Thursday, November 17, 2016

Definition iii: Independence

                           “Truth has legs; falsehood has no legs”
Tikunei Zohar 425 

A man once asked Rabbi Nachman from Breslov whether he should accept the position he was offered as community Rabbi. Rabbi Nachman responded, “If you accept, your Grace After Meals will suffer considerably!”[1] What did Rabbi Nachman mean? Some people pray intently in private with little distraction, but get distracted in public. Others, however, focus well in group prayer, uplifted by the communal energy, but fail to do so when praying alone. Both individuals depend on a context for focused prayer. To pray with truth, however, is to pray well independently of one’s surroundings. And so, with his warning, Rabbi Nachman reminded the individual that as a community Rabbi, constantly in the public eye, his prayers would suffer due to increased self-awareness. In essence, Rabbi Nachman was intimating that if an individual’s Divine service lacks truth - independence - it can deteriorate under new conditions.[2]

Along similar lines, the Vilna Gaon once asked the Maggid of Dubno to rebuke him. However, the Gaon was so righteous that it was difficult to do. The Maggid reflected and finally reproached: “It is easy to be righteous within the halls of torah study. Let me see you go out among the people; will you still remain righteous then?!” His rebuke challenges the independence of the Gaon’s spiritual level; does it hinge on an environment conducive to spirituality or would it survive the sensually tempting outside world? Essentially, the Maggid’s rebuke questions the truth of the Gaon’s spiritual level.[3]   
The connection between truth and independence is apparent in the episode at the Burning Bush, where God instructs Moses to liberate the Jews from Egypt. Moses asks the enigmatic voice, “Who should I tell them is sending me?”[4] Why did Moses seek the name of the being charging him with a mission? After all, a name appears to be a superficial aspect of an entity. In fact, a Hebrew name reveals an entity’s essential being and purpose.[5] By way of example, observe the names of the three angels who visited Abraham after he circumcised: Michael, meaning ‘Who is like the divine quality of kindness,’[6] shared good tidings; Gabriel, meaning ‘Strength of God’, destroyed the depraved cities of Sodom; and Rafael, meaning ‘Healing power of God’, came to heal Abraham.[7] Their names reflect their identities.   

Aware of this, Moses wished to discover the nature of the being sending him on the mission. In particular, he wanted to know whether the being was dependent upon some higher force, or whether it is supreme and independent. This was important to Moses on two counts: firstly, he was only prepared to serve the Supreme Being; and secondly, he understood that if the being was dependent on other forces for its existence, it may cease existing during his rescue efforts, resulting in him losing support and failing.[8] God’s response was the famous ﬡהיה ﬡשר ﬡהיה - “I am that I am”.[9] Meaning, I am whatever I choose to be; nothing influences Me; I am completely independent. Rabbi Albo explains that the numerical value of the word ﬡהיה (I Am) is 21, while the term ﬡשר (that) serves as a multiplication sign. The full phrase, ‘I am that I am’ thus converts into 21 x 21, the sum of which is 441, the numerical value of the word ﬡמת - truth.[10] 

Indeed, one may wonder why God chose to reveal the truth of Torah through Moses, who suffered from a severe speech impediment. Unlike falsehood which is often disguised in eloquent or sophisticated terms or provided with other flash packaging to have an impact, truth stands independently, its power stems from within itself. The Torah was thus communicated by one lacking eloquence and charm in order to stress that its effectiveness is due to it being independent truth and not because it was communicated through a charismatic orator.[11]  

  The reward for independence in divine service is illustrated in Lot’s rescue from Sodom. Lot, Abraham’s nephew, was saved from the destruction of Sodom on account of a particular merit. When Abraham and his wife Sarah were crossing the Egyptian border, Abraham prudently told the Egyptian authorities that Sarah was his sister.[12] Lot, also present, remained silent, notwithstanding his knowledge that the Egyptians would reward him immensely for disclosing the truth. However, Lot performed a seemingly more impressive deed when he risked his own life to provide visitors to Sodom with hospitality and protection from the Sodomites.[13] Why would restraint from treachery grant Lot greater merit than a self-sacrificing act of hospitality?

