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Parshat 01/19/2011

Parashat  Yitro

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Our tradition tells us that when our people stood at Mt. Sinai they heard only the first two commandments directly from Gd – this experience was so intense that they begged Moshe Rabbeinu to act as an intermediary for them.  Moshe agreed, and spent the next 40 days with Gd on Mt. Sinai learning the entire Torah, Written and Oral.  In fact, our Sages tell us that every question ever asked by a student to his teacher and every answer given in reply, were taught to Moshe during that time.  Ba’al haTurim points out that the gematria (numerical value) of the phrase that introduces the Ten Commandments (Vayidaber Elokim et kol hadevarim ha’ele) is equal to the phrase (that translates as) “all of the Written and Oral Torah.”

While it is true that some exceptional individuals (for example the Vilna Gaon) knew the entire corpus of Scripture and Rabbinic literature, and certainly Moshe Rabbeinu would be on at least that level, it appears that something more is being claimed here.  After all, the Vilna Gaon knew all the Rabbinic literature that had been published up to his time (he died in 1797).  Moshe on the other hand, was taught all the Rabbinic literature, and even the questions and answers given orally, that would appear in the future!  How are we to understand this?

One approach that has been suggested is that what Moshe Rabbeinu learned was the basic principles of Torah and the rules by which those principles could be elaborated.  To take a secular example, it is related that Prof. Richard Feynman was once asked a question about a practical application of physics.  Either he didn’t know the answer or he had forgotten it, so he sat down with the student and derived the answer from basic physical principles.  In this sense, given a fairly small basic packet of knowledge, and the rules for applying that knowledge in specific contexts, one has, in potential, the answer to any question.

This idea works quite well in the physical sciences, which deal with well-defined concepts and finite, quantitative relationships.  I think that in Jewish Law, and in Jewish thought in general, we may have to augment this concept somewhat.  In Jewish thought we are dealing with nothing less than the relationship of the infinite basis of life to its finite manifestations.  The infinite is certainly not quantifiable, and really is not definable (since to “de-fine” something is to make it fine-ite and graspable!), at least not in terms of anything outside itself.  I believe this is reflected in the fact that the Rabbinic literature is full of divergent, even contradictory, opinions, all of which are described as “the words of the living Gd” (elu v’elu divrei Elokim Chayim).

Let us consider verse 20:15: v’kol ha’am ro’im et hakolot.  Artscroll translates as “the entire people saw the thunder…”  Let’s leave aside the fact that the verse is in present tense, which is almost impossible to render in idiomatic English, but which conveys a sense of immediacy to the description.  The word rendered as “thunder” literally means “voices.”  What “voices” could the people be seeing?

Our esoteric tradition posits a special status for the Hebrew language.  Any spoken language consists of sounds, which are, in the final analysis, vibratory patterns of the underlying medium in which the sound is traveling (generally the air).  According to Kabbalah, all of creation is a vibratory pattern, or rather a beautiful, complex overlay of many different vibratory patterns.  The Hebrew language is special in that the vibratory patterns of the words match the vibratory patterns of the objects they describe – somehow kisei captures the essence of “chair” in a way that “chair” or “Stuhl” do not.

If this is the case, perhaps what happened is this.  Gd came down on Mt. Sinai; the atmosphere even in the neighborhood of the mountain was one of perhaps the most intense holiness since the Creation.  Gd was speaking words of Torah, the very Torah with which He created the universe.  And although the people had not been raised to a high enough level to understand clearly what was being spoken, they were able to see the words – that is, they could see the vibratory patterns at the subtlest level of creation, as they made their way from the infinite, unmanifest basis to the most expressed manifest levels.  They literally saw Gd speaking in every object of perception.

If this is the level the people reached, one can only begin to imagine the level that Moshe Rabbeinu reached during his 40 days on the mountain.  His body, his nervous system, his organs of perception and organs of understanding were all much more highly purified and therefore able to afford much clearer perception.  In addition, while the people, rightly fearful for their lives, drew back from the mountain, Moshe ascended and approached Gd, as close as anyone has ever been able to approach and remain alive.  I suggest that from this level of perception, when Moshe Rabbeinu “learned Torah” he was actually perceiving the most subtle mechanics of creation as it began to sprout from its unmanifest basis.  Since Torah, both written and oral, is expressed in the Hebrew language, there is a correspondance between its description of the mechanics of creation and the actual, “objective” mechanics themselves.

When we say that Moshe Rabbeinu learned the entire Torah in those 40 days and 40 nights on the mountain, I think it means that he was given a clear and direct perception of the full range of existence, from silent infinity through the subtle beginnings of manifestation within that infinity, to all the elaborations that ever were or ever will be.  Since time itself is part of creation, perception at a level subtler than time and space will of necessity encompass all that ever exists.

What does this mean for us?  It may be impossible to conceive of reaching Moshe’s level, as Torah testifies that he was the “father of all prophets that came before him or will come after him” (Rambam‘s 7th Principle of the Faith – to get a sense of the importance of this statement, consider that it is the seventh, and middle one of the 13).  Nevertheless, we do hear of tzaddikim who reach very exalted levels of perception and action.  Since Torah is the blueprint of creation, and Hebrew is its medium of expression, when we study Torah, and when we pray in Hebrew, we have the opportunity to attune our minds to the most fundamental levels of existence.  What level we reach will depend, at least in part, on the time we spend in this endeavor, and on how assiduously we pursue it.  We must set our priorities straight.  It would seem obvious that being able to have Moshe Rabbeinu’s level of perception, or anything remotely close to it, would be infinitely preferable to anything the material world has to offer (and indeed, if one could act on that level, one could create for himself anything at all that the material world has to offer!).  Alas, such is the allure of the flashy and the immediate that we are continually distracted from what is important, meaningful and eternal to that which is inane, meaningless and ephemeral.  It is for precisely this reason that Gd revealed Himself to us, and reveals Himself to us in His Torah at all times and at all places.  From our side, we need to wake up, hear the call and follow the supernal light.