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Parashat Shemot 5777 — 01/21/2017

Parashat Shemot 5777 — 01/21/2017

Shemot 1:1-6:1

And Moses said, “I will turn now and I will see this great vision – why isn’t the bush consumed?” (3:3)

Moshe was saying, “now I will turn away from the lowly mundane existence I have been living and draw myself close to spiritual loftiness and to my spiritual root,” for this is man’s entire purpose in this lowly world. One who distances himself from lowly physicality merits seeing spiritual loftiness – “I will turn away and I will see.”

And Hashem saw that he turned to see and Elokim called out to him from within the bush. (3:4)

…when the Shechina saw Moshe turning away from physicality in a desire to draw close to spirituality, the Shechina responded by calling out and drawing Moshe closer… The Arizal explains that in the words ki sar lir’ot, “that he turned to see,” the word sar (“he turned”) has the numerical value of 260, which is equivalent to two times the word ayin (“eye” = 130). … There is a physical seeing as well as a spiritual seeing – physical seeing is with the physical eyes while spiritual seeing is performed with the intellect. One who wishes to open his eyes and see intellectual and spiritual sights must close his physical eyes, which are drawn to physical sights.

We discussed the nature of the senses last week, as part of a discussion of the dual, physical/spiritual nature of human beings. We made the point that the physical senses go outward, as they are designed to connect us, that is, our spiritual soul, to the physical world. This week, Ramchal discusses the inner value of the senses. (I should point out that just as last year, the selections I’m quoting each week came from many different parts of the authors’ works, and are not meant to provide a week-by-week development. Furthermore, I am selecting from several pieces on each parashah, so when I mention a sequence in the discussion, that is from my side, not Ramchal’s.)

Just as the physical senses connect us with the material world, and are functions of the body (seeing with the physical eyes, hearing with the physical ear, etc.), so there are, so-to-speak, spiritual senses which connect us with our inner, spiritual nature. Since we experience our inner spirituality primarily with our mind, these “inner senses” are more associated with the mind, the intellect, and the intuition.

The trick in using the spiritual senses, as opposed to the physical ones, is that we have to turn our attention away from the physical senses and put it on the inner senses. This, Ramchal says, is accomplished by closing the eyes. It isn’t really possible to shut off the other senses – if there is sound we will hear it, and the same for taste (although we can keep our mouths shut!), touch and smell (one can hold one’s nose, but one cannot hold one’s nose and close one’s mouth and breathe all at once!). In any event, the sense of sight is our primary one and closing the eyes is both emblematic and largely effective in turning away from physical sensation.

Now it is the nature of the physical senses to go outward, because they are built to connect us with the outside world. Similarly, it is in the nature of the spiritual senses to go inward, as they are built to connect with the spirit. However, even when we close the eyes, we often find our minds racing, flitting back and forth on the surface level of thinking. This is because we are generally directing our thoughts, focusing on the meaning of the thoughts. Since we are directing the mind in the direction we want it to go, it cannot go in the direction it naturally wants to go. Even worse, if we try to force the mind to stay steady on a particular thought or image, then we are putting a lot of effort into preventing the mind from going in the inward direction.

I think that our tradition has two answers to this. The first is Torah study. Traditional Torah study takes a text and analyzes it in finer and finer detail. This direction towards “finer and finer” is the direction of the spiritual, from an intellectual point of approach. The intellect, that which distinguishes, can take us to the finest level of duality, after which we leave it at the door and experience the unity that underlies all duality. As Tevye says at the end of such an exercise, “No! There is no other hand!”

The other answer is to let the mind remain lively, but to disconnect it from the meaning of what it is thinking about. This is a meditative approach, and various techniques are discussed, in a somewhat cryptic way, in the Jewish esoteric literature. These techniques use long Names of Gd or other combinations of Hebrew letters for the mind to have an object of awareness, but one which leaves the mind free to take its own direction. The idea is that as long as one doesn’t concentrate on the meaning of the sequence of letters, the mind will spontaneously begin to experience the object in its finer and finer values, until the field of unity beneath those finer values can be experienced. I hasten to add that the Kabbalistic literature is purposefully vague about specific techniques, as it is held they may only be taught directly from a teacher to a single worthy student, and not learned out of a book. I am extrapolating from what I have read.

