The famous Midrash (Mechilta B’Shalach, Shira 23) relates that even the humblest handmaiden saw more at the parting of the sea than did Ezekiel the Prophet. Yet, just days after this experience of enlightenment, complaining bitterly for better-tasting water, we no longer seemed able at all to see God in our world. And later, a mere month and a half after יציאת מצרים (Yetziat Mitzraim), the Exodus from Egypt, וילינו כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל עַל־מֹשֶׁה וְעַל־אַהֲרֹן (Vayilonu Kol Adat Bnei Yisrael Al Moshe V’Al Aharon), And all the community of the Jewish People complained against Moses and Aaron–not just a few slackers, but every single person, from the most to the least spiritual and enlightened, all of whom had just, six weeks previously, witnessed the infinite power of the Creator who defied (or temporarily redefined) the immutable laws of nature to not merely rescue the Jewish People from the Egyptians’ pursuit, but to demonstrate His power beyond the immutable laws of nature.
It gets worse. While still in process of receiving the Torah at Sinai, a significant portion of the people turn from God, who had literally just moved a mountain and overwhelmed sensation (we saw sounds and heard visions!) and had “downloaded” all knowledge into each individual Jew, and worshiped, instead, a statue of a calf made of gold.
Although we’re described as a “stiff-necked people”, this refusal to see what’s literally in front of our eyes is a human, rather than a specifically Jewish, failing. Rashi (Bereishit 3:7) hints that upon sinning, even though Adam’s (the forerunner of all mankind) “eyes were opened”, he became (at least partially) blind. The next major Torah personality, Noah (also pre-Jewish and the common ancestor of all modern humanity) immediately plants a vineyard upon leaving the ark and becomes drunk. Isaiah (29:9) implies that becoming drunk on wine (rather than drunk with the love of God) also brings blindness. Sin and callousness, limiting our vista to only our most physical needs and pleasures, dims all eyes to to the true light/knowledge of God’s reality. It’s a human failing. And as we continue to fail, failure becomes normal and expectations, even hope, disappear from our awareness. Sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, we all, Jew and gentile, seem addicted to closing our eyes to every reality. Instead, we “see” just what we want to “see”.
The Ramchal (515 Prayers #71 / תקט״ו תפילות, עא) speaks of God’s “true nature” persisting, even when we utterly surround ourselves with our own short-term vision, effectively banishing God, as it were, in the darkness of our self-obsession. We banish this divine presence, the Shechina, which he equates here with prayer, by surrounding her with darkness and by then placing prayer on such an unrealistically high plane that we become practically incapable of accessing it. Unable to “see” God with whom we long to connect through prayer (Mishna 4:4 of Berachot teaches that one who prays by rote, הָעוֹשֶׂה תְפִלָּתוֹ קֶבַע–HaOseh Tefillato Keva–doesn’t really accomplish much, אֵין תְּפִלָּתוֹ תַּחֲנוּנִים–Eyn Tefillato Tachanunim–his prayer isn’t authentic, heartfelt prayer), at best we merely go through the motions, guaranteeing our failure.
Likewise, Torah study easily falls into rote, into endless repetitions of Judaism 101 or into the type of hair-splitting that loses sight of the larger picture (knowing more and more about less and less until one knows everything about nothing….). To be sure, the “hair splitting” can be useful in training our minds, but we need to keep our eyes on this actual goal rather than merely churning out חומרות (chumrot), artificial, often counterproductive stringencies. Preparing our minds to connect intellectually, just as prayer has the potential of connecting our hearts emotionally, with God, falls by the wayside. We willfully no longer see the forest because of our fixation with the trees.
Unfortunately, all too often the same can be said about our performance of מצות (Mitzvot, from the root צו, tzav, which has meaning underlying the superficial definition, command, and means to join/group/bind together. A Mitzva, rather than a directive to force uniformity, is a technique to bind ourselves to The Creator), which are frequently performed mechanically and obsessively and without any real sense or expectation of achieving union with God. Once again, we close our eyes.
We behave the same way with secular efforts as well. We live in a fantasy world (see Rabbi Cardozo’s and Rabbi Sack’s commentaries on this parsha, Beshalach). In terms of current world affairs, we pretend that people who daily vow to slaughter us and to destroy Israel “don’t really mean it”. Rather than honestly seeing people for who they are, we, hopefully but disastrously, project ourselves and our values onto them. Perhaps this is from fear, perhaps from our narcissism, perhaps from laziness; in any case we refuse to accept what our eyes perceive, choosing, instead, our fantasies.
All three of these, prayer (Tefilla), Torah study and the actions of Mitzvot, can and should be part of our daily efforts to break through our self-imposed and frequently self-serving (although millennia of oppression has also been all-too-effective in numbing us) blindness. While these “tools” are specifically Jewish, the goals are universal. Only if we break through all this resistance, all the accumulated darkness, can we begin to fulfill our holy mandate of being a Light to the Nations.
The Ramchal, as you remember speaking specifically of Tefilla, prayer, offers a deceptively simple suggestion which can be applied to the other legs of the spiritual tripod (including Torah and Mitzvot). Obviously, it can enhance our efforts in other spheres as well. He proposes that we frame our prayer in קווי (k’vuey), hope/trust/confidence. Hope, trust and confidence that our prayer reaches the Creator, that He truly is actively engaged with our world, that He “wants” us all (not only Jews, but all mankind) to succeed, to fill our purpose and destiny to complete Creation’s final steps and bring our world and everyone/thing in it to its highest state.
Of course there’s no logical reason to believe any of this, and so much of our historical experience blinds us to this potential, not to even mention reality. Depression and discouragement and hardship quite efficiently narrow our vision and blind us to anything beyond ourselves. If we want a fighting chance, we need to make this accurately-described “leap-of-faith”.
The Ramchal gives us an image of prayer soaring on kivuey (hope/trust/confidence) far above the reach of the arrows of doubt, higher than the clouds of darkness that obscure the light (life-energy) that really comprises everything. As we move our eyes from seeing only ourselves and projections of ourselves, we can begin to see that higher reality. Reversing Adam’s initial self-blinding, we can re-open our eyes to the holy. Reversing Noah’s state of “blind drunkenness”, we can, drunk with love instead, start to see reality.