I still remember the first day I woke up brilliant. It was a cool autumn morning, with a light layer of frost coating the front lawn and the windshield of my car. Instead of thinking, “I’m going to need a coat today,” I began thinking of the mathematical formulas describing the fractal properties of the frost particles. As I was getting dressed that morning, I could see the entire color wheel before me, and I was able to pick a tie that perfectly contrasted my suit. I came downstairs, made myself a coffee, and while sipping it, I plugged my finger USB port into a news reader. Before I was even done with the coffee, I had absorbed all the news that was fit to print from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Jerusalem Post, and the Detroit Free Press.
Soon, I felt my brain overheating a little. A dull headache appeared and I could literally feel the heat. The doctors had warned me about this at the surgery center the day before. They told me that the implants would give me the ability to absorb extraordinary amounts of information in very little time, but that all the computing would make my brain begin to heat up. I needed to literally “Chill Out.” I unplugged the USB, made myself a slurpy with some ice and Coke, and drank it quickly. Things began to cool down up there.
This was the same thing that had happened the day before when I downloaded all of Wikipedia to my brain as soon as I got home from the surgery. The doctor said I should expect this fairly frequently in the first few months. It was a small price to pay for almost limitless knowledge.
Over the next few days, using my USB port and brain implants, I read/downloaded as much as I could on a variety of topics. One day, I downloaded 32 medical textbooks, and ended the day with more medical knowledge than most doctors. Another day, I downloaded all of the Babylonian Talmud, using Artcroll’s beautiful layout and commentary. Zoology, mechanical engineering, astronomy, biology, graphology, history, any topic I was interested in was simply a day’s worth of downloading.
But all this knowledge flooding my brain was a bit much to handle. If my brain was a massive warehouse, I was simply depositing truckloads of information at the bay doors every morning. My brain needed help sorting the information and putting it away in the proper places so that it could be easily retrieved when needed. Luckily, there was a solution for that; a pacemaker for the brain. During the surgery that implanted a direct connection between my brain and the USB port, the surgeons also implanted electrodes that are connected to a unit worn on my belt. During periods of intense learning, and the three hours following my learning session, I shock myself multiple times. All I feel is a slight tingle, but the information highways in my brain open up, and everything gets neatly stored in the proper place, easily accessible for retrieval on a moment’s notice.
There were other problems as well, but nothing that couldn’t be solved with pills. The biggest problem was fatigue. The brain is either extraordinarily power efficient or incredibly power hungry depending on how you look at it. On the one hand, an average human brain works on the equivalent of twelve watts. The first supercomputer to really beat a human being, IBM’s Watson, needs 90,000 watts! By that calculation, the human brain is unfathomably efficient. But in relation to the rest of our body, the human brain is incredibly power hungry. The average brain weighs about three pounds, or roughly 2% of a human’s total body weight, but it uses about 20% of our resting metabolic rate, the energy we use when not playing sports or working out.
As you can imagine, when I was busy filling my brain with genius levels of knowledge in a few weeks, my brain was working harder than a one handed man at a juggling contest. If normally the brain uses a lot of energy, now it was sucking power out of me at an extraordinary rate. I would experience enormous fatigue, but luckily there are pills for that. Three times a day, I would take a dose of Extafinil, which keeps me alert, focused, energetic, and even more creative.
Now, when I fill out a questionnaire asking me for my highest level of education, I check off Phd. When the next question asks me to check off my field of study from a list of disciplines, I just write in, “all of the above.”
There are pluses and minuses to being brilliant. The good news is that I pretty much know everything. The bad news is that people don’t like hanging out with me so much anymore. On the plus side, I’ve become incredibly talented at making money, from correctly analyzing stock trends, finding arbitrage opportunities in the currency markets, and developing new medicines. On the minus side, I’ve become a bit more like a computer than a human. I tend to see the world in ones and zeroes. In conversations, I’m analyzing what people are saying to me from a multitude of disciplines, and running algorithms in my head to determine which response has the highest probability of getting a positive response. But somehow the responses are not always as positive as I would expect. It is the burden I pay for being smarter than everyone else, and it sure is better than working the night shift at Wal-Mart.
Ok, here is where we switch to reality mode. I’m not brilliant, I haven’t had genius surgery, and I’m not an egotistical super-rich cyborg. At least not yet. All the technologies I’ve described are in various phases of development, but all of them have already had successful trials done on animals, and sometimes on humans. The human brain will see enormous developments in the next thirty years, and that is a fact. When we think of the last thirty years, the world around us has changed dramatically, but when you think of the next thirty years, you are likely to see those same type of dramatic changes occurring to the world inside us.
But there is one thing that will not change dramatically, and that is the world of Torah study. That is because Torah is not simply a field of knowledge, it is an understanding of a Divine way of life. The greatest Torah leaders are rarely the smartest people, they are the people who work the hardest, act the kindest, and walk with humility. Ethics of our Fathers lists the Forty Eight Steps to Acquiring the Torah, and not one of them is a great brain. But they do include things like: study, attentive listening, modesty, purity, serving Sages, closeness with colleagues, slowness to anger, a good heart, knowing one’s place, claiming no credit for oneself, being beloved, loving G-d, loving His creatures, acceptance of suffering, sharing his fellow’s burden, not being arrogant with our learning, and faith in the Sages.
