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Parshiyyot Matot-Masei 5775 — 07/15/2015

Parshiyyot Matot-Masei 5775 — 07/15/2015

Matot-Masei is the longest double portion in the Torah, with well over 200 verses.  Naso is the longest single portion.

The Torah forbids us from taking ransom for a murderer to spare his life (if it was intentional murder) or to release him from living in the City of Refuge (if it was unintentional).  The reason is that murder “defiles the Land,” and leads to our exile from it, and the departure of the Shechinah from the world.  Rav Kook explains why:

The Sages taught in Shabbat 33a:

   For the crime of bloodshed, the Temple is destroyed and the Shechinah departs from Israel.  As it says: Do not defile the Land in which you live and in which I live.  If you do defile it, you will not dwell in it, nor will I dwell in it.

Rav Kook continues:

The Torah describes the Divine aspect of the human soul with the term tzelem Elokim [“image of Gd”].  What is this “image of Gd”?  The Torah posits that the Gdly qualities of goodness, of wanting to help others, of giving and nurturing, are inherent to the human soul.  Those who have killed a human being have corrupted their souls to such an extent that they have completely negated their innate tzelem Elokim…

Rav Kook goes on to describe that when murder becomes rampant in Israel, the Temple is destroyed, as it can no longer be a beacon of light to the world if the nation that worships there, or pretends to, does not demonstrate the Gdliness that the Temple is supposed to represent.  And the nation itself can no longer dwell in the Land; Israel goes into exile because the Shechinah, the “soul” of Israel, has gotten overlain by the crudity of the “body” of the nation.  Neither Temple nor Land are able to reflect Gdliness, because they are merely shells containing the soul of the nation.  When the soul of the nation becomes corrupted with bloodshed – with a focus on death, rather than life – perhaps we can say that the nation itself loses its tzelem Elokim.  Just as our tzelem Elokim is what distinguishes human beings from animals, perhaps we can say that the national tzelem Elokim is what gives the nation of Israel its unique holiness and allows it to fulfill its mission in the world.

Let me emphasize here that the idea of a “national tzelem Elokim” is mine, not Rav Kook’s, so you can take it for what it’s worth.  However let me explain what I mean by it.  Our individual awareness arises out of the coordinated functioning of all the cells of our body, most particularly the cells of our nervous system.  Nevertheless, awareness is not simply the sum total of all this activity – it is something that emerges out of the activity, but is much more than just that activity.  And of course it is certainly much greater than the activity of any single neuron.  There is something in the interaction and the coordination that produces a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

We see this phenomenon in physics.  When numerous elements interact with one another, they are considered one system, and often that system may display non-linear behaviors that could not have been predicted simply based on the behavior of the individual components.  The total behavior of the system only emerges when we consider the system as a whole.  On an even deeper level, the very fact that two individual components interact is an indication that they are not really separate entities at all, but are rather two different aspects of one underlying unified system.  For example, the electric and magnetic fields were long considered separate, interacting entities.  Since the time of Maxwell, however, we have known that there is just one electromagnetic field, and both the individual fields are nothing other than aspects of the underlying unified reality.

As we have discussed on a number of occasions, human societies display a similar phenomenon.  In this case, the elements of the system are the individual members of society, and their coordinated activities and thinking give rise to a collective consciousness that is characteristic of that society.  In fact, this collective consciousness transcends and survives the activity of any individual member of society, just as our individual consciousness transcends and survives any particular nerve cell.  Thus, Torah tells us that at the Sea, after the Exodus, Israel “saw Egypt approaching” – in the singular.  Obviously what their eyes saw was Pharaoh and six hundred of his best chariots, and all the chariots of Egypt, but what was really approaching was the collective Egypt (which in this case was very united and motivated to retrieve the gold and silver they had “lent” to the Israelites).  If you don’t believe this phenomenon is real, I would suggest taking a trip to Canada (other than Quebec where the language difference accentuates the differences).  English Canada and the US share basically the same language and culture, eh, but when you cross the border there is a distinct feeling of being in another country, among another people (and the same is true for Canadians coming south of course).  There is a different energy, and different “vibe.”

In Rabbinic thought every nation has a celestial “minister” – one of the angels that surrounds Gd and represents that nation in the Heavenly Tribunal.  In our terminology, this angel is a personification of the collective consciousness of that nation.  The only exception is Israel.  Israel’s affairs are not delegated to an angel, but are administered directly by Hashem.  Perhaps this is another way of saying that there is a special national tzelem Elokim, a unique holiness, that Israel can attain by being true to its mission to enlighten the world and manifest Gd’s perfection in it.

Please note that I am not saying that non-Jews do not have a tzelem Elokim, that is clearly not the case.  When Gd created Adam in His image  there were no Jews and no non-Jews.  And of course anyone can choose to join the Jewish people, and become part of our collective consciousness.

We are called the “chosen people”; we have been singled out to have a special relationship with Gd.  But this special relationship requires a very high standard of behavior and consciousness.  But the reward is infinite bliss!

Pirke Avot, Chapter 2

Mishnah 3

Be cautious with the ruling authorities, for they only draw one near for their own needs; they appear to be friends when they are benefiting from the person, but they don’t stand by him when he is under pressure.

On the surface level this should be so obvious that it needs no comment.  I’ll give one example: Gen. David Petraeus was commander of US forces in Iraq.  He was asked (told) to testify before Congress that lack of progress in the so-called “peace process” between Israel and the Arabs was making the situation of the US in Iraq more difficult.  Although this was obviously nonsense, he did it out of a sense of loyalty to the government and the country to which he had dedicated his life.  He was duly rewarded some time later by being appointed head of the CIA.  Shortly thereafter he was caught in an extramarital affair, involving sharing of classified information.  The government did not rally behind him; the best it could do, for a man who had compromised his very integrity for them, was to let him cut a plea deal and resign.  I needn’t point out that if you or I had passed classified material to a mistress that we would be spending the rest of our lives in SuperMax.

On a deeper level, perhaps we can take “ruling authorities” to mean any corporate structure, be it governmental, business, charitable, or whatever.  Although the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision was a disaster for American democracy, and their assertion that “corporations are people” is questionable, there is an element of truth to it.  Any corporate structure has a collective consciousness, be it a society, or a family, or a religious organization.  Unfortunately, a conscience does not seem to come along with the collective consciousness.  Values like kindness, loyalty and charity are very far from the corporate world – self-preservation and self-aggrandizement appear to be the rule.  These kind of structures are certainly best avoided to the extent possible.

Fortunately, there is one ultimate Ruling Authority.  Gd draws us close to Him not for His own needs, for He has no needs, but rather for our own good.  And when things are rough for us, we recognize that these are just Gd’s challenges to us so that we may grow to our full potential.  And that is the time when we can lean on Him the most, and He will never let our footsteps falter.