Tag Archives: knowing

Mishpatim: The Boundaries of Knowing God

At the conclusion of Mishpatim – after almost an entire Torah portion that addresses matters not directly related to Mattan Torah, the giving of the Torah – Moshe is told: “Go up to G-d.” (Shmos 24:1) Rashi explains (Commentary of Rashi ibid.) that this took place on the fourth of Sivan, prior to Mattan Torah.

The Midrash notes (Shmos Rabbah 12:3; Tanchuma, Va’eira 15) that at the time of Mattan Torah , two things were accomplished: “Those Above descended below” – “G-d descended on Mt. Sinai,” (Shmos 19:20) ; and “Those below ascended Above” – “And to Moshe He said: ‘Ascend to G-d.’ ” (Ibid. 24:1) Man ascended to G-dliness.

“A Tale of Two Portions”
Commentary on Torah Portion Mishpatim
The Chassidic Dimension
Chabad.org

The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and wait there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the teachings and commandments which I have inscribed to instruct them.” So Moses and his attendant Joshua arose, and Moses ascended the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us until we return to you. You have Aaron and Hur with you; let anyone who has a legal matter approach them.”

When Moses had ascended the mountain, the cloud covered the mountain. The Presence of the Lord abode on Mount Sinai, and the cloud hid it for six days. On the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. Now the Presence of the Lord appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain. Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain; and Moses remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights.Exodus 24:12-18 (JPS Tanakh)

Regardless of the differences between the world’s wide spectrum of religious disciplines, they share one, basic, common goal: to understand God. How we conceive of God and the mechanics and meaning behind the process of finding Him (or her, depending on your tradition) varies tremendously across different cultures and across the panorama of history, but in the end, we want and even need to connect to something that is larger than us, and to find out why we are here and where our place is in a universe.

In Judaism, this process has two parts: God descending to man and man ascending to God. Both of these parts happen at the end of Mishpatim, and the climactic moment of this week’s parashah, in some sense, mirrors the desires of every person of faith. This is why we study the actions of the Creator: to learn the nature of God. It is also why we study people who have had personal encounters with the Creator…because those people have learned something of the nature of God. I like how Rabbi Tzvi Freeman expresses the thoughts of the Rebbe in this matter:

Science is the study of those things G-d thinks about,
by one of His thoughts.

Torah is the study of G-d thinking.

We do not have the privilege of ascending Sinai as God has descended upon it, and the ability to encounter God within the smoke and the flames, but like my previous description of how Moses encountered God, we also have two parts to our own process of approaching an understanding of Him: we can study the universe and we can study the Torah. As Rabbi Freeman points out, the first is studying what God thinks about and the second is studying God as He thinks.

I’m not discounting prayer at all and prayer is a vital component in establishing and developing our relationship with the Creator, but we are not only called to experience God in a spiritual and emotional sense, we are also called to experience Him in thinking. We need to understand, at least to the limits God built into the human mind.

This is why the Torah has manifested as a document or series of documents that is tangible and lends itself to study and multiple layers of interpretation. It’s why humanity has spent countless centuries pouring over every tiny bit of text and arguing with ourselves and each other over meanings both obvious and arcane. This is why the Bible can be read in your native language, pointing the way to the Kingdom of Heaven, and still allow God to be a complete mystery in every single aspect.

God seeks to dwell among mankind, but our ability to “know God” is something we struggle with all our lives. As human beings, we often make the mistake of thinking that God is knowable in the same way his creations are knowable. We mistake how we can learn what God’s thinking about by studying His universe (which we don’t understand all that well, either) with understanding the process of God thinking by studying the Bible. And even in studying God’s “thought process,” our ability to truly comprehend more than a tiny fraction of anything at all regarding God, is extremely limited. The world is filled with commentaries (including this one), in bookstores, in libraries, in seminaries, and particularly on the Internet, with a stream of endless text purporting to explain the nature and character of God, including that which is secret and that which may only be known to a favored few “prophets”.

But what do we know?

One who is unqualified can never assume that he understands the depths of halachah like a genuine posek. It is astounding how even the most apparently obvious halachos can sometimes be much more complex than they appear on the surface.

Mishna Berura Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
“The Transfer of Holiness”
Siman 153 Seif 1

A certain man was assumed to be a kohen for many years and redeemed many bechoros. One day he was confronted with an unexpected visitor to town who claimed upon his arrival that this kohen was really no kohen at all! To the surprise of everyone in the town, the man who had been assumed to be a kohen for so many years admitted that he was not a kohen. People wondered what the halachah was in such a case. Was this man still considered a kohen? Did all the many bechoros that he had redeemed need a new pidyon? Although they figured he was now like a yisrael in every regard since presumably he had nothing to gain by accepting this man’s testimony — and this is the halachah whenever
someone believes one witness—they decided to consult with a competent posek.

