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Parashat Beshallach 5781 — 01/30/2021 — Shabbat Shirah

Parashat Beshallach 5781 — 01/30/2021 — Shabbat Shirah

Beginning with Bereishit 5781 (17 October 2020) we embarked on a new format. We will be considering Rambam’s (Maimonides’) great philosophical work Moreh Nevukim (Guide for the Perplexed) in the light of the knowledge of Vedic Science as expounded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The individual essays will therefore not necessarily have anything to do with the weekly Torah portion, although certainly there will be plenty of references to the Torah, the rest of the Bible, and to the Rabbinic literature. For Bereishit we described the project. The next four parshiyyot, Noach through Chayei Sarah, laid out a foundational understanding of Vedic Science, to the degree I am capable of doing so. Beginning with Toledot we started examining Moreh Nevukim.

Shemot 13:17-17:15

You know when someone is a seminal thinker when people either love him or hate him, attack him or defend him. But everyone has to deal with him and his ideas. He defines the playing field, he makes the rules, and he owns the ball. So it is with Aristotle. In a certain sense Rambam’s work is a response to the Aristotelian parsing of reality. This, despite the fact that Rambam was thoroughly steeped in the traditional Jewish view of the world. Of course, growing up in Muslim Spain, Rambam really had his feet on two trains – traditional Jewish thought and the newly revived Greek philosophical tradition (and the Muslim responses to it). It’s a testament to his strength that he could keep the two trains on the same track – most of the time.

One area that Prof. Pines highlights as an area of contention between the two trains is the issue of creation – is the universe created or is it eternal and ongoing? Of course, the Jewish view is that Gd created the universe in six “days,” which literalists take to mean 24-hour days and those who are more willing to go beyond the surface meaning of the words try to fit into more modern, scientific ideas of a physical universe that is some 14 billion years old.

Now if Aristotle holds that the universe is eternal as an absolute truth, there is no way to reconcile this with Jewish teaching. Rambam therefore shows that Aristotle proposes the eternity of the universe, but is not necessarily married to the idea. Quoting Prof Pines:

To go back to the quotations from the Aristotelian books on the natural sciences and from the Topics, many of them … fall into one pattern. They serve to build up an image of Aristotle regarded as an earnest seeker of truth tentatively propounding more or less plausible theories. As Maimonides twice points out in the Guide … the science of mathematics was in an imperfect state in Aristotle’s time (a fact that invalidates that philosopher’s astronomical theories) and has progressed since then.

He goes on to say:

Indeed, the fact that the Ptolemaic system accepted by the majority of astronomers was incompatible with Aristotelian physics was a skandalon of science. A strictly orthodox Aristotelian like Averroes was as aware of this fact as Maimonides; though, contrary to the latter, he was not, as we shall see, prepared to believe that the true science of astronomy was beyond human ken, or that at least no theory concerning the celestial spheres could be held to be as certain as the science of terrestrial physics expounded by Aristotle. This does not, however, necessarily mean that the “order of nature” and a “conformity to the nature of existence,” i.e., an intrinsic rationality that accounts for the possibility of a scientific explanation, do not subsist in the heavenly as well as the sublunar phenomena. The affirmation of such a rationality, which is a fundamental position of Maimonides … does not depend upon the existence of an adequate astronomical theory. …
   The quotations from De Caelo [“On the Heavens”] in II:14 and 15 as well as the quotation from the Physics and that from the Topics in the latter chapter involve the even graver question of the eternity or temporal creation of the world. Maimonides makes out quite a good case for this contention, suggested by these quotations, that in so far as the Aristotelian proof of the eternity of the world is dependent on physics it has not the force of a demonstration…

There is quite a lot to unpack here, and modern science, particularly particle physics and of course astrophysics, have interesting things to say on the issue, which we will, Gd willing, get to next week. Let’s first take the word skandalon, which I had to look up, so I imagine some of you might also be wondering what it means. It is, as you probably guessed, the root of the English word “scandal,” but its meaning in Greek is more like something that besmirches the reputation. What was besmirching the reputation of science here? It appears that there was a disconnect with astronomical observations, which could be explained by Ptolemy’s theory of cycles and epicycles, but could not be explained by Aristotle’s physics. Since Aristotle’s conclusions were supposed to be derived from pure logic, and it was supposed that the universe is intelligible, that is, conforms to logical thought, the universe must therefore be consistent with Aristotle.

The fact that there is, in fact, no such consistency can be dealt with in a number of ways, all, generally speaking, amounting to a paradigm shift in our understanding of the relationship between logic and observation. One would be to dethrone Aristotle as the “King of Philosophers.” This would require refuting his proofs, which seemed to be anchored in logic. A second way would be to find flaws in his premises – if the premises are different, the conclusions will be different, even given perfect logic. In modern physics this has been the source of many a fundamental shift in our view of the world.

