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Parashat Vayechi 5782 — 12/18/2021

Parashat Vayechi 5782 — 12/18/2021

Beginning with Bereishit 5781 (17 October 2020) we embarked on a new format. We will be considering Rambam’s (Maimonides’) great philosophical work Moreh Nevukim (Guide for the Perplexed) in the light of the knowledge of Vedic Science as expounded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The individual essays will therefore not necessarily have anything to do with the weekly Torah portion, although certainly there will be plenty of references to the Torah, the rest of the Bible, and to the Rabbinic literature. For Bereishit we described the project. The next four parshiyyot, Noach through Chayei Sarah, laid out a foundational understanding of Vedic Science, to the degree I am capable of doing so. Beginning with Toledot we started examining Moreh Nevukim.

In honor of the 60th anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah

Bereshit 47:28-50:26
Before moving on to chapter 2, I want to return to a point we made last week and bring a beautiful thought from Rabbi Sacks (from Studies in Spirituality, Maggid Press 2021, ISBN 978-1-59264-576-3). Recall that we were listing the ways in which human beings are in the likeness of Gd, and one of them was that human beings have free will. R. Sacks begins with a famous Rashi on the beginning of our parashah. Feeling his end approaching, Ya’akov calls his sons to “Gather around so I can tell you what will happen to you in days to come.” (Gen 49:1). But in fact, Ya’akov doesn’t tell his sons anything about the future. Rashi comments: “Ya’akov wished to reveal what would happen in the future, but the Divine Presence [RAR: the Shechina] was removed from him.” R. Sacks answers the obvious question: What happened?

This is no minor detail. It is a fundamental feature of Jewish spirituality. We believe that we cannot predict the future when it comes to human beings. We make the future by our choices. The script has not yet been written. The future is radically open. (p.56)

Obviously we are not as free as Gd. We have a body which is finite and limiting, but our mind can expand to infinity. Gd, the Creator, can change the rules of creation at will, which we can’t. We may be constrained by circumstance, but we can choose how we react to those constraints, especially in the moral plane. R. Sacks gives the example of Erich Fromm, who developed an entire system of psychology based on his experiences as a prisoner in Auschwitz. His constraints could hardly have been greater, yet he was able to choose life in many different ways, both during and after the Holocaust.

In Chapter 2, Rambam begins by pointing out that the word used for Gd in the first chapter of Sefer Bereishit is Elokim, which is a plural form. Now the word Elokim has a number of meanings: Gd, the judges, the rulers, the angels among them. (In later Jewish thought it is held to be the Name of Gd indicating Gd’s attribute of strict justice, which is associated with the unbending rules of physical nature.) In the third chapter of Bereishit (the Garden of Eden story), the Aramaic translation of you shall be as Elokim, knowing good and evil, is you shall be as rulers. In other words, at least according to Onkelos, whose translation is considered authoritative, Adam and Eve were never told that they would be as Gd.

Rambam goes on to describe a challenge to his understanding of the sin of eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. To give you an idea of just how serious these disputes could be, I’ve left in some of the more graphic and vituperative ad hominem parts:

This is what the objector said: It is manifest from the clear sense of the biblical text that the primary purpose with regard to man was that he should be, as the other animals are, devoid of intellect, of the ought, and of the capacity to distinguish between good and evil. However, when he disobeyed, his disobedience procured him as its necessary consequence the great perfection peculiar to man, namely, his being endowed with the capacity that exists in us to make this distinction. Now this capacity is the noblest of the characteristics* existing in us; it is in virtue of it that we are constituted as substances. Now it is a thing to be wondered at that man’s punishment for his disobedience should consist in his being granted a perfection that he did not possess before, namely, the intellect.

The challenger assumes that Adam and Eve had no intellect (the intellect is what makes distinctions) prior to their eating of the Tree. It is only after the sin that they get an intellect (and become like Gd, which, as we have just seen, is a wrong understanding of the word Elokim). Rambam’s reply:

Hear now the intent of our reply. We said; O you who engage in theoretical speculation using the first notions that may occur to you and come to your mind and who consider withal that you understand a book that is the guide of the first and the last men while glancing through it as you would glance through a historical work or a piece of poetry – when, in some of your hours of leisure, you leave off drinking and copulating: collect yourself and reflect, for things are not as you thought following the first notion that occurred to you, but rather as is made clear through reflection upon the following speech. For the intellect that Gd made overflow unto man and that is the latter’s ultimate perfection, was that which Adam had been provided with before he disobeyed. It was because of this that it was said of him that he was created in the image of Gd and in His likeness. It was likewise on account of it that he was addressed by Gd and given commandments, as it says; And the Lord Gd commanded, and so on (Gen 2:16). For commandments are not given to beasts and beings devoid of intellect. Through the intellect one distinguishes between truth and falsehood, and that was found in [Adam] in its perfection and integrity, Fine and bad, on the other hand, belong to the things generally accepted as known, not to those cognized by the intellect. For one does not say: it is fine that heaven is spherical and it is bad that the earth is flat; rather one says true and false with regard to these assertions.

