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Parashat Toledot 5781 — 11/21/2020

Parashat Toledot 5781 — 11/21/2020

Beginning with Bereishit 5781 (17 October 2020) we have 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 will be describing the project. The next four parshiyyot, Noach through Chayei Sarah, we will lay out a foundational understanding of Vedic Science, to the degree I am capable of doing so. Beginning with Toledot we will start examining Moreh Nevukim.

Moreh Nevukim, the Guide for the Perplexed, has been described as Rambam’s great philosophical work, as opposed to his commentary on the Mishnah (written in his youth) and his massive halachic work, Mishneh Torah (“Second Torah” or “Repetition of the Torah”). This dichotomy has been emphasized in the world of Jewish studies: in academia, Moreh Nevukim tends to be the focus of study, and its author is called by his Greek name, Maimonides. In traditional Jewish learning Moreh Nevukim is generally ignored, and only the two overtly Jewish works of Rambam are studied. Like most oversimplifications, there is a grain of truth to this characterization, but I think it misses an important point. In his introduction, Dr. Leo Strauss says:

One begins to understand the Guide once one sees that it is not a philosophic book – a book written by a philosopher for philosophers – but a Jewish book: a book written by a Jew for Jews. Its first premise is the old Jewish premise that being a Jew and being a philosopher are two incompatible things. Philosophers are men who try to give an account of the whole by starting from what is always accessible to man as man; Maimonides starts from the acceptance of the Torah. A Jew may make use of philosophy and Maimonides makes the most ample use of it; but as a Jew he gives his assent where as a philosopher he would suspend his assent (cf. part II, section 16).

There are several interesting points here, which I hope we will be able to explore in depth. First is the relationship between Jewish thought and “philosophy,” which in Maimonides’ context means Greek philosophy, especially as passed on and interpreted by medieval Islam. Rambam is perfectly happy to make use of philosophy to understand Scripture, but Scripture is his primary source of knowledge and philosophy is but its handmaiden.

This is one approach to the general problem of how we know what we know. There are several ways in which we attempt to gain knowledge of the outside world. The most obvious is through observation. This is direct experience through the medium of the senses, and would appear to be the most straightforward way of gaining knowledge. In terms of specifics this is partly true – if we see a red flower, we can be reasonably certain that there really is a red flower in front of us. Further, if I gather 10 people and we all agree that there is a red flower in front of us, our certainty is enhanced.

There are limitations however. The entire population of the ancient world would have agreed that the sun goes around the earth, rising in the east and setting in the west. It took many other, seemingly unrelated observations, and a great deal of mathematical inference to demonstrate that in fact the earth goes around the sun in an elliptical orbit, while spinning on its axis, in such a way that it appears to our senses that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

There are further limitations. An ancient Indian story tells of a rural village that had a rope lying in the road at dusk. One of the villagers mistook the rope for a snake and ran through the village shouting, “Snake, snake!” The village was in an uproar, everyone cowering in their own houses, trembling throughout the night. When morning came, everyone peered out their windows, and lo and behold, it was a rope! The snake was wholly illusory the whole time. What happened to people’s direct perception? The answer is, perception is filtered through our consciousness, which automatically fills in gaps in the incoming information (e.g. low light conditions in our story), sometimes incorrectly.

Western, objective science attempts to surmount the problem of the variability of our consciousness by the procedure of repeatable experiments. In an experiment we set up a particular situation and measure the outcome. Measurement means comparison with a standard (a meter stick for example) and the assignment of a number to the property being measured. Mathematics can then be used to discover relationships between objects and their properties, so that we can predict future behavior. There are some issues with the idea of measurement when we are dealing with the microscopic world, which we may have an opportunity to delve into later. Suffice it to say at this point that the process of measurement of objects in a controlled setting can indeed allow us to overcome the problem of the variability of subjectivity, but at the cost of dealing only with the objective world.

The objective world is, by definition, finite. Systems in the objective world are composite, and we can analyze them into their component parts. We can build larger and larger systems, but they will always be finite. On the other hand, by analyzing physical reality into its most fundamental components, we have come to identify a unified field, an undifferentiated field of wholeness that underlies all its expressions on all levels of material existence.

We have also seen that it is possible to experience this level of wholeness directly in our own consciousness by systematically experiencing finer and finer levels of thought, until the finest level of thought is transcended and we are left with Pure Consciousness, consciousness alone in itself, with no boundaries of thought or perception. This state, having no boundaries, is completely silent and unchanging. This direct experience of wholeness on the level of our awareness does not have the problem of variable consciousness, since it is not variable. We further saw that as the experience of wholeness matures, we perceive the same wholeness that we initially discovered at the depths of our consciousness is what expresses itself as the objects of our awareness, the “objective” world. I believe that Scripture is a record of this perception of wholeness and the way that that wholeness manifests itself into parts.

