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Sukkot 5779 — 09/29/2018

Sukkot 5779 — 09/29/2018

Parashat V’Zot haB’rachah is always read on Simchat Torah. As I have mentioned in previous years, in the Diaspora, Simchat Torah never falls on Shabbat, so our parashah is never read on Shabbat. In Eretz Yisrael, where Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are one and the same, it can fall on Shabbat. This year, Simchat Torah is on Tuesday, 2 October, and we will read the portion for Chol haMoed Sukkot on Shabbat. Chag Same’ach to all!

Devarim 33:1-34:12

Never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moshe, whom Gd knew face to face, as manifest by all the signs and wonders that Gd sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh and all his courtiers and all his land, and by all the strong hand and awesome power that Moshe performed before the eyes of all Israel (34:10-12).

These are the concluding words of the Torah. Perhaps this is a fitting time to reflect a bit on the nature of Moshe’s prophecy and his leadership of Israel.

Abarbanel asks what it means to say that Moshe had a face-to-face relationship with Gd? He contrasts this with three other times when the expression is used:

  1. Ya’akov, after wrestling with the “man” (identified by the Rabbis as Esav’s guardian angel), avers that he has seen Gd face-to-face (Gen 32:31). But our verses say that there was nobody but Moshe who enjoyed this kind of relationship!
  2. Gd twice tells Moshe that he cannot see Gd’s Face (Ex 32:20 and 32:23).
  3. At the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, the entire nation is said, by Moshe himself, to have spoken with Gd face-to-face (5:4).

Abarbanel resolves the contradictions:

  1. Ya’akov was referring to the angel with whom he had just wrestled. The Hebrew word translated here as Gd is Elokim, which is sometimes used for angels, or even for human judges.
  2. Not being able to see Gd’s Face refers to understanding or experiencing Gd’s Essence. This was beyond even Moshe’s capabilities. To experience Gd’s essence would essentially mean being Gd, and as long as there is some individuality left such an identification is impossible.
  3. The nation did in fact reach Moshe’s level of prophecy, but only for a brief moment, and it was so overwhelming that they came to Moshe and begged him to be their intermediary, lest they all die. As we have noted, Gd approves, although the Midrash has Moshe chiding the people for preferring the words of the student (i.e. Moshe) to the words of the master (i.e. Gd). On the other hand, another Midrash states that the people actually did die, and angels had to be dispatched from heaven to revive them!

What does it mean that someone knows, or communicates with Gd “face-to-face”?

Clearly Gd has no Face, so the description must have something to do with the relationship between the person(s) and Gd, and that will depend critically on the level of consciousness and the purity of the physiology of the person.

When we experience anything there is a dichotomy between our self and the object of perception. The object is outside our self, other than our self. This obviously cannot be the case with Gd. Gd transcends the world of objects; Gd is not finite in any way – therefore He is not perceptible by the senses. What is perceptible by the senses is what Gd does in the world, at least on occasion. For example, during the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, the mountain was covered with clouds and smoke, and the sound of a great shofar was heard – all perceptible effects of Gd’s presence. But this kind of perception, while wonderful and awe-inspiring, cannot be called face-to-face, for it is through the intermediary of the palpable, physical world.

I think that a face-to-face encounter with Gd would have to be on Gd’s terms, and that would have to be a transcendental experience. What is a transcendental experience? Consider our original perception of some object as we just discussed.  Now let the object fade out, get more and more transparent, as it were, perhaps like the final scene of a movie dissolving to white. We are still awake and alert, but now there is no longer an object of perception. We are left alone with our self, our inner essence, the “I” that transcends all our experiences, all our individuality. This is the first stage of the experience of the transcendent – beyond all boundaries, infinitely silent.

As we become more familiar with this experience, we begin to realize that our infinitely silent, Pure Consciousness is Self-aware – it takes on the roles of observer and observed, as well as the process of observation. We begin to discern a virtual structure, virtual relationships within the infinite silence. And with this virtual structure comes a virtual dynamism, a flow of Pure Consciousness within itself. I believe that this process is what our Sages called tzimtzum / “contraction.” Gd, as it were, contracted Himself into Himself to “create a space” for manifest creation to exist. But the point here is that apparently, once one’s awareness is stationed in the transcendent, one can perceive directly the fundamental mechanics of creation within one’s own awareness. Perhaps this is close to what Torah means when we encounter Gd “face-to-face.” We still have not plumbed Gd’s Essence, and presumably never will – there will always be an infinite gap between the Creator and the creation (For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are My ways above your ways and My thoughts above your thoughts [Is 55:9]). Nevertheless, we have plumbed the deepest levels of Gd’s actions, which, as we have seen, is about as close as we’ll get.

Needless to say, to operate at this very fine and delicate level of consciousness requires a very pure and refined nervous system. Moshe Rabbeinu was obviously able to sustain this experience on a continual basis. The Israelites were so overwhelmed by it that they died! It’s like a pipe with water rushing through it at high pressure. The pipe must be very clean for the water to flow smoothly. If the pipe is encrusted with dirt and deposits on the inside, the water flow will become turbulent and the pipe might even burst! If we want to know Gd face-to-face, we need to prepare ourselves, purify ourselves, so that the experience doesn’t destroy us. First deserve, then desire!

Chazak, chazak v’nitchazeik!


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parsashat Sukkot/Hoshanah Rabbah/Shemini Atzeres/Simchat Torah

Sukkot, the celebration of God’s protection as we dwell in fragile huts — symbolically, our human physiology – continues this Friday and ends on Tuesday with Simchat Torah.

Our Torah reading ends with V’zot HaBerachah, “and this is the blessing”. Moses praises Gd for his greatness, the twelve tribes of Israel for their obedience, and describes each tribe, asking Gd to bless the tribe.

On the first day of Sukkot we celebrated unity in diversity by waving the lulav — date palm frond, willow frond, myrtle frond and esrog — all bound together.  Symbolically, it is Gd who expresses Himself as the diversity of creation within Himself, and Gd who binds together this diversity within Himself.

On the last day of Sukkot, Simchat Torah, we also celebrate unity in diversity as Moses asks Gd to bless each of the tribes — Gd is the unity that binds together all the diverse tribes of Israel, all different types of people, into unity, a community.  The more we attune ourselves to Torah, to Gd, the deeper we experience this unity, the more we are able to “love Gd with all our heart, all our mind, all our soul” and able “to love our neighbor as our self”, our Self.

Moses passes away in perfect health, by the Kiss of Gd, and Joshuah is filled with Gd’s Wisdom, passed to him through Moses.

The Five Books of Moses end and we have not yet entered the Promised Land, physically. But Gd’s Blessing is the Promised Land in its Deepest Reality. So as we end the Five Books and begin the cycle of reading again with Beresheit, Genesis, we are beginning with Gd’s Blessing, deeper than we experienced it before, and with the Spirit of Wisdom, deeper than we experienced it before.

A very good practice of re-cycling!

Baruch HaShem!

L’Shana Tovah U’Metukah.

Have a good year and a sweet one.