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Parashat Shemot 5781 — 01/09/2021

Parashat Shemot 5781 — 01/09/2021

Beginning with Bereishit 5781 (17 October 2020) we embarked on a new format. We will be considering Rambam’s (Maimonides’) great philosophical work Moreh Nevukim (Guide for the Perplexed) in the light of the knowledge of Vedic Science as expounded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The individual essays will therefore not necessarily have anything to do with the weekly Torah portion, although certainly there will be plenty of references to the Torah, the rest of the Bible, and to the Rabbinic literature. For Bereishit we described the project. The next four parshiyyot, Noach through Chayei Sarah, laid out a foundational understanding of Vedic Science, to the degree I am capable of doing so. Beginning with Toledot we started examining Moreh Nevukim.

Shemot 1:1-6:1

We began our discussion of Rambam’s sources and influences by pointing out that the major source for his thinking was the Jewish tradition itself. Of course there were strong influences from the tradition of Greek philosophy as filtered through the medieval Islamic world as well, and it is these influences I’d like to look at now. I will, of course, be using the introductions of Profs Strauss and Pines.

As we mentioned earlier, the purpose of Moreh Nevukim is not to break ground in the area of philosophy; rather it is to harmonize Jewish Scripture and tradition with the findings of philosophy. Rambam has convinced himself that the findings of philosophy are true and in consonance with our Gd-given ability to reason about the structure of reality. If that is the case, then it is impossible for Scripture, which is also true and from the same Gd who structured objective and subjective reality, to be incompatible with philosophy. If we substitute the word “science” for “philosophy” in the above statement, we have the same issue that is debated in the current age. If we believe that science gives us an accurate map of reality, and that Scripture was given to us as a map of reality expressed in different terms, then, ultimately, there can be no incompatibility between the two. And similarly, our current effort is to show that Jewish tradition and Vedic Science are likewise compatible. The big difference is that I’m nowhere near at Rambam’s level, and I’d suggest that Aristotle was not at Maharishi’s level either, so the gap between my understanding of Jewish thought and Maharishi’s exposition of Vedic Science is huge, whereas Rambam was an expert in both sides. So I hope you’ll bear with me, and contact me with any corrections, suggestions or comments.

By the way, the contention that philosophy/science and Scripture are different descriptions of the same reality is the argument that underlies the late R. Lord Jonathan Sacks’ book The Great Partnership (originally published in 2011).  Whether he drew this idea from Rambam, or from Moreh Nevukim, I don’t know, as I have only heard him lecture on the topic and haven’t actually read the book. In his book of commentary on the weekly parshiyyot, he points out that while philosophy (and later, science) is an attempt to systematize our perceptions of creation and our deduction about those perceptions, Torah is a story about relationships, the relationship between Gd and humans, between humans, and between humans and the world.

This is why we associate science and philosophy – both are attempts to systematize our knowledge. Now Rambam was a great systematizer – his Mishneh Torah is a tour de force of getting to the essence of Talmudic argument, extracting the practical halachah, and ordering the halachah in a systematic pattern that covers every aspect of human life. But, as we have been finding, that is not the purpose of Moreh Nevukim. Torah is a narrative. It is not systematic. It is a rich and variegated weave of different threads of stories, homilies, legal rulings and examples of proper behavior from which we are to learn why we are here and what we are supposed to be doing. These are questions that science cannot ask, let alone answer. These are questions that philosophy tries to answer in a logical, deductive way. Torah’s way is a different way, the way of the storyteller. That is why the two need to be harmonized – that is, we need to show that Torah and science/philosophy are describing the same truth but using different palettes.

One way we might analyze this dichotomy is to say that science proceeds from diversity to unity by means of analysis, while Scripture starts with unity and describes the mechanism by which this unity appears as diversity. In R. Sacks’ words, “Science takes things apart to see how they work; religion puts things together to see what they mean.”

Rambam, in a letter to his translator (of Moreh Nevukim into Hebrew from the original Arabic), Shmuel ibn Tibbon, notes the sources he had used and his opinion of some of them. He writes:

The words of Aristotle’s teacher Plato are in parables and hard to understand. One can dispense with them, for the writings of Aristotle suffice, and we need not occupy [our attention] with the writings of earlier [philosophers]. Aristotle’s intellect [represents] the extreme of human intellect, if we except those who have received divine inspiration.
The works of Aristotle are the roots and foundations of all works on the sciences. But they cannot be understood except with the help of commentaries, those of Alexander of Aphrodisias, those of Themistius, and those of Averroes.  

