Monday, November 28, 2016

Truth sprouts from the earth (ii) : True kindness

‘As G-d was about to create Adam, four spiritual qualities disputed as to whether he should be created: 
Kindness said, ‘Let him be created for he will perform acts of kindnesses.’ 
Truth countered, ‘Do not create him for he will be filled with falsehood’. 
Righteousness asserted, ‘Create him, for he will perform acts of righteousness’. 
Peace responded, ‘Do not create him for he will be filled with strife.”...
G-d cast Truth to the earth and said, “Truth shall sprout from the earth.”

Midrash Genesis Rabbah 8:5


Rabbi Yeshayah Horowitz (usually referred to as the Sheloh) raises a question concerning the above Midrash.[1] Usually, when a person has equal merits and demerits G-d tips the scales in favour of the merits. Why did G-d not apply this principle to the heavenly debate above and therefore create Adam without having to cast Truth to the earth?

Peace and Truth, he answers, were not just identifying two flaws in Adam that counterbalanced the virtues identified by Kindness and Righteousness.  Rather, they claimed that the arguments of Kindness and righteousness are not virtues but vices! In relation to Kindness, Truth claimed that human beings are incapable of true kindness, untainted by ulterior motives. Meanwhile, Peace contended that human righteousness often leads to strife and hostility. For instance, after a fair court case, the losing litigant commonly resents the winning litigant, even though righteousness was performed.[2] So the heavenly debate was not a case of two merits versus two demerits, rather, Peace and Truth claimed that Adam had no merit at all.

But, how does casting ‘Truth to the earth’ and ‘Truth shall sprout from the earth’ change things in favour of Adam’s creation?

In answer, the Sheloh draws our attention to the sequence of kind acts performed by G-d in the Torah. Towards the beginning of the Torah G-d creates Eve as a helpmate for Adam for the sake of companionship and procreation.[3] Later in the Torah, shortly after Abraham was circumcised, G-d visits him to comfort him and aid his recovery.[4] Towards the end of the Torah G-d buries Moses.[5] Following the theme that we are to emulate G-d, these three Divine acts of kindness teach us to help people get married, to visit the ill, and to bury the dead.[6]
The Sheloh deciphers a pattern in the order of these acts of kindness in terms of how much reciprocation the kinddoer can expect from his kind act. One that helps a couple get married is most likely to receive a gift of appreciation from them. In visiting the ill, reciprocation is less likely since the person is in poor health or possibly dying. Finally, in burying the dead there can be no reciprocation.

The order of these kind acts thus follows a pattern of increasing levels of authenticity in the kindness - and a reduction in the possibility of having ulterior motives. Particularly, in the act of burying the dead we find the purest form of kindness, and from it we learn that the other kind acts can also be pure of ulterior motives.

This theme is alluded to in the Hebrew word for truth, ‘Emet’, ﬡמת. Phonetically, Emet consists of two words: ‘Em’ meaning ‘mother’ and ‘Met’ meaning ‘death’. (The letter Mem in the middle is the end of one word and the beginning of the other). ‘Em - mother’ signifies the kind act of helping people marry and have children, while ‘Met – death/deceased’ suggests the kind act of burying the dead. The central letter ‘Mem’, which is part of both words, represents visiting the sick whose existence vacillates between life and death. 

We can now understand how ‘casting truth to the earth’ and ‘truth sprouting from the earth’ swayed the heavenly court. Initially, Truth argued that Kindness was not a merit because it is tainted with self-interest. By casting truth to the earth, G-d demonstrated to Truth that just as the act of burying the dead in the earth is not motivated by ulterior motives, the other acts of kindness can also be genuine.

The idea of Truth sprouting ‘sprouting from the earth’ is that when one sows a seed, it is from above to below. But when it sprouts a shoot it is from below to above –in reverse. Along these lines, when the three concepts hinted to in the word truth are read in the reverse order, buring the dead comes first, then visiting the sick, and finally helping people marry. The order shows on the idea that the genuine altruism in burying the dead reflects back onto the other kind acts, showing that they too can be authentic.

G-d’s testimony that Adam’s (humanity’s) acts of kindness can be genuine, rebutted Truth’s criticism of kindness. This resulted in both Truth and Kindness voting in favour of Adam’s creation.  Now that the numbers in the heavenly court, for and against Adam’s creation were equal, G-d applied His principle of tipping the scales in favour of the merits (where merits and demerits are equal) and  created Adam.     

