all that we thing of as “real” is in fact virtual! But I digress…

Since Gd is an absolute unity, any talk of Gd’s having an aspect of Knower and an aspect of Known is a projection of our own dualistic thinking. But we can think of a “virtual duality” within Gd’s nature, set up by the fact that Gd is conscious. Once there is duality, there can be – perhaps we can say there must be – a relationship between the two, and once there is a relationship between the two – even though the two are really one(!) – there can be a flow between them, that bifurcates and ramifies and produces all the wonderful diversity of Creation. And all of this is taking place within the context of Unity!

The truth is, all of creation is a “virtual reality” – it is nothing more than Gd’s internal dynamics. It is up to us to rise to a state of awareness where the Scriptural expression ayn od milvado – there is nothing beside Him (Deut 4:35) – becomes a living reality.


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian
Parshat Bereishit

Torah is to many and to me, beyond language, beyond verbal definitions and grammar, but the fundamental liveliness of Gd.

From this standpoint, here are two sources to listen to the beginning of Beresheit: the first is traditional; the second is creative.

1. Bereishit 1-8 with cantillation: Very sweet, easy to listen to.

2. Very lively. Award-winning singer Noa sings Bereishit with Philarmonic Rishon Le Tzion.

Consider Bereishit the seed of Teshuvah — return to Oneness – and V’zot HaBeracha, the last parsha of the Chumash, the fruit: Do we see that the seed has born fruit?

If we take it on plain level of meaning, no: the children of Israel (that’s not only long time ago but today and in all times) have not yet entered the Promised Land, and Moses, the great leader, never will.

But perhaps we can say that Moses, one of the guests that visits the sukkah during Succoth, has entered Gan Eden, as tradition has it, and so the human race has returned at least a few people to the Gan Eden from which Adam and Eve were evicted: not quite Teshuvah but definitely a return to a higher status.

And perhaps dying by Gd’s mouth, as this parshah tells us Moses did, is connecting with Gd, The One, and so is teshuvah.

Perhaps,also, we can say that in this parshah we learn that Gd’s blessings, given by Moses parshah to each of the 12 tribes, the tribes were united, and became One, symbolic of Teshuvah, return to Unity, to Oneness.

Having considered the fruit, let us consider the seed:

Bereishit begins in Hebrew: “Bereishit bara Elohim et HaShamayim v’et Ha’aretz…”

The way this is commonly translated to English, Bereishit reads: “In the beginning, Gd created heaven and earth…”.

The way the ArtScroll Chumash and translate it, it reads, “In the beginning of Gd’s creating the heavens and the earth…”

This is not only according to scholars more grammatically correct but makes more sense because Gd is without beginning or end, so what does “beginning” refer to?

In addition, Wikipedia notes that not only is “bara” a verb that is only used in reference to Gd but it doesn’t mean “create”, it means “differentiate/separate, assign roles to”. From this standpoint, the heavens and the earth already existed but they were not separated/distinguished from each other until Gd did so. So Bereishit refers to the beginning of distinguishing “heavens”, the inner, subtle, abstract levels of the details of Gd, from “earth”, the concrete aspect.

To me, Gd is always One, Unity in Diversity, as it is described in Maharishi Vedic Science so it is necessary to consider what Torah means by “beginning”.

My best way of looking at the meaning of ‘beginning” is that it refers to any point of pause in the infinite liveliness of Gd — something like the trough of a wave.

Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, in his “Body, Mind and Soul: Kabbalah on Human Physiology, Disease and Healing”, notes that “create” and “heal” in Hebrew have the same root: b-r-a: from this angle, we can say that the beginning is the beginning of healing, of teshuvah, of healing individual humans of their limits and restoring us to our unlimited status as impulses of One in which the Full Ocean of One functions.

So creation, healing begins, when Torah, which in its fullness is the fundamental liveliness of Gd, beyond language, beyond grammar, definitions, Gd conversing with Gd, begins to be perceived by individual humans, individual impulses of Gd who appear as limited because Gd is playing Hide and Seek Peek-a-Boo in us, so He, as we limited souls, can have the fun of seeking as us, and hinting, through Torah sounds, Torah stories, Torah mitzvah and then, little by little, and also suddenly, finding, as Gd dissolves the veils of limits and reveals to us that Gd is All, within us and all around us, everywhere, One without a Second.

And this can happen with any sound of Torah, any word, any parshah, even the last one as we suddenly See and Know the Truth within the Stories.

Baruch HaShem.