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Parashat VaEtchanan 5773 — 07/17/2013

Parashat VaEtchanan 5773 — 07/17/2013

Hear O Israel, Hashem our Gd, Hashem is One  (6:4)

Blessed is the Name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity.  (liturgy)

Gd’s kingdom can only be actualized over a created universe that exists in actuality. As long as He is One, and there is no other existence besides, he has no kingdom. But on the other hand the existence of the universe as a separate entity, which allows Him His kingdom, implies a duality that detracts from His absolute unity. Our recognition that this duality is only there for the purpose of allowing the expression of His monarchy, restores the integrity of the absoluteness of His unity. What we are saying is that the universe can never slip away. It only exists as an expression of Gd’s monarchy. If it ever wandered away from His will as though it was something that existed independently for its own sake, it would cease to be instantly. That is the meaning of the inserted phrase “Blessed is the Name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity.”  (Ramban to 6:4 quoted by R. Noson Weisz in his column Ma’ayanot on, 5760)

Between the first verse of the Sh’ma (6:4) and its continuation (v’ahavta et Hashem Elokecha, 6:5ff), we say Baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va’ed.  We always say it in an undertone, except on Yom Kippur, when we say it aloud, like the angels in heaven whose level we have reached due to the holiness of the day.  This is apparently an extremely long-standing custom, for Resh Lakish, the 3rd century CE Palestinian Amora explains its origins, attributing the words to  our forefather Ya’akov.  Ramban, in the quote at the top, gives a somewhat different explanation, which I would like to discuss, as it touches on a number of very fundamental questions.

Gd’s Unity is perhaps the fundamental belief in Jewish thought.  The Sh’ma is our affirmation of this Unity, one of the first things we learn as small children and the last words we utter at the end of our lives.  We are adjured to maintain awareness of Gd’s Unity at all times, “when we sit in our houses, when we walk by the way, when we lie down and when we rise up.”  We’re also to have constant visual reminders, as “signs upon our arms and as ornaments between our eyes” (tefillin used to be worn all day) and “upon the doorposts of our houses and upon our gates.”  Acceptance of the Unity of Gd is one of the 6 constant mitzvot that are incumbent on every Jew, every moment of his or her life.  In other words, the fact of Gd’s Unity is to be a constant in our awareness.

The reason maintaining this awareness appears to be so difficult is that we are created beings, and although our personalities and our bodies may be highly sophisticated systems, they are composed of parts.  We also recognize ourselves to be parts of larger systems, social, ecological, etc.  Thus, all our perception and all our action is in the realm of differences, not Unity.  The challenge then becomes, if Gd’s Unity is a perfect Unity, with no parts, where does all this diversity come from, and what use is it to Gd?

In our passage, Ramban appears to give an approach to the second question.  He seems to be positing a distinction between Gd and Gd’s Kingdom.  Gd, as we have asserted, is pure Unity, transcendental to all forms and phenomena in the created universe.  Yet the created universe, which arose out of this Unity, in some sense actualizes some aspect of Gd which Ramban calls Gd’s Kingdom.  Now it is possible (likely?) that this is a technical Kabbalistic term which has a very specific meaning (of which I am completely unaware), but I would like to attempt to understand what Ramban means by it.

It is clear that a pure Unity has no place for any kind of diversity.  Yet in some sense, this Unity is incomplete; the King has no Kingdom.  For some reason, probably beyond human comprehension, there is an innate “need” for Unity to express itself in diversity.  The Sages use the expression “In the multitude of people is the King’s glory.”  I think what that means in our discussion is that somehow when Unity expresses itself in diversity, and then that diversity reflects Unity back to itself, the glory of the original Unity is somehow enhanced.

The fly in this ointment is that the “integrity of the absoluteness of His unity” depends on the recognition of the fact that diversity is never disconnected from the Unity.  This recognition must be on our part of course – there’s certainly no lack of recognition of the reality on Gd’s part!  But since we are created beings, it appears that this recognition doesn’t come completely naturally.  It’s something that we have to work at, and apparently the Sh’ma is one of the tools of that effort.  The Sh’ma begins with a call for us to “listen” and to internalize what follows.  And what follows is: Hashem, pure Unity, then Elokeinu, diversity (Elokim is the name of Gd – that is, the aspect of Gd – that is associated with the laws of nature), when integrated with the original unity, gives Hashem, again Unity, but now a greater Unity, as it encompasses the original Unity plus its reflection in diversity.  It is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts so to speak.  But on a higher level, all this is One – the supposed tripartite structure is not really three, it is One.  The diversity has never moved away from the original Unity.  So, according to Ramban, we say Baruch shem kavod malchuto l’olam va’ed – Blessed is the Name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity.

And how do we internalize this reality?  The verse after the Sh’ma (6:5) is Thou shalt love Hashem your Gd… .  Love is the force that binds together; it is the force that integrates diversity into relative levels of unity.  It is the powerful attraction that draws opposites closer and melds them together.  In our case, our love for Gd draws us closer to Him, we begin to see Him everywhere, “peeking through the lattices,” hiding Himself less and less from our gaze.  As we grow closer to Gd, we understand more that Gd’s Unity is the only reality, that “there is nothing besides Him” (4:39) doesn’t just mean there are no other gods besides Hashem, but that Hashem is the only reality.  The expression of Unity is never separate from that Unity; we ultimately understand, when we return to Gd, that we actually never left!

Now we know why the Sh’ma is such a central prayer.  Let’s remember when we say it, we’re doing it for Gd’s sake!


Pirke Avot, Chapter 4

Mishnah 22

R. Ya’akov would say: Better is one hour spent it repentance and in good deeds in this world than the entire life of the World to Come.  And better is one hour of spiritual tranquility in the World to Come than the entire life of this world.

Obviously the two parts of the Mishnah seem to contradict one another.  Among others, R. Lau offers two complementary explanations.  One is that from Gd’s perspective, human beings’ t’shuvah in this world is preferable, because in that way the relative world is perfected, thus completing Gd’s plan for creation.  From a human perspective, reaching the goal of all our toil and struggle is naturally to be preferred.  A second explanation is that this world is one in which we can make spiritual progress, albeit making such progress is often hard work and, being finite creatures, we often fall short of what we could have accomplished.  In the World to Come we reap the fruits of our actions in this world, but we are static, no longer able to go forward or backward.  In both explanations we see the infinite value of human existence – despite the fact that we are finite creatures, we have an essential role to play in the Divine Plan for creation: we can draw close to Gd and hold His absolute Unity in our awareness, more and more permanently as we grow.  This creates a level of wholeness the essence of which is bliss for ourselves, and pleasure for Gd as it were.  A wise man was once describing this phenomenon to one of his students who said, “It sounds good.”  The wise man replied, “It feels even better!”