[1] Horowitz, Yeshayah, Mesechta Pesachim, Perek Ner Miztvah, Sec.51
[2] Another example is where one helps people because it is the righteous thing to do rather than out of genuine love and care, often embarrasses the recipient by making him feel like an inconvenience.
[3] Genesis 2:22
[4] Genesis 18:1
[5] Deuteronomy 34:6
[6] Babylonian Talmud Sotah 14a

Truth sprouts from the earth (i)


“Truth shall sprout from the earth”
Psalms 85:12

The mysterious verse, “Truth shall sprout from the earth” has been interpreted in various ways. For some, the verse implies that textual knowledge cannot substitute real life experience. Only experience can reveal a concept’s limitations, context, and potency. In this vein, the chassidic master, Reb Simcha Bunim of Pshischa, once quipped about the knowledge of a certain mystic, “He has studied the map of Paris but never walked its streets!” Having studied a map, one may know the location of every street by heart. Still, it would not be wise to ask him for directions since he can’t tell how beautiful, safe or congested any given route is. Only one who has walked the streets can offer sound directions. Along tese lines our sages teach, “There is none wiser than he who learns from experience.”[1] In essence, Reb Simcha Bunim was unimpressed with the knowledge of this particular mystic because it did not ‘sprout from the earth’. Unaccompanied by real life application, it lacked the element of truth.   

The Kotzker Rebbe had a different interpretation. According to him, just as the potential of a seed to become a plant is actualised when the seed is sown in the earth, one’s potential to be truthful and objective is only realized after one figuratively lowers the self to the earth in humility. This theme is echoed in the prayer, ‘Let my soul be as dust before all; open my heart to Your Torah’. Only after egoism is reduced can one study Torah with truth, that is, unclouded by the bias of self-interest.[2] 

            Mumbaz, an aristocratic convert to Judaism during the Talmudic period, used this verse in another way.[3]  During prolonged famine, Mumbaz, out of exceptional generosity, exhausted his personal treasury to provide the community with relief. His family complained, “Your father gathered treasure and built upon his father’s treasure, but you are squandering it all!” He retorted, “My father hid the treasures below [in this world]; I am hiding them above [in Heaven]…He hid them where they can yet be stolen, while I am hiding them where they cannot be stolen…for ‘Truth shall sprout from the earth.’  Mumbaz meant that the way to merit true – eternal/Divine - goodness in the spiritual realm is by performing altruistic acts on earth - for “truth shall sprout from the earth.”          

Perhaps the most intriguing use of the verse is found in a Midrash describing the process that preceded the creation of Adam, the progenitor of humanity: 

‘As G-d was about to create Adam, four spiritual qualities disputed as to whether he should be created:
Kindness said, ‘Let him be created for he will perform acts of kindnesses.’
Truth countered, ‘Do not create him for he will be filled with falsehood’.
Righteousness asserted, ‘Create him, for he will perform acts of righteousness’.
Peace responded, ‘Do not create him for he will be filled with strife.”...
G-d cast Truth to the earth and said, “Truth shall sprout from the earth.”[4]

In the next few blog posts we will look at some of the mystical commentaries on this enigmatic Midrash.

[1] Akeidat Yitzchak, Parshiat Noach
[2] Likuttei Sichot, Vol. 30, p. 106 
[3] Babylonian Talmud Baba Batra 11a
[4] Midrash Genesis Rabbah 8:5

Thursday, November 24, 2016

On 'The pursuit of Truth'


Truth, Truth shall you pursue’
Targum Onkeles on Deuteronomy 18:20 

People commonly speak about the ‘pursuit of Truth’, a phrase that, to many, suggests that Truth is a limited quality or amount of information somewhere out there, waiting to be discoved through a combination of time and effort. Although this may be the case with ‘minor truths’ such as finding out who spilled juice on the kitchen floor, what 6x6 equals, or what causes the heart to beat, here I’m talking about Truth with a capital ‘T’ – the Holy Grail.    Indeed, many philosophers have naively ventured to discover the Truth: the hidden universalities that make life intelligible and clear, reconciling all contradictions and solving all mysteries. And, though some misguided scholars have professed to have found it, the vast majority find that the further they pursue it, the more it eludes them. Like chasing one’s shadow, the faster one runs after it, the faster it runs away.            