That is clearly not the list required for one to learn biology, astronomy, or mechanical engineering. Torah is not knowledge. It can’t be downloaded to a USB port, it can’t be accelerated with pills or electric shocks. It is a study that slowly develops one into a G-dly being. The greatest Torah scholars are known for their incredible selflessness, dedicating their entire lives to helping others and teaching others, and all for free. They don’t live in big houses, or drive fancy cars. They don’t get tenure, they don’t publish revolutionary papers trying to upend everything taught previously, and they don’t sign their names followed by a long line of initials. They study, they teach, they counsel, they console, they live their lives for others, and look for no recognition or acclaim.
To understand how that works, we have to understand what the Torah is. The Talmud teaches us that the word ANOCHY, the first word of Torah that G-d spoke to the entire Jewish people at Sinai, is an acronym for Ana Nafshi Cisavis Yihavis; I, my soul, I’m writing it, and I’m giving it. G-d literally wrote His essence into the Torah and gave it to us. Woven into the fabric of Torah is Divinity, and it can only be unlocked when studied using the forty eight steps, which are a list of virtues that have nothing to do with brain power. But when studied properly, the Torah slowly imbues a person with the properties of its writer.
Everyone dreams of somehow magically getting superpowers. We dream of getting the ability to fly, to be invisible, to be super-strong or superfast. There may be technological inventions in the future that allow us to get any of those powers. But there is one superpower you can begin working on right now; the ability to be G-dlike, or like G-d. The ways are clearly laid out in the Torah, and the study and practice of it.
This is the gift that G-d gave us on the very first Shavuos, when He came down on Mt. Sinai and gave the Torah to the Jewish people. And every year, that energy renews itself, the energy to receive the Torah, and the measure we receive is the measure we are ready to receive. The Torah is infinite, and the more we open ourselves to it, the more we accept to upon ourselves to start doing those Forty Eight Steps, the more we get. This year, on Sunday night, we will get to relive the Sinai experience and receive the Torah anew.
This year, let’s get a lot. This year, let’s download greatness.
Parsha Dvar Torah
“And the children of Israel did according to all that the Lord had commanded Moses, thus did they do.” (Numbers, 1:54)
A quick review of this verse presents an obvious question: Why does the verse twice tell us that the Jewish people did as G-d told Moses?
The Alshich, a 16th century commentator from Safed, explains this verse based on a lesson taught in the Talmud.
“A good thought is regarded as a good deed, for it says “then spoke those who fear G-d, each man to his fellow, and G-d lis
tened and he heard, and a Book of Remembrance was written before Him for those that fear Gd, and those that contemplate his name” (Malachi 3:16) What does “and for those that contemplate/?
‘] his name” mean? Rav Assi said: Even if a person contemplated fulfilling a mitzvah, and was prevented from performing it, G-d credits him as if he had fulfilled it” (Tractate Kiddushin, 40A)
This is something unique to spiritual practice. In the physical world, if one contemplated buying a stock or a piece of real estate, but was prevented from doing so, he wouldn’t miraculously find his bank account filled with profits from the sale that never went through. If one planned on planting flowers in time for the growing season but couldn’t, they won’t bloom from thin air. In the spiritual world however, if one truly intended to do something, but was somehow prevented from bringing his intent to fruition, G-d considers it as if it were done.
The reason for this is that ultimately “Rachmana liba ba’i, the Compassionate One (G-d) wants our heart” (Zohar, Ki Teitzi 181B). G-d is not looking for automatons who perform the mitzvos out of rote. He is looking for passionate souls, people whose only desire is to do the right thing, who thereby intend to elevate the world around them. It is not simply our actions, but the meaning behind them. Often the meaning is more valuable than the action. Someone who has all the right intent and strives to do the right thing is worthy of reward, even if in the end, he is prevented from doing the deed.
Based on this unique system, the Alshich teaches us that we are doubly rewarded every time we do a mitzvah: once for the intent and attitude we had before doing the mitzvah, and again for actually doing it! (An exception to this rule would be when we inadvertently do a good deed, in which case we would get only the single point for the action, and none for the thought.)
This concept helps explain the difficulty with the passage cited above. The verse is essentially teaching us that even though the Jews only did what G-d told Moses to command them once, G-d considered it as if we did it twice. The verse then would read “And the children of Israel did according to all that the Lord had commanded Moses (in thought), thus did they do (in action).”
A story that is repeated four times in the Talmud demonstrates this idea. Shimon Ha’amsunni (or possibly Nechemia Ha’amsunni) spent his entire professional career researching a legal concept, and had compiled a magnum opus detailing hundreds of applications of this concept. He continued for years applying his theory until he was confronted with a seemingly minor detail that completely derailed his theory. Realizing his error, he picked up and walked away from his entire life’s work. (Imagine a professor today walking away from twenty years of research because one small detail seemed to contradict his theory!)