Other approaches: we could posit that terrestrial physics and celestial mechanics follow different laws. Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation put the first nail in this coffin, and Einstein’s General Relativity went even further by showing explicitly how the observed differences between physics on earth and in the universe could be explained on the basis of the differences in mass, energy and velocity between the two realms. Nowadays it is taken for granted that the results we get from our particle accelerators (smallest particles) give us useful information to decipher what is going on in the vastest regions of deep space.

We could also dismiss the set of observations we are working with as faulty, and we could point out that the settled science today will be out of date tomorrow. The latter is an argument often heard by literalists who want to solve the problem that the data and the theories we have are inconsistent with their interpretation of Scripture.

Finally, we could assume that there really is no correspondence between logic and observation. This would put the kibosh on the entire scientific enterprise, for if the universe is “beyond human ken” in Prof. Pines’ words, why are we beating our heads against the wall trying to understand it, other than for a few practical applications. I don’t know anyone who actually believes this in any practical sense, because we all use technology, be it modern electronics or “primitive” methods of farming or hunting or foraging, and technology is based on how things work.

In the coming offerings we’ll consider these approaches and examine why, in my opinion, Rambam stakes out the position he does. We will then be able to look at the issue of the creation or the eternity of the universe, what modern physics has to add to the discussion, and what Vedic Science can add. This examination will be bound up with the issue of the nature of time, and Gd willing I will bring some thoughts from Rabbi Sacks to bear as well.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Beshallach

Gd commands Moses to raise his staff and split the Red Sea so that our ancestors could pass through it on dry land.

This is an example of how Gd sometimes performs miracles through human hands, to allow us to participate in Gd’s Greatness.

We can look at the Red Sea as what it at first seemed to be: another obstacle that arose just after our ancestors felt they had become free from the slavery in Egypt. But the obstacle turned out to be a Blessing when Gd’s Power expressed through Moses allowed our ancestors to pass through while Pharaoh, the King of Enslavement, and his army drowned, thus freeing our ancestors not only from the land of slavery but from pursuit by the slave-master. In a deeper sense, the Red Sea symbolizes the finest level of the quality of limits, of restrictions: parting it and crossing it symbolizes passing beyond localization and into the Wholeness of the Transcendent — a step in the direction of getting to the Unity of the Promised Land, the Teshuvah, Complete Restoration of Awareness that All there is is Gd and our individual lives are roles Gd plays.

In our own lives, we may often find that we escape one difficult situation and after only a short time of relative peace find ourselves in another one, one which may even seem worse.

We might quit a job in which we feel we are treated unfairly but then begin to run out of money without yet having a new job.

The same type of situation might happen with relationships, contracts, hobbies, travel plans, shopping trips.

The miracle that saves us happens when we are guided by our own wisdom, by Gd, to relax into our situation, not to become frightened but just to innocently become aware of the possibilities within us and outside us, and then to act on some good possibility and to cross over the obstacle into a new freedom; having gained confidence and lost fear.

Our religion helps us to trust that Gd is always present and Gd is always making possibilities available to us even when at first glance none seem available. With this trust, we let go our nervousness and deepen our ability to perceive opportunities, to act on them, and to cross whatever sea of obstacles seems to be presenting itself.

More important than the physical opportunities Gd gives us are the spiritual ones. In this Parshah, the physical opportunities include: water from a rock in the desert with Moses’ hand guided to strike it so it releases water; manna and quail in the desert; a Sabbath to rest from toil; and a leader (Joshua) to defeat our enemies: the Amaleks who attacked our ancestors.

But each of this is symbolic of spiritual opportunities: “water from a rock” symbolizes how Gd guides us to experience the Water of Gd’s Presence: this is the Water that truly quenches our thirst.

“Manna and quail” appear regularly, sufficient for the day: this symbolizes the Reliability of Gd, sufficient for the moment, ever fresh and new.

“Sabbath to rest” symbolizes not only the experience of Gd’s Restfulness on the Sabbath Day but the experience of Rest in every physical object and every moment of time, especially the Rest within our own bodies, thoughts and feelings.

“A leader to defeat our enemies” symbolizes the Love within us that allows us to dissolve doubts, fears and every selfish motive and to raise them to the level of “Love the Lrd thy Gd with all thy soul, all thy heart, all thy might” and “Love thy neighbor as thyself/Self.”

Our religion helps us to reveal this Love within our self and return to Full Awareness: Oneness beyond the duality of Gd and us.

Baruch HaShem