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Parashat Re’eh 5774 — 08/20/2014

Parashat Re’eh 5774 — 08/20/2014

You must surely strike down the inhabitants of that city. (Devarim 13:16)

And He will grant you mercy, be merciful to you, and make you numerous… (Devarim 13:18)

It is well known that if a person repeatedly performs any given action, it eventually becomes second nature to him. If, for example, a person accustoms himself to doing chessed (kindness), he becomes kind by nature. So it is regarding every trait – both the good ones and the bad ones.

   Here [in connection with the mitzvah of eliminating the ir hanidachas (wayward city)], the Torah foresaw the results of the matter. 1he fact is that if a man becomes involved in this mitzvah – which is fulfilled by striking down and killing the residents of a wayward city – although he has performed a mitzvah of Hashem, great danger exists that his nature will be altered. Because he became accustomed to killing people, he may well become bloodthirsty. The verse therefore promises that even if a man fulfills this mitzvah and kills residents of such a city, he will not become ruthless. Rather, “He shall grant you mercy,” Hashem Yisbarach will compensate for the feelings of mercy that the man lost. The Almighty will replenish the man’s mercy and compassion until he returns to the way he was before he performed the mitzvah. In the words of Kohelet [Ecclesiastes], He who observes a mitzvah will know no evil (8:5).  (Chafetz Chaim)

The Chafetz Chaim is making a very fundamental point here – as we act, so we become.  If we act in a merciful manner, we become more merciful.  If we act in a generous manner, we actually cultivate the trait of generosity in our natures.  Even if at first it is hard to open our hands to the needy and sacrifice some of our hard-earned money, the next time is a little easier, etc.  Unfortunately, the opposite is true, as it says in the Talmud (Yoma): R Huna said in the name of Rav: If a person has committed a transgression once and then repeated it, it has become [as if] permissible for him.  And we read in Pirke Avot (4:2) the reward of a mitzvah is another mitzvah, and the reward of a transgression is another transgression.

Using this principle, the medieval commentators explained many of the mitzvot of the Torah as training devices that allow us to refine and purify our character.  The Sefer haChinuch (a 13th century compendium of the 613 mitzvot ordered by parashah) states (Mitzvah16):

… it is appropriate for us to do actions which demonstrate the great upliftment with which we were uplifted at that time [of the Exodus].  And through these actions and these symbols which we perform, the matter is permanently fixed in our souls.

   Understand that a person is created through his actions, and his heart and all his thoughts always follow his actions that he performs, whether for good or for bad.  And even a completely evil person in his heart, whose every inclination in his thoughts is constantly evil all the day – if his spirit is aroused and he makes the effort constantly to be engaged in Torah and mitzvot, even if not for their own sake, he will immediately begin to incline towards the good, and through the power of his actions he will kill off his evil inclination, for the heart is drawn after the actions.  On the other hand, even if a person is a perfect saint and his heart is always straightforward, desiring Torah and mitzvot, if he should begin to engage in false conduct, such as for example if the king forces him to engage in an evil occupation, truly, after engaging all day in this evil occupation, after some time his heart will be turned from its righteousness and he will become a completely evil person, for the matter is known and true that a person is created through his actions, as we have said. (Artscroll’s translation)

This principle, which we have all experienced in some way or other in our lives, posits an influence from the physical (body) to the spiritual (soul, mind, character traits, …).  It should be obvious, again from our everyday experience, that this influence is a two-way street.  We speak and act based on our thoughts and emotions.  If our mind directs our body to do something, the body responds, usually, for better or worse.  Nonetheless, we assume, at least in the Western, scientific tradition, that the body is primary and the spiritual is an “emergent property” of the functioning of the brain – that is, the substrate of consciousness is physical, and what we experience as our subjective self is merely a function of the activity and interaction of physical objects and fields.

