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Parashat Chayei Sarah 5783 — 11/19/2022

Parashat Chayei Sarah 5783 — 11/19/2022

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.

Bereishit 23:1-25:18
For the next 6 chapters Rambam takes a break from his linguistic analysis and considers some more general topics. He begins with some comments about the limits of apprehension:

Know that the human intellect has objects of apprehension that it is within its power and according to its nature to apprehend. On the other hand, in that which exists [1] there also are existents and matters that, according to its nature, it is not capable of apprehending in any way or through any cause; the gates of their apprehension are shut before it. There are also in that which exists things of which the intellect may apprehend one state while not being cognizant of other states. The fact that it apprehends does not entail the conclusion that it can apprehend all things – just as the senses have apprehensions but it is not within their power to apprehend at whatever distance the objects of apprehension may happen to be. Similarly with regard to all other bodily faculties, for the fact that a man is able to carry two hundred-weights does not mean that he is able to carry ten. The difference in capacity existing between the individuals of the species with regard to sensory apprehensions and all the other bodily faculties is manifest and clear to all men. However, it has a limit, inasmuch as these capacities cannot attain to every distance however far away nor to every degree however great it may happen to be. The identical rule obtains with regard to human intellectual apprehensions. There are great differences in capacity between the individuals of the species. This also is manifest and very clear to the men of knowledge. It may thus happen that whereas one individual discovers a certain notion by himself through his speculation, another individual is not able ever to understand that notion. Even if it were explained to him for a very long time by means of every sort of expression and parable, his mind would not penetrate to it in any way, but would turn back without understanding it…

[1]The translator notes that the Arabic word is “often used by Maimonides with the meaning ‘that which exists’ or ‘the totality of that which exists.’ In the text to which this note refers, the word seems to have the latter meaning.”

Rambam is concerned with the limits of human knowledge, in particular human knowledge of the Divine, and of course, how to maximize human knowledge. This knowledge, in the Aristotelian tradition, is intellectual knowledge. As I have mentioned before, it seems to me that what Aristotle and Rambam meant by “intellectual knowledge” is much deeper than what those words have come to mean today.

Rambam compares the limitations of the intellect to the limitations of sense perception. There is a limit to how fine a structure the eye can see, whether that structure is very small (and we need to augment our senses with a microscope) or far away (telescope). This is due partly because the eye is a physical mechanism, and partly from the very nature of observation. When the size of an object is roughly the same as the wavelength of the radiation being used to observe it, finer structures cannot be discerned by any instrument; it is as if they blur into one another. To probe finer levels of structure, we must go to shorter wavelengths, which correspond to higher energies. (This limitation given by the wavelength of the radiation used to probe what we’re looking at, is called “diffraction limitation.”)

The point here is that when we use objective means to gain knowledge we are always limited by the limitations of the world of objects. Objects are bounded, finite, and the means by which we gain knowledge of objects are likewise finite. This is an inherent limitation in the objective means of gaining knowledge, and it guarantees that objective knowledge can never be complete. Incidentally, in physics this is borne out by quantum mechanics (see our discussion a few weeks ago on quantum entanglement for example) and in mathematics by Gödel’s Theorem, which states that in any logical system rich enough to include arithmetic there will be true statements that cannot be proven either true or false.

Rambam goes on and compares intellectual apprehension to sense perception: The identical rule obtains regarding human intellectual apprehensions. There are great differences in capacity between the individuals of the species. This also is manifest and very clear to the men of knowledge. It may thus happen that whereas one individual discovers a certain notion by himself through his speculation, another individual is not able ever to understand that notion.
In other words, just as some people have better eyesight than others, or are physically stronger than others, some people naturally have greater intellectual capacity. Furthermore, if one tries to apprehend past one’s capabilities, it causes a strain in the mind, and can actually be damaging, unless one’s capacity to apprehend be expanded. Think of trying to bench press 200 kg. Most people would be injured in the attempt. (I actually just checked and the world record is 350 kg!) However, if we start with lower weights and multiple repetitions, some people have the potential to work their way up to 200 kg or more.

In the same way, it is possible to exercise our logical faculties to make ever-subtler distinctions. Every educational system is set up with the idea of increasing the capability of critical thinking, of categorizing experience and understanding the influences of one thing upon another. I believe that the program of Talmudic learning has exactly this purpose. We are familiar with the expression “Talmudic hair-splitting.” This “splitting” is the process of making finer and finer distinctions, until we come to the level of no distinctions, the level that is purely universal, which we experience in mediation as Pure Consciousness. Or, as Tevye said, “There is no other hand!”

We will continue this discussion next time.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Chayei Sarah

After Sarah passes, with Gd’s Presence in her as it was and is in Abraham, Abraham sends his servant, Eliezer, to look for a spouse for his son, Isaac.
What qualities would we want in a servant who we send to an unfamiliar world to select a spouse for our beloved child?

What strategy would the servant use to select exactly the right spouse?

Abraham sends his trusted servant Eliezer to look for a wife for his son Isaac.

Eliezer’s name means “Help of my Gd”: Eliezer is servant of Gd first, Abraham second.

This is the perfect quality we want in a servant: the servant will act according to Gd’s Will and our desire will be fulfilled in alignment with Gd’s Will.
Abraham, therefore, trusts not only Eliezer’s loyalty but his competence — his competence on zeroing in on the right bride and his judgment in making sure the bride really is the right bride.

Eliezer’s strategy is not to stay within his limited ability but to ask Gd for guidance. As he approaches a well in the country to which he is sent he prays in his heart that Gd will bring a woman to the well who will offer to give him not only a drink from her pitcher that he asks for but also that she will offer to provide water for his camels also, even without his asking. Eliezar values generosity as a sign of love and appropriateness.

Before he even finishes this prayer, a woman appears who fulfills his request.

This a sign of considerable purity in Eliezer and also in the woman, who is Rebekah and who becomes Isaac’s wife.

Rebekah leads Eliezer to her family and Eliezer explains his mission: to find a bride for his master Abraham’s son, Isaac.

“Will you marry him?” his family asks.

“Yes, I will,” Rebekah replies, a sign not only of generosity but of her own judgment that Eliezer is connecting her with the love that Gd intends for her, a marriage that will enable her to be not only a good and happy wife, but a good servant of Gd.

“Will you leave tomorrow?” Eliezer asks.

“Yes, I will,” Rebekah replies, a sign of trust.

And when Rebekah meets Isaac, they love each other and Isaac is comforted for the loss of his mother, proof that Eliezer was a good and competent servant, one who fulfilled his master’s wishes, one to whom Gd responds even before the wish of his heart is completely stated.

In our lives we do our best “to love Gd with all our heart and soul” and “to love our neighbor as our self” so that we are good servants of Gd and, therefore, also of ourselves, our families, our communities and also, we are trusting recipients of Gd’s messages and increasingly can act as Gd’s messengers and servants.

We do our best to be trustworthy, competent, loving, generous and to welcome in the Shekinah, Gd’s Presence, Gd’s Bride. We do this not only on Shabbat but every moment so that, more and more, Gd’s Presence lives in us. And we seek to restore ourselves and to be restored to the Oneness, within which the duality of Gd and us exists. This is the marriage of the self to the Self and the marriage of the Self to the Self. This is Eliezer finding Rebekah as a bride for Isaac.

Not only the meaning of this parshah helps us in this delightful activity but even more fundamentally, the sound.

Here is Rabbi Michael Slavin, from the Chabad Brooklyn central synagogue, where the Lubavitcher Rebbe presided, reading “Chayei Sarah”: Chayei Sarah Audio Recording

Baruch HaShem