It appears that Prof. Strauss is saying that the difference between the philosophical approach and the Jewish approach is that Philosophers are men who try to give an account of the whole by starting from what is always accessible to man as man – that is they attempt to reach wholeness by analyzing experience of the objective world. Rambam, on the other hand, starts from the acceptance of the Torah. That is, Rambam, the Jew, begins from wholeness and derives the existence of sense impressions from it. He uses philosophy, much as we might use science, to provide an understanding of this knowledge that can be grasped intellectually. However, it appears from Prof. Strauss’ analysis that the experience of wholeness, for Rambam, is primary, and, ultimately, is its own verification. In this sense, Moreh Nevukim is not a philosophical work at all, but rather a Jewish book: a book written by a Jew for Jews. Ironically, this turns our common understanding of Rambam as the arch-rationalist / philosopher right on its head!


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Toldot

“Toldot” means “generations, descendants”. More basic than the literal meaning is the meaning “stages of evolution.” We will look at this parshah from this point of view.

The parshah begins with “and these are the generations of Isaac” and tells the story of Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau from whom generations will be born, and of Gd’s promise to Isaac that if Isaac will follow Gd, as did Isaac’s father Abraham, then his descendants will be multiplied “like the stars of the heavens” and the land and all nations will be blessed by Isaac’s descendants. “Heaven” symbolizes “Wholeness” and “stars” symbolize the details of Wholeness, the details through which Heaven sends its grace to human and all beings. Similarly, “land” symbolizes “Wholeness” and “nations” symbolizes the details of Wholeness.

On the surface of this parshah, we see competition, deception, favoritism: Isaac and Rebecca do not seem to have been good parents, skilled and effective in raising two sons to be whole, complete.

It’s common to say that Esau, “a man of the fields,” symbolizes the outer field of life, the physical, while Jacob, “a quiet person, sitting in tents,” symbolizes the inner field of life, the spiritual.

Often people see a battle taking place between these two people and these two aspects of life, but life, to be Life, needs to have both physical and spiritual and they need to be integrated.

A great blessing came to me in understanding a step in how this integration takes place when I heard Dr. Doug Birx, well-known to many in our congregation, giving a quote from Maharishi, also well-known to many in our congregation.

Maharishi commented that Ananda, Total Joy, is everyone’s birthright.

Looking at the story of Jacob asking Esau to sell him his birthright for some porridge he was making, it occurred to me that Jacob, symbolizing the Spiritual aspect of Life, was asking Esau, symbolizing the Physical aspect of Life, to end his famished state by surrendering his commitment to the Physical Alone, and opening himself to the spiritual porridge Jacob was cooking.

Porridge seems to have a bubbly quality to it and cooking it seemed to me to be equivalent to revealing that Ananda/Joy/Consciousness/Unified Field/Gd, has a texture: it is not just flat, it has a bubbly quality.

So rather than Jacob cheating Esau, acting cruelly, Jacob was actually enlivening the Joy in Esau, ending his famishment, by taking from him his false birthright in the Physical, and giving him his real birthright, in Ananda, Gd.

Similarly, when Toldot tells us that Esau, the man of the fields, was Isaac’s favorite we can see that Isaac was unable to integrate the spiritual with the physical and so he was not able to live with Wholeness, the integration of the spiritual and the material. We can see this very clearly when Toldot also tells us that Isaac became blind: what greater blindness than to be unaware of Wholeness.

For Rebecca to deceive Isaac by dressing Jacob so that he seemed like the hairy Esau might seem like favoritism on Rebecca’s part but Esau had already sold his physical birthright to Jacob and so what Rebecca was doing was creating an integration of spirituality with materiality, an integration that would raise the generations to increasing higher levels of integration.

Later in Torah we see a very high step in this integration and Restoration of Awareness to Jacob’s descendants when at Mt. Sinai, all of the nation of Israel hears Gd speak, something that I have not seen reported in any other scripture, amazingly enough.

Still, hearing Gd speak from a distance is an experience of the duality between Gd and humanity: Full Restoration of Awareness means going beyond this duality and experiencing the Oneness which is All.

Toldot reminds us that we need to live balanced, integrated lives, making sure that our material needs are nourished by our spiritual development so that we go beyond duality of any kind and experience duality and all multiplicity within the Oneness that is our real Nature. The All-in-All.

Reading, reciting, hearing, discussing Torah, the Siddur (prayerbook) and their supplements and commentaries and acting with their Wisdom is an excellent way to do this. Getting together with our community, with our World Family, is an excellent way to do this; an excellent way to increase our Joy and Wholeness by sharing, by integrating the multiplicity of life so that we experience the Wholeness with its details.

Let’s continue easily, gently, innocently doing this.

Baruch HaShem