Friday, July 09, 2010

Parshiot Matot and Massei – פרשיות מטות ומסעי

"וידבר משה אל ראשי המטות לבני ישראל לאמר זה הדבר אשר צוה יהוה. And Moshe spoke to the heads of the tribes, to the B'nei Yisrael saying, this is the word that Hashem commands."
~ Numbers 30:2

Normally I'd write about that which Moshe goes on to say but instead I'd like to discuss the manner in which Moshe speaks here.

The Sfat Emet raises the issue, noting that Moshe uses the opening statement "זה הדבר," as opposed to the word "כה," which is frequently employed by lesser prophets. The former phrase suggests a level of accuracy that the latter lacks - it roughly means, "This is exactly that which was said."

With this in mind, the Sfat Emet asks a question - why are some of Moshe's prophecies introduced with the word "כה?" The answer is simple but spectacular - that there are things in this world which cannot truly be understood or grasped. We can talk our way around these issues with analogies, allusions and the like, but our understanding will only ever be imprecise at best. We learn that one of the Rambam's 13 principles of faith is to believe that Moshe was Hashem's greatest prophet, a prophet who was far more highly receptive of God's will than any other man. And yet even Moshe, who had the ability to relate his prophecies with absolute precision, could sometimes not address the people with the words, "זה הדבר."

So what is this realm that we cannot really understand? The Sfat Emet explains that it is the "Olam HaZeh." (The World we live in, as opposed to the afterlife.) At first glance, this might seem a little odd; after all, don't we live in "Olam HaZeh," wouldn't the affairs of this world be things that we grasp? Wouldn't goings-on of the spiritual realm of the world to come, the "Olam Haba"; wouldn't they be more likely to be inaccessable to us?

On reading the words closely, we can understand the concept better. The word "Olam," of "Olam Hazeh," is linked to the word "Ne'elam," meaning hidden. The first word of the phrase, "Hazeh," serves to indicate something very specific - something that can be quantified and related to. When we say "Zeh" in Hebrew, or "this" in English, we typically refer to something that is a known quantity. If we put this two words together, we arrive at a contradiction; which world are we living in? Is it a hidden world or a revealed world? Is everything clear to us, or is it all hidden away?

It would seem that the Sfat Emet is subtly teaching that this world has two parallel aspects. It isn't one or the other, but rather a composite of these two elements. There are times when everything seems clear, moments when we can say "Zeh HaDavar." But equally, even to the greatest and wisest minds, there are moments that can only be referred to as a moment when we only partially understand what's happening - a moment that is best defined by "Koh."

In Kabbalah thought, man is referred to as an "Olam Katan," a little world. I think we may see a parallel here, too. Every person has moments where they think that they know themselves inside out. But then we learn something new about ourselves. Nobody knows us like we do ourselves, but even we can be surprised by ourselves if we look and listen carefully enough. I think we may take this experience and apply it to the world at large. Many times I personally have caught myself thinking that I know a lot, only for me to be humbled and find out that my knowledge is actually relatively insignificant and sadly incomplete. It is up to us to learn how to deal with moments such as this; do we act arrogantly and defy what we are learning, or do we take a step back and admit to ourselves that we have much to learn? It's a terrible thing to be stuck in the same mindset and never to budge, even after hearing of a valid disproof to your ideas. I only hope that we can all grow and adapt to whatever new knowledge we may learn in life.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom :)

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