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12 November 2021

Rabb Winston – Vayaitzai – The Big Picture – The Ramchal and Derech Hashem

A PERSON IS either coming or going in life. We come into the world at birth, and from that point onward we’re on the way out. It may take another ninety years before a person actually leaves, but we live with the reality that it can happen much sooner. 

I always have this problem when going on vacations, even for a week. I know before I even check in that I will have to check out in a few days. I enjoy the break and comfort knowing that it will all come to an abrupt end at checkout time. For this reason, no matter how long I am staying, I always make a point of moving in by putting all my clothes away in the drawers as if I’m staying for months.


We do the same thing with our lives. We move in and act as if we’re going to be here for a long, long time. And though one hundred years is a long time in human years, it is not even a drop in the bucket compared to eternal life in the World-to-Come. But that doesn’t stop us from pretending that this world is where it’s at, and investing most of our marbles in it.


Not Ya’akov Avinu though. Even when he wanted to finally settle down he wasn’t able to. As Rashi says at the beginning of Parashas Vayaishev, the moment he tried to slow down the episode of Yosef began, dashing his hopes of “early” retirement. The last 17 years of his life were tranquil, but they were also in Egypt, far away from his beloved Eretz Yisroel


The Talmud says that a person cannot eat from two tables at the same time (Brochos 5b). This means that it’s either spirituality or materialism, and anyone who thinks that they have struck a balance is only fooling themself. It just means that they are satisfied with their level of spirituality, but it doesn’t mean that G–D is. It just means the sacrifices they have made for the materialism they have, are acceptable to them. Who says that G–D agrees?


The only exception is when the driving force behind the materialism is spiritual. If it wasn’t for some mitzvah, they would just as easily avoid the materialism. That was Ya’akov Avinu. As he will tell Eisav in Parashas Vayishlach, he had everything he needed. That is, everything he needed to do his mitzvos. Non-mitzvah possessions did not interest him. 


He was only passing through, and he only wanted to take with him what he could bring to the next world. 



THERE IS ANOTHER going out in this week’s parsha that is not looked on so favorably. Rachel insisted upon buying Reuven’s flowers intended for his mother, Leah. The sale price? Rachel’s night with Ya’akov Avinu


It says that when Ya’akov came home from work, Leah went out to inform him of the change of arrangement, from which Yissachar was conceived. Hence the name has the word schar—payment in it, to allude to the business transaction that led to his birth. Perhaps that is why Yissachar was destined to sit and learn, and Zevulun went to work to support him. 


The Torah doesn’t say anything about Leah’s going out in this parsha. We only hear about it later in Parashas Vayishlach, when Dinah, Leah’s daughter, goes out to check on the women of the land, probably looking to make friends. But this is what led to her eventual violation by Shechem ben Chamor, and it is something, Rashi explains, she inherited from her mother. 


The question is, what is the difference between Ya’akov’s going out and Leah’s? 


For one, it says:


All honor [awaits] the King’s daughter who is within. (Tehillim 45:14)


This is the verse they usually quote to say that, it is more modest for a woman to remain out of the public eye as much as possible. No one can argue that it is not more modest, but they may argue that it is not desirable, especially today, with women wanting to accomplish so much, and many doing so. 


But again, just because we’re happy with what we have been able to do doesn’t mean that G–D is. Everything we do comes at a cost, and each person has to know what that cost is, and make sure it is worth it, in this world and especially in the World-to-Come.


Probably the main difference is that Ya’akov was forced to go out into the world by Hashgochah Pratis. He was quite happy sitting in his tent of Torah study and going nowhere physically, just spiritually. It was history that pulled him out like wild horses, not his own personal agenda. When that happens G–D is doing it and is obliged to protect the person. As the Talmud says, a person on the way to do a mitzvah is protected (Pesachim 8a).


It’s a very different world today. In fact, so different that you don’t have to literally go out into the world to go out into the world. You can do it from the security of your own home and still suffer tremendous spiritual damage. What was once considered “inside” has become very “outside,” forcing a person to have to take measures even in private to protect their modesty and honor. 


