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Parashat Vayechi 5776 — 12/26/2015

Parashat Vayechi 5776 — 12/26/2015

Bereishit 47:28-50:26

Ya’akov called his sons and said, gather and I will tell you what will happen to you in the end days. (49:1)

He sought to reveal the End, but the Shechina departed from him… (Rashi ad loc)

The Tao that can be told is not the perfect Tao. (Tao Te Ching)

As Ya’akov Avinu was about to leave this earth, he wanted to prepare his descendants for the exile they were facing, and to encourage them by painting a picture of the glorious life awaiting the nation at the time of Mashiach, the final redemption of the world and the revelation of Gd.  Unfortunately he couldn’t.  As Rashi says, the Shechina, the spirit of Divinity within him, departed, “and he began to speak of other things.”  Why did this happen?  Was his power of prophecy not strong enough?  Were his sons not worthy of hearing what he had to say?  (The Midrash actually posits that this thought entered Ya’akov’s mind, but upon querying them and hearing their response – Shema Yisrael, H” Elokeinu, H” Echad – he realized that this was not the issue.)  R. Steinsaltz takes a different approach:

Why can’t Jacob reveal the ketz [end]?  When a person describes things or situations that lie within the range of his perception, he has words, concepts, and modes of expression for this.  But when Jacob must speak of a phenomenon that is beyond his audience’s range of perception, it turns out that he lacks the vocabulary to express himself.  How can we  explain to someone who has been blind from birth what other people see in the world?  How can we explain to someone who is color blind the difference between green and purple?  These are things of which the listener has an utter lack of understanding.  In such a case there is a block, a real barrier in communication. …

   In other words, there are some fundamental gulfs that are impossible to bridge. … It is not a matter of finding the right words, because the right words simply do not exist.

Language has inherent limitations.  Language is finite; words all have definitions – that is, they are restricted to a single meaning or a range of meanings.  The structure of language also lays a template on reality.  There is the famous example of the many Inuit words for snow – they make fine distinctions that we don’t make because of the much greater significance of snow in their lives than in ours.  Consequently they actually see the world differently than we do.

When we communicate with someone, what we are trying to do, through the medium of words, is to transfer some structure of knowledge from our consciousness to our listener’s consciousness.  The more abstract the concepts, the more difficult this can be.  Try teaching physics to liberal arts majors if you don’t believe me!  The reason that it is difficult is that whatever the structure is in the teacher’s mind, it has been created over a long period of time and a long process of gaining and integrating knowledge.  The student, who is, perhaps, just beginning on the path of knowledge, does not have the infrastructure yet in his awareness to assimilate everything the teacher is saying.  That is why, for example, the curriculum for teaching physics in universities is to cycle three or four times through essentially the same material, each time at a deeper level, to build that intellectual infrastructure one layer at a time.  This can take almost a decade, including both undergraduate and graduate studies, and perhaps some post-doctoral training, before one can truly be called knowledgeable in the field.  Other disciplines are undoubtedly similar.

In describing the phenomenon of prophecy, Rambam indicates that the prophet has an experience of the transcendent, but what is necessary to communicate that prophecy is the use of what he calls the “imaginative faculty.”  This is the faculty that allows us to translate that which is beyond words into, literally, images, something more concrete which can be communicated to someone else.  For example, in last week’s parashah, we discussed the “theatrics” that Yechezkel employed to create an image of the reintegration of the Jewish people – he took two blocks of wood with the names of Yehudah and Ephraim on them, and held them together.  This was an image that was immediately graspable, not only by his listeners, but by the prophet himself.  It is this translation into concrete images that allows the transfer of the prophetic experience, in a diluted fashion, from the prophet to his listeners.  In fact, there are times when we read the words of the prophets as they have been passed down to us, and even at our temporal and spiritual remove, we get a glimpse of what the world must have looked like in the light of the prophetic vision.

Nonetheless, we must acknowledge that a true experience of the transcendent is something that is completely beyond words.  The transcendent is infinite, beyond all boundaries, beyond all change.  The experience of the transcendent is completely different from any other experience, because it is not the experience of something outside ourselves.  It is the experience of what we essentially are.  When we experience the transcendent, we are not experiencing anything other than ourselves.  In ordinary experience, there is a distinction between the subject of experience (us) and the object of experience (e.g. a flower, or my words that you are reading, or even our own body).  In the processing of transcending ordinary perception the object becomes fainter and fainter as we progressively experience it on finer and finer levels – more ethereal if you will – but it is still there, and it is still “other.”  When the faintest tinge of the object drops off, the awareness is no longer limited to the boundaries of the object.  It is left awake in itself.  It can experience, but there is nothing other than itself left to experience!  This lack of a gap between the subjective experiencer, and the object of experience, is completely different from ordinary experience.  If you’ve read through this paragraph, you’ve experienced how words fail to capture it!

So there was nothing wrong with Ya’akov, and there was nothing wrong with his sons.  The problem was one of communicating the ineffable reality at the basis of life.  Ya’akov tried to describe the end of days, a time when cooperation is the norm, when creativity is gushing, where greed and fear are nowhere to be found, when all people are connected to the infinite.  From our world, it’s simply unimaginable; our words and our concepts and our ideas fall woefully short.  Yet I believe that if we’re open to those moments of transcendence that we each experience at points in our life, we can begin to understand what it is that Ya’akov our forefather wanted so badly to say.

Haftarah: I Kings 2:1-12

Our Haftarah deals with the passing of the Kingdom from David to his son, Solomon, who would build the First Temple and raise the Israelite state to its height of glory.  Our tradition tells us that Solomon was only 12 on acceding to the throne.  Among the expected exhortations to keep Gd’s ways and to walk in His paths, we find David telling Solomon that he should use his wisdom to, apparently, settle some old scores that David couldn’t settle in his lifetime.  Specifically, he asks Solomon to execute Yoav, the head of his army for murdering two people in a sneaky fashion, and to do the same to Shimi ben Gera, who cursed David when he was fleeing from his son, Absalom’s, attempted coup.  Is this just petty revenge?  I think that would be out of character.  I think what David is hinting to Solomon is that in order for the kingdom, or any structure for that matter, to be secure, it is not enough simply to look at increasing the positive virtues of that structure.  If there are any impurities, they must be removed.  Impurities cause weakness – ask a diamond cutter!  They are a foreign element that do not allow all the parts of a system to interact properly, harmoniously.  Shimi ben Gera represents impurity of speech, and Yoav represents impurity of action.  These are external and can be dealt with, as Solomon does in the subsequent chapters.  Impurity of thought is a trickier issue.  For that, Solomon built the Temple!