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Parashat Shoftim 5775 — 08/19/2015

Parashat Shoftim 5775 — 08/19/2015

Last week, for parashat Re’eh, we discussed the nature of idolatry, and the need to uproot it from the Land of Israel.  However, we did not really address what is special about the Land of Israel that makes it incompatible with idolatry, as opposed to other lands, where other peoples live.  In parashat Shoftim, Rav Kook delves a little deeper into this idea:

In what areas did the High Court (Great Sanhedrin) have jurisdiction?  Was it only in legal/Halachic matters, or also in matters of faith? …

The Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds appear to disagree over this issue.  The Babylonian Talmud in Sanhedrin 87a states that the cases brought to the High Court were legal in nature.  … The Jerusalem Talmud, on the other hand, holds that “matter” (a “matter” that must be brought before the High Court) also includes Aggadah or non-legal disputes. …

Rav Kook explained that this dispute is a result of the essential difference between the Torah of Eretz Yisrael … and the Torah from outside the Land of Israel [RAR: i.e. Babylonia].

According to Rav Kook, the  basis of this difference is that prophecy is limited to the Land of Israel.  Therefore, the Torah of the the Land of Israel is based on an inner knowingness, based on the direct experience of the reality underlying the surface of life.  The Babylonian Talmud, on the other hand, is focused more on the logical elucidation of the principles underlying the halachah – otherwise known as “Talmudic hair-splitting.”

Rav Kook points out that when the Jerusalem Talmud wants to introduce a proof it says ta chazi / Come and see, whereas the Babylonian Talmud uses the phrase ta sh’ma / Come and hear.  Seeing is all-inclusive – we grasp the whole gestalt “at a glance.”  It is not discursive – it is holistic.  Hearing, on the other hand, is intrisically linear.  We hear the logical flow of an argument, and it is only when all the pieces have been put into place, that we hope that the picture becomes clear in the listener’s mind’s eye.  Perhaps that is what Torah is alluding to when it states, in the context of the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, And all the people were seeing the sounds [lit: the voices] (Ex 20:15).  If anyone can paint a “word picture,” it’d be Gd!

We have several concepts here that appear to be related: prophecy, holistic knowledge, and inner knowing (intuition).  I believe the basis of this relationship is that all these forms of knowledge are based on first-hand experience, rather than simply “book knowledge.”  What might this first-hand knowledge be?

Consider the ordinary process of knowing that we all experience.  We are the subject, the knower, and whatever our attention is on is the object, the known.  Now consider what would happen if the object got more and more refined, more transparent as it were.  Eventually we come to a point when the object of knowledge is refined away completely, and the knower is left alone with him or her self.  Since there is no object of perception any more, this kind of awareness is completely unbounded by time, space or the processes of change that make up our ordinary waking state of consciousness.  In fact, it is a new state of consciousness, different from waking, dreaming or deep sleep.  It has been described as “pure knowledge,” as it is the knowledge of one’s own unbounded nature.  It also is seen to be the basis of all knowing, as it is all that is left when the object is refined away.

We find a similar situation in the world of physics.  If we look down through the layers of creation – molecular, atomic, subatomic – we find increasing abstraction and increasing power.  Physicists believe that underlying all the varied forms and phenomena of nature is one unified field, whose various modes of vibration give rise to the perception of the layers above it.

We have found in physics that whenever two phenomena interact, they are, eventually, found to be not separate entities, but two aspects of one, underlying entity.  An obvious example of this is the electric field and the magnetic field.  A changing electric field produces a magnetic field (think of an electromagnet) and a changing magnetic field produces an electric field (think of a generator).  In the mid-1800s Maxwell showed that in fact these two fields were not different at all, but they were two aspects of one underlying field – the electromagnetic field.

We find a similar situation when we consider the objective and subjective realms of life.  These two areas interact.  The physical world is perceived by us through the sense organs, creating an effect in our inner awareness.  And our awareness interacts with the physical world through the organs of action – we intend for some effect to take place, and our body completes the process.  Our Sages tell us, incidentally, that this is why the soul is put (imprisoned?) in our body – to provide a mechanism by which the purely spiritual soul can interact with the physical world.  Extending the logic, we can understand that our subjective reality and the objective reality are two aspects of one unified reality.  The unified field of physics, the abstract basis of physical nature, would then be parallel to the field of “pure knowledge,” the basis of all knowing.

I think that this gives us an insight into our question about the nature of knowing inside and outside the Land of Israel.  Prophecy, where Gd speaks directly with the prophet, is primarily an inner experience.  Gd spoke with Moshe Rabbeinu in a loud voice from within the Tent of Meeting, according to the Rabbinic tradition, but the Voice did not go outside the Tent – nobody else could hear it.  This highest form of cognition must come from the establishment of the prophet’s mind on the level of pure knowingness.  From this level, the prophet can see the finest sprouting of any object or any action and its progressive manifestation into concrete reality.  Furthermore, the prophet sees this sprouting in its full, infinite context, the context in which all influences are taken into account.  In Moshe Rabbeinu’s case, this meant cognizing the Torah – the blueprint of creation according to the Rabbis – and presenting it to us in a form we can live in the world.  For other prophets, whose vision was not quite as pristine, the messages were more localized, although still universal.

However  outside the Land of Israel, where the environmental influences are not so pure, we can imagine that even when prophecy flourished in Israel, it was at the very least obscured elsewhere.  Today, at least in the West, it appears that even common sense is often hidden from those in power!

Nowadays of course, prophecy has ceased, and the experience of pure knowledge is rare indeed.  The Chazon Ish (1878-1953) writes:

When one is privileged to know the Torah, his intellect, like a seed in the furrow of a field, unites with his knowledge and t hey become a single entity.  He walks among people and seems to the superficial observer to be an ordinary person.  In truth, however, he is an angel dwelling among mortals; he lives a life of spiritual ecstasy that is exalted above all praise (Collected Letters of the Chazon Ish, 1:13; quoted in Iggeret haRamban by R. A. C. Feuer – a small volume well worth having and perusing daily by the way).

So the experience is not totally lost, and one may hope that it will be restored in its fullness in the days of Mashiach, may we see them speedily in our time!


Pirke Avot, Chapter 6

Mishnah 3

One who learns from his fellow a chapter, a law, a verse, an expression, or even a single letter, must accord that fellow honor [i.e. as he would his teacher] …

Clearly if one learns a whole chapter of Mishnah from a colleague or fellow student, that colleague is taking on the role of a teacher, and we must accord him honor.  But one letter?  Must be a love-letter, eh?

How can we understand this?  I think we need to understand the relation of the teacher and the student to the nature of knowledge.  As we have just seen, at the basis of knowledge there is pure knowing-ness, pure consciousness.  This level holds all knowledge in seed form.  Just as a tiny seed contains all the knowledge to create a huge tree, so the level of pure consciousness has all the knowledge to create the entire universe.  And pure consciousness is inherent in all the structures of creation, from the simplest to the most complex, from the subtlest to the most expressed.  As Blake put it:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 

And Eternity in an hour  (Auguries of Innocence)

If the teacher can bring the student to the level where he can perceive the infinite basis of life in one expression, or even one letter, do we not owe him honor?