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Parashat Toledot 5775 — 11/19/2014

Parashat Toledot 5775 — 11/19/2014

Our tradition tells us that when Avraham was a young man, he had the audacity to break the idols in his father’s pottery shop.  He left one idol standing with a stick in his hand.  When his father asked him what he had done, Avraham replied, “Nothing – this idol broke all his rivals.”  His father told him that that was ridiculous, the idol was made out of clay and couldn’t move his arm.  Avraham replied, “Let your ears hear what your mouth is saying.  These are lumps of clay, not gods – why are you bowing down to them?”  In one version of the Midrash, Avraham’s father was not amused and informed on him to King Nimrod*, who had Avraham thrown into a fiery furnace, but he was miraculously protected from harm.  The Midrash goes on to make the remarkable statement that Avraham was saved by his grandson, Ya’akov, who was about a century from being born!  What is this Midrash trying to convey?

Rav Kook explains:

There are two paths of spiritual growth that one may take.  The first path is one of sudden, radical change, usually the result of some external catalyst. …

The second path is one of slow, deliberate growth.  We attain this gradual change through our own toil; it does not require an external stimulus and thus is always accessible….

We should first prepare ourselves and advance as much as possible through our own efforts.  After we have attained the highest level that we are capable of reaching, we may then benefit from unexpected inspiration from the inner recesses of our soul.  (Sapphire from the Land of Israel)

Avraham, the iconoclast, represents the “radical” end of this continuum, while Ya’akov, the “simple man, dwelling in tents,” is the other end.  How does Ya’akov “rescue” his grandfather Avraham.  Again, Rav Kook explains:

The Kabbalists explain that the goal of humanity – the reason why the soul is lowered into this world – is so that we may perfect ourselves through our own efforts.  This way we will not need to … benefit from that which we did not earn.

…[I]t would appear that the path of radical transformation is an external gift that we do not deserve … [and] that we should avoid.

Not necessarily.  If we are able to take this unexpected gift and use it to attain even greater levels of spiritual growth through our own efforts, then there is no shame in accepting it,

I would like to point out that this dichotomy appears to be rooted in the verry nature of the relationship between the infinite Gd and His finite creation.  Consider the two sefirot Chachmah and Binah.  They are two of the “upper 3” sefirot that sit on top of the “lower 7” sefirot in the “tree of life” diagram that many may be familiar with.  (See for an overview; Googling “ten sephirot” brings up a number of interesting articles).  The third of the “upper 3” is variously described either as Da’at (the initials then forming ChaBaD, from where the Lubavitcher Chasidim take the name of their organization), which is an amalgam or synthesis of Chachmah and Binah, or as Keter (“Crown”), identified with Gd’s Will, which sits above them.  Now Chachmah means “Wisdom” and Biniah means intellect.  I have seen them described in the following way: Chachmah is like a lightning flash, that illuminates the entire surroundings with an intense light, but only briefly.  Binah, on the other hand, is the process of integrating what one has perceived in that flash of illumination, by taking all the pieces of information, as it were, and putting each into its own place until one has achieved a self-consistent, integrated understanding.

It is interesting that on the Tree of Life, Chachmah is directly above Chesed, which is associated with Avraham, but Binah is directly above Gevurah, which is associated with Yitzchak, not Ya’akov.  The result of the full integration of the illumination originally provided by the flash of insight is Da’at, Knowledge.  This sefirah lies on the center line, the trunk, of the Tree of Life, directly above Tiferet, and this is what is associated with Ya’akov.  I don’t know why the associations don’t appear to match up; presumably it is strongly related to the superficiality of my understanding.

When I was a graduate student I had an experience very similar to this model.  I had been “toiling” away at the problem I was working on for several months, trying to get a good handle on it.  One day, while relaxing in the bathtub, not thinking about the problem at all, I literally saw the solution (Chochmah), in general terms and in all its particulars.  All that remained was to work out the details (Binah) on the computer (yes, they had computers back then) and write it up, which I was able to complete in about 3 weeks.  I’m sure the experience is more common than we believe; we just need to learn to identify it when it happens.

This structure really shouldn’t surprise us.  We have discussed on many occasions that the material world we inhabit is like a thin crust on a vastly greater spiritual world, and all of this creation is just a manifestation of an infinite, unmanifest substrate.  If we were to plumb the levels of the created world, from the material surface to the most ethereal depths, we would, at every stage, be dealing with finite values.  If we were then to experience the infinite directly, we would all of a sudden have the experience of something totally, radically different from all the finite levels we had been going through.  This experience would be a flash of insight, a flash of direct knowledge of the ultimate reality of life.  Presumably we would, at least at first, not be able to maintain that experience.  We might bounce back out into our usual, finite reality, but the residue, as it were, of that experience would be permanently imprinted in us.  We would then use our powers of reasoning and understanding to integrate what we had gained into our daily lives.

Writing this scenario large, our task as a people is to experience Gd directly through our Torah-prescribed way of life, so that we can integrate this knowledge into the life of our communities and the world as a whole.  If we succeed, “the earth will be full of the knowledge of Gd as the waters cover the sea.” (Habakkuk 2:14)

The Sacks Haggadah

Essay 6: Not Only One

For it was not only one man who rose up to destroy us: in every single generation people rise up to destroy us, but the Holy One saves us from their hands. (Hagaddah)

R. Sacks tackles one of the oldest problems in the world – why does anti-Semitism, the oldest hatred, persist?  It may mutate to fit the local language and culture, but in essence it remains the same: Jews are different.  Our Sages tell us that we were redeemed from Egypt specifically because we maintained our unique language and culture.  And Bilaam blesses us by saying “It is a nation that dwells alone, not reckoned among the peoples.”

Now of course every human being is unique, and every culture is unique.  This is the basis of the requirement that we treat each other with respect and dignity, as reflections of the Divine.  It is also a challenge to all those who would control others, who would turn people into objects to be used for their own self-gratification (picture Kim Jong-Un for one).  Perhaps this is why whipping up anti-Semitism has been a favorite ploy of dictators throughout the world, from the Czars to the sheiks and many others in between.  By championing our own right to be unique, to not “fit in,” to not be simply a cog in their machine, we implicitly champion the rights of everyone else to express their own uniqueness.  Perhaps that is why we have fit in so well in N. America, where individual uniqueness has always been valued and encouraged.

Anti-Semitism harms us of course.  We have to waste time and energy combating it.  But I think R. Sacks would argue that it hurts the anti-Semite more.  In denying us the opportunity to unfold our own individual and national destiny, the anti-Semite denies himself the same opportunity.  He objectifies himself, much more than he objectifies us.

*In a more modern setting, my great-grandfather owned a sweatshop somewhere in the Russian empire.  My grandfather organized the workers and led them out on strike.  His father was also not amused, and informed on him to the Tsarist police, causing my grandfather to flee for his safety, to Sweden, the UK and finally to the US.  Or so the story goes.