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“The False Kohen”
Arachim 34

Studying TorahHere we see two things. We see that not everyone is qualified to interpret the Bible and, even more so, to plum the depths of halacha related to Jewish understanding and ritual observance, and we also learn that one may successfully misrepresent himself as a person who has a special religious or teaching authority when in fact, he does not. Beyond the fact that there are false prophets, charlatans, and religious hucksters in the world who have some sort of religious ax to grind, there are also people who are seemingly well-meaning and sincere, but who are also naive or just plain ignorant about how complicated it is to study the text and arrive at meaningful conclusions. There are people who feel they have a special calling to arrive at these “meaningful conclusions” and to teach them to others, perhaps because of some emotional need, when that special calling is only an illusion. Anyone can create a web site or a blog (even me).

I’m not trying to discourage anyone from honest study and exploration on the path that leads to holiness, (which is, after all, what I’m trying to do) but there’s a difference between being one pilgrim on the road who asks questions and reaches for the Heavens, and someone who is a true posek and tzaddik who has spent all of his or her life and resources in acquiring the knowledge to fulfill a position that only God can assign.

I am the former and not the latter, but I still need to ask the questions, record my observations and, if necessary, accept (hopefully) gentle rebukes from those who are authentically learned (as opposed to the scores of folks out there who only think they are) as to where I’ve made my mistakes.

And I’ve made mistakes.

And I will no doubt continue to make mistakes as I attempt to learn, throughout the rest of my life.

But it’s worth it if, in the end, I am allowed to even approach the tiniest thread trailing from the hem of the garment of God.

But, as I said, there are limits.

The above allows for an extended interpretation of a famous statement of our Rabbis: (Bechinos Olam, sec. 8, ch. 2; Ikarim, Discourse II, ch. 30; Shaloh 191b.) “The ultimate of knowledge is not to know You.” The simple meaning of this statement is that a person should realize the limits of his intellect, and therefore understand that knowing G-d is impossible, for He transcends all limits. There is, however, an allusion to the concept that when a person has fully developed his mind, he appreciates that even the concepts which he knows possess an inner dimension which transcends intellect. And going further, one can infer dimensions of G-d that are infinite, internalizing this knowledge to the point that it shapes our personalities.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
After Sinai; Making the Torah a Part of Ourselves
Commentary on Mishpatim
“Knowing, and Not Knowing”
Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. III, p. 896ff; Vol. XVI, p. 242ff;
Sefer HaSichos 5749, p. 243ff.
Chabad.org

As I’ve already mentioned, our limits are built in, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a great deal we can learn, as long as we are mindful that we do have limits and know where those limits are set. Some men are great scholars, while others will only rise to the level of a humble and seeking student. Some women have been appointed by God to be learned sages, while others may only reach the most elementary levels of Torah comprehension. This does not make one of us better than another in God’s eyes, or make the learned more loved and cherished by the Creator than the struggling disciple. It only means that we have our roles and our boundaries which have been set for us as God has set the limits to the sea and the sky.

Of course, we must make certain that the limits we acknowledge are those set by God and not by us. Just as an overly ambitious or arrogant person can elevate himself to a station higher than God intended (and eventually fall an equally great distance into a spectacular abyss of defeat), so can a person fail to rise to the level God has apportioned for them, not recognizing that they can seek and learn and understand more than they have imagined (or more than someone else told them they were allowed). Seek the level that God has set; learn to see when you still have miles to go on the trail and when you have reached the point where God has said, “no further”.

But even when you have reached that limit, realize that it’s not truly the end.

Knowledge of G-d in this manner anticipates and precipitates the coming of the Redemption, the era when “A man will no longer teach his friend…, for all will know Me, from the small to the great.” (Jeremiah 31:33)

“Knowing, and Not Knowing”
-Rabbi Touger

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

-John Muir, Scottish-American environmentalist and writer

Good Shabbos.

The Sufficient Summit

Today’s amud discusses one who saw a dream and was unsure what it means.

When Rav Raphael of Barshad first began to search for the ideal way to serve Hashem, he heard that learning the Zohar Hakadosh was a great segulah for attaining fear of heaven. He began learning a great deal of Zohar but when he reached towards the end of the Zohar Chadash, he was dismayed. The Zohar warns there against being like Bilaam, who was a complete fool despite his great knowledge of serving Hashem.

Rav Raphael said to himself, “If one can know so much and still be a fool, perhaps I should focus instead on the Shulchan Aruch so that my study will bring me to action.”

