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Parashat V’Zot haBerachah/Sukkot 5776 — 09/30/2015

Parashat V’Zot haBerachah/Sukkot 5776 — 09/30/2015

Deut 33:1 – 34:12

In the final parashah of the Torah, Moshe sums up the meaning of life in his blessings to the tribes and to the nation as a whole.  The meaning and purpose of human life is service of Gd – that is devotion to and attachment to the ultimate basis of all existence, our own, that of other people, and that of the objects we find in creation.  Rav Kook identifies three levels of service:

  • The service of the Levites, which he calls “external service.”  The Levites performed services on the periphery of the Temple service – providing musical accompaniment, and guarding the perimeter.  This kind of peripheral service is the level that most of us are on.  The Levites received the “first tithe” in return for their service, and most of us serve Gd because we hope to receive recompense of some kind, be it material or spiritual.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this kind of service – after all, we are still serving Gd, keeping ourselves and our actions on the right path and supporting cosmic evolution and order to the best extent possible.  But still, there is a substantial amount of self-serving as well.
  •  The service of the Kohanim, which he calls “inner service” or “altruistic service.”  The Kohanim actually performed the Temple service, and of course the Kohen Gadol goes into the innermost part of the Temple on Yom Kippur, as we recently read during the Avodah portion of the Yom Kippur liturgy.  In this case, Rav Kook says that the service is “altruistic” because it is “the service of holy tzaddikim, who are the foundations of the world.  These saintly souls… seek to ‘nourish’ the supernal spiritual worlds by giving strength and greatness to Gd’s Divine Presence.”  In this case the service is still for gain, just not for personal gain.  Still, the focus on Gd is for the sake of something other than Gd.
  •  Finally, the highest level of service of Gd is the service of Moshe Rabbeinu.  Moshe is the only person the Bible calls eved Elokim – Gd’s servant.  A servant is one whose entire ego is negated before his master.  In Jewish law, anything a servant/slave acquires is automatically acquired by his master.  To be perfectly honest, this is really the only kind of service that should be possible when it comes to serving Gd.  Gd is infinite, we are finite.  How is it that the finite is not completely overwhelmed and nullified in the infinite?!  Yet somehow we manage to use our physical natures to block out Gd’s light and majesty, and prance around as if we had some real substance that had to be dealt with.  It was only Moshe Rabbeinu who reached a level where he had transcended his human nature and status, and allowed himself to become totally absorbed in Gd’s essence, while still being able to act in the world.

I would like to suggest that this progression is actually a progression in the level of consciousness and perception of the individual.  While it certainly has validity in terms of the Levites, Kohanim and Moshe Rabbeinu, it also has relevance to each one of us as we grow in awareness.

For most of us, at least most of the time, our awareness is bound up in our finite bodies.  We are driven by our physical needs and desires.  Our “service” of Gd from this state is little more than a kind of tit-for-tat propitiation: “I won’t eat treif if You will keep me healthy.”  This kind of stuff is what sometimes gives religion such a bad name, especially when it doesn’t work.  Treating Gd like a vending machine is not a very good way to propitiate Him anyway!  I’m not sure that this kind of “service” even rises to the first level Rav Kook identified.

However we do have those moments of transcendence – maybe in some particularly inspiring natural setting, or on Yom Kippur, or when we suddenly grasp a difficult concept that has been eluding us – when we no longer feel bound by our physical, outer selves.  We become, as it were, “all soul.”  That is, we identify ourselves (properly!) with our unbounded, inner nature.  From this point we can indeed serve Gd, for we are no longer weighed down by the small, finite boundaries of our likes and dislikes, of our needs and our cravings.  This becomes a spiritual service – our actions are not primarily for our bodies’ needs, but for our own spiritual needs.

If we can get to a point where this level of transcendence can be maintained, we have a platform where further growth is possible.  Just as our personality is structured in layers, so everyone and everything in our environment is structured in layers.  Once we are free from being bound to the surface level of our own personality, we can begin to perceive the rest of creation, animate and inanimate, in its subtler and subtler values.  As this perception grows, the distance between our evaluation of ourself as infinite, and our evaluation of everything around us as finite, begins to diminish.  The concerns of other people and even of the inanimate environment begin to assume a position of great importance.  Our actions begin to serve not only our own spiritual needs, but the needs of all creatures as well.  I believe this is akin to the “altruistic service” that Rav Kook describes as that of the Kohanim.  It is an “inner service” in the sense that the inner, infinite value of our own awareness is now becoming projected, as it were, onto the environment.  Indeed, the distinction between inner and outer begins to blur, and all action becomes a kind of “inner” action.

The only way I can begin to understand Rav Kook’s description of Moshe Rabbeinu’s service of Gd is by extrapolating the previous level.  If we evaluate ourselves in terms of our infinite, essential nature, and we evaluate everything else in terms of its infinite, essential nature (which must be the same as our own), then the gap between Self and non-Self fades away almost into nothingness.  The “almost” is because we still do have a body, and must have one to be able to act as an individual in the world.  Nonetheless, someone at Moshe Rabbeinu’s level is as absorbed and identified as one can possibly be into the transcendent.  All issues of personality, of difference, fade away before the intense identification (devekut) of the individual with Gd.  In this identification, service of Gd is clearly at its purest and most sublime.

Our parashah states that there never was a prophet like Moshe Rabbeinu, and Rambam, in his 13 Principles of Faith, tells us that there never will be anyone like Moshe Rabbeinu.  For those of us for whom those moments of transcendence are rare, this will come as no surprise!  Nevertheless, it is up to us to strive to come as close to Gd as we possibly can – through prayer, through mitzvot, through meditation, through deeds of lovingkindness, we can train ourselves to refine our vision and our character, and to serve Gd as fully as we can.