The Song That Rocks the Jewish Soul
"Give ear, O Heavens and I will speak; and may the earth hear the words of my mouth." (Devarim 32:1)
At first glance this seems like a very presumptuous command. Who is Moses to call on the heavens and the earth to heed his voice? Our sages tell us that this is not just a manner of speaking poetically to dramatize a point. Moses appointed the heavens and the earth to witness the Covenant between God and Israel in order to authorize them to act on their testimony. If they have good things to say, they can proceed to shower their bounty on Israel, and if they witness serious violations it is their duty to "cast the first stone," (Devarim 17:7).
What presumption! The heavens and the earth have nothing better to do than to pay attention to the way the Jewish people observe their Covenant? They respond to the level of observance or violations of some Covenant? They take orders from Moses?
This is a far different proposition than praying to God, or believing that God rewards His adherents and punishes His detractors. Everyone relates to the idea of prayer in some manner. Even those who do not believe in the effectiveness of prayer understand the people who do it. They can even empathize with the idea of God handing out rewards and inflicting punishments without subscribing to it themselves. Everyone is entitled to his beliefs and while there is nothing in nature that confirms either the notion that God listens to prayer, or that He judges human actions, there is nothing that contradicts these propositions either.
But Moses was not praying. He did not address his words to God. He was expounding the notion that he, Moses, a mere mortal, possessed the power to readjust reality and command it to respond to the status of Israel's Covenant with God. Henceforth, the behavior of the heavens and the earth would automatically reflect the level of Covenantal observance. In effect he was introducing a brand new physics. Cause and effect were to be understood not in terms of natural laws but in terms of the observance of covenants. Is there a way to account for this sort of power in mortal hands or to rationally explain how this sort of spiritual physics can be incorporated into reality?
R'Chaim of Voloz'hin wrote an entire book, the Nefesh Hachaim to explain just two words of Torah: Tzelem Elokim - God's Image. What could the Torah possibly mean when it describes man as God's Image? First of all God has no image; He is formless and beyond description or definition. Further, why select this particular Divine name, Elokim, to express the image concept. Why not one of the other names of God written in the Torah? It does not seem possible that the name Elokim was selected at random.
His thesis: one question answers the other. When the Torah describes man as being cast in God's image, the Torah is referring to man's powers rather than to his appearance. Thus man is described as God's image because he was invested with the divine power represented by the name Elokim. Upon examination, (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim ch.5) the name Elokim stands for the idea that God is the source of all creative energy. All the Divine energy required to create the universe ex nihilo, and all the energy that must be injected without interruption to keep creation in being is packaged and subsumed in the aspect of God that is described by the name Elokim.
This name therefore represents the source of all creative energy and power. To see what this implies he contrasts Divine creative energy to the natural creative power of human beings. When human beings build a house they fashion it out of some material that already exists, use their energy to arrange the material in a desired pattern and then they are finished. The house no longer requires their energy input and will stand on its own unless some force comes along to knock it down. But God has no materials out of which to shape the universe. The entire universe was and always remains nothing more than an expression of His will.
Creating man in the image of Elokim signifies that much of the universe now becomes an expression of man's will. Not that man possesses any creative energy of his own. The energy is not man's, but God's. Nevertheless, God made a policy decision when He created man; He would direct the Divine energy subsumed under His Name Elokim only as man directs through his actions, words and thoughts. In other words, God channels His creative energy so as to fashion the universe of man's choosing. Man is the image of Elokim because he directs God in the exercise of this Divine Elokim power.
Now of course, God can do exactly as He pleases, but surely He always behaves rationally. We are entitled to wonder how this policy makes sense? By what rationale does God give man so much power? In a created universe such as the Torah describes there are many spiritual beings that are much holier and wiser than human beings. In terms of intelligent creatures possessing the ability to communicate concepts and thoughts we human beings with our puny minds are pretty much the bottom of the barrel. What sense does it make to put us in charge of controlling the creative energy flowing into the universe, thereby positioning us over creatures much greater than ourselves?
Once again, R' Chaim uses the question itself to supply the answer. The fact that God granted this kind of power to man indicates that we do not see him correctly. The creature we think of as man is actually only man's shoe. The real man actually originates at the highest level of the universe, before it even detaches from God in the creative process and becomes a separate entity. The reason we are misled is that there are levels of reality in the universe.