Apparently, the concept of “intellect” is itself equivocal. To the challenger it is simply the faculty that makes distinctions. But if that is the case, then it is clear that animals have the ability to make some distinctions at least. Animals can sense and avoid danger, can choose preferred foods, mate only with conspecifics, etc. To Rambam, the intellect, which distinguishes human beings from the animals, is something loftier. For Rambam, the human intellect is unique in that it can distinguish between truth and falsehood.
We’ll continue with our consideration of these two types of intellect next week.

Chazak, Chazak v’Nitchazeik!


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Vayechi (and he lived)

Jacob lives in Egypt for 17 years, his end draws near, Israel asks Joseph to promise he will be buried in the Holy Land, with his fathers. Joseph swears.

From the point of view, Jacob is called “Jacob” when he toils, “Israel” when he is free from toil. When Jacob was wrestling with a man, then an angel, then Gd, he was toiling; when he prevailed, he was free from toil, and so called “Israel.”

Living in Egypt, Mitzraim, Restrictions, is living with toiling; returning to Canaan, Synchronicity, Wholeness, he will be free from restrictions, from toil, he will be “Israel.” So as his end draws near, he is blessed with a taste of his status as Israel and it is from this level of freedom, of Joy, that he asks Joseph to swear to bury his body in Canaan, the Holy Land, the Land of Wholeness.

We do not need to die in order to be free from toil. We can simply open ourselves to the deeper and deeper levels of Torah, the levels which are deeper than the level of meaning, which is a level of restrictions. We can open ourselves to Torah, within which all levels exist, Torah which is One with Gd, Totality. This is the real Holy Land, the real Land of Wholeness.

As Jacob, he becomes ill, toiling to rise from his bed when Joseph brings Joseph’s sons to him. When he sees Joseph’s sons, he is raised in spirit and is Israel.

As Israel, he blesses Joseph’s sons, and adopts them and as Israel he blesses Joseph, too, giving one portion more than he gives to his other sons.

It is as Jacob, though that he assembles his other sons and blesses each of them, so this level of blessing involves toil, much harmony but to some degree out-of-tune with the Harmony of Gd.

But still! there is great harmony: When Jacob blesses his sons, he asks them to assemble and then he blesses them individually. This can be taken, and Rabbi Yehuda Berg of the Kabbalah Center takes it that way, to indicate that Jacob is emphasizing that the individual blessings will be fruitful when the sons act as an assembly, a unity, a family. And, when the tribes of Jacob’s sons are considered together, they are considered the Children of Israel, a unity, in Harmony, free from toil.

From this we can see an affirmation of what many of us already feel and act on: we are able to fulfill ourselves as individuals when we act together as a community, a family. It is through Love, through inclusion, gathering together, excluding no one, that we rise to the level of Israel, free from toil, completely in Harmony with Gd, with Oneness.

As the father of the Children of Israel, Israel dies and Joseph, Israel’s family and entourage (except for the youngest children who remain in Egypt tending the flocks), accompanied by Pharaoh’s ministers, and many leaders of Mitzraim, bring him and bury him in the cave of Machpelah, (“Cave of the Double Caves,” integration of restrictions and unboundedness) where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca were buried.

This gathering of the leaders of Mitzraim – Restrictions, toil – with Israel’s family, taking Israel’s body to Canaan, Wholeness, is another example of how appreciation, love, can raise us to gathering and thus to Wholeness.

Also, we can think of the “burying of the body” as “transcendence of the body, of individuality” and this takes place through Appreciation, Love, letting go the limited sense of self and rising to the Unlimited Experience of Self, the Common Self, All-in-All, One.

Physical death is not necessary to experience this transcendence: many in our congregation and many around the world experience this Unlimited Experience and, at least a few, are experiencing permanently.

May all souls experience this Teshuvah, this return to Full Awareness, so that all of Life lives in Fulfillment, in Harmony.

Baruch HaShem