But the truth is, “inside” still means what it has always meant, inside the person. So many people are like those who sit in front of the window looking out into the world while forgetting about everything good on the inside. There’s no place like home, and there’s no home like being your true self. We spend so much time looking out that we barely spend any time looking in. How many people actually know themself that well? 


People tend to know what they like and dislike, but that is not called knowing your true self. It takes a lot of introspection, and who has time for that? Actually, all of us. The problem is not the time, it is the level of priority. Self-knowledge is something that is assumed, until a person is confronted by a situation that makes them act out-of-character, or actually, in-character in a way that they do not recognize.


Too bad. The greatest pleasure in life is being yourself, not the self that was molded by the world around you.



WE READ THESE stories about the Avos and take them at face value. Face value is the entry point. We’re supposed to go much deeper each year that we read, and hopefully, learn them. We don’t believe in going in circles, unless they spiral upwards indicating spiritual growth. 


The story of the Avos is about three extraordinary men and their extraordinary wives and families. But it is also an analogy about three periods of spiritual development. Avraham was stage one, when a soul first comes into this world and has to adjust to it. Yitzchak was stage two, when the soul works on establishing its direction in life. Ya’akov was the final stage, when the resulting person has to go out into the world and be themself while doing their thing.


Most souls are forced to comply with the world around them, right or wrong. How many people ever question the values of the society that raises them until much later in life, after they have already become biased in one direction or another? That’s why so many people are doing so many insane things today in the name of improvement. Weird values lead to weird conclusions.


Avraham fought back at an early age. He resisted the value system that he was born into because, he questioned it and found it lacking. It’s amazing how intuitive children can be, and how they lose that intuition to conformity as they grow older. Adults just call them naive because they don’t recognize the truth anymore, and tell the child that they will think differently once they grow up. In many societies, that’s not an abandonment to truth, but of truth.


Yitzchak was introspective. He wasn’t out in the world very much, only when he had to be. He worked on integrating the truths that stage one development taught him, so they could be his as well. That is why his life mimics his father so much. Yitzchak didn’t just copy his father’s life. He retraced his steps to make them his own.


Ya’akov was the finished product. His father and grandfather did all the initial work to make his life possible. He was the product out in the world to test its integrity, to refine it. Only once “consumer testing” was complete could he begin to father a Torah nation, the goal of the entire process. It was a process that began then, continues through Jewish history, and incorporates our lives as well.

 

Ma’aseh Avos, siman l’banim. What our fathers did is supposed to be an example for all their descendants. We could and should spend a lifetime discussing these stories to cull them for insights into personal development. But that means going out of our comfort zones, just like Ya’akov does in this week’s parsha


 

Introduction to The Big Picture

DERECH HASHEM IS a Torah classic, an encyclopedia of seminal Torah concepts thoughtfully organized to make them more accessible. However, one of the most important insights for life is in the Introduction itself:


When one knows a number of things and understands how they are categorized and systematically interrelated, then they have a great advantage over one who has the same knowledge without such distinction. It is very much like the difference between looking at a well-arranged garden planted in rows and patterns, and seeing a wild thicket or forest growing in confusion. When an individual is confronted by many details and does not know how they relate to one another or their true place in a general system, then their inquisitive intellect is given nothing more than a difficult, unsatisfying burden. They may struggle with it, but they will tire and grow weary long before they attain any gratification. Each detail will arouse their curiosity, but not having access to the concept as a whole, they will become frustrated. (Derech Hashem, Introduction) 


The Ramchal is saying that it is not enough to merely learn concepts and remember them. The human mind, in fulfilling its need to understand and relate to things, requires knowledge to be organized. The more organized knowledge is, the more accessible and useful it will be.


We rarely forget things we have learned, though the opposite seems true. We don’t lose information as much as we lose access to it, and this, the Ramchal explains, is very much a function of a disorganized mind. The information becomes inaccessible, and the brain eventually tires looking for it and eventually gives up, resulting in frustration.


