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Parashat Shemot 5774 — 12/18/2013

Parashat Shemot 5774 — 12/18/2013

Take your shoes off your feet, for the place upon which you are standing is holy ground. (Shemos 3:5)

At any time, in any place, a person can come closer to his Maker to serve Him and fulfill His commandments. He just needs to make sure that there is nothing standing between him and Hakadosh Baruch Hu, as it is written,for your sins create a separation between you and your Gd (Yeshayahu 59:2).

   This is what Hakadosh Baruch Hu communicated to Moshe Rabbeinu, Take your shoes off your feet. That is, “You need to remove the obstruction that is present between you and the ground upon which you stand [which is holy] because [actually] in every place where I shall cause mention of My Name (Shemos 20:21), there shall be holiness – and you just need to remove the intervening obstruction’ No one should say, “The old days were better than ours’ because it is not wisdom that prompts this statement. Rather, everyone must say, “When will my deeds compare with those of our forefathers?” The only difference is the thickness of the mechitzah the “intervening obstruction’ And as soon the obstruction is gone, the holiness is revealed. Its great spiritual light shines forth in all of its brilliance, as the verse testifies, The place upon which you are standing is [already] holy ground That is, in all places, at all times, [and in all situations] there is holiness; we just need to remove our [spiritually obstructing] “shoes” from our feet.  (Chafetz Chaim)

Last year we discussed the quoted verse inter alia, in the context of a human being’s drawing close to Gd.  Not surprisingly, the Chafetz Chaim has a deeper insight into the text which I would like to explore.

We know from modern Physics that creation can be described as a hierarchical structure, with deeper, more abstract layer underlying the structure of more expressed layers.  For example, the surface level of macroscopic objects is controlled by laws such as Newton’s laws of motion, which describes objects as points with a certain mass and operated on by various forces that govern its path through space.  On deeper levels, these macroscopic objects are composed of smaller objects – molecules, atoms, subatomic particles – whose laws are quite different.  We generally focus our attention on the subtler levels and try to derive the laws of the more expressed levels from them.  Thus we derive the laws of chemistry (interaction of atoms to form molecules) from the laws of atomic physics (arrangement of electrons in an atom) and the laws of atomic physics from the laws of nuclear physics (structure of the nucleus of the atom), etc.

We can, however, look at this structure from a different perspective.  Instead of looking “inside out” as just described, we can look from the “outside in,” which is the way we generally perceive the world anyway.  That is, when we look around us, we see macroscopic objects, not their components.  If we focus our attention on molecules, we don’t “see” the atoms or the structure of their nuclei.  It is as if each level “hides” the more subtle levels beneath them.  The surface layer is a kind of crust, or skin, that obscures its substrata.  In Physics, we can penetrate this crust by means of knowledge; when we understand the functioning of, say, the molecular layer, we can, as it were, “see” this layer when we look at something macroscopic.  We look at a glass of water and we “see” with our mind’s eye the molecules sticking to each other and pulling up the side of the glass because of their polar nature.  The only impediment to this kind of perception is ignorance.

We have a similar structure in the spiritual world.  On the surface is the material world with which we are familiar.  Below that are different levels of emanations of Gd’s light, and at the basis of the entire structure is Gd.  And, as in the case of our physical perception, where the senses perceive the physical world, which thus forms a crust that impedes our perception of the subtler layers, so our perception of the physical world blocks our perception of the subtle, ethereal realms that underlie it.  Again, the solution is knowledge, but in this case it is not knowledge of the equations of quantum mechanics that we need,  Rather, since these spiritual levels are also the substance of our own inner consciousness, we can gain access to them by direct experience of ourselves.

Our tradition tells us that the path to this self-knowledge is to discipline ourselves both physically and mentally to live a life in which the focus of our thought and action is spiritual rather than physical.  Even, or perhaps especially, those mitzvot that involve a physical component (eating matzah, sitting in a sukkah) guide our awareness beyond the physical object to its symbolic, spiritual values.  Certainly overtly “spiritual” practices such as prayer take our awareness towards Gd.  And the trick, as in any other kind of training, is repetition.  The story is told that a tourist in NY once asked a man how to get to Carnegie Hall.  The man was Toscanini, and he answered, “Practice!”

In truth, as we have pointed out in the past, all the different “levels” of reality are simply modes we use to describe reality at different scales of time, energy and distance.  All the levels are all everywhere, all the time, interpenetrating one another.  If all we can see is the surface level, it is not because the deeper levels are “somewhere else.”  The problem is in our ability to perceive.  Certainly Gd is everywhere; all creation emanated from Gd and is, in some way, no different from Gd.  If Gd “hides His Face” it is because we don’t know how to seek Him out.  In the Chafetz Chaim’s words, every place is holy, but we don’t see it because we don’t remove the shoes from our feet!

Last year we spoke about coming closer to Gd.  I believe the Chafetz Chaim is telling us that in reality, we don’t need to move anywhere to come closer to Gd.  We are already held in Gd’s loving embrace.  It’s is just that we are asleep, inert, unable to perceive.  We need to wake up to who we are inside, to realize that we have not moved away from Gd, nor Gd forbid, has He moved away from us.  As the Kotzker Rebbe famously remarked, “Where is Gd?  Wherever we allow him to be!”  Let us allow Gd to come out of hiding behind the multifold layers of His creation, so we can all enjoy the infinite Divine Light, unencumbered by any obstructions.

Shemoneh Esrei

Restore our judges as at the beginning,

And our advisors as at first.

Remove from us all sorrow and groaning,

And rule over us, You, Hashem, alone, with lovingkindness and mercy

And justify us through judgment

Blessed are You, Hashem, the King Who loves justice and righteousness.

As I write this the US Government shutdown of October, 2013, has entered its second week.  It is a testimony to the damage that a determined minority can do with strong-arm tactics, extortion and ample funding from wealthy backers.  Unfortunately, this kind of government has plagued the US for some decades now.  It is just this kind of a situation that we pray to avoid.  We ask Gd to restore enlightened leadership, leaders and legislators who put the public interest over their own petty self-interest, who make decisions based on facts, rather than ideology, who are honest with themselves and with the people that they serve.

Ultimately though, we recognize that such a government is impossible if the leaders and the people are divorced from Gd.  If our awareness is always focused on the material outer crust of life, then we will always be playing a zero-sum game where “the one with the most toys at the end wins.”  That is why we ask Gd to rule over us, alone.  In fact, Gd is already ruling over us, alone.  We think we have control over our lives; generally there comes a point, sooner or later, when we realize that we don’t.  Things happen to us.  If we’re awake we get the message and mend our ways.

Our Sages tell us (Avot 3:2): Pray for the welfare of the government, because without the fear [of the government] each one would swallow his neighbor alive.  It is a sad situation where the government’s main function is to protect the weak and the vulnerable from the powerful and the rapacious.  When we become aware that we actually own nothing except the mitzvot we have performed and the good influences we’ve created around us by our actions, then perhaps government can move on to directing the society’s activities in the direction of progress towards more order, more happiness, more Gdliness, rather than just fighting a rear-guard action against the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

I was once saying this particular b’rachah when I happened to glance out the window at my modest, quiet, tree-lined street.  It struck me what a beautiful world we could create if we would only cooperate with one another.  This would be a magnificent spiritual revolution, but to create it will take a lot of prayer.