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Knowledge and Wisdom

Be'halot'cha (Numbers 8-12 )


All positive brainpower depends on the Central Wisdom.

"Mitzvot are the candle – and Torah is the light." (Proverbs 6:23)

This week's parsha begins with God commanding Aaron the High Priest (Moses' brother) to light the Menorah every day in the Tabernacle. The Menorah's seven branches are bedecked with decorative cups, knobs and flowers – all fashioned from a single, solid piece of gold.

But then the Torah adds an interesting detail: "When you light the Menorah, be sure that the [six] outer lamps face the center" (Numbers 8:2). What do the six outer lamps represent, and why must they all face the seventh center stem?

The commentators explain that the six outer branches represent the six fields of knowledge: medicine, physics, mathematics, art, psychology and sociology. These are essential fields of scholarship. Were it not for human excellence in these areas, we would not have heart transplants, ballet, air transportation or, for that matter, the Internet.

Yet the Torah is telling us that society cannot rest on knowledge alone. Unless this information is focused and directed toward the center stem – symbolizing God, Torah and spirituality – then this wisdom is for naught. Or worse, destructive.

Knowledge Without Wisdom?

Greece was once a mighty empire. The Greeks promoted beautiful fashion, fine dining, sonorous music, aesthetic arts, vigorous athletics, and captivating entertainment. In the essential fields of scholarship, the Greeks were the most advanced and sophisticated of their time.

Yet why didn't the Greek empire survive for more than a few hundred years? Historians concur they were destroyed by moral decay. Jealousy, greed and promiscuity eroded the society until it crumbled. "Knowledge" without God is a recipe for disaster. We simply cannot survive without a clear moral direction.

The Greeks had gods – an entire pantheon, in fact. But these were man-made gods, the kind that get jealous and argue and commit immoral behavior of their own. Man cannot develop his own objective system, because man – as part of the group that the system is designed for – is inherently subjective. The Greek gods were not the kind to emulate; rather they were invented to excuse man's own corrupt behavior.

The most jarring example, of course, is Nazi Germany. Germany was known for its leading academic institutions, advancement in the arts, and impeccable social conduct. Where did it all lead? At the Wanasee Conference (the Nazi meeting to formulate the "Final Solution" for extermination of Jews), 9 of the 13 participants were Ph.D.s. These were the most creative, scientific minds in the entire civilized world. Yet in a remarkable act of self-deception, they were able to redefine "morality" toward ultimate evil. It was a Godless technology, knowledge without wisdom.

The Need for Morality

Given the obvious need for objective standrads, why is society so adamant about its right to freely define morality?

The Midrash says that before the Sinai experience, God went to all the nations of the world and asked if they want to receive the Torah. "Well, what's in it?" the nations asked. "Don't steal and don't murder," God told them. "In that case," they replied, "we don't want Your Torah!"

Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg zt"l asked the following question: Since the prohibitions against stealing and murder are anyway mandated by every secular society, why did these nations object to the Torah?

He explains: Society typically legislates against murder and theft out of pragmatic considerations: If I steal from you and you steal from me, society cannot function. So we make it illegal. The danger of this system, however, is that these standards can be manipulated to satisfy one's own pragmatic needs. As gossip, licentiousness, workaholism, pollution, cut-throat competition and other abuses of self and society become socially acceptable, does that then make them okay? Do we redefine our sense of right and wrong to accommodate the trend?

The Torah's position is that regardless of whether society tolerates it or not, we must not steal, kill or commit adultery. Right and wrong is not open to rationalization. Being a good person is not subject to convenience and economics. This unwillingness to be beholden to a set of immutable laws, Rabbi Weinberg explained, is why many have refused to accept God's Torah.

The Absolute Standard

Aldous Huxley, in his essay, "Confessions of a Professed Atheist" (Report Magazine, June 1966), explains his reason for rejecting the one, true God:

"I had motives for not wanting the world to have meaning; I consequently assumed that it had none ... For myself, no doubt for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was ... liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom."

In order to pursue sexual freedom, Huxley was willing to discard his entire moral foundation. For others, the lure is power. In the book Hitler Speaks, a collection of speeches, Hitler revealed the driving force behind his madness:

"I free humanity from the shackles of the soul. I free mankind from the restraints of an intelligence that has taken charge, from the dirty and degrading self-mortification of a false vision called conscience and morality."

