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Parashat Matot 5774 — 07/16/2014

Parashat Matot 5774 — 07/16/2014

They killed Bilaam ben Beor by the sword. (Bamidbar 31:8)

In Rashi we find, “Bilaam came against Yisrael and exchanged his craft for theirs, for Yisrael is saved only by means of their mouths through prayer and supplication. He came and took up their craft by using his mouth to curse them. Therefore, when they came against him, they exchanged their craft for that of the nations who come with the sword, as it is written (Bereishis 27:40), You shall live by your sword.”

   From here it is apparent that for a Jew, the “tools of his trade” are spoken words. just as precision tools are needed by craftsmen to produce their wares – and even the smartest and most industrious craftsman cannot create anything without his tools – so too, each Jew is capable of creating heaven and earth through his Gd-given power of speech. As the prophet says, I shall place My word in your mouth … to plant heaven and establish earth (Yeshayahu 51:16). That is, by means of words of kedushah that a person speaks in this world before Hakadosh Baruch Hu, angels and holy worlds are created above. Therefore, a person must be very careful not to spoil his precision tool with prohibited speech such as lashon hara [derogatory speech] and rechilus [gossip].  (Chafetz Chaim) (My bold)

…these 40 years Hashem, your Gd, was with you; you did not lack “anything/davar” (Deut 2:7).  They only had to mention something and it was created before them.  R. Shimon says, Even to speak [l’daber] they were not lacking, rather, one would think something in his heart and it was made…  (Shemot Rabbah 21:10)

Our tradition teaches that whenever we perform a mitzvah we create a “good angel” that pleads in our defense before the Heavenly Tribunal before which we must all stand in judgment.  Unfortunately, the opposite effect takes place if we transgress Gd’s Will.  These teachings can be understood literally if one wishes, or more allegorically, by noting that our actions have the effect of clarifying (mitzvot) or muddying up (transgressions) our own consciousness, or spiritual sensibility, so that we either make spiritual progress or backslide as a result.  In Pirke Avot (4:2) it is expressed this way: The reward of a mitzvah is another mitzvah, and the punishment for a transgression is another transgression.  In other words we have a positive feedback system, which can lead to accelerating growth or a slide down the proverbial “slippery slope.”

It appears that the Chafetz Chaim is indicating a much greater level of power in our faculty of speech.  In fact, he claims that entire worlds are created.  Admittedly, these are worlds of angels, ethereal worlds, but real nonetheless.  While this is more difficult to allegorize, we certainly know that the words we use to express ourselves can create various different realities.  A pleasant word to an adversary can dissolve considerable tension and lead to a reconciliation.  A different kind of speech can create a world of hurt for the speaker and the listener.  The atmosphere we create around us with our speech reacts back on us.  If our speech is proper it creates an atmosphere of clarity, allowing us to perceive subtler levels of creation, and to organize our action so that it is supported by the greater holiness of these subtler layers.  If our speech is improper, obviously the opposite effect occurs.  One need only look at the level of civil discourse in the US to see the latter phenomenon.  A wise man once said, “In a smoky room, even an enlightened man can’t see clearly.”

The Midrash goes even further.  In discussing the status of the Israelites as they left Egypt (as Moses was describing it 40 years later in his oration in Sefer Devarim), Shemot Rabbah indicates that through their speech the Israelites could actually create physical realities.  R. Shimon bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar and perhaps the most adept of the Sages of the Mishnah at esoteric lore, goes even further: The Israelites didn’t even have to bring their desires out to the level of speech; the mere thought, or desire for something, was sufficient for that thing to appear in physical reality.  This is something that is very difficult to allegorize, and, since similar stories appear in many different cultures and traditions, they are not so easy to dismiss out of hand either.  But what kind of explanation can we come up with for this ability, when it is, at best, extremely uncommon?