In Jewish thought, the relationship is reversed.  Our tradition teaches us that Gd is the primary reality, and of course Gd is completely non-corporeal (see Rambam’s 3rd Principle of Faith).  Gd creates all levels of creation – the “spiritual” worlds of angels and the physical world which we human beings inhabit.  In fact, the creation is structured as a series of layers, with Gd at the center radiating His effulgence “outward” so to speak.  The further “away” we get, the more the intensity of Gd’s effulgence is attenuated, and the more dense the objects that inhabit that level.  At the farthest reach, we have the material, physical world, which doesn’t appear to have much connection with its source at all.

Interestingly, modern quantum field theory lends credence to our traditional view: at the basis of all creation is (we hope) one unified field which has different modes of vibration, each of which gives rise to the different particles of elementary particle physics.  The more complex modes are perceived as systems of particles and their interactions.  Even the largest galactic masses are simply the internal dynamics of this underlying field.  The field is primary – the physical world, which is just an expression of the field, is secondary.

What, then, are we doing when we use physical action – Gd’s mitzvot – to refine our inner, spiritual being?  I think we can understand this on two levels.  On the more superficial level, our individuality – that is, our body and mind – are our primary reality, whatever intellectual understanding we may have to the contrary.  Our body is something we can control, and by choosing to act in accord with Gd’s mitzvot we do in fact train both our body and our mind to act and think in accord with Gd’s Will.

On a deeper level, perhaps we can say that when we fulfill the mitzvot, we are actually rearranging the entire physical realm (certainly our individual selves most profoundly, but our actions do ripple out and affect our environment) to better reflect the perfection and integration of the Creatior.  Since, ultimately, all levels of creation are nothing other than the internal dynamics of the Creator, our mitzvah performance is really a restructuring of those dynamics in a way that allows Gd’s light to penetrate more and more deeply into the “outermost” layers of expressed creation.  Maybe an example from modern life would be the transformation of photo-grey sunglasses from the tinted state, where light is blocked, to the clear state where it can shine through.  The same elements are there, only they have been restructured into a new configuration.  In traditional language, Gd’s Glory has become more manifest in creation, Gd’s Name has become sanctified.

The ultimate good in Jewish thought is the sanctification of Gd’s Name.  Under certain circumstances, we must give up our individual lives, if need be, for this goal.  Even more important for most of us, we need to live with dedication to the sanctification of Gd’s Name at every moment and with every action that we undertake.  It is a huge responsibility, but the reward is commensurate with the responsibility, and our Sages tell us, the Master of the work is faithful to pay it.

A Dear Son to Me

Essay 18: Self-Investigation (September 1991)

Next week’s parashah begins by telling us to establish “judges and officers in our gates.”  While the plain meaning of the verse is clear, the commentators note that there is a secondary meaning as well: our “gates” are our senses of perception (that let influences from the outside world in) and our organs of speech and action (that allow our internal state to influence the world around us).  We must constantly be judging our perception and action, to allow inputs that will nourish us and to filter out inputs that will be damaging (e.g. pornography, noxious philosophies…), and to make sure our actions are correct and in accord with Gd’s Will (i.e. nourishing to all levels of our environment).

In our essay, R. Steinsaltz points out that we are, unfortunately, not in a very good position to act as a judge on these matters, simply because we cannot be objective about ourselves.  The phenomenon of judging ourselves leniently, of finding excuses and rationalizations and extenuating circumstances for what we do, is well known and virtually inescapable.  The opposite phenomenon is also found – some people judge themselves more severely than they judge others, whether out of an inflated sense of self-worth, or adherence to some social or religious code of behavior.  In either case, without the benefit of objectivity, justice is not served.

R. Steinsaltz proposes one solution to this problem, and that is to obtain objectivity by enlisting the aid of an advisor, a friend, a confidant, who ill naturally see us from a different angle.  By combining perspectives, we may obtain some more rounded perception.  I would like to suggest another approach.  As long as our awareness is bound to our individuality, we certainly lack proper objectivity and have a parochial perspective.  If we can expand our awareness to infinite value, then we become, as it were, detached witnesses to all the activity associated with our individuality – mind, body, senses.  This detachment gives us true objectivity – our subjectivity, our Self, is not involved with the activity of our individual “self,” and we are therefore in a better position to judge and control that activity, and we can fulfill the commandment to judge “justly.”