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Parashat Vayishlach 5783 — 12/10/2022

Parashat Vayishlach 5783 — 12/10/2022

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.

Bereishit 32:4-36:43
Rambam goes further with this idea that there are areas of knowledge that people cannot grasp. He states that it is actually dangerous to try to go beyond the limits of human apprehension:

You who study my Treatise, know that something similar to what happens to sensory apprehensions happens likewise to intellectual apprehensions in so far as they are attached to matter. For when you see with your eye, you apprehend something that is within the power of your sight to apprehend. If, however, your eyes are forced to do something they are reluctant to do – if they are made to gaze fixedly and are set the task of looking over a great distance, too great for you to see, or if you contemplate very minute writing or a minute drawing that is not within your power to apprehend – and if you force your eye, in spite of its reluctance, to find out the true reality of the thing, your eye shall not only be too weak to apprehend that which you are unable to apprehend, but also too weak to apprehend that which is within your power to apprehend. Your eye shall grow tired, and you shall not be able to apprehend what you could apprehend before having gazed fixedly and before having been given this task. A similar discovery is made by everyone engaging in the speculative study of some science with respect to his state of reflection. For if he applies himself to reflection and sets himself a task demanding his entire attention, he becomes dull and does not then understand even that which is within his scope to understand. For the condition of all bodily faculties is, in this respect, one and the same. Something similar can happen to you with regard to intellectual apprehensions. For if you stay your progress because of a dubious point; if you do not deceive yourself into believing that there is a demonstration with regard to matters that have not been demonstrated; if you do not hasten to reject and categorically to pronounce false any assertions whose contradictories have not been demonstrated; if, finally, you do not aspire to apprehend that which you are unable to apprehend – you will have achieved human perfection and attained the rank of Rabbi Akiva , peace be on him, who entered in peace and went out in peace when engaged in the theoretical study of these metaphysical matters. If, on the other hand, you aspire to apprehend things that are beyond your apprehension; or if you hasten to pronounce false, assertions the contradictories of which have not been demonstrated or that are possible, though very remotely so – you will have joined Elisha Acher. That is, you will not only not be perfect, but will be the most deficient among the deficient; and it shall so fall out that you will be overcome by imaginings and by an inclination toward things defective, evil, and wicked – this resulting from the intellect’s being preoccupied and its light’s being extinguished.

Again, he begins with an analogy to the physical body. If we try to read some very fine print, it is not only difficult or impossible (and you have to get either a magnifying glass or a lawyer), but even the attempt produces harm, such as eyestrain. There are muscles that control eye movements and even the changes in shape of the lens as we try to focus on different objects, and these bodily structures can potentially be damaged by overuse or misuse of the eyes. Going to too many loud rock concerts can lead to permanent deafness. The same is true for the organs of action – overload, caused by trying to go beyond one’s natural abilities, can lead to bone breakage, ligament and muscle damage, etc.

Apparently, according to Rambam, the same situation is true for intellectual activity. I think an excellent example of this would be a Zen koan, such as the famous “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The point of such a koan is to frustrate the logical mind, because there is no logical answer. When the intellect gets tired of turning the problem over and trying to make sense of it, it just drops the problem and settles down automatically, hopefully to the level of the transcendent, but at least deep enough to put the koan into a broader context in which it can be “answered.”

Lest you think that koans and the like are Eastern things, Judaism has some koans of its own. How does a Gd who is completely transcendental to the world interact with the world? If Unity is the only reality, why do we see diversity? The Kabbalists give “answers” like “Gd contracts Himself to leave space for finite creation,” but these answers just beg the question and don’t give us any real, logical insight. They may, however, give us insight on a different level, a point to which I will return shortly.

I think that Rambam’s point here is that too much intellectual striving after answers to these kind of insoluble questions can have actual deleterious effects on the brain, just like eyestrain or ligament tears can result from overstressing one’s body. In some ways the mind is much more flexible than the body, as it doesn’t have the physical limitations of muscle and bone, blood and bile. On the other hand, it can be quite delicate and easy to throw off if it is not strong. We all know of people whose body is completely sound but who are institutionalized because of emotional and mental problems. And we can strain the mind. We know from our experience of TM that if we try to have a particular experience, or to manipulate the process in any way, it leads to strain and the experience of headaches or other physical symptoms, or problems with behavior and ideation. In other words, we can injure ourselves by straining our minds, just as we can by straining our bodies.

