Torah Creature Comforts
The Shabbat following the 9th of Av is known as Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Comfort. Following the commemoration of the destruction of the Temples, it is important to offer the benighted Jewish people hope. We may be living among the ruins of the things that we hold most sacred but the recovery is assured. Thus the Haftorah begins:
"'Comfort, comfort My people', says your God, 'Speak consolingly of Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her period of exile has been completed, that her iniquity has been forgiven; for she has received double for all her sins from the hand of God.'" (Isaiah 40:1-2)
Uplifting, even inspiring words.
We certainly would have expected a Parsha that is meant to offer solace to the bereaved to begin on a more optimistic note than the account of a rejected prayer. Yet this is precisely the way our parsha begins: "I implored God at that time saying..." We can picture Moses, the holiest man who ever lived, imploring God to extend his life for just long enough to bring the Jewish people into Israel. Not only is he turned down, but his prayer is rejected with anger: "But God became angry with me because of you, and He did not listen to me." And, mind you, the source of this anger can be ultimately traced to a sin of such delicate subtlety that no one has yet managed to figure out exactly what it was. (See the plethora of interpretations in the commentaries, Bamidbar 20) What kind of way is this to begin a message of hope?
Before we grapple with the broader question of 'comfort,' it is fair to inquire how such a beginning can be considered appropriate to the Parsha itself. How does the story of Moses' rejected prayer tie in with the speech that follows?
"Now, O Israel, listen to the decrees and ordinances that I teach you to perform, so that you may live and come and possess the land that YHVH, the God of your forefathers gives you." (Bamidbar 4,1)
The use of the introductory word 'now' implies a clear connection - now that my prayer has been rejected, come and listen to what I have to tell you. How does the rejection of Moses' prayer relate to the need to listen to his message?
THE MAHARAL'S QUESTION
We can gain some insight from the Maharal's commentary on the first Mishna in Pirkei Avot.
"Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets transmitted it to the men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment; develop many disciples; and make a fence for the Torah."
The Maharal directs a thought-provoking question at this Mishna: The Mishna records the aphorism uttered by the Men of the Great Assembly; the rest of Pirkei Avot continues in the same vein. In fact the entire tractate is a record of the wise statements uttered by the leaders of the generations that followed the Men of the great Assembly to the destruction of the Second Temple - an era spanning a period of some five hundred years. Surely we would have been equally interested to hear the statements uttered by the leaders of earlier generations; men of the caliber of David or Solomon or Jeremiah and Isaiah. Why are all the generations preceding the Men of the Great Assembly dismissed in a few introductory words? Why doesn't the Mishna record their aphorisms? Surely, they must also have had a few nuggets to add to the collective treasury of Jewish wisdom!
APHORISMS AS SPIRITUAL MECHANISMS
His answer: The entire tractate is about how to deal with a spiritually changing world. The Men of the Great Assembly established the Second Temple. This event heralded a spiritual watershed; the end of the age of prophecy. Subsequent generations were doomed to spiritual descent as though stuck on a spiritual down escalator. The sense of clarity about the purpose and meaning of life possessed by earlier generations must inexorably fade as the march of time transported the Jewish people further and further from the era where direct access to God's own words was always readily at hand.
Each generation was aware of the fact that it perceived the world with a clarity of vision that would never again be equaled before the arrival of the Mashiach; each attempted to squeeze its disappearing vision into a practice that must be followed by succeeding generations in light of the fact that this level of clarity would no longer be matched.
GETTING A SOLID GRIP
Let us focus briefly on the first Mishna to get a solid grip on what this means. The Men of the Great Assembly could always reach the true verdict without being deliberate in judgment because of the great insight into the depths of the human heart provided by their Ruach Hakodesh, the Holy Spirit that rested upon them. Subsequent generations, who would not be imbued with Ruach Hakodesh, would have to deliberate long and carefully to reach reliable results.
The Men of the Great Assembly focused on the quality of their disciples and not on their numbers because their aim was to raise students to the level where they could also become imbued with the Holy Spirit. But following the inevitable departure of this spirit from the world in the next generation, all students should be considered equal. You never know which person has the stamina and concentration to reach greatness through the diligence of his own unaided effort; therefore the numbers become important.
The generation of the Great Assembly did not require fences around the mitzvot; they were holy people and their sensitivity to holiness insured them against inadvertent descent into profanity. Whenever they came close to profane action their awakened sense of anxiety preserved them from falling into the pit. A holy person is as spiritually sensitive to profanity as he is physically aware of fire; you can feel its heat from afar and be warned of the approaching danger. But when the Holy Spirit departs, so does sensitivity to the heat cast by the flame of profanity. The spiritual danger area that becomes exposed must be fenced in.
But the generations before the Men of the Great Assembly were not doomed to experience any of these spiritual drops. As long as the First Temple stood, and prophecy was part of the everyday world, fresh contact with God was always at hand. Each generation was in a position to contact God directly, and receive the Torah from God anew as though they themselves had stood on Mt. Sinai. There was no need to encapsulate the clarity of vision into actions that would preserve the flavor of spiritual life even after that clarity was lost, and therefore the Mishna records no such attempts by the ancients.
