The Meor Eynayim, a classic Torah commentary by R’Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, founder (18th century) of the Chernobler school of Chassidut, included a very short paragraph in his discussion of yesterday’s weekly parsha (Torah reading), שמות, Sh’mot, (Exodus). At first glance, I almost overlooked it, but something made me go back and take a closer look. I discovered a gem!
The verse, (Exodus 1:8) states that “A new king arose in Egypt who didn’t know about Yosef“. Rashi, our most profound (who usually speaks in hints of hints of hints) commentator (11th century), writes, quoting Talmud Sota 11a, that Rav and Shmuel (prominent first generation (3rd century) Amoraim (scholars of the Gemara)) disagreed over the meaning of the phrase “a new king”. One says that it was, literally, a new person who became king. The other says that it was the same king, but he radically changed his policies (no longer remembering how Yosef saved his kingdom during the seven years of famine).
The Meor Eynayim then reminds us of a rule governing our understanding of talmudic disagreements like this. אלו ואלו דברי אלקים חיים, elu v’elu divrei Elohim Chayim, both opinions are true (they are each the “words of the Living God”). However, he adds that we won’t be able to understand this paradox עד ביאת המשיח, ad biyat haMashiach, until the arrival of the Messiah.
(There is an entire class of talmudic discussions which remain unresolved. Sometimes we merely say קשיא, kashya, “that’s a hard one”. Others end with the acronym תיק”ו, teyko, תשבי יתרץ קושיות ובעיות, Tishbi (referring to Elijah the Prophet who is said to precede the arrival of the Mashiach) will answer the unsolvable riddles.)
The rabbi, pressing home the point, reminds us that at this point in time, or let’s say at this stage of human evolution, we’re not able to understand how something can be both true and false at the same time, how two contradictory statements can, simultaneously, be right.
About two pages later, I turned back to this paragraph and it hit me. What the rabbi was really saying is that we can’t yet understand what we don’t understand. Much in life remains mysterious and will stay that way until we enter a new age, a new stage of consciousness.
Common wisdom tells us that, at best, humans seem to currently utilize 10-15% of our brain’s capacity. When we eventually find a way to activate at least another significant portion of our brains we’ll start to understand concepts and realities which now elude us. At the very least, our tradition promises that we’ll transcend our devotion to binary thinking.
Of course, even in this era, we do have tools to at least prepare us for this higher reasoning. Although often trivialized as either source material for religious ritual/law, or even worse, as a compendium of “what those ancient rabbis thought”, the Talmud is actually a comprehensive technique to train our minds to combine the linear and the associative, the empirical and the intuitive, the analytic and the synthetic. Alone, the practice of Talmud study might not bring us to a stage of truly understanding profound contradictions like this, but it will prepare us, giving us the methodology for when we finally develop the physical capability.
(Another secret of Talmud study is that it frequently, in one way or another, brings us to our personal intellectual limits (different for each of us) and then allows us to “crash and burn”, to “run into a brick wall”. Although with practice we can push these boundaries back, eventually each of us will have to give up. This point of confronting our limitations, however, is “the prize” itself, bringing us a profound experience of the Infinite God. Even when we evolve to realize our full potentials (another way of understanding what we mean by “messianic times”) there will always be a wall that defines us as human.)
In any event, it seems to me that there are two ways of experiencing our limitations. We can either fall into despair that we’re not perfect or we can look forward to the adventure of being who we will be tomorrow.