Levels of Reality
The part of reality that we observe is actually only the lowest and most minor portion of it, called the word of action. On this level we exist as bodies sustained by a life force called the Nefesh. On a higher level of reality we are detached spirits or souls, known as Ruach. On the highest level as individuals, we are Neshamot. There is still a higher level than this however, the collective spiritual being who is a composite of all the individual Neshamot called Knesset Yisroel.
But this is much too lofty and of very little use in providing answers to difficult questions. We can certainly bring it down to earth a little and present it in a more palatable form. A created universe is an expression of God's will. In fact in the imagery of the Torah, Creation is described as a set of speeches. Speeches originate in a person's thoughts and in his will to express them. Creation can therefore be viewed as an act of revelation. Revelations are addressed to an audience. Creation is meaningless until there is someone around who can comprehend the information expressed in the creation speeches.
Ideas can be absorbed at different levels of abstraction. A brilliant mathematician can read a formula on a piece of paper and instantly visualize the physical process the formula portrays in all its intricacies. A less brilliant mathematician may need to solve the equations and draw a graph before he is able to visualize the physical process the formula represents. Someone without any mathematical expertise may only comprehend the physical process when he observes it in the actual world. It is totally beyond him to comprehend it on any level of abstraction.
The Divine revelations of creation are also ideas, and can be grasped in similar ways. The purely spiritual being can appreciate them on the level of pure thought, the parallel to the formula on the piece of paper. A being who is a bit less spiritual could grasp these revelations on the level of the feelings they generate.
The least spiritual must wait until the revelations take on concrete physical shapes before he is able to comprehend them. Inasmuch as the creative energy God pours into the universe must necessarily pass through the form of abstract thought and then the sphere of emotions before it takes on the concreteness of physicality, it is not surprising that the creature for whom all this revelation was intended, man, also passes through these same stages. These stages of human development are the ones describes by the terms Nefesh, Ruach and Neshama.
Initially we can only comprehend the revelations of Creation on the lowest level, physicality. We are self aware as denizens of the physical world only, and are born with the ability to access only the heels of our souls. We are always living within the experience of God's revelations, but to comprehend more than the very lowest level we must go to school and learn some serious "Torah mathematics." If we studied the Torah diligently and reached the level of knowledge of God attained by Moses, we could learn to comprehend the revelations at their highest level just as Moses did, and address the heavens and the earth from a position of superiority.
How To Tinker With Formulae
You cannot tinker with mathematical formulae by rearranging physical objects that were designed by unraveling them and translating the information they contain into physicality. In the same way, if all you understand about the revelations contained in the creation speeches is the physical world, which is merely an application of the information they contain, you obviously cannot tinker with creation. You are always stuck on the very bottom of God's revelation, comprehending only its most superficial surface level. But it is equally obvious that if you comprehend the creation speeches on the very highest level you can do a lot of tinkering. Even the simplest equations can be solved in an infinite variety of ways.
The teaching that the world we see about us is only the most superficial aspect of God's creation is really the message of the entire Torah and most especially of Parshat Ha'azinu. The Parsha traces Jewish history from its very beginnings till the end of time. The overview is expressed in terms of the spiritual forces behind the surface events; the story traces the difficulties of separating the surface aspects of reality from the true forces that are behind the surface phenomena.
Song of Ha'azinu
The song of Ha'azinu informs us that God arranged the entire world with the needs of the Jewish people constantly in mind because of His love for the patriarchs: "He set the borders of the peoples according to the number of the Children Of Israel." Moses shares his own vision of the future of the Jewish people with us, although he expresses his vision of this future in the past tense as though he was looking backward from the vantage point of the end of time.
He describes how the people of Israel lose themselves in the surface level of physicality, forgetting the spiritual realities that are responsible for their surface prosperity and rapidly losing their good fortune as a consequence. He describes the tribulations they suffer, tragedies that were intended to prompt them to look beneath the surface and rediscover the deeper parameters of creation, but which had little effect. We are informed that both they and their persecutors remain stubbornly oblivious of any reality that is deeper than the very surface.
