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Parshiyot Tazria-Metzora 5775 — 04/22/2015

Parshiyot Tazria-Metzora 5775 — 04/22/2015

Blessed be He Who spoke and the world came into being (liturgy)

The major focus of our Torah portions is the skin condition known as tzara’at.  This is often translated as leprosy, but it has nothing to do with the disease (Hansen’s disease) we commonly call leprosy.  For example, the latter is contagious, which is why lepers were segregated from society.  While it is true that one suffering from tzara’at is banished from the camp and has to “dwell alone,” someone whose entire body is afflicted with the disease is declared pure and is welcomed back into the camp.  Furthermore, tzara’at is not diagnosed by a physician, but by a kohen, and until and unless the kohen pronounces the person impure, that person doesn’t have tzara’at, despite what it might look like.  In fact, the kohen is not allowed to look at a lesion to determine if it is tzara’at during the Festivals, or in the bride and groom during the week of rejoicing at their wedding, lest the joy of the occasion be spoiled.  Finally, to be cured of tzara’at, one must bring a series of offerings to the Temple and go through a series of rituals that would appear to have little to do with the physical symptoms.  Now that there is no Temple and no offerings can be brought, there is no such thing as tzara’at.  The existence or non-existence of tzara’at however, is dependent on the speech of the kohen.

Our Sages tell us that tzara’at is a spiritual affliction, brought on by misuse of our power of speech.  Rav Kook elaborates:

There are two kinds of speech.  There is everyday speech, based on and limited to that which occurs in the physical universe.  And there is a higher form of speech, a holy speech that Gd bestowed upon Israel.  This elevated speech does not originate in the physical world.  On the contrary, the world originates from it. (Sapphire from the Land of Israel)

Sometimes we can sense the connection between our speech and the universe.  This is the initial step to redeem speech from its exile.  As the soul is elevated, we become acutely aware of the tremendous power that lies in our faculty of speech.  We recognize clearly the tremendous significance of each utterance; the value of our prayers and blessings, the value of our Torah study and of all of our discourse.  We learn to recognize the overall impact of our speech.  We sense the transformation and great stirrring of the world that comes about through speech (Orot haKodesh, vol. III, p. 285)

What is this special kind of speech from which the world originates?  Since it is called “speech,” and further since Torah describes Gd as speaking in order to create, there must be some kind of similarity with human speech.  Now human speech is basically sound, modulated in various ways by the tongue and lips.  Sound itself, on the physical level, is a vibration of the medium, generally the air, in which the sound is propagating.

Now we can take this idea of a vibration to more subtle levels, and we can do this in two different directions.  On the objective level, modern physics has described the subtlest levels of physical existence as the vibratory modes of abstract fields.  Thus, for example, we have known since the mid-1800’s that light is vibrations of the electromagnetic field.  Similarly, we have discovered that all the particles and forces that we know of in the physical world are vibrations of other fields.  Now ordinarily we can’t hear these vibrations with our ears (or any of our senses), but we can “perceive” them with our intellect.  And the interactions and combinations of these vibrations make up the atoms and molecules, the tissues and organs of organic life, the stars and the planets – the whole of objective creation is indeed built up from these vibrations.

There are subtler levels of speech, or vibration on the subjective side of life as well.  Speech is preceded by thought (or should be!!).  Thought has subtler and grosser levels, as we all experience.  There are times when we are very settled and our thoughts are very quiet.  If we can perceive our thinking at that level, we find that it is very “concentrated” in a way – a faint impulse of thought on that level can encompass whole structures that will be elaborated on more expressed levels of thought, and, as appropriate, into speech or action.  The more subtle the level on which we can think, the more powerful our thoughts and actions will be, just as the ability to work on the nuclear level gives us more power than working on the atomic or molecular level.

In physics we have learned that any time two systems interact, we find on a subtler level that they are two aspects of one underlying system that transcends them both.  If we extend this to the subjective and objective realms, we see the same phenomenon.  The subjective and objective worlds obviously interact – we perceive (objective influences subjective) and we act (subjective influences objective).  The underlying field that transcends them both must then have qualities of both – it must be both pure Existence (objective) and pure Consciousness (subjective).  Since it has the quality of consciousness, we should be able to experience it directly on the level of our own awareness.  At that point, we directly experience the profound connection between “speech” in its broadest sense, and the universe of objective creation.

If we can think when our awareness is established in the transcendental level of creation, then we in fact create vibrations that can have an effect in both our own awareness and in the objective world as well.  This is the highest value of speech.  In my opinion,  this is the goal of all the practices of our tradition, perhaps of all spiritual traditions, to cultivate the ability to think and speak from the infinite ground of all being.  If we can accomplish this, we can infuse the infinite into the finite values at all levels of creation, linking them back to their source and bringing them to ever-expanding levels of fulfillment.

Pirke Avot, Chapter 2

Mishnah 1

Rabbi [Yehudah haNasi] says: … be scrupulous with a light precept as with a weighty one, for you do not know the reward given for each precept; reckon the loss incurred in the performance of a commandment against its reward, and the gain obtained through committing a transgression against its loss.

Unfathomable is the course of action. (Bhagavad-Gita IV:17)

It is impossible for anyone to calculate all the threads of influence acting on him, bending the course of his action and influencing its outcome.  Everything in the universe is connected to everything else – obviously some of these connections appear to be stronger and others not so strong, at least on the surface.  On a deeper level the threads of connection may be even stronger than we can perceive, as time and space do not present a barrier on these deeper levels.  To a certain extent, it is not necessary to know exactly how to do this evaluation, as Gd has laid out for us in Torah what actions we should take (248 positive commandments), and those we should refrain from (365 negative commandments).

Nevertheless, it is impossible to lay out the exact prescription for every situation, and we always have to prioritize the use of our time and energy.  The entire corpus of Jewish Law is vast, and certainly nobody can memorize it all, let alone derive it from first principles – even the great Rabbinic decisors had to weigh and ponder questions, and often they disagreed with one another.  What we need to do is to bring our mind to the source of creation, in which all the general principles of right action reside, and from there act according to the halachah to the best of our ability.  With the mind clear, we can be confident that, at least in the majority of cases, we will have a proper sense of right and wrong, and will intuit the proper path of action.