Monday, December 31, 2007

Parshat Vaera 1

“And G-d said to Moshe, ‘Tell Aharon your brother ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over the rivers, the pools, the lakes and over all the bodies of water’ and they will become blood.” (Exodus 7; 19). Surely this is an impossible command. How could G-d instruct a person to stretch out their hand over all the water in the land? Furthermore, since G-d is clearly the One performing the miracle, what purpose is there in Aharon or Moshe waving their hands about as if they are some sort of magicians? Doesn’t this trivialise the effect of G-d controlling the forces of nature? Yet we find that G-d instructs them to perform actions in order to bring about many of the plagues.

Both of these questions can also be asked about the miracle of the splitting of the sea. With the pursuing Egyptian army behind them, and the impenetrability of the Sea of Reeds1 in front of them, Moshe prays to G-d for help. G-d’s response seems absurd; “G-d said to Moshe, ‘Why are you shouting at Me? Speak to the Children of Israel and go forward’” (ibid. 14; 15). The Midrash tells us that the sea didn’t part until Nachshon ben Aminadav, the leader of the tribe of Yehuda, jumped in and started to cross. As soon as he was up to his neck in water, the whole sea divided and the Jews were able to cross on dry land. Why does G-d demand of the Children of Israel to attempt the impossible, and why does He require human input, when He is about to perform one of the greatest miracles?

The mystical sources tell us that our world is just one of many. Ours is the most physical, but parallel to it, and bound to it, are intangible spiritual worlds; each world less physical and more ethereal then the one below it, ultimately reaching to the foot of G-d’s Throne of Glory. These worlds are the conduit for G-d’s interaction with us, diluting the awesome light and power of G-d, so that we are able to perceive it in our world. Without these worlds to gradually translate ethereal spirituality into our physical world, the natural desire to draw close to G-d’s Presence would overpower us, and our spiritual souls would be unable to remain in their physical bodies. This is the meaning of the verse “For no man can perceive Me and live”. All the laws of nature which were set up in creation are channelled through these worlds.

This is not purely a one way system. Our world is called by the Kabbalists “Olam HaAsiya”, the world of action. Because human beings were given free choice, we have the ability to decide upon our actions, and these actions are translated upwards to the highest worlds. Therefore, G-d promises us “If you will carefully obey My commandments... to love the L-rd your G-d and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, then I will provide rain in your land in its proper time...”. G-d is not offering us physical gifts as a reward for obedience, but is teaching us the spiritual laws of nature and the direct consequences of our actions. What we do influences the spiritual worlds, which in turn affect our world.

However, because this is the “Olam HaAsiya”, it is our physical actions which have a direct and far reaching effect. Whilst our thoughts and speech are important, it is with our actions that we alter the spiritual channels and can influence the laws of nature. That is why G-d commands Moshe and Aharon to perform actions to bring about the miracles. Even though it is impossible to reach out over every stretch of water in the physical world, the attempt unleashes spiritual conduits which change the normal physical rules. Similarly at the Reed Sea, everything was in place for it to split, but opening those channels required someone prepared to demonstrate their faith and start swimming.

No one should ever say “Who am I?”, or “What difference do my actions make?”. Every detail of every action that we perform is translated through the spiritual worlds into laws of nature. We are usually unable to see the results directly, but who knows the consequences of lighting Shabbat candles, or of spending Shabbat morning in Synagogue? Putting on tefillin, giving charity, or offering hospitality could affect the health, livelihood or Jewish awareness of ourselves, our loved ones, and ultimately the whole world.

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