According to our tradition, Gd created the universe through speech: “Let there be light!  And there was light.”  Now it is clear that by “speech” Torah can’t mean speech in human terms – vibration of the air caused by motion of the vocal cords, modified by tongue and lips – there was no earth at the beginning and presumably no air to vibrate!  Nevertheless, the idea of speech conjures up a vibratory phenomenon, and presumably this is what underlies physical reality.  Torah uses the image: “the spirit of Gd hovered over the waters,” perhaps making waves like a hovering helicopter.  Those waves, these vibrations of the primeval subvstance of Creation (imagined as “water,” but no more like our water than Gd’s speech is like our speech), molded and guided by the Creator, are what we perceive as Creation.

Modern physics tells a very similar story.  At the beginning of the 20th century, it became clear that light, which we had always thought of as a wave, had a particle aspect, and that subatomic “particles,” such as electrons and protons, have wave aspects to them.  Further developments showed that in fact, everything that we call a “particle” is in fact nothing other than a mode of vibration of an underlying field.  It is the dream of physicists to demonstrate that in fact there is just one underlying, unified field, and all the diverse universe of particles are simply different modes of vibration of this one field.  Whether or not this dream will be realized, it is clear that the understanding of the nature of reality that physics is giving us is pointing in that direction; the only question is whether the tools of the scientist are subtle enough to describe that level of reality.

Now human speech is a vibratory phenomenon, and in fact, our tradition tells us that the particular vibrations that make up the sounds, the words, and the higher-order structures of the Hebrew language, have an exact correspondance to the subtle vibrational qualities of the physical objects to which those sounds refer.  If somehow our speech were actually able to activate the subtle levels of creation, rather than just mimic them (if we are speaking Hebrew), then it is altogether possible that that speaker could manipulate the visible vibrations to manifest whatever reality he was speaking out.  Since the subtle level of speech is thought, it may be that Rabbi Shimon is not pointing out that acting on a subtle level of thought is actually easier than manipulating the more expressed level of speech.  And this way, you know nobody will interrupt you!

It should be clear from this discussion why the ability to manifest the reality we want is so rare as to be virtually completely unknown in our generation.  It requires is to be able to think on a very subtle, silent level.  Most of us are caught up in the superficial chatter that continually bombards us from the environment, and from the noise in our own nervous system, the random, unfocused thoughts that seem to fill us constantly, preventing us from accomplishing what we want to accomplish.  We desperately need to reduce our level of internal noise, and to reduce the level of noise attacking us from outside.  We have techniques, such as prayer, and Shabbat, to create such an environment of silence and sanctity.  We need to turn off the cell phones and computers and all the other toys we have; we need to get disconnected for some time so we can learn to live with ourselves.  Then we will be able to use the full capacity of speech with which Gd has endowed us!


A  Dear Son to Me

Essay 13: What Will Become of the Jewish People?  (May 1995)

R. Steinsaltz uses a fascinating analogy to the plight of the Jewish people in our times.  Imagine that one has a document that can bring one to fulfillment.  The possessor puts it in a beautiful box and takes its teachings as far as he can in his lifetime.  He passes the box and its document on to his children, and so through the generations.  With time, the boxes become rubbed smooth and the document fades, and eventually even the paper disintegrates.  All the subsequent generations are left with is a plain, empty box, to which they feel at best a nostalgic attachment, but no real commitment.  And why should they?!  What good is an empty box to anyone?

If the Jewish people is to survive, whether in Israel or in the Diaspora, we have to rediscover what Judaism is really all about.  Jews in our days have flocked to every possible spiritual group and technique in what appears like a desperate search to find what, apparently, is not to be found in the synagogue.  R. Steinsaltz, who was apparently speaking to a US audience, challenged us to put in the work to remake ourselves to the point where we can meaningfully engage with Jewish tradition (i.e. be able to read the basic texts of Judaism) and learn to think and to live as Jews first.  I have always found it fascinating – and encouraging – that in the case of all other “hyphenated Americans” the noun is “American” and the adjective is Italian/Polish/African or whatever.  But in our case, we are American Jews – the noun is “Jew” – that is who we really are.  Now it is our job to really claim that identity!