We see this idea of closing off the physical senses writ large on Yom Kippur. We are admonished v’initem et nafshotechem / “afflict” your souls. If we derive the word v’initem from the root meaning “poor” (ani), we can render the phrase, as “you shall impoverish your souls.” How? By refraining the outward senses by fasting and the other restrictions of Yom Kippur. This is the essence of turning inward, or t’shuvah.

Our verses, and Ramchal’s reading of them, give the basics of the technique for spiritual development. We turn away from the outwardly-directed physical senses, and allow the mind to experience finer levels of thought, using its own natural tendency to move in the direction of spirituality. When we can do this regularly, we can experience all the blessings of heaven and earth.


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parshat Shemot

In this parshah, Gd speaks to Moses from a burning bush, tells him to go to Pharoah, and tell Pharoah to let my people go.

Can we find this event as a process in the human physiology, personality?

The point of departure is Rabbi Resnick’s observation on that Torah compares humans to trees and that we humans have a fire within us, a yearning for fulfillment.

We’ve been looking at the parshas from the standpoint of Teshuvah, in the lives of individuals as members of society, devotees of Gd. We’ve found some descriptions of  historical figures such as Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the Children of Israel who seem to have been experiencing Teshuvah. Noah was described as “righteous, perfect, walking with Gd”. Abraham was given by Gd “every blessing”, which he gave to Isaac.

With this Parsha, we will explore the event of Gd, Moses and the Burning Bush from a Kabbalistic perspective as events that take place in the physiology, the mind and feelings, and the soul. Eventually, we hope to explore all of Torah this way, exploring the symbolism of Biblical figures as representing different aspects of the human physiology and the overall story of Creation, travelling, settling, moving to the Promised Land, moving out of the Promised Land to Egypt, brief prosperity, enslavement, exodus, and back to the Promised Land as describing stages in the process through which the human physiology and personality gain perfection, Teshuvah, restoration of Primordial Oneness.

One source we will particularly draw on is a book by Rabbi Yitchak Ginsburg, “Body, Mind and Soul: Kabbalah of Human Physiology, Disease and Healing.”  The book begins with a quote from a letter by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to Rabbi Ginsburg, saying it would be proper for him to publish this book.

In this book, Rabbi Ginsburg explores the connection to the human physiology, mind and soul from the standpoint of Gd’s four letter name, the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the 10 sephirot.

Although in this book, Rabbi Ginsburg doesn’t say anything about the Burning Bush, the Promised Land or Egypt, he does associate Gd who speaks with humans with the lower level of the SephiraDa’at” and with the brain posterior. He associates Moses with the SephiraNetzach” and with the endocrine system, which brings messages from the brain to the rest of the physiology, just as Moses brought messages from Gd to the rest of the Jewish people – and to Pharoah.

Rabbi Ginsburgh does say something which we can tentatively apply to the appearance of the Burning Bush within which Gd speaks (or, as which Gd speaks) and whose fire does not go out.

He associates the power of sight with the inner point of the pupil, which when activated by light from outside, activates “the eye’s innate power to emanate its own spiritual light…” Perhaps it is Gd’s Light that shines within this light and enlivens the endocrine system, Moses.

This can be a stage in the healing process which, according to Rabbi Ginsburgh begins when the estrangement due to an imbalance in the immune system caused by unkind words spoken, lack of gratitude, lack of forgiveness, an imbalance in the Sephira of Hod—thanksgiving.

This is a preliminary venture into exploring how the estrangement which begins when Heaven and Earth are perceived as separate from each other and from Gd becomes balanced with the return to the Promised Land, even a glimpse of the Promised Land, and the Kiss of Gd (as happens to Moses in the last Parshah of the Five Books of Torah).

I very much invite and welcome thoughts on this interpretation and how to refine it further.

Baruch HaShem.