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Parashat HaAzinu 5775 — 09/24/2014

Parashat HaAzinu 5775 — 09/24/2014

For Hashem’s portion is His people – Yaakov the cable of His heritage. (Devarim 32:9)

The question is asked, “If the Jewish People is Hashem’s portion, and He chose Yaakov as His heritage, why did He lower us down to this lowly, material world when the Creation contains higher, more sublime realms, such as the Olam Habriah and the Olam Ha’atzilus?” …

… Indeed, there are worlds that are much more pleasant and pristine than ours, and Hashem Yisbarach could have placed us in any of them. But because He lowered His Torah down to this world – for such was His desire – we, too, must dwell in this world. Although the angels wanted the Torah, and questioned Hashem’s decision to lower it to the mundane, material realm – saying, Place Your Glory upon the heavens (Tehillim 8:2) Hashem, in His wisdom, wanted the Torah specifically in this world, so that mere flesh and blood could toil over it day and night. This is because the Torah is the very purpose of all the worlds, including ours, as it is written, Were it not for My Covenant day and night, I would not have established the laws of the heavens and the earth (Yirmiyahu 33:25).  (Chafetz Chaim)

We are at the end of the Torah, but at the beginning of a new year.  The Torah has taken us on a journey from the dawn of creation to the beginning of Jewish national life in its own Land, governed by Gd through His revealed Torah.  The year, on the other hand, has taken us, once again, through a cycle of the seasons, seemingly bringing us right back to where we were 13 months ago (this was just a leap year).  Is time linear, or is it cyclical?

The same question occurs in physics.  On the most fundamental level of physics, the level of the fundamental particles, we find that all the particles of nature are actually states of vibration of underlying fields (or, hopefully, of one, unified field).  Vibration is a fundamentally cyclic process, as one can easily see by considering the vibration of a violin string or the waves on the open ocean, for example.  On the other hand, in the evolution of the Universe, and in the evolution of thermodynamic systems, there is an “arrow of time,” pointing towards the future and refusing to allow us to go back to the past for a “do-over.”

Clearly there are arguments to be made for both conceptions of time, so there must be some way to reconcile them.  The discussion by the Chafetz Chaim may give us an approach.  The quote presupposes a structure of creation that is composed of four major levels, or “worlds”:

  • The world of Atzilut (emanations, or possible “closeness”), the highest world, the level closest to Gd and most abstract and powerful
  • The world of Beri’ah (creation), where the unmanifest begins to sprout and differentiate
  • The world of Yetzirah (forms), where the abstract forms underlying concrete things exist
  • The world of Asiyah (action), our material world.

What is significant is that Gd’s Torah, which really belongs in the world of Atzilut, as it is what is most closely identified with Gd, is “lowered” to the world of Asiyah.  Thus, the Torah as we have it in our world, appears to contain laws that deal with the material world, such as the agricultural laws and the laws governing human relationships.  In fact, when the angels sought to keep the Torah in heaven, Gd told Moshe to answer them, and Moshe made this very argument – “What is in the Torah? ‘Honor your father and your mother.’  Do any of you have fathers or mothers that you have to honor?  ‘Thou shalt not covet.’  Do any of you feel envy or have possessions that you would need to be warned against coveting.”

Now, it is certainly true that the Torah has meanings on all levels; the same Torah that we read every year, that tells us not to murder and not to steal, also says not to murder or steal on the levels of Yetzirah, Beri’ah and Atzilut.  We may not understand thosee meanings, but they are there nonetheless, since the Torah is actually the blueprint of creation, as the Chafetz Chaim hints at the end of the quoted passage.  So the Torah, while it had to be “lowered” (even as far as) to the world of Asiyah, is present throughout, just as Gd Himself is present throughout all of creation.

To some extent then, we can say that the four “worlds” represent a progressive distancing from Gd, and therefore the Torah has to be “lowered” through this sequence.  This is, in a sense, a linear process.  But the purpose of this “lowering” is so that mankind, and in particular the Jewish people, should raise Torah back up to its Divine source.  That is, by our constant “toil over Torah day and night,” we begin to infuse Torah values first into our own individual existence, and then, by extension, into our environment.  That is, we raise the world of Asiyah up to the level of Atzilut in terms of the order and perfection that it displays.  But this is just the cycle of exile and redemption that we have seen played out in our history over and over again.  This cycle has led our Sages to compare Israel to the moon, which cycles through phases, growing, decaying, disappearing for a moment only to grow again.

However, each cycle maintains a memory of the previous cycles, so that unlike the moon, when we cycle around we do not simply come back to where we started – rather, we come back to a higher, more evolved starting point.  It is a cyclical phenomenon superimposed on a linear phenomenon, which will eventually take us to the final redemption in the time of Mashiach.  Perhaps the helix would be a better analogy; perhaps it is significant that the molecular basis of virtually all life on earth is, in fact, a helix (DNA).

There is no better time to take this lesson to heart than now, at the beginning of a new year.  Now is a time for introspection and for comparison.  How have we grown this year?  How have our priorities been?  How have we responded to the challenges Gd gave us?  Are we stronger, wiser this year than last?  Is the world a better place for our having been given this past year?  This time is a time when Gd judges all Creation.  May He inscribe all of us in the Book of Life, so that next year at this time we can look back and see how far up the helix we have come.

A Dear Son to Me

Essay 23: The Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life (12 October 2000)

In this final essay, R. Steinsaltz takes on what might be termed “political correctness.”  He distinguishes between the Tree of Knowledge (this was the forbidden fruit) and the Tree of Life.  The Tree of Life represents the simple verities, the short words that describe, well, life – love, beauty, belief.  The Tree of Knowledge represents what R. Steinsaltz calls sophistication, and he notes the common root of the word with sophistry.  When we take a sophisticated view of life, somehow things begin to get very complicated.  The simple concepts will no longer do – we have to take a very nuanced view of everything, and nothing is as it seems.  To use R. Steinsaltz’ example, when one is among sophisticated people one can no longer go to an art museum, look at a painting, and say, “I think it’s beautiful.”  No, it must be analyzed half to death to prove that we understand it, inside and out.  A simple, visceral reaction will no longer do.

When I was young I always used to love looking up at the clouds and appreciating them, the way they moved and morphed into different shapes.  When I got to graduate school I was very apprehensive about taking a course in Cloud Physics, lest I lose that innocent wonder.  Since I had no choice, of course I took the course.  Now, 40 years later, I can still give you a pretty decent lecture on how clouds form, but I can also still lie on the grass and look up and just enjoy the clouds.  I guess I lucked out on that one.

I am writing this shortly after the murder of three Yeshiva students near Hebron and the equally horrible revenge killing of an Arab teenager shortly thereafter.  I was reading an article that a friend sent me from a well-known left-wing magazine, which was discussing how these murders have to be denounced even without “contextualizing” them in relation to the “occupation,” etc.  I couldn’t get past the first couple of paragraphs.  It was very sophisticated.  I hope it made the people who wrote it feel better, very high and moral and all that.  The mother of one of the Yeshiva boys, on the other hand, picked up the phone and called the mother of the murdered Arab boy and offered her condolences and her apologies on behalf of the Jewish people.  There is a reason Gd forbade the Tree of Knowledge.  This new year, let’s all get back to the Tree of Life.