His students asked him what would become of the hundreds of legal applications he had devised? He answered, “the same way I was rewarded for my expositions, I likewise will be rewarded for walking away from them.” He understood that G-d recognized his passionate search for the truth, and that even if years of his work would end up not bearing fruit, it was just as valuable in G-d’s eyes.
This idea should help us to recognize the value of making a sincere commitment to taking spiritual growth steps, and not to allow the fear of failure to stop us. As long as we make the appropriate commitment, our success will already have begun as soon as we embark on the journey.
The first Parsha in the fourth book of the Bible, called “Numbers,” starts off by earning the book its title with a counting of the Jewish people tribe by tribe. Rashi explains that since the Jewish people are so precious to G-d, He constantly counts us, just as one would count his treasures numerous times (remember that nursery rhyme, “the king was in his counting house, counting all his money…”). Nachmanides gives three reasons for the counting, including the idea that this was a way for each and every Jew to get personal attention from Moshe and Aaron, and to be counted as a unique individual amongst the larger Jewish nation.
The sum total was 603,550 males of age for army service , which was twenty to sixty years old (not bad for a people that had only 70 people descend into Egypt a mere 210 years earlier!). This did not include the tribe of Levi, whom G-d would later command Moshe to count separately. One of the reasons the Levites were counted separately is because they didn’t serve in the army, as they were serving in the Temple. Additionally, there would later be a decree that the people from the general census would die during the forty years of wandering in the desert because of a major sin they had committed. G-d didn’t want the Levites to be part of this census, because they were the only entire tribe that remained faithful to G-d during the sin of the Golden Calf.
The next part of the Parsha deals with the layout of the camp in which the Jews traveled in the desert. Basically, it was as follows. The Tabernacle was in the innermost camp, surrounded on three sides by the Levites and on the fourth by the Kohanim, or priests. Surrounding them were four sets of three tribes spreading out to the East, South, West, and North (an easy way to remember that is Eat Soggy Wheaties Never). Each set of three had a special banner, and the layout paralleled the layout Jacob commanded his children to use when carrying his bier to Israel from Egypt. It also imitated the manner in which four sets of heavenly angels surround G-d’s throne. (I’ve been trying to get my kids to sit in such an orderly form around our dinner table, but no luck so far!)
The Torah then enumerates the progeny of Aaron, but calls them the offspring of Moshe and Aaron. Being that Moshe was the leader who taught them Torah, he had a spiritual paternal role. It is fascinating to see how the greater a leader becomes in the Torah world, the more obvious it becomes that he feels as if each and every Jew is his own child.
The Torah continues with G-d telling Moses that the tribe of Levi will forever serve in the Temple, instead of the firstborns who were originally supposed to serve. This was due to each group’s respective role in the Golden Calf crisis of 1312 BCE (the Levites abstained and objected: the firstborns were among the participants). Following this announcement, G-d tells Moshe to make a separate census of the tribe of Levi. After the census is a special ceremony in which the Levites redeem the firstborns and the sacred responsibility of service passes from one group to the other.
The last part of the Parsha deals with a topic that will be continued next week, the transport of the Tabernacle. The tribe of Levi was split into four groups. The progeny of Aaron became the Kohanim, the priests, and their role was to perform all the primary services in the Temple, such as bringing the offerings, lighting the Menorah and burning the incense. The other three groups, the families of Gershon, Kehas, and Mirari were the Levites, and they provided the ancillary services, such as opening and closing the gates, transporting the Tabernacle and its vessels, and singing during the offering of the sacrifices. (I am a Levite, and definitely inherited my Levite vocal cords, so you can all feel free to stop by my office to hear a rendition of Hava Nagila in its full chazzanish glory or in the full glory of chazzanut.)
When the Tabernacle had to move from place to place (it moved over 30 times during the 40 years in the desert, and this was before the times of the double-wide trailers) it was the job of the Levites to transports it. Here the Torah tells us the breakdown of the different families’ responsibilities. The family of Kehas merited to move the most holy vessels, such as the Menorah, Holy Table, and the Holy Ark. Since these vessels were so holy, they had to wait for the Kohanim to wrap them in special moving cloths (there was no Tumi® luggage in those days), before they could transport them.
Let’s end with one last lesson from the carrying of the vessels. The Sages tell us that the Holy Ark, which contained the Tablets and the Torah, actually lifted itself into the air and carried the Levites who were assigned to carry it! If that was the case, why does the Torah tell us to appoint Levites to “carry” it: why don’t we just let it fly by itself? This is meant to be a lesson for us. When we support a Torah lifestyle or Torah institutions, we need to remember that although on the outside it appears as though we are carrying the Torah, in truth, we are the ones being elevated, uplifted, and supported by it!
Quote of the week: The power of a person’s virtue should not be measured by the special efforts, but by the ordinary doing. ~ Blaine Pascal
Random Fact of the Week: Caterpillars have about four thousands muscles.
Funny Line of the Week: Why do ants and caterpillars have to be enemies? One eats leaves, and the other eats caterpillars… Oh, I see now.
Have a Remarkable Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham