From the Mouths of Babes

Shavuot 5779

by Meir Sendor

This week we attended a ceremony celebrating our granddaughter and her kindergarten grade receiving their first Chumash – appropriate preparation for the upcoming Yom Tov of Shavuot. It was cute – but also more than cute. It featured singing and dancing and tableaux of biblical scenes pretty well choreographed with a bit of age-appropriate wandering-around and miscues. It also featured all the children reading together an extended passage of Torah, the beginning of the book of Leviticus, with the traditional cantillation and cadence used by Yemenite Jews. Hearing all the children singing out the Torah verses in unison at the top of their voices put me in mind of a midrash brought by Rashi regarding the convocation at Mount Sinai.

The Torah describes the approach of Am Yisrael to Mount Sinai as they are getting ready to receive the revelation of the Torah:

שמות פרק יט פסוק ב

ויסעו מרפידים ויבאו מדבר סיני ויחנו במדבר ויחן שם ישראל נגד ההר:

 

They traveled from Refidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai and they encamped in the wilderness and Israel encamped there facing the mountain.

Rashi paraphrases the midrash Mekhilta that notices the anomaly that the word “encamped” is used twice in the verse, first in the plural but second in the singular, and comments:

רש”י שמות פרק יט פסוק ב

ויחן שם ישראל – כאיש אחד בלב אחד

 

“And Israel encamped there” – as one person, with one heart.

In other words, in the course of gathering at the mountain the initial multiplicity of people became a nation of unity. Many commentators highlight this unity as an ethical virtue for which Israel is rewarded with the right to receive the revelation of Torah. But the Rabbi Shlomo ben Dov Tzvi haKohen Rabinowitz in his Tiferet Shlomo understands this unity, not as an extrinsic virtue, but rather as the integral condition necessary for the reception of Torah:

תפארת שלמה מועדים שבועות

מצינו שהדברים אשר בין אדם לחבירו הושוו לדברים שבין אדם למקום . והנה מבואר בתורה ויחן שם ישראל נגד ההר ומשה עלה אל האלהים. ופרש”י כאיש אחד בלב אחד וכו’ הסמיכות זה לזה. דהנה הקדוש ברוך הוא וישראל הם חד. הוא שבאמת אותיות התורה הם נשמות ישראל … דשורש התורה היא נשמות ישראל ובזה כל שתלמיד וותיק עתיד להתחדש הכל ניתנה מסיני.

 

We find that matters between a person and their friend are equated with matters between humanity and the divine. Behold it is clear in the Torah: “and Israel encamped facing the mountain,” and [in the very next verse] “Moshe ascended to God.” Rashi interprets this connection “as one person, with one heart.” For behold the Holy One, blessed be He, and Israel are one. This is that in truth the letters of the Torah are the souls of Israel… For the root of the Torah is the souls of Israel.

Rabbi Shlomo Rabinowitz gives us a concise vision of the essence of Torah. It’s not just information, a data set downloaded into Jewish culture at Sinai. The archaic term “soul” when used in ancient and medieval texts is what we would call today the full structure of consciousness. When he says, based on the Zohar and the kabbalah of Rabbi Isaac Luria, z”l, that the letters of the Torah are the souls of Israel and the root of Torah is the souls of Israel, this means that the Torah is the very structure of essential mind itself. So the ethical sensitivity it helps cultivate between people and the spiritual awareness it facilitates are one – all aspects of fully conscious living.

Rabbi Shlomo’s vision, coming from the Hassidic tradition, is echoed and expanded in the Nefesh haHayyim of Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin, the classic of Lithuanian spirituality. According to Rabbi Hayyim, when we learn Torah with intense focus and pure intent, we are picking up information that enables fully virtuous living in this world, living peacefully and wisely with total ethical sensitivity, yes. But we are also tuning our minds in phase with God’s Mind – His Thoughts become our thoughts, His Words our words, His Will our will. Whenever we learn Torah with pure intent, engaging the very root of our consciousness, we are also tuning our minds to each other, reaching our essential human consciousness together. When Israel realized the shared unity of human consciousness, encamped at Sinai “as one person with one heart,” they were at the level of the revelation of Torah itself – that unity brought them to the eternal revelation. And Rabbi Hayyim assures us that when each and all of us learn Torah today at this level, we are experiencing the very revelation of Torah at Sinai itself (4:7, 11, 14).

In the Gemara Shabbat it says:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף קיט עמוד ב

אמר ריש לקיש משום רבי יהודה נשיאה: אין העולם מתקיים אלא בשביל הבל תינוקות של בית רבן.

 

Resh Lakish said in the name of Rabbi Yehudah Nesiyah: “the world only exists for the sake of the breath of school children learning Torah.”

Listening to a hundred kindergarten boys and girls singing Torah at the top of their lungs in unison in the ancient melody that could well have been used at Sinai itself, “as one person, with one heart,” we understand what he means.

3 thoughts on “From the Mouths of Babes

  1. Peter G Berman

    Do you see merit in the view, held by some mystically inclined physics graduate students, that the universe lacks physical reality , consisting only of interacting levels of conscientiousness ? Like computer programs seeking to understand each other.

    1. Rabbi Meir Sendor

      I’m not sure what it means to say there is no physical reality — that just devolves into semantics. Already the quantum physicists understand the physical world as energy packaged by the four forces (electromagnetism, gravity, strong and weak nuclear forces). But that packaging gives what we call the physical world its characteristic resistance to change, experienced as solidity. For the string theorists, and Rabbi Avraham Abulafia in Or haSekhel, physical reality is intersecting vibrations. For the Ari z”l, the inanimate world is also a form of dense consciousness, but it is not an illusion — it is still has its characteristic solidity and resistance. So then, what does it mean to say physicality is a form of consciousness, and what is the common term of what we experience as consciousness and the presumed consciousness of an inanimate thing? For the Ari z”l it’s a corollary of emanationism, but stands or falls with the truth of that ideology. The pre-Socratics liked to reduce reality to one element — water for Thales, air for Anaximander, fire for Heraclitis, being for Parmenides. Levinas regards such reductionism to sameness as a form of totalitarian thinking and part of the Greek political agenda. Reduction to consciousness may be a similar strategy. Even if true, we would still need to know what principle differentiates consciousness into different forms, from abstract to physical. By contrast, according to Levinas, the Jewish view recognizes difference. Vive la difference.

      1. Peter G Berman

        Thank you…wow.. that is very helpful on multiple levels…..but still , do the characters in a computer simulation actually “ exist”. In one sense they are very real…but at the same time exist only in my perception of them. …and they emanate from a digital reality utterly beyond my comprehension ….does anything actually exist apart from Divine consciousness ?

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