FALLING OFF THE PEAK
But if we examine the Mishna closely we find that while this might apply to earlier generations as a general rule, in fact the Mishna does record several structurally inevitable spiritual drops that took place long before the era of the Men of the great Assembly. The Mishna records such a drop from Moses to Joshua, from Joshua to the Elders and from them to the Prophets. Applying the interpretation developed by the Maharal, this implies that despite the continuing existence of prophecy, some loss of spiritual clarity was unavoidable upon Moses' death.
Pirkei Avot establishes the Torah rule that Jewish leaders must provide compensating mechanisms to counteract the debilitating effects of inherently inevitable spiritual drops. Consequently, it was incumbent upon Moses to provide a mechanism that could encapsulate the clarity of his vision and compensate for its imminent disappearance.
UNDERSTANDING THE 'NOW'
Moses' fulfillment of this duty provides the framework that links the rejection of his prayer with his speech and allows us to comprehend his use of the word 'now.' God has refused my prayer and I shall not be accompanying you into the land of Israel. I must therefore provide you with the tools to offset the loss of the clarity of vision that you presently enjoy through my presence among you. Pay close attention to my speech because I want to give you this tool and teach you how to use it.
This 'now' also expresses the idea of the 'Shabbat of comfort' at the deepest level. There is no comfort without the availability of a mechanism that can compensate somewhat for the tragedy that has struck. Not that the existence of such a mechanism makes the tragedy any less real. No mechanism can ever duplicate the actual feeling of clarity and closeness to God that has disappeared from the world for good. But such a mechanism can somewhat compensate for the loss by alleviating its destructive effect on our spirituality. Such compensation is precisely what is implied by 'comfort' in a spiritual context.
THE NATURE OF THE LOSS
Let us now turn our attention to the mechanism itself. If we analyze the spiritual clarity that departed from the world with Moses' death, the provision of such a 'comfort' mechanism seems like a formidable task indeed. Let us not forget, as long as Moses was alive the Manna fell, the Well followed the camp and provided water, the clouds of Glory served as an impregnable barrier against attackers, and offered shelter from the elements to all as well as transportation to the weary. It was impossible for any person living in the Jewish camp under Moses' leadership to entertain the slightest doubt about God's existence or to attribute any sort of independent power to another agency.
These indications of Divine favor were lost with Moses; their existence was dependent on the unique clarity of his vision. In the shining light of his awareness of the universality of the divine Presence, everything was manna; consequently the provision of the real Manna was no great feat. "The face of Moses was like the sun, the face of Joshua was like the moon (Baba Batra,75a)" - Joshua was unable to cast a bright enough light on God's universal Presence to bring such manifestations down to earth. The provision of a device that could enable the Jewish people to enjoy even a remote approximation of Moses' clarity would appear to be beyond human reach. How did the lesson contained in Moses' speech solve the problem?
SEEING VERSUS HEARING
If we analyze the speech closely, it centers on the delivery of Torah at the encounter of Sinai. One major theme focuses on the importance of preserving the remembrance of the encounter itself in all its detail, exactly as it happened, and transmitting a portrait of it to subsequent generations that is fully faithful to the original. A second theme focuses on the encounter as a unique historic event. Let us attempt to explore the ideas involved:
"God spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you were hearing the sound of words, but you were not seeing a form, only a sound." (Devarim 4:12)
Taken literally, this passage implies that the people of Israel 'saw' a sound. The impression is reinforced by a parallel passage concerning the encounter at Sinai:
"The entire people saw the thunder and the flames, the sound of the shofar and the smoking mountain." (Exodus 20,15)
Again, the implication is that they saw the thunder and the sound of the shofar. How does one 'see' sound?
Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, the student of the Gaon of Vilna, offers the following explanation in his work, Nefesh Hachaim. Human beings discern physical phenomena mainly by utilizing the power of vision. Their eyes and ears are mainly employed to serve as gateways to ideas and thoughts. Stated another way, the physical world is a detectable reality that we actually see; our awareness of anything spiritual is in our thoughts expressed in the medium of concepts and ideas. We 'see' physicality; we 'hear' spirituality.
For the duration of the encounter at Sinai, this general orientation was diametrically reversed. The spiritual world was so detectable, that we could 'see' the things that we could ordinarily only 'hear', whereas the things we could ordinarily 'see' we could now only access as ideas. Standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai, physicality existed for us only as an idea in our minds; the reality projected to us by our senses was entirely spiritual.
Rabbi Dessler describes the mechanism designed into human beings that allows such a reversal of orientation (Michtav M'Eliyahu, Vol. 1). Each human being is born into two different realities. He is born into the physical world, called the Olam Ha'assiyah, and is conscious of this world through the five bodily senses that are stimulated by the contact with physicality. He is also born simultaneously into a spiritual world, called the Olam Hayezira, and he is conscious of this world as well through his spirit, known as the Ruach.
TRACKING THE RUACH
He cites the following phenomena of human consciousness in support of his observation. All human beings who personally encounter injustice respond with strong emotion. Many people break down and cry when they are unfairly treated; age doesn't seem to be a major factor. The tears are a reaction to the injustice itself, quite apart from any upset over any actual misfortune suffered. Grave misfortune is often born quite stoically by the same person who reacts vociferously to minor slights that are unjustly administered.