On the verse, “If you will listen, listen to the voice of the L-rd your G-d,”[1] the Midrash comments, “Happy is the one whose ‘listenings’ are to Me, hovering always at My doorways; door within door...”[2] Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger, the author of ‘Sefat Emet’, in commenting on this Midrash explains how one must never feel he has conclusively grasped a Torah teaching, for its depth is limitless. This, he adds, is implied by the repetition of the word listen in the original verse cited above. That is, even if you have already listened and understood, listen again... and again - for a higher grasp forever awaits you.[3] The Midrash’s metaphor of a door within a door is apt. The Hebrew word for doorway is delet, denoting emptiness, for a doorway is merely an empty space.[4] Yet, it is precisely this emptiness that allows movement from one room to the next. In respect to Torah study, this implies that one who feels ignorant and empty of a teaching’s true meaning is open to advance to a new level of understanding, but one who feels he has already grasped the truth, closes the passage before him.[5] Herein lays one explanation for the mitzvah (commandment) of fixing Mezuzot on our doorposts. The Mezuzah, a piece of parchment with Torah written on it, represents Torah study in general, while the doorpost on which it is affixed signifies the openess prerequisite for proper and penetrating Torah study.[6]  
Rabbi Yehuda Leib’s commentary on the Midrash above suggests that even when one has grasped truth, one must forever remain open to further or deeper truth. In contrast, the Ben Ish Chai, a 19th Century Sephardic mystic from Bagdad, takes the elusive nature of truth a step further, defining it as G-d’s perspective of reality which categorically transcends human grasp. Here the Ben Ish Chai draws our attention to the blessing recited after the Haftarah reading, which concludes, “And all His words are true and righteous”. He points out that the first and last letters of the Hebrew word for righteous, צדק, are neighbours in the Hebrew alphabet, the Aleph-bet, while the first and last letters of truth, אמת, are at the Aleph-Bet’s opposite ends.[7] This, he explains, signifies two different ways that G-d governs our lives. Sometimes G-d reveals to us how the puzzle pieces of our lives fit neatly together, when things make sense to us and Divine providence is evident. At these times we refer to G-d’s as ‘righteous’. At other times, however, G-d distances the puzzle pieces from each other, rendering us incapable of connecting them together. Events then appear to make little sense and leave us asking ‘Why, G-d, is this happening?’ In such instances we refer to G-d’s conduct as ‘true. Meaning that even though we cannot connect the puzzle pieces of reality together as they are spaced too far apart, we still affirm that from G-d’s perspective everything is cohesive, precise, and orderly. G-d can connect the furthest pieces of life together - the Aleph, א, with the Tav, ת. Truth, אמת, rests with G-d alone.[8]

The above two images of Truth (that there are eternally higher levels of Truth to strive towards and that Truth is, by definition, reality beyond human grasp) may dampen our enthusiasm to purse Truth, as it appears to be a futile quest. In reality, the opposite is correct. The fact that Truth is forever beyond our grasp is highly motivational: Truth charms us into an endless adventure.[9]

The closest one comes to finding Truth is realizing its endlessness. Before Truth one stands empty and humble and from within these feelings a childlike curiosity springs forth to explore and discover reality.[10] And the stronger the curiosity, the more openly does Truth glow within. Put in other words, the extent to which one is drawn to pursue the infinite Truth, and the more deeply one feels the infinite journey of discovery that lies ahead, is the extent to which one has found Truth. Perhaps the Kotzker Rebbe put it most elegantly: “the pursuing is itself the finding!”[11]

[1] Devarim, 28:1
[2] Midrash Rabbah, Devarim 7:2
[3] Sefat Emet, Sefer Devarim, Parshat Tavo, 5632
[4] Wisdom of the Hebrew Alphabet, p.78, citing the Maharal
[5] For a similar concept see Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Likutei Sichot, Vol.1, p.129 
[6] Sefat Emet, ibid
[7] Ben Ish chai, ‘Od Yoseph Chai’, Parshat Nosso
[9] Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, Basic Books, 1980, p.133  
[10]  Hence man’s Good Inclination is referred to as a child, Kohelet 4:13
[11] Rabbi Abraham J.Twerski, Rebbes and Chassidim, p.91