Earning Our Intuition: It’s Not In Heaven, But…

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

In looking at the rich phrase in last week’s parshalo bashamayim hi, it is not in heaven, I came across two comments I have not reviewed here, that seem to me particularly relevant to the Yamim Noraim and our experience of teshuvah, repentance. (Fortunately for me, many commentators think of the verse as actually about teshuvah, although the ideas here come from those who take the verse more broadly.)

What We Need is More Available

Meshech Chochmah starts his discussion with an idea Rambam also has in the Moreh Nevukhim, that God in His great kindness constructed the world such that that which we need is more abundant, found more easily. He is saying the verse tells us that, too, Torah that we need is not in heaven or far away, it is close and waiting for us.

Some of his examples still work today, such as mother’s milk being there for the newborn infant, air being readily found everywhere, more so than water, because we can survive longer without water (water today is in fact scarce in many parts of the world, not our topic here, but which comes up significantly in the haftarah for the first day of Sukkot).

Meshech Chochmah expands the idea in two ways I do not remember Rambam having done. He says we are born with a preference for better character traits, honesty, opposition to cheating, theft, and armed robbery. [There are remarkable experiments in economics where people prefer to forego a profit than help someone else act unfairly.]

A Brief Digression on Hillel’s Golden Rule

For a catchall expression of this innate goodness, Meshech Chochmah cites the rule Hillel gave the convert who wanted all of Torah encapsulated in one principle: what is hateful to you, do not do unto others. Before we move to his next point, needed intellectual ideas are also embedded in our intellects, I feel the need to pause over Hillel’s rule, a rule I was always taught as if it is completely obvious.

Yet in our times, in multiple areas—business, politics, observance of Torah and mitzvot—many otherwise fine Jews seem to have lost sight of the principle. To give examples would be to slander specific groups, but think of how often Jews we know or see or hear about excuse behavior by saying the people hurt by it do not deserve their consideration. We seem to have the sense we are in a death battle with others, all the time, allowing us to act towards them with a callousness we would certainly not have enjoyed, or even did not enjoy, when they did it to us. (Along the same lines, there is a prohibition of taking revenge.)

It is not my focus, but it is a useful example for Meshech Chochmah’s punchline.

The Natural Intellect

In reason, too, Meshech Chochmah thinks we are given the basic building blocks, the whole is more than the sum of its parts (other than in infinities), how numbers work, two times two is four, etc. Beyond that, he thinks the idea of a Creator is natural and obvious to anyone whose reason has not been misdirected, because the order of the universe speaks most easily of a Creator, since how else did it come about?

[Rambam thought the idea proved the existence of God, but Meshech Chochmah is making a more modest claim, this is the easiest and likeliest explanation, much as if we would assume someone arranged chairs we find neatly set up. He seems to me on less strong ground when he says it shows one creator; not that I doubt the idea, but I am not sure the order of the universe points towards it rather than multiple ones, Gd forbid.]

Where People Go Wrong

He knows as well as we do that many people deny what he has just deemed natural and innate. He attributes it to their not looking at the world unjaundiced, asserts they are allowing their desires or preferences to color their perspective.

[For an example he does not give: the insistence of many scientists they will one day be able to explain everything, without recourse to a Creator, has yet to make progress on how the “laws of Nature” came to be, aside from the aspects of Nature they have yet to explain.

Meshech Chochmah would say some other commitment clouds their minds, blinding them to the truth. In this case, one easy such commitment would be the desire to show they can understand the universe on their own, without admitting the existence of a superior Being.]

The success of the Avot started with their willingness to seek truth as it is, ridding or freeing themselves of the errors of their time. For their descendants, Hashem gave the Torah, to guide them to the world’s truths, as long as they learn it for its own truths, without imposing themselves on it.

R. Yitzchak Yosef, R. Nechunya b. HaKana, and the Search for Truth

In his Yalkut Yosef, the current Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, R. Yitzchak Yosef, refers multiple times to our verse. In one, Yalkut Yosef Tefillah 2; 110, note 16, he discusses R. Nechunya b. HaKana’s prayer upon entering the Beit Midrash every morning. The details are too digressive to discuss here, but R. Yosef points out what others have said before him, that Hashem entrusted the determination of halachah to human beings, such that even if they rule against what Hashem Himself originally wanted, as long as they are following proper halachic process, that’s the halachah.

He adds an important caveat, this only applies to people who study Torah assiduously, without any negi’ah or neti’ah, any personal investments or attachments, with a clear and well-prepared intellect. People have the right to determine halachah, as long as they are searching for the truth, without any ulterior motives or goals.

[This is a challenging question, in particular, for poskim, who I think often feel like their job is to ease the questioner’s way, itself the kind of negi’ah R. Yosef seems to rule out. But I am not interested here in that important topic.]

Bringing It to Teshuvah

No, I am interested in teshuvah, the need of the hour. I have often wondered which of Rambam’s four steps–recognizing the sin, regretting it, committing not to do it again, then reciting vidui, an articulation of the sin or sins—is hardest. Mesech Chochmah and, yibadel le-chayim tovim ve-arukhim, R. Yitzchak Yosef draw our attention to recognizing sin.

We probably have heard some of the findings on how subjective we all are, how thoroughly we see the world through our own lens, how hard it is for us to see it as others do. I fear we do not remember to apply that insight to our personal cheshbon ha-nefesh, our account with ourselves as we face our Creator in these Days of Awe. Born, perhaps, with the intellectual tools to see ourselves as we are rather than as we want to be, I suggest we might do well to challenge ourselves on how well we do.

If we asked those around us what they think we should be working on, how they think we could use improvement, are we confident they would give the answers we do? Even as we know and concede how hopelessly entrenched we are in our own point of view, we still often insist that only that point of view matters when we are repenting.

Certainly, repentance is not in heaven, and according to many, it is in our mouths and hearts. I only hope for each of us we see ourselves steadily and we see ourselves whole—as Matthew Arnold wrote of Sophocles, in a quote mori ve-rabi R. Lichtenstein z”l repeated often. That we may then know truly where Hashem most wants our repentance, and merit a ketivah ve-hatimah tovah.

About Gidon Rothstein

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