To bring out this point Rambam quotes a famous Talmudic story of the “four who entered the orchard.” The word for orchard is pardes, a Persian loan word from which we get the word “Paradise.” “Entering the orchard” then is taking the mind to subtler and subtler levels of understanding and perception. Unfortunately, of the four, only Rabbi Akiva came out of the orchard unscathed, and that was R. Akiva:

Four entered the pardes – Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, “Acher” (lit. “the other one”), and Rabbi Akiva. One (ben Azzai) looked and died; one (ben Zoma) looked and went mad; one looked and apostatized (“Acher”); and one entered in peace and departed in peace (R. Akiva). (Chagigah 14b)

For Rambam, who explicitly equates “entering pardes” with intellectual investigation of the ultimate truth of life, if one is not prepared for such investigation the resulting mind-strain causes aberrant behavior (going mad or becoming an apostate) or death. Only R. Akiva, who was properly prepared, was able to withstand the intensity of the experience and achieve a spiritual elevation, rather than a spiritual destruction.

For students of Vedic Science on the other hand, the practice of experiencing the transcendent is easy, simple and natural, and therefore in almost all cases there is no harm to the practitioner. The level of experience one reaches is commensurate with the degree of purification of the nervous system that has been achieved, and each new level of experience purifies the nervous system further. This happens automatically, without any effort or manipulation on our part and since it is natural it proceeds organically – we can’t force ourselves to go beyond our natural ability, as might happen with other techniques. It is the lack of naturalness that causes strain, and it is the strain that causes harm.

Gd willing we will continue this line of inquiry next time.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Vayislach

“Vayishlach” means “and he sent.”  Jacob sends angel messengers to his brother, Esau, saying that he and his family are returning. and he wishes reconciliation. On the level of meaning, there are three central events in this parshah.

  1. Jacob’s wrestling with a man who is an angel.
  2. Jacob’s reunion with his brother, Esau.
  3. The worshiping of idols by Jacob’s entourage which led to a breakdown of Gd’s protection, the rape of Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, and the deceptive retaliation by Jacob’s sons.

Jacob’s wrestling at night with someone who at first is a man, then an angel. This is very inspiring: we humans can directly experience Gd – not only that, we don’t have to seek Gd; Gd will come to us.

Prior to Jacob’s wrestling, however, three strange things happen.

“Vayishlach” means “and he sent”: Jacob is returning home after 20 years and he wants his brother Esau to welcome him in peace, so Jacob sends angel messengers and commands them to tell his master Esau that he is returning with great wealth and wishes to find favor in Esau’s eyes. The angels return saying that his brother is coming toward him with 400 men.

The previous parshah, Vayetze, began with Jacob’s dream of a ladder on which angels ascended and descended and it concluded by saying that Gd sent angels to meet him. This is the first strange event: why did Gd send angels rather than just one angel? When Gd sent three angels to Abraham, each angel had a specific purpose. How many angels did Gd send and what were the multiple purposes of the multiple angels Gd sent to Jacob? Torah doesn’t tell us.

The second strange event is that instead of the angels delivering messages to Jacob, Jacob gives the angels a message to deliver. A third strange thing is that Torah doesn’t tell us the angels delivered Jacob’s message; it only tells us that the angels returned with the news that Esau was approaching with 400 men.

A possible interpretation is consistent with the view that Torah is about the integration of details with Wholeness, Gd.

Consistent with this view, Jacob names the place where the angels met him, “Mahanaim” meaning “two camps, two companies”. He so named it because he felt that Gd was appearing through the angels so there were two camps: one the small one of Jacob and the other, the Total of Gd. Perhaps there were two angels, one representing Gd as Wholeness and the other representing Gd with a specific purpose for a specific place and time.

Perhaps the purpose of the angels was to serve as messengers from Jacob.

And perhaps they did deliver his message and that is how Esau knew that Jacob was approaching.

With these supposes, let’s consider the essence of the parshah.

Two major events in this parshah show a type of integration of partiality and totality.

First, Jacob wrestles with a man who then seems to be an angel and perhaps is Gd, although many commentators consider the wrestling a wrestling within himself to overcome his fears, his lower human self and to rise to the level where he acts from a higher level of his personality, one that is more heavenly, more divine, more Gdly. This is a very useful way to look at this.

