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Parashat Beshallach (Shabbat Shirah) 5782 — 01/15/2022

Parashat Beshallach (Shabbat Shirah) 5782 — 01/15/2022

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
In Chapter 4 Rambam contrasts three verbs related to the sense of sight: ra’oh (to see), habbit [to look at] and chazoh [to vision]. (Incidentally, the chazzan at the synagogue was originally the overseer of the building, the one who “saw to” the needed maintenance. Only later did it become the term for the cantor as we use it today.) He writes:

Know that the three words to see [ra’oh], to look at [habbit] and to vision [chazoh] are applied to the sight of the eye and that all three of them are also used figuratively to denote the grasp of the intellect. As for the verb to see, this is generally admitted by the multitude. Thus it says: And he saw, and behold a well in the field. This refers to sight of the eye. But it also says: Yea, my heart hath seen much of wisdom and knowledge; and this refers to intellectual apprehension. Every mention of seeing, when referring to Gd, may He be exalted, has this figurative meaning – as when Scripture says: I saw the Lord; And the Lord became seen to him; And Gd saw that it was good; I beseech Thee, let me see Thy glory; And they saw the Gd of Israel. All this refers to intellectual apprehension and in no way to the eye’s seeing, as the eye can only apprehend a body, one that is placed in some direction and, in addition, with some of the accidents of the body, I mean the body’s coloring, shape, and so forth. Similarly Gd, may He be exalted, does not apprehend by means of an instrument, as will be explained later.

Rambam goes on to make similar remarks about the other two verbs, noting that to look at [habbit] has the additional meaning of turning towards. This turning can also be either physical or figurative. We turn to Gd in prayer for example, particularly when we feel a pressing need. And the word vision is probably used figuratively more than literally – we associate visions with prophecy, or with dreams, or with people who have a clear goal that they can envision. Yet we also go to have our very physical vision checked once a year.

Note, by the way, that the same distinction that Rambam makes in Hebrew works just as well in English as it does in Hebrew, and I will venture a guess that it works in most languages. Using Google Translate it seems almost universal, but that may be more an artifact of Google Translates’s algorithms rather than the way people actually speak.  What this indicates is that there is something about the sense of sight that is intimately connected with intellectual apprehension of abstract concepts. Do you see the point I’m making? (“I saw what you did there.”) In fact, many great scientists thought visually and worked out the mathematics of their understanding later. Einstein, who discovered the interconnectedness of space, time, matter and energy, was a prime example of this, by his own account of his discoveries.

What we have described for the sense of sight goes for all the other senses as well:

  • Smell: Hebrew – Gd smelled the sweet savor [of sacrifices]. You have made us stink before the Egyptians! English – He came out of it smelling like roses. This deal doesn’t pass the sniff test.
  • Taste: Hebrew – He filled me with bitterness, sated me with wormwood [Lamentations 3:15]. The fragrance of your breath like apples, and your mouth like fine wine… [Song of Songs 7:8-9]. English – It left a bad taste in my mouth. Kisses much sweeter than wine.
  • Touch: Hebrew – My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him. [Song of Songs 5:4]. (Most translations elide the obvious erotic imagery of Song of Songs. Song of Songs was almost excluded from Tanach, until R. Akiva came and interpreted it as an allegorical love poem between Gd and Israel. Rashi, who famously explains the plain meaning of Tanach, does not do so at all for Song of Songs, because the plain meaning isn’t the meaning of the book.] English – Your words touched my heart.

I have left Hearing out of the list. Rambam will take up the topic in Chapter 45. However the word shome’a, to hear, also has multiple meanings, and sometimes can have several meanings in one context. For example, Sh’ma Yisrael is usually translated “Hear, O Israel,” but it also means “Obey,” “Understand,” ”Pay Attention!” Obviously there are more concrete values of all of these terms, and subtler, more figurative values as well. We certainly don’t speak of Gd as obeying anyone, but we do speak of Gd’s paying attention to one’s prayers, hearing the cries of the Israelites in Egypt, etc. Significantly, when we understand, we say in English, “I see,” but in Hebrew, “I hear.” I hope to return to this difference later, as R. Sacks has quite a lot to say about its significance.

Returning to the sense of sight, Maharishi describes the growth of consciousness after Cosmic Consciousness in visual terms. In Cosmic Consciousness, the mind is fully expanded, but perception is pretty much the same as before. We are awake in our Self, and the objective world is outside our Self. As we continue to grow, we begin to perceive subtler and subtler levels of whatever object we are focusing on. We are not talking about our “seeing” growing from physical seeing to figurative seeing. Rather it is physical seeing taken to its subtlest level, but the object is still outside the Self.

The highest stage of evolution that Maharishi describes is Unity Consciousness, where the unbounded Self within, established in Cosmic Consciousness, now perceives the same unboundedness in the object of perception. As Maharishi describes it, this is not so much a matter of the eyes, for example, seeing unboundedness, as a phenomenon where Pure Consciousness within recognizes the same Pure Consciousness in the “external” object. This is a kind of intellectual realization, rather than a direct perception (the senses can only respond to boundaries, even very subtle ones if the senses are very refined, but boundaries nonetheless). Perhaps we could say that “seeing” on the most fundamental level is both figurative and literal, both intellectual apprehension and direct perceptual experience. And perhaps our figurative use of words relating to the physical senses points us in the direction of the transcendent, where the two uses fuse into one.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Beshalach

“Beshalach” means “and he sent, let go. After the death of the Egyptian first born, including Pharaoh’s, Pharaoh finally sends Moses and he Children of Israel out of Egypt, Mitzraim, the Land of Restrictions. The whole community leaves, with all their possessions plus wealth they borrowed from their Egyptian neighbors and which they will never return.

Gd hardens Pharaoh’s heart again and he chases after Moses and the Chidren of Israel who are trapped between the army and the Sea of Reeds, the Red Sea.

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 difficulty, 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 Amalekites who attacked our ancestors.

Each of these symbolizes 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