The Ramchal continued:


The exact opposite is true when one knows something in relation to its context. Since they see it within its framework, they can go on to grasp other concepts associated with it, and success will bring them pleasure and elation. 


The key phrases here are, “in relation to” and “to its context.” It is the juxtaposition of ideas that leads to one of mankind’s most valuable tools and pleasures: insight. Rather magically, the juxtaposing of known concepts leads to new and insightful knowledge. This excites the mind and encourages even deeper thinking.


The most important result though is wisdom. It is wisdom that allows a person to accurately view life and maximize its opportunities for personal growth. Therefore:


When one studies a subject, they must therefore be aware of the place of each element within the most general scheme. When one takes into account existence as a whole, including everything imaginable, whether detectable by our senses or conceivable by our minds, then they recognize that things are not all in the same category and level. (Derech Hashem, Introduction)


This is very important. Sometimes people accept ideas they should reject, and reject ideas they should accept. They confuse one idea for another because on the surface they seem the same. It is only after investigation that they learn the truth, or as is often the case, after the error has done damage.


This is how good can become seen as evil, and vice-versa. This is how people miss important opportunities in life, unnecessarily offend others, and in more extreme cases, start wars. It is what has caused many intelligent people over history to mistakenly reject G–D and ignore Torah. To avoid catastrophic misconclusions, the Ramchal adds:


The categories are both varied and numerous, and as they vary, so do the rules and principles associated with them. In order to comprehend the true nature of each thing, one must also be able to recognize these distinctions. (Derech Hashem, Introduction)


Though some thinking is automatic, much of it is really an art. It is a skill that must be learned and practiced. Just because a person is a “genius” in one area does not mean that they will be in another. The starting point to getting a good intellectual handle on life is realizing this.


Clearly, the Ramchal has provided invaluable insight into how the human mind works and relates to ideas. He has also alluded to the answer of one of the most pressing questions of history: Does G–D exist, and if yes, why do so many people not agree?


Is it an issue of intelligence? 

Nope, brilliant people exist on both sides.


Is it a matter of evidence?

Both sides have access to the same evidence.


Then what is the source of such a fundamental difference of opinion on such a crucial life issue? 


The Ramchal explained it in Torah vernacular. This says it in everyday terms:


In short, the works of modern science, taken one by one, seem enough to dampen a person’s hope for higher meaning. If religion’s stock-in-trade is the inexplicable, the coming years don’t look like boon times. This is half of the giant paradox, and it’s one reason why the average scientist today is probably less religious than the average scientist of 50 or 100 years ago. (What Does Science Teach Us About G–D? TIME Magazine, December 28, 1992)


In ancient times, religion was a way to “explain” the mysteries of Creation. People could relate to the idea of supernatural beings, and believe they had powers that controlled the world of man. So they did, and they tried to gain mastery of their own lives by buying off the “G–Ds” they were told controlled them. 


Then came science. It took thousands of years, but eventually man found ways to de-mystify Creation. It was the death knell for many religions that had used that mystery to keep believers in line. At first, religion fought back, but the momentum was in favor of science, and more and more religion was forced to bend and acquiesce.  


But even “atheistic” scientists have acknowledged that there is another more fundamental reason to believe in a Master Designer of the universe:


The fact that the universe exhibits many features that foster organic life—such as precisely those physical constants that result in planets and long-lived stars—also has led some scientists to speculate that some divine influence may be present. (Science and G–D: A Warming Trend? Science, August 1997)


The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers (i.e. the constants of physics) seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life. For example, if the electric charge of the electron had been only slightly different, stars would have been unable to burn hydrogen and helium, or else they would not have exploded…It seems clear that there are relatively few ranges of values for the numbers (for the constants) that would allow for development of any form of intelligent life. Most sets of values would give rise to universes that, although they might be very beautiful, would contain no one able to wonder at that beauty. (A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking, p. 125).