When you ask a person reduced to tears by injustice if he would describe the world as a generally just place according to his experience, he will almost certainly respond that the world is unjust now and has been unjust all through human history. Does this make any sense? If we feel so strongly that the world is fundamentally unjust why do we react so powerfully to injustice? And yet the feeling that the world ought to be a just place and there is something out of kilter with an unjust world stubbornly persists; it is very tangible and real within all of us.
Explains Rabbi Dessler: We inhabit the world of yezira as ruchot - as spirits, just as we live in the world of assiyah as bodies. The world of assiyah may be a dog-eat-dog world where the strong feed on the weak etc., but this is not the way things operate in the realm of yezira which is a spiritual universe where justice always reigns supreme. Insofar as we know that all our fellow human beings are also inhabitants of this spiritual world of yezira along with ourselves, we expect just behavior from them in spite of the way reality operates in the physical world of nature. We are freshly disappointed each time that human beings behave in a fashion that the ruach rejects, no matter how often such behavior is repeated.
The second phenomenon that Rabbi Dessler cites as evidence of the existence of ruach is self-consciousness itself. All human beings share the subjective perception that the body is not the true seat of the self. We all speak of my body, my brain, my eyes and ears, because of this perception of ourselves as disembodied spirits whose existence is not physically based. We are the disembodied spirits that inhabit our bodies, not our physical selves.
Moses says at the beginning of his encapsulation speech:
"But you who cling to YHVH your God - you are all alive today." (Devarim 4:4)
Rabbi Dessler explains that the ability of mortal human beings to cling to God and draw life from the connection is only comprehensible if we are alive in yezira as much as we inhabit assiyah. We cannot possibly draw fresh life as bodies by means of establishing a connection with an incorporeal Creator, but as ruchot, spiritual beings who live in yezira, itself a spiritual world, the ruach within us can connect with God spiritually, draw spiritual life and energy from the source, and pass this energy down to our bodies that live in assiyah. After all, our bodies are also parts of ourselves.
BRAIN VERSUS MIND
Translating this concept into more familiar terminology, the ruach is also known as the sechel, or the mind, because the human brain is the portion of the physical world where its light can be absorbed. We have often employed the example of the world food supply to expose the close connection between the spiritual and the physical portions of existence. The world presently supports well over six billion people; there is no way it could have supported these numbers two hundred years ago. The amount of arable land has not increased by an iota in all this time. The increase in productivity is entirely due to advances in technology. But technology is a product of ideas and no one has the slightest clue where in the physical world ideas can possibly originate.
Expressed in Rabbi Dessler's concepts, the spiritual light cast by the ruach or mind, is absorbed by the human brain in the form of ideas and relayed on to the physical world in the form of new technologies. The extra food is a product of the human spirit.
We can sum up all this information in a theorem. The entire human being is located in assiyah except for his mind, which is the part of him that exists in yezira. We are all conscious of our minds as Rabbi Dessler demonstrated.
Not surprisingly, these ideas have found their expression in the secular culture. There is heated controversy concerning the very existence of the mind. Many eminent thinkers maintain that in fact we have no minds, only brains, which are integral parts of our physical selves. The mind is an illusion created by our physical senses; all perception of reality is delivered to our brains through the physical senses in the form of sensory inputs; the sensory input provided by the sensation of activity in our own mental circuitry is experienced reflexively as mind. In this view, if we could ever duplicate the sophisticated wiring that exists in a human brain mechanically, the machine that would be equipped with such wiring would also develop a sense of self-consciousness and experience itself as a detached mind. [See for example the Emperor's New Mind by Roger Penrose]
REVISITING THE 'NOW'
We may be finally equipped to grapple with Moses' 'now'. If we could all accept Rabbi Dessler's thesis regarding the existence of ruach as true with absolute certainty, much of our inner confusion concerning the reality of spirituality would be resolved. We can translate Moses' speech thus.
The main effect of my presence is to irrefutably demonstrate that you exist as spirits. This conviction allows you to perceive that the vector of reality originates in the ruach or sechel, and flows outward and downward from mind to brain, and from ideas in the brain to technology and from there to physical reality. As long as you can see this reality vector you can readily appreciate that all life is Manna. This clarity of subjective perception will leave the world with me.
But you can hang on to the reality of the encounter of Sinai to compensate for the loss. As a unique historic event, it establishes the existence of the ruach, or mind as fact. Physical creatures whose perception of reality is a function of the way their brains are wired cannot bond or communicate with detached spirits. A machine wired for Artificial Intelligence no matter how complex, could never make contact with God.
But to reach the ultimate truth you also have to remember the details. Remember that when you stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai your 'ears' became 'eyes' and your eyes turned into ears. Through Torah it is still possible to reverse your orientation. Readjust your perception of reality through Torah study; ideas will become your true reality while the world that surrounds you will be exposed as the realm of dreams that it truly is. The body in Assiyah is no more than the garment in which the ruach that lives in yezira is dressed.