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Parashat V’Zot HaB’rachah 5773 – 10/03/2012

Parashat V’Zot HaB’rachah – 5773

Never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom Hashem knew face to face, as evidenced by all the signs and wonders that Hashem sent him to perform in the land of Egypt… (34:10-11)

But the superiority of Moses our Teacher, peace be upon him, compared with the other prophets is stated by the Sages in the following Midrash [Artscroll indicates that the source of this Midrash is unknown]:  All the other prophets would perform miracles by means of prayer, like the sun for Joshua and the son of the Zarphite woman, and the withholding of the rains for Elijah, and the son of the Shunammite woman for Elisha, whereas Moses would perform miracles straightaway, without the need for prayer.  But this Midrash is not clear.  (Ramban ad loc)

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below / Words without thoughts never to heaven go! (Hamlet III:iii)

In Israel Parashat v’Zot haB’rachah is read on Shabbat during years when Rosh HaShanah falls on Shabbat.  In the Diaspora, where Simchat Torah is the 9th day after Sukkot, instead of the 8th as it is in Israel, v’Zot haB’rachah is always read on the day after the day of the week on which Rosh HaShanah falls.  Since Rosh HaShanah cannot fall on Friday (if it did, Yom Kippur would be on Sunday, and that is disallowed by our calendar, as one can’t prepare for Yom Kippur properly – nor sing Kol Nidre – on Shabbat), in the Diaspora our Parashah is never read on Shabbat.  Therefore, until I move to the Land of Israel, the only chance I have to write on v’Zot haB’rachah is to hijack Shabbat Chol haMoed Sukkot, as I am doing this year.

The end of our Parashah, which is the end of the Torah, asserts the uniqueness of Moshe Rabbeinu’s prophecy; this uniqueness is codified as the 7th, and central, of Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith.  In the words of the Ani ma’amin recitation at the end of the Shacharit service, Moshe is described as the “father of all the prophets, those who preceded him and those who followed him.”  The question may be asked, was Moshe Rabbeinu qualitatively different from all other prophets, or simply farther along a single continuum?  It appears from our Ramban, and from his further comments on this verse, that he believed that Moshe Rabbeinu was along the same continuum as the other prophets, but perhaps so far ahead of them that it almost appears as a qualitative difference.

Since the last prophets flourished at the beginning of the Second Temple era, it has been over 2000 years since we have had any experience of prophecy.  Therefore speaking about what prophecy is and how the different levels of prophecy can be described is probably one of those “fools rush in…” areas – and this goes doubly when even Ramban, who was a great Kabbalist, comments that the Midrash we are going to discuss is “not clear”!  Nonetheless, I am going to at least tiptoe in.

We know from modern Physics that physical creation is structured in layers: there is the surface layer of forms and phenomena, which is made up of molecules (this is the realm of chemistry), which are made up of atoms, which in turn are made up of baryons (protons and neutrons) and leptons (electrons primarily), etc.  These layers all interpenetrate; in fact describing this structure as “layered” is just our way of describing our perceptions (including perceptions enhanced by scientific instrumentation), rather than any concrete differentiation in reality.  The more fundamental levels are both smaller and more energetic – the obvious example is nuclear power vs. chemical power.  Physicists believe that at the source of all these layers is one Unified Field, which, by vibrating in different modalities, gives rise to all the fundamental particles of physics from which all the subsequent, grosser layers are formed.

In the same way our Tradition tells us that there is a layered structure to creation on the spiritual level.  There is a hierarchy of “emanations” of Gd’s effulgence, with that effulgence becoming more and more attenuated as the layers become “thicker” and more material.  As one goes to subtler and subtler levels, closer and closer to the Source of creation, the power available increases accordingly.  And, just as in the case of the levels of physical creation, all these layers interpenetrate – Heaven is not somewhere else, it is right here on earth, had we but eyes to see it.

Now I would like to suggest that the phenomenon of prophecy involves training one’s mind, intellect and perception to experience the range of subtler levels of creation.  In other words, perhaps we can say that the phenomenon of prophecy occurs where the mind and senses turn away from their usual target – the material world – and begin to train themselves to experience / perceive those levels of creation that are general too ethereal, or transparent, for the senses to register.  In most cases, this requires a process of some kind – both a period of training (groups of apprentice prophets, called “sons of the prophets,” are referred to in the various prophetic books of our Tanach, and training manuals for ascetic sects that aspired to prophetic wisdom have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls), and, even in the case of well-established prophets, a period of preparation of mind and body in order to receive prophecy.  Thus, for example, King Saul required music to get into a prophetic state, and, according to our Ramban, all the prophets resorted to prayer, not only to achieve prophecy, but to act from within that state to produce effects in material creation.

I think that this indicates to us the nature of prayer.  Prayer is certainly not the mouthing of words, and I don’t even believe it is primarily an emotional experience, although certainly emotion adds to the prayer experience.  I think that ideally prayer is a process by which the awareness comes into contact with progressively subtler levels of existence as we take the words and “raise them to their Source” in the infinite.  Thus prayer is in fact a kind of training for the prophetic experience, and, in all cases but Moshe Rabbeinu’s, a necessary prerequisite for this experience.  Furthermore, once the experience of subtler levels of creation becomes established, one can, apparently, learn to act from this level.  Action at a more fundamental level of nature is much more powerful than action at a cruder level of nature, just as action at the nuclear level is more powerful, for good or for ill, than action at, say, the mechanical level.  I believe that the “for ill” part is why Kabbalistic techniques were always restricted to those who had long track records of impeccable character and behavior.

Now perhaps we can begin to understand the incredible distance that separates Moshe Rabbeinu from the other prophets (and how much more so from us!).  All the other prophets required prayer, preparation, processes to access the finer layers of creation.  Their ordinary reality was undoubtedly greatly enhanced due to the progressive refinement of all aspects of their personalities that is required by prophecy, but perhaps not so qualitatively different from other people’s.  Moshe Rabbeinu, on the other hand, required no prayer or preparation to experience Gd – he knew Gd face-to-face as it were.  In other words, Moshe Rabbeinu’s everyday perception encompassed the entire gamut of creation, from the crudest material to the most celestial levels, and he was able spontaneously to act on whatever level was appropriate to the situation at hand.  I believe that this is what Ramban means when he says that Moshe Rabbeinu would perform miracles “straightaway” – he was always able to act on the most subtle levels of creation, and could therefore produce any result he wanted, and always “for good,” because his will was fully in tune with Gd’s Will.  Perhaps we can get some idea of the power and profundity of Moshe Rabbeinu’s thought and action when we reflect that this Simchat Torah, right after we read these final words of Torah we will immediately go back and read And Gd said ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.

I don’t know to what extent it is realistic to aspire to the level of prophecy nowadays when the environment is so polluted, both physically and spiritually, and certainly all the more so to aspire to the level of Moshe Rabbeinu.  But realistic or not, this must be our aspiration, or how will we make any progress at all?