Life as we know it would be impossible if any one of several physical quantities had slightly different values…One constant does seem to require an incredible fine-tuning…The existence of life of any kind seems to require a cancellation between different contributions to the vacuum energy, accurate to about 120 decimal places…the universe either would go through a complete cycle of expansion and contraction before life could arise or would expand so rapidly that no galaxies or stars could form. (Nobel laureate, High Energy Physicist, Professor Steven Weinberg, Scientific American


The precision [of the universe] is as if one could throw a dart across the entire universe and hit a bulls-eye one millimeter in diameter on the other side. (Michael Turner, Astrophysicist at the University of Chicago and Fermilab)


This doesn’t mean that the people who made these statements changed their lives because of them. Quite the contrary, and this explains part of the problem:


Among the causes of this scientific tunnel vision I would like to discuss two that result from the nature of scientific tradition. The first of these is the issue of methodology. In its laudable insistence upon experience, accurate observation and verifiability, science has placed great emphasis upon measurement. 


To measure something is to experience it in a certain dimension, a dimension in which we can make observations of great accuracy which are repeatable by others. The use of measurement has enabled science to make enormous strides in the understanding of the material universe. But by virtue of its success, measurement has become a scientific idol. The result is an attitude on the part of many scientists of not only skepticism but outright rejection of what cannot be measured. It is as if they were to say, “What we cannot measure, we cannot know; there is no point in worrying about what we can’t know; therefore, what cannot be measured is unimportant and unworthy of observation.” 


Because of this attitude many scientists exclude from their serious consideration all matters that are—or seem to be—intangible. Including, of course, the matter of G–D… (The Road Less Traveled, III Growth and Religion, Scientific Tunnel Vision; Simon and Schuster, 1978)


Not all scientists however suffer from such myopia, and this explains why:


The other half of the paradox comes from stepping back and looking at the big picture: an overarching pattern that encompasses the many feats of 20th century science and transcends them; a pattern suggesting, to some scientists, at least, that there is more to the universe than meets the eye, something authentically divine about how it all fits together.” (What Does Science Teach Us About G–D? TIME Magazine, December 28, 1992)


A paradox is not a contradiction. It just looks like one. In a contradiction, two contrary ideas that seem to coexist really do not, and the question is, which one is false? In a paradox, they do coexist, and the question is, how? 


As the article says, it has to do with the big picture. Details are just details until they are put into their proper place in the big picture, at which time they reveal pattern and design. Each may be fascinating in-and-of-itself, and worthy of intense study and government grants. But the insight into life they were created to teach, the wisdom they exist to impart, only emerges when each is seen as part of the bigger picture of life.


Then this becomes true:


Perception of the miraculous requires no faith or assumptions. It is simply a matter of paying full and close attention to the givens of life, i.e., to what is so ever-present that it is usually taken for granted. The true wonder of the world is available anywhere, in the minutest parts of our bodies, in the vast expanses of the cosmos, and in the intimate interconnectedness of these and all things…We are part of a finely balanced ecosystem in which interdependency goes hand-in-hand with individuation. 


We are all individuals, but we are also parts of a greater whole, united in something vast and beautiful beyond description. Perception of the miraculous is the subjective essence of self-realization, the root from which man’s highest features and experiences grow. (Beyond the Norm: A Speculative Model of Self-Realization, Michael Stark and Michael Washburn,  Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 16, No. 1, 1977; pp. 58-59)


Welcome to The Big Picture: Thirty-six Sessions to Intellectual and Spiritual Clarity. What follows is a tapestry of many very important concepts and details about life from a Torah perspective. Take the time to learn them. Take the time to think about them. Take the time to use them to create a big picture perspective of life, and then enjoy the tremendous insight and life-enhancing wisdom that emerges. 


Kindle, Paperback, and Hardcover versions available through Amazon, and the PDF Book is available through Thirtysix.org. The eight-part webinar begins November 16, b”H. Write to pinchasw@thirtysix.org for details.



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