I will tell you: as for works on logic, one should only study the writings of Abū Nasr al-Fārābī. All his writings are faultlessly excellent. One ought to study and understand them, for he is a great man.

(Note: this is the last time I am going to try to put in the diacritics on Hebrew and Arabic words! The experience has increased my already boundless admiration for Chaya Green, who typed my entire PhD dissertation with its innumerable formulas on an IBM Selectric typewriter.)

Given the fact that the Midrash and even the Talmud are full of parables, it is difficult for me to understand why Rambam is so dismissive of Plato. The answer is probably in his evaluation of Aristotle’s intellect, for if indeed Aristotle represents the extreme development of the human intellect, then his work will necessarily contain, at least in seed form, everything that came before him (and, if his knowledge is complete, everything that was to come afterwards as well). This idea, that all knowledge can be grasped in seed form, is very fundamental to understanding the structure of knowledge, and we shall discuss it beginning next week.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Shemot

This parshah concludes with Gd telling Moses that redemption is close at hand but before that promise we see the collapse of Wholeness in the awareness of the Egyptian people and several hundred years of slavery for the Children of Israel.

“A new pharaoh arose in Egypt who knew not Joseph.”

Joseph and his family brought Canaan (synchronicity, Wholeness) to Egypt (Mitzraim, restrictions).

The pharaoh of Joseph’s time knew Joseph, and thus knew Wholeness and respected all representatives of Wholeness. When a pharaoh arose who knew not Joseph, it means he was lost in restrictions and could not see and respect Wholeness and its representatives.

As a result, this pharaoh saw Joseph and the Children of Israel as threats and not as blessings. He reduced them to slavery and began murdering the newborn males. Of course, for this to have happened, there must have been some diminishing of purity, of wholeness, on the part of the Israelites, not just ritual impurity but some diminishing of their “Loving Gd with all their heart, their soul, all their might” and some diminishing of their “loving their neighbor as their self, their Self.”

The most important lesson we learn is to honor these two commandments of Gd so that we are always happy, loving and perceived that way by others. Then everyone, including the most powerful rulers and the most desperate criminals would always see us as friends and never even think of doing us harm.

When the Children of Israel in Egypt had been reduced to slavery and Pharaoh was murdering the male children, the cries of the Israelites rose to Gd and Gd decided the time for the Exodus had come – the return to Canaan, to Wholeness.

Gd spoke to Moses from a burning bush, a bush that was not consumed by the flames, and told Moses that He will rescue them and lead them to a land flowing with milk and honey. He told Moses to speak to Pharaoh to release the Children of Israel for three days to make offerings to their Gd in the desert. Gd also tells Moses that Pharaoh will refuse and that Gd will, with a mighty hand, perform miracles and then Pharaoh will let the Children of Israel go and they will leave and not go empty handed but with all of the wealth of Egypt.

Moses asked Gd what name shall he tell the Children of Israel when they ask him who sent him.

Gd responds, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh”: I Will Be what I Will Be.” But also He says tell them the Gd of their forefathers, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has sent you so they will have confidence that He who rescued their forefathers will rescue them.

We can learn from this that Gd the Omnipotent who “Will Be what He Will Be” cannot be interfered with and does answer prayers: He will answer ours but perhaps our troubles are long-standing, like the slavery of the Children of Israel in Egypt. Then perhaps Gd will answer the prayers step-by-step, perhaps by sending us some person with wisdom, such as a business advisor, a teacher, a health professional, to lead us out of our troubles. Some person who has a history of success.

Perhaps He will answer our prayers by giving us some flash of insight, which like the burning bush, continues, does not pass away, gives us confidence it is reliable advice we can act on.

Perhaps He will answer our prayers by giving us continual Awareness of His Wholeness, His “I Will Be What I Will Be” and thus give us direct experience of this Wholeness, this All-in-All, that governs according to His Will and through which we can solve problems and prevent problems.

We need to be alert and open for we do not know how Gd will answer our prayers and transform our problems into blessings.: He Will Be What He Will Be.
And we need to be the leaders of our own lives: we need to be our own Moses and to continue communicating with Gd – through prayer, through our good lives, through whatever means we have to “love Gd with all our heart and soul” and to “love our neighbor as ourself” so that through our love we become open to Gd’s Love, Gd’s Blessings, Gd’s restoration to us of our birthright: Oneness with the One, the “I will Be What I will Be.”

Baruch HaShem