When Jacob wrestles with someone in the night, the Hebrew says: Genesis, XXXII, 25, that it was a man, but in Genesis XXXII, 29, the man says, (Soncino Press, Pentateuch, Rabbi Hertz translation), “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but ‘Israel”; for thou hast striven with Gd and with men, and hast prevailed.” From this, we get the higher sense: the man with whom Jacob wrestled is in some way a representative of Gd, perhaps Gd Himself.

Personally, I feel the important point here is that we can overcome our inertia, our lower self and rise to Teshuvah, return to Oneness, Totality. However far Jacob rose in this event, commentators differ and we can differ but the event is an expression within Torah and therefore within Gd so reading it can enliven greater ability within us to live and act as Totality, not merely as an impulse of Totality. Jacob says of this experience “I have seen Gd face-to-face and lived” though there are those who translate as “I have seen an angel of Gd face-to-face and lived.”

Jacob names the place “Peniel”: Face of Gd. “Panim” means “face” and “El” means “Gd.”  So, Jacob felt he wrestled with Gd, not just a man, or an angel. What began as wrestling concludes as honoring and embracing: first Gd embraces and honors Jacob, then Jacob embraces and honors Gd.

This is encouraging, that however lost we may feel, Gd may at any time reveal that we are always in Gd’s embrace, and Gd wrestles with us to wake us so we will embrace Gd, Totality, go beyond loss, confusion, fear and return to Total Awareness, Love, Joy, Confidence, Everything included, Nothing left out.

Intriguingly, by wrestling with Jacob, Gd causes Jacob, the “quiet man who sits in tents,” to strive, to becomes an active man, “one who strives with Gd and with men,” to become like his brother Esau, a man of the fields – although perhaps at a much higher level of activity since we do not see anything in Torah that speaks about Gd speaking or clinging to Esau.

Second, when Esau and Jacob finally meet, Jacob prostrates before Esau seven times and Esau embraces him and kisses him wholeheartedly: they part on good terms. As with everything in life, and seemingly Torah too, there are those who say Esau’s kiss was not wholehearted but the succeeding conversation in which they speak to each other as loving brothers seems to support the wholehearted view.

In these two events we see integration of the opposites that Jacob and Esau are often treated as representing (although these interpretations avoid how much they have in common, as all humans have, despite their differences): Jacob, representing silence, in the direction of “Be still and know that I am Gd” (Psalm 46) and Esau symbolizing striving in the sense of striving for success in the field of action. Striving needs to cease in order to “Be still and know.”  When the stillness bows down to the activity and the activity embraces the silence we have lively stillness, a Knowing that integrates opposites and experiences Gd as the Wholeness within which they exist. We also have two brothers, one family.

So can we all do by letting our silence bow to our activity through prayer and other good actions and letting our actions embrace our silence by pausing routinely from action to let our activity settle into silence – and eventually find that the two are one, active silence, silent activity.

And, on the social level, we have a world in which each soul respects all souls and the world as one family.

A good direction we are moving in and this parshah is a help in the progress.

The third major event is the idolatry which leads to the rape of Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, and the retaliation by Jacob’s sons, Reuven and Levi.

While dwelling in Shechem in Canaan, the inhabitants were worshipping the idols of the land. The consequence is a breakdown of integration, of Gd’s Protection, and the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah.

Prince Shechem, the assaulter, has fallen in love with Dinah and he begs that she be given him as a bride.

Jacob’s sons consent on condition that the men of Shechem become circumcised so they and the family of Jacob can intermarry and become one people. When the Shechemites are in pain from the circumcision, Reuven and Levi slaughter every one of them.

Hearing of this, Jacob says that the sons have defiled his reputation and the surrounding nations will slaughter him and his family. Gd tells Jacob to move to another land and Jacob tells his servants from other cultures to abandon the idols.

The guidance we can see from this is that idols represent only a part of life and we need to always be oriented to the Whole and to perceive the Whole within every detail. Then we integrate the small with the Whole by perceiving that the small is a lovely detail of the Whole.

This is Happiness!

These are the events of this parshah on the level of meaning Torah is more vital on the level of sound than on the level of meaning. Here is a recording of this parshah:

I felt great joy in listening to Rabbi Michael Slain recite this parshah and think he was feeling similar joy.

Joy is a sign of Teshuvah, return to the One Who/is all Joy, all Love, Total Balance, Total Integration.

Baruch HaShem