There is a key passage in this recital that serves as the cornerstone of the days of Awe, and also encapsulates the secret of Jewish spiritual survival:
"I will cause their memory to cease from man - were it not that the anger of the enemy was pent up, lest the tormentor misinterpret; lest they say our hand was raised in triumph, and it was not God who accomplished all this." (Ibid., 32:27)
Nachmanides links this passage to another passage we recite at the beginning of all our Selichot prayers, [prayers requesting forgiveness for our sins, such as the daily Selichot prayers that we shall be reciting till Yom Kippur] and with which we begin the Yom Kippur service itself:
"Forgive please the inequity of this people according to the greatness of Your kindness and as You have forgiven this people from Egypt until now, and there it was said; And Hashem said, 'I have forgiven according to your word.'" (Bamidbar 14:20)
He explains the connection: when Moses pleaded with God to spare the Jewish people following the Sin of the Spies, he presented several arguments. He reminded God of the merit of the Patriarchs, he mentioned God's promise to them to deliver Israel to their offspring, and he recited the 13 principles of mercy. He added a final argument as well; he pointed out that God's prestige was linked with Jewish survival. If the Jews would perish for whatever reason, the nations would attribute their demise to the lack of God's ability to preserve and protect them in the face of their enemies.
Out of all Moses' pleadings, this argument concerning the loss of His own prestige was the only argument God was willing to accept. It was in response to this plea that he agreed to spare the Jewish people. We begin our own pleas for forgiveness with this passage because we rely on the same argument; God will always spare us no matter what sins we commit for the same reason that He spared our forefathers. The loss of His own prestige should we suffer destruction. Nachmanides concludes: our own passage in Ha'azinu is a reiteration of this theme. It links the arrival of the final redemption to the same concern about the loss of God's prestige.
A Depressing Prospect
Isn't this a very depressing thought? After all the millennia of self sacrifice and persecution we have no other merit in God's eyes for which we deserve to be rescued except the possible loss of His own prestige? Explains Nachmonedes: we are once again at the point where only burrowing beneath the surface of reality can lead to comprehension.
We must remember that the purpose of creation is not life on the level of surface reality. The object of creation is to penetrate this surface, find the Presence of God it conceals, and establish a spiritual connection with God. God created the world so that man could learn to connect with Him by paying careful attention to the creation speeches. It is a great tribute to the Jewish people that their survival is a necessary condition of comprehending the true meaning of these speeches. The song of Ha'azinu was Moses' explanation of the way the historic progress of the Jewish people through world history demonstrates the proper way of comprehending the creation speeches.
Nachmanides explains that it goes deeper than that. If not for the existence of the Jewish people, even the memory of the idea that there might be something beneath the surface of outer reality would fade completely. As long as we Jews are around, the awareness of God remains present in human consciousness even in the minds of those who prefer to live their lives on the surface level at the moment. It is impossible to totally block out the fact of God's existence. So much is His prestige related to the existence of the Jewish people, that He cannot be forgotten as long as the Jews remain a presence on the world stage.
Linking of Divine to Jewish Prestige
The purpose of creation, the establishment of a relationship between the Creator and His chosen audience, man, is thus entirely tied up in the continued existence of the Jewish people. It is the story of their sojourn through history described in Ha'azinu that serves as the interface between the surface layer of reality and the abstractions that lay buried beneath.
We read Ha'azinu on Shabat Teshuva this year. The literal meaning of the word teshuva in Hebrew is return, not repentance. The theme of repentance is the return to one's deepest self, to the core reality of things. Our sins are all the products of our contentment to live on the surface of reality; of our refusal to focus on the ideas that lead to the revelation of the formulas beneath. They are committed out of our desire to accept life at face value, and once they are committed they have the capacity to chain us to this surface level and blind our spiritual vision until we become totally oblivious to the Presence of God that lies hidden underneath.
Repentance involves releasing yourself from this shallow sort of life, and burrowing into your soul until you tap into the deeper levels that lie concealed within. Forgiveness is the opposite side of the same coin. God's forgiveness is an indication that we have managed to leave the surface and are once again tuned in to the message of the creation speeches that the surface is designed to convey.
Israel is always close to forgiveness because despite all their sins, they never cease to act as the reminder to the rest of mankind that there is more to reality than meets the eye. This continuing testimony provided by Jewish history is the perfect indicator that Jews never stray far from God's deeper message. His prestige is truly inextricably entwined with our continued existence.