He started learning the Shulchan Aruch in depth, but when he got to Orach Chaim #231, “All of one’s acts should be for the sake of heaven,” he again felt that something was missing.

“Are all of my actions really l’shem shomayim? Perhaps I should spend more time on mussar?” Rav Rafael therefore added study of the Shelah HaKadosh to his schedule.

He was so immersed in the Shelah that he would learn it at every opportunity. But after a while he again felt as if something was missing. So he traveled to the famous Rav Pinchas of Koretz for advice.

Rav Rafael poured out his heart. “I want to serve Hashem in truth, but everything I have tried has been insufficient!” He was so distressed that he actually fainted.

When he came to, Rav Pinchas said, “If you stay with me, you will come to truth.”

Three years later, Rav Rafael dreamed that he was playing cards. Although his hand started out with black cards, they all turned white in the end. When he shared his dream with Rav Pinchas, he was given a positive interpretation.

“When you first came to me, you were blackened with worry and chumros, and this prevented you from serving Hashem in truth. But now you are white with virtue and purity!”

Mishnah Berura Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
“Magnificient Dream”
Siman 130 Seif 1

This sequence of events reminds me of Joseph’s gift of dream interpretation which we’ve recently read about in Genesis 40:5-23 and particularly in Genesis 41:1-32. In both instances, the interpretation of dreams changed the course of people’s lives. When Joseph interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh, King of Egypt, the ultimate result was that Joseph was transformed from prisoner to ruler, the civilized world was saved from starvation, and the Children of Israel were gathered to Goshen in Egypt to sojourn in peace…and after Joseph’s death, to become slaves.

But what does the dream of Rav Raphael of Barshad tell us? Even the interpretation of Rav Pinchas of Koretz does not reveal exactly why Rav Raphael went from being “blackened” to “white with virtue and purity”. Was there something wrong with what he was studying or was he just studying too much? Some Christians might use this parable to say that the Jews in general study too much outside the realm of the Bible and that all we need is the Holy Spirit and the Gospels to guide us. However, if that’s true, then why do Christians study the Bible at all? If true, then why is there such a vast body of Christian Biblical scholarship available? Maybe it’s not the studying at all, as we’re about to discover.

Yesterday, I wrote a very short and simple meditation called God is in the Backyard. Not that God is literally hanging out beside the flower bed or the swing set, but that He is near at hand to all who call upon him.

The LORD is near to all who call on him,
to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfills the desires of those who fear him;
he hears their cry and saves them. –Psalm 145:18-19

By using the quotes above, I’m not disdaining serious study. Quite the opposite. I advocate a life of peering into the Word as well as the wisdom of the Sages in order to gain a clearer glimpse of the glory of God. In a sense, that was the goal of Moses as well. Moses, more than anything, wanted a greater understanding of God (according to the Sages, he didn’t literally want to see God’s face) and God granted Moses as much as a human being could comprehend.

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”

And the LORD said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

Then the LORD said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” –Exodus 33:18-23

Studying is one way we get to know God better. It’s not a perfect way, as Rav Raphael discovered. Sometimes study can take on a life of its own and is unknowingly substituted for the target at which we are aiming. Rav Raphael was afraid he was missing out. He tried to create a comprehensive lifestyle of study that would “cover all the bases” but he was never satisfied. Rav Pinchas showed him that there is more to our desire to know God than can be found in study (though the parable does not say exactly what transpired between Rav Raphael and Rav Pinchas during the three years described). Perhaps it wasn’t the course of study at all but Rav Raphael’s worry and anxiety over not being sufficient. Maybe his course of study never changed, but his attitude toward it (and toward God) did.

We are all insufficient in our relationship to God. Not that we shouldn’t continue striving for greater closeness, but we must come to accept that our own efforts will never be enough to close the gap. For some, this is an excuse to stop trying and to let God do all the work. For others, it is the motivation to try and obey God “just right”, as if the commandments in the Bible were some sort of checklist, but that may be what caused Rav Raphael’s problem in the first place (and if so, Rav Raphael had the wisdom to realize this wasn’t working). Neither approach is the true answer. The answer I believe Rav Raphael discovered was to let his effort be his effort and to let God be God. Release the anxiety surrounding whether or not you are doing enough or doing it just right, and just do what you can do. How can we feel the joy of a relationship with God if we are constantly fretting over all the tiny details? I believe in seeking His joy, we will sail to ever greater heights, though I doubt we’ll recognize it until after we’ve arrived.

We all struggle as we climb a difficult trail but the reward of reaching the summit, as we will someday, is worth the cost. However during the effort of the journey, there are rewards enough as well if we take the time to look for them. Let every day be the summit and the reward in reaching the final destination will take care of itself. Another way of saying it is Dayenu.