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Parashat Shelach 5775 — 06/10/2015

Parashat Shelach 5775 — 06/10/2015

When we bring an animal offering, we are required to bring a minchah / flour offering mixed with pure olive oil, and a wine libation. The one bringing the offering leans with his hands on the head of the animal and offers a confession or praise to Gd as appropriate. The animal is slaughtered and either wholly burnt on the altar, or certain portions are burnt on the altar while the bulk of the meat is eaten, either by the kohanim or by the owner. The flour of the minchah is mixed with the oil and a either the whole amount, or a fistful of the mixture, along with a similar amount of frankincense are burnt on the altar. The wine is poured into a bowl mounted on one of the altar’s corner protrusions (“horns”); a tube conducted it to hollows below the altar. The altar itself was hollow, with walls made of wood and the hollow filled with stones.

Rav Kook analyzes this structure:

The Temple service, Rav Kook explained, was meant to encompass all aspects of creation. Every offering contained elements from each of the four basic realms of the universe: human, animal, vegetable and mineral. The service involved the individual who brought the offering (human), the sacrifice (animal), the wine and flour offerings (vegetable), and the altar (which was filled with earth, from the mineral realm).

Including wine and flour is an important lesson in how we should serve Gd. We are blessed with higher faculties – our rintellect and power of speech – as well as lower, physical powers. Just as the Temple service incorporated all aspects of the universe, so too, our service of Gd should engage all of our powers and talents. If we were to serve Gd only with our more elevated faculties, we would not grow spiritually in all aspects of our being.

I believe that this insistence on serving Gd with all our faculties goes right to the heart of who we are as human beings, and what Gd’s purpose was in creating us. A human being is a soul implanted in a body; the purpose of this arrangement is to allow the soul, which is immaterial, to interact with the material world. If Gd had wanted us to serve Him with our souls only, it would have sufficed to create them without the body – in fact, shorn of the blandishments of physical desires and pleasures it would have been easier for the soul to serve Gd. Apparently that was not the purpose of Gd’s creating human beings.

I would like to digress for a minute and share a related Rabbinic teaching that became extremely relevant to me when Marie was dying. Bereishit Rabbah 14:4 to the verse Gd forms the spirit of man within him (Zech 12:1) teaches (Artscroll translation and note):

This teaches that a person’s soul is bound with a strong bond within him.  Were it not so, as soon as a misfortune would come upon him, he would push and cast out the soul.

Note 29: As he would be unable to withstand the pain or the anguish.  I.e., not only would a threat to his life cause him to die, but any misfortune would drive him to the point of casting his soul out of his body if it were easy to do so.  Gd therefore bound the soul within the body, making it difficult for a person to take his own life; and it is this bond that also prevents him from dying out of fear when his life is threatened.

We were fortunate to have a very remarkable woman attending Marie in her last days and especially in her last hours. She is an RN, but is also able to help guide the subtler levels of the physiology as well. At one point about 2 hours before Marie’s body stopped functioning she suddenly said, “Push!” Shortly thereafter Marie’s breathing became mechanical, brain-stem breathing. I asked her what had happened and she replied that Marie’s soul had left her body already, and her brain had shut down, leaving the brain stem’s automatic functioning only, which shortly ceased. Afterward I commented to her that she sounded like a labor coach telling a woman about to give birth to “Push!” She replied, “It’s a very similar process.”

Note that the four aspects or levels of creation that Rav Kook discusses correspond to the four levels of the human personality. The mineral level (the altar) corresponds to the body; it is the most inert. I think the vegetable and animal aspects correspond to the emotions and thoughts, perhaps in that order, perhaps not. But the human aspect, the Offerer, I believe corresponds to the spiritual aspect of the personality, the soul, the aspect of our personality that actually transcends the personality and connects it to its infinite source.

I would like to suggest that these four aspects also reflect four basic states of human awareness, three of which we are familiar with and a fourth that is less familiar. We are familiar with sleeping, dreaming and waking states of consciousness. Deep sleep state is totally inert, corresponding to the mineral level. Dreaming state is more alive, and I would say loosely corresponds to the vegetable level. Waking state, where we can react to stimuli corresponds to the animal level, which can move around and react to stimuli. In waking state we certainly have access to rational thought processes, but we use very little of the potential we have – even Einstein figured he used only 25% of his mental potential!

The human being is the one who is, in a sense, transcendental to the process of the offerings – the person is the Offerer, but once he brings the offering to the Temple, the whole process is more or less handed over to the kohanim; the offerer just witnesses the process. I would like to suggest that there is a level of consciousness that is likewise transcendental to the other states of consciousness and which would correspond to the Offerer. To get a sense of what this transcendental consciousness might be like, imagine being aware of some object, a sound or a visual object. Now imagine that our perception of the object gets fainter, thinner, more diaphanous, more transparent as it were. There is still a subject-object relationship here – the “I” or subject is still aware of the object. As the object gets fainter and fainter, it reaches a point where it is no longer perceptible at all. However the subject is still there, awake and alert. The difference is that the awareness of the subject is no longer confined by the boundaries of the object – the awareness is no longer awareness of any thing, it is just pure, unbounded awareness. This unbounded awareness is transcendental consciousness, because it goes beyond all the boundaries of any and all objects of perception. It is completely self-contained, infinite, 100% awake. In eastern thought it is described as the “dweller in the body,” the Self, the who we really are at our basis, without any of the limitations of our individual self.

Since this transcendental consciousness lies at the basis of our awareness, we can imagine a state where rather than only having a transitory experience of this transcendental consciousness, it becomes a permanent background, or ground state of a person’s awareness. In other words, the transcendental, infinite awareness infuses all of our activity, including sleeping, dreaming and waking activity. Perhaps this is what Rav Kook means by “engaging all of our powers and talents” in the service of Gd. Throughout all our activity, all our levels of consciousness, we remain attached to the root of our Being, our soul, which our Sages call “a piece of the Divine.” In this way the Divine becomes more and more a part of every level of our personality, and by extension, our environment as well. And this, I think, is the ultimate service of Gd – as our Sages describe it, “to increase Gd’s sovereignty in the world.”

And, amazingly enough, this is a task that Gd has delegated to human beings. In fact, it is a task that only human beings can perform. It has to be performed by creatures that are able to make a choice to offer themselves to Gd – all levels of themselves, from the transcendental to the grossest physical. The angels, who only serve Gd with their spiritual natures, and who have no free will, cannot accomplish this. In fact, one could almost say that Gd Himself can’t accomplish this – He is too overwhelming, swamping any ability to act freely. So it’s up to us. The whole cosmos depends on us to serve Gd with all our heart, all our soul and all our capabilities.

Pirke Avot, Chapter 3

Mishnah 2

Rabbi Chanina, the Deputy High Priest says: Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear of it, people would swallow each other alive.

The “government” to which R. Chanina is referring was the tyrannical, murderous Roman government that oppressed the Jewish people for so long, and whose successors – the Church and the governments of Europe – continue to oppress and stifle our unique, yet inconvenient genius. Nevertheless, the government does keep order, and without order there can be no progress. And if there is no order, we certainly will not be able to accomplish our spiritual tasks. We are fortunate in living in a relatively free society, where we have a civil society that supports our spiritual aspirations, or at least generally doesn’t get in their way. Actually, if we do our job right, we will see created an ideal government, one that reflects the perfect order of Divinity and which allows every member of society to develop his or her potential fully. Jefferson famously said, “That government is best which governs least.” The subtext is of course, not that the government has been replaced by anarchy, but that we quit “swallowing each other alive.” Until we get to that point in our individual and communal development, Jefferson’s ideal will be a far-off goal.