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“Synthetic Reality – Part 3” Parashat Mishpatim 5782

This essay completes our discussion on reality, belief and Divine revelation. After the Torah is given at Mount Sinai, Moshe, Aaron and his sons Nadav and Avihu, along with the seventy elders of Israel are treated to yet another revelation [Shemot 24:10]: “They saw the G-d of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of bricks (livnat) of sapphire, like the very sky for purity”. What exactly was it that they saw and why did G-d choose to reveal Himself specifically through this medium?

Rashi, the most eminent of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, suggests that the “bricks of sapphire” were symbolic of the slave labour that the Jews had performed for Pharaoh in Egypt [Shemot 1:14] “with harsh labour at mortar and bricks”. G-d kept the bricks close at hand, at the foot of His Throne, as a constant “reminder” of the Jewish People. Other commentators suggest that the word “livnat”, translated above as “brick (leveina)”, actually comes from the word “white (lavan)”, meaning that this revelation was as clear as ice. Here is how Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, who lived in Italy in the sixteenth century, describes it: “In essence, [the sapphire was] totally transparent, devoid of colours and permanent contours so that it is almost completely abstract, capable of absorbing spiritual input from spiritual domains at will.” The revelation, as a meeting of the physical and the spiritual, possessed an unparalleled clarity. The Seforno continues “It is the essence of what we consider the celestial regions… It is not connected to the solid physical planets…. [It] has no physical dimensions, making it appear as if it is the spiritual dimension of Heaven itself.”

The Talmud in Tractate Menachot [43b] takes a different approach, emphasizing the blue[1] hue of the sapphire. The Talmud expounds upon the Torah’s commandment to dye one of the fringes (tzitzit) on the corner of a garment sky blue (tekhelet): “Why is tekhelet different from all other colours? Because tekhelet is similar to the sea, and the sea is similar to the sky, and the sky is similar to the Throne of Glory, as it is stated in scripture ‘under His feet there was the likeness of bricks of sapphire’.” Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, writing in “Jewish Meditation”, regards this passage as a description of contemplation meditation. “With the blue thread as the subject of such a meditation, one can experience the cool calmness of the sea and the serenity of its depths. One’s thoughts are then directed up to the heavens, higher and higher, up to the farthest reaches of the sky. Then one’s thoughts penetrate the sky, and one approaches the Throne of Glory.” The significant feature was not the shape of the Divine Throne or its lack of colour. The colour of the throne was what made it exceptional.

Before we proceed, we must understand the mathematical concept of a “projection”. In mathematical terms, the projection of an object is its intersection with a lower dimensional plane. For the less mathematically inclined, think of a shadow, which is essentially a two-dimensional projection of a three-dimensional object. Recall those animal hand shadows we used to make. By holding our hands in a certain way and by shining a light on them at a certain angle, we could make a shadow on the wall that looked like a rabbit, a swan, or even Tom Brady. Continuing down this path, consider a circular shadow. What made this shadow? It could have been made by shining a light on a ball, on the end of a cylinder, or even on a cardboard circle[2]. An object’s projection can tell us a certain amount about that object but not everything – information is lost in the process. Looking back at that cylinder, if you shine a light at its end, a circular shadow will appear but if the light is directed at its side, the shadow will look like a perfect rectangle. The story of the “Blind Men and the Elephant” comes to mind: A group of blind men who have never encountered an elephant before imagine what the elephant looks like only by touching it. Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant’s body, but only one part. They then describe the elephant based on their limited experience and their descriptions of the elephant are all wildly different. He who touched the side of the elephant sees a wall while the one who felt the tusk sees a spear. They are all right and yet they are all wrong. Each has “seen” only one projection of the elephant.

G-d, as an infinite being, exists in an infinite number of dimensions. Only a projection of the Divine can revealed in our corporeal world. The commentators above differ over which projection is the most significant. Each try to point to a dimension through which we can identify G-dliness in our world. The Talmud in Menachot believes that it is via colour. A few days ago I happened to be checking the local weather on the Apple weather app on my iPhone precisely at sunrise. The background of the app changes to reflect both the time of day and the current weather. Right now, the background for Moreshet shows stars on a dark sky while in Montreal the sky is light blue and covered by cumulous clouds. At sunrise, I discovered, the colour of the background is almost indescribably beautiful – a pinkish orangey glow that nearly perfectly reflected the colour of the sky at that moment. The ensuing feeling of transcendence was equally difficult to describe. While I am not in any way spiritual, I could actually feel my thoughts “penetrate the sky, and approach the Throne of Glory”.

Rashi’s preferred projection is structure. A sapphire crystal is hexagonal, made of corundum, an aluminium oxide. The intense blue of the sapphire is caused by the addition of titanium and iron. The crystal’s chemical structure endows it with tremendous hardness and durability. The only crystal harder than a sapphire is a diamond. Further, sapphire does not have the gemstone cleavage property[3], which means that it is less likely to break during a hard impact. Most high-end watches have sapphire cases[4]. The sapphire’s hardness and clarity makes it an excellent candidate for infrared-penetrable domes on missile seekers. A missile can fly at supersonic speeds through torrential rain without shattering the dome[5]. Sapphire crystals, or “bricks”, in Rashi’s terminology, represent power: the power of human slaves, the power to enslave humans, and infinite Divine Power –  the [Shemot 3:19] “Great might (“Yad Hachazaka”)” with which G-d freed the Jewish slaves from their human oppressors.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, who lived in the eighteenth century in Berditchev, Ukraine, asks in “Kedushat Levi” how an infinite G-d can possibly reveal Himself to a finite human. One would think that the human would be overwhelmed by the rendezvous. It is a mathematical fact that if you have an infinite number (∞) of apples and you add another apple to the pile, you will still have an infinite number of apples. The concept “infinity plus one” is mathematically undefined. While the Seforno quoted above approaches this question with some beautiful language, at the end of the day the answer he proposes is fuzzy. How can the physical meet the spiritual? In the words of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, “[G-d] is so ‎far above us human beings that a mutual love relationship as we ‎comprehend it seems impossible, and anyone claiming to feel ‎such feelings surely must be guilty of boasting, or something ‎worse, blasphemy!” He proposes a disruptively innovative solution: The core of Jewish belief – what he calls a “dogma that anyone claiming to be a true ‎believer in Judaism must embrace” –  is not merely belief in the existence of an infinitely powerful G-d. What we must believe in is in the capability and the desire of the infinite to connect with the finite. We must believe in the existence of Divine projection, be it via colour, structure, or any other parameter. We must believe that G-d wants us to know Him and to worship Him and that He will respond with a “mutual love relationship”. Anything less is blasphemy.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.

[1] It is interesting to note that the Ibn Ezra suggests the sapphire was not blue, but, rather, ruby red.

[2] This logic can be extrapolated to conceptualize what a 4-dimensional object looks like: it is an object whose shadow is 3-dimensional.

[3] This refers to the tendency of some crystals to break on plane surfaces due to their weaker atomic bonds.

[4] This durability comes at a cost – not only is the sapphire expensive but it its hardness makes it extremely difficult to machine.

[5] Slower-flying missiles usually have Zinc Sulfide domes. These cost much less than sapphire domes but are far less resistant to raindrops.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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