Every rational human being knows that Hitler was evil. That's what gave the free world the confidence to hang 10 Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg. But the question must be posed: Why, in the name of moral relativism, did we not pass off Nazi atrocities as "the right of a sovereign state to pursue its own national goals"?

The answer is obvious: Certain truths are absolute. I once asked a group of university students to offer a moral objection to incest or cannibalism. They were unable to find a rational reason – though each was certain of its immorality.

Judaism says that we're born with an absolute standard – an internal moral compass. And it is through the study of Torah that we connect to that compass inside.

Torah and Knowledge Working Together

Getting back to the seven-branched Menorah. If Torah is so central, why do we even need the other six branches?

The Talmud says: "There is no Torah without Derech Eretz" – literally "the way of the land." This means we cannot separate our understanding of the world from our understanding of Torah, and vice-versa. Used properly, all seven branches best illuminate our world. The great Talmudic commentator Maimonides was an accomplished physician and wrote extensively on philosophy, science, and metaphysics. (See "Mishneh Torah" – Foundations of the Torah, Chapter 2.) The Vilna Gaon, the greatest rabbi of the last 300 years, wrote books on geometry, astronomy and algebra.

Thus our Parsha declares: "The Menorah should be made from [one brick] of hammered-out gold" (Numbers 8:4). The Menorah must be fashioned from a single piece of gold, symbolizing that all wisdom works together in creating a holy and peaceful world.

The Siamese Twins

Consider the following illustration: In 1993, an American woman named Rita Lakeburg gave birth to Siamese twins. Doctors determined that if the twins – who were sharing critical internal organs – would remain joined together, both would die. The only option was to perform an operation which would kill one and save the other. But, argued the moralists, isn't that murder?

This decision stupefied doctors until they discovered a 1977 ruling by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein who had used Talmudic sources to present a clear and unambiguous ruling in a similar case.

Rabbi Feinstein had asked the doctors: "How do you intend to perform the surgery?" They told him: "We will save Baby-A, and kill Baby-B." Rabbi Feinstein then asked, "Could you reverse the procedure and achieve the same results – meaning, could you instead save Baby-B and kill Baby-A?" They answered: "No, Baby-A is the only one we can save."

At which point, Rabbi Feinstein told them to go ahead and perform the surgery. Why? Because according to Jewish law, if one person is directly threatening to kill another, then it is morally correct to stop them. In this case, Rabbi Feinstein ruled that the very existence of Baby-B was threatening the life of Baby-A, which gave Baby-B the status of a killer (albeit unintentional). Therefore, Baby-A could, so to speak, stop his killer.

While the medical and halachic factors are far too detailed to derive any general rules, this story still illustrates the power of Torah to illuminate the world.

The Talmud notes that the windows in the Holy Temple were of an unusual construction. Usually, windows are built wider on the inside wall and narrower on the outside wall, in order to bathe more light to the interior. At the Temple, however, the reverse was true: the windows were narrower on the inside and wider on the outside – because from the Temple, spiritual light shown outward to illuminate the entire world. This is what the prophet Isaiah meant in referring to the Jewish people a "Light Unto the Nations" (Isaiah 42:6).

Who taught the world morals and ethics, if not the Jews? Certainly not Sparta, not Athens, not the Romans, nor the Persians. Imagine a warrior on his way to pillage. On what philosophical basis he is permitted to attack? His answer: "I am stronger and might makes right!"

The ones who taught the world that "might does not make right" were the Jews. Our Torah and prophets gave the Western world the concepts of love your neighbor, universal education, and all people are created equal. The Liberty Bell carries the verse in Leviticus "proclaim liberty throughout the land," and the United Nations building is inspired by Isaiah's vision of "they will beat their swords into plowshares."

The Eternal Message

In this week's parsha, the Midrash quotes God telling Aaron the High Priest: "Lighting the Menorah will be your eternal contribution." The commentators ask: Lighting the Menorah was done only while the Temple was standing. So what does it mean that "lighting the Menorah is eternal?"

The answer is that the truths we glean from Torah are eternal. The truth of Torah is precious today more than ever, as society grows increasingly desperate for direction. In a world full of ethical issues like cloning, euthanasia and the homeless, Torah is our outside, objective standard. It gives direction and is a hedge against extremism, illuminating the delicate middle path of logic and reason.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons

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