Hospitality was Lot’s second nature, inculcated by Abraham, it was not his own moral achievement. However, in curbing his strong proclivity toward greed, Lot had to apply much conscious effort to struggle with his nature.[14] In his silence, he displayed moral independence; in his hospitality, he did not. It was thus his expression of ethical independence, of self-standing truth, that prolonged his life; that commensurately kept him standing when everything was collapsing around him.[15]     

This definition of truth also explains why Maimonides says, “Receive the truth regardless of its source.”[16] Since truth is independent, it stands separate from the human mind. Therefore, even if an unethical, dishonest, or foolish person states the truth, you should accept it from him, for he did not produce it, but merely channels it. And, though our Sages forbid learning Torah from immoral people, this is mainly because one can be influenced by their disrespectful attitude and coarse behaviour.[17] Therefore, Torah scholars of great piety and wisdom, impervious to negative influence, would accept truth from such people.[18]
However, products of the human mind cannot be received indiscriminately, for a fool is likely to produce folly, the unethical person may push immorality, and the ignoramus offers guesswork with the confidence of omniscience. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson stressed this distinction in his response to a letter from a young man doubting the veracity of Torah because of the inappropriate behaviour of various people in his Torah academy. Rabbi Schneerson said:  

“If a teacher whom you respect will say two times two equals five, it is incorrect; and if a teacher whom you do not respect says that two times two equals four, it is nevertheless correct; for truth is independent of the one who states it.”[19] 

An extreme example of truth being acknowledged despite its source is the case of Bilaam and his donkey. While riding on his donkey to curse the Jews, Bilaam’s donkey deviated off the road, mildly injuring Bilaam. Enraged, he began beating his donkey. Suddenly, the donkey spoke up and assertively reminded Bilaam of all the benefit it had provided him over the years.[20] Upon hearing the rebuke, Bilaam fell into silent acquiescence; the donkey’s words were distinctly and incontestably true.[21]

Observing the forms of the three letters comprising the word ﬡמת, we find that each letter has two ‘legs’. This signifies that truth can stand on its own [without external support.] In contrast, the letters of the word sheker - שקר, meaning falsehood, have only one ‘leg’ each; reflecting instability and the dependence of falsehood on external crutches.[22]

[1]  Kramer, Chaim, Crossing The Narrow Bridge, Breslov Research Institute, 1989, p.53
[2] Ibid.
[3] Twersky, Abraham, Not Just Stories, Shaar Press, 2001, p.103
[4] Exodus 1:13
[5] Gikatilia, Joseph, Shaare Orah, Gate 7
[6] Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya, Shaar HaYichud Ch.1, Likutei Torah, Behar, p.82
[7] Zohar I, p.99a
[8] Albo, Rabbi Joseph, Sefer HaIkarim, Maamre 2, Perek 27
[9] Exodus 3:14
[10] =1; מ=40; ת=400; 1+40+400 = 441
[11] Rabbeinu Nissim, Deroshot Haran, Derush 3
[12] Midrash Genesis Rabbah 51:8
[13] Genesis 19:1-10
[14] Lowe, Rabbi Yehuda, Derashot HaMaharal, Derush L’Shabbat Shuva
[15] This idea casts some light on the tragic incident where Cain killed Abel. Both brothers, Cain and Abel, brought offerings to the Almighty; Cain from mediocre crop, and Abel from the choicest of his flock. G-d accepted Abel’s generous offering, but not Cain’s parsimonious one. Cain, burning with envy, murdered Abel.[15] As mentioned concerning Lot, mitzvot have the power to shield people from danger. Why then did Abel’s lavish offering not protect him from Cain's vengeance? Abel had merely imitated Cain when offering his flock to G-d; he did not independently arrive at the practice. His offering, lacking truth, was thus insufficient to protect him from death.[15] In fact, the name Abel is consistent with his character. Abel denotes vapour,[15] something that appears to have substance but in actuality does not; much like Abel imitated others but lacked the solidity of independence.     
[16] Maimonides, Shemoneh Perakim, Introduction
[17] Lowe, Rabbi Yehuda, Netivat Olam, Netiv HaTorah Sec.8
[18] Ibid. Genesis 4:3-8
[19] Schneerson, M.M, Letters of the Rebbe Vol.II, Otzar Sifrei Lubavitch, 1997, p.194
[20] Numbers 22:21-30
[21] Midrash Numbers Rabbah 20:14
[22] Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 104a

No comments:

Post a Comment