Thursday, February 16, 2012

Mishpatim - Naaseh veNishma

This shiur is also based on the writings of Rav Tzadok HaCohen.

May this shiur be a Refuah Shleima for Shiri bat Gila.

Mishpatim contains not only many of the civil laws which guide us as a nation, but also the continuation of Maamad Har Sinai and the Giving of the Torah. At the end of the parsha the Jewish people utter the famous words "Naaseh veNishma" ("We Will Do and We Will Listen"). The Talmud praises them for giving precedence to action over understanding, comparing it to an apple tree that produces fruit before leaves.

(Tosefot notes that 'apple' in this context means 'etrog' - this allows me a digression to speak about the etrog as the fruit of the Garden of Eden and whether there was any cross-fertilisation of ideas between the 'Golden Apple' which is the etrog, and the 'Golden Apple of Discord' which brought strife to the world and ultimately led to the Trojan War.)

Rav Tzadok discusses whether action is more important than understanding (which he calls 'chochma' or 'freec choice') or the other way round. It turns out that both are true - one is in the realm of 'action' and the other in the realm of 'chochma/bechira'

This is very similar to an idea of Rav Dessler in Strive for Truth, though Rav Dessler frames it in terms of psychology and predeterminism.

I look forward to your comments.

Here is the audio shiur (and the pdf sheets to download if you want).

Parshat Mishpatim - Naaseh veNishma

(Right click and then 'download as')

Parshat Mishpatim - Naaseh veNishma

Your feedback is welcome and appreciated. I would love to continue giving a shiur to this group on a weekly basis, but to do that I would need some kind of sponsorship. If anyone is interested in sponsoring a shiur (either l'ilui nishmat someone, or just for no reason) please contact me.

1 comment:

  1. 1- I have a more prosaic explanation of how the fruit became an apple. Translation drift.

    When King James had the bible translated, "Thou shalt not kill" was an accurate translation. In those days, "kill" meant what we mean by "murder". The modern meaning of "kill" would have been expressed using the word "slay".

    Similarly, "apple" once had two meanings: Malus domestica, and fruit in general. In French, "pomme" is similar, which is how they get "pomme de terre" (fruit of the ground) for potato. And Modern Hebrew, following suit, did the same with "tapuach" -- "tapuach adamah" (pomme de terre), "tapuach zahav" (golden fruit), since shortened to "tapuz".

    So, the KJV translators called it an "apple", meaning "fruit", and when the word shifted meaning, people didn't realize the translation changed.

    2- More on the esrog = tapuach front... The "reiach hasadeh" would be that of an esrog grove, because esrog sap does taste and smell like the fruit. An entirely different experience than other fruit trees.

    (Growing up in KGH gave me exposure to R' Zushe Blum, onetime synagogue rabbi, who in my day taught a gifted science class at Bronx Sci -- the creme de la creme. Among the many interesting things at his home was a potted esrog tree. So, I can attest that wood smells like the fruit, the leaves taste alot like the fruit, and I don't remember much else. You might know of one of his sons -- R' Matis Blum, author of Torah Ladaas.)

    3- I understood R' Dessler's bechirah chafshi differently than how you explained it. I took REED as defining free will as the product of conscious decisionmaking. Many of the choices in our life are so dictated by habit or lack of willpower than they really don't involve bechirah chafshi. The decision is made preconsciously, before you really stop to consider it.

    It is only when habits and desires (each of which come in positive and negative) conflict that we stop to think.

    Thus, anyone who ever had to make a decision willfully experienced bechirah chafshi. And that's all of us. And yet it's still a minority of our choices.

    4- I also understood Des Cartes's Cogito differently than you did. I thought it was unassailable logic. No theology needed.

    "I think, therefore I am."

    It must be true that the one who is thinking exists, for if it is false, who is it making the error?

    5- Placing the neshamah in olam hayetzirah doesn't have to mean that we cannot choose our actions. It could mean that while bechirah is only among our thoughts, that chosen thought could start a causal chain within olam ha'asiyah.

    6- There is difficulty just defining bechirah.

    If something is part of a causal chain (which should really be called a net, but I digress), then there is no freedom of will. Trace each choice back to environment and to earlier choices until everything is explained by what happened to the person and how his brain formed.

    If something isn't determined by its causes... well isn't that randomness? We would have freedom, but no concept of will.

    We need something that is neither algorithmic nor random, some middle ground. I have seen an informational theoretic proof that such a concept has meaning, in Metahalakhah by Dr Moshe Koppel. But I have not seen a good definition of what it would be.

    And perhaps there can't be one. Perhaps free will is inherently about the kind of process that doesn't fit into language. Like trying to describe the color red -- not scientifically (in terms of light, frequency, cones in the retina, etc...) but the experience of seeing redness rather than blueness. That difference between knowing the truth of a supposition and experiencing it could very welll be at the root of the difference between mind and program.