08 Jan 2016

Vaera 5776: The Seasoned Soul

“It is not what you look at that matters. It’s what you see.”
— Henry David Thoreu

In his book Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks writes about the way in which the human mind processes music. He describes the various pathologies of the brain that inhibit a person’s ability to appreciate the full impact of music. The brain employs many different areas of function in order to “hear” music and when just one of these areas falter the music is clipped and often lost to the listener. While those conditions are biological he records cases in which people, either through personal choice or other psychological conditions lose their penchant for music.

Two major historical figures that he references are Freud and Darwin. Freud, it seems, was indifferent to music. He ‘never listened to music voluntarily or for pleasure’[1]. Freud himself, in his only discussion of it, described his feelings towards music in the introduction of “The Moses of Michelangelo”:
I am no connoisseur in art…nevertheless, works of art do exercise a powerful effect on me, especially those of literature and sculpture, less of painting…[I] spend a long time before them trying to apprehend them in my own way, i.e. to explain to myself what their effect is due to. Wherever I cannot do this, as for instance with music, I am almost incapable of obtaining any pleasure. Some rationalistic, or perhaps analytic, turn of mind in me rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected and what it is that affects me.
Freud felt uncomfortable allowing himself the abandon to be moved by something beyond his intellect. He thus shielded himself from the powerful impact of something as mysterious and ‘spiritual’ as music.

Darwin too complained in his diaries of his loss in being able to appreciate the arts due to his immersion in fact analysis:
In one respect my mind had changed during the last twenty or thirty years…Formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very intense delight. But now…I have almost lost my taste for pictures or music…My mind seems to have become a sort of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of fact…the loss of these tastes, this curious and lamentable loss of higher aesthetic tastes, is a loss of happiness….
Sacks indicated points in his life when he had, in depression, also lost the ability to enjoy music. It seems that one must be conditioned to apprehend and appreciate such things.

At the beginning of Vaera, Moshe speaks to the Children of Israel of freedom, love, future and hope. We are told, however, that they cannot ‘hear’ him[2]. Due to their work load and enslaved mindset they lost the sensitivities that would allow them to appreciate the great realities of which Moshe was speaking.

Their inability to hear him was not because they intentionally disregarded him. It was instead due to ‘truncated spirits and difficult work’[3]. They had lost their ability to respond to the deeper aspects of humanity such as, but not confined to, love and hope.

To absorb the higher aesthetics and values one must not only have the ear or eye for it but the soul for it as well. Their souls, through relentless and meaningless labour, had been diminished. It would indeed seem that our ability to be sensitive to life’s spiritual beauties is a fragile faculty within us.

We can either willingly weaken our spiritual senses or they can be made weak for us by other people or elements. Through this we not only lose aspects of our freedom but also cut away at the fullness of our spirit.

We may do this, like Freud admittedly did, because we fear being moved not by profound and tangible beauty but by ‘fluff’ and flights of fancy. On a deeper level I believe that we sometimes fear being so profoundly moved that we choose not to and instead shield ourselves behind reason alone. In doing so we sacrifice access to whole worlds beyond reason and find our spirits confined in the remote towers of intellectualism.

In time, as they emerged into freedom, the Children of Israel grew to become sensitive to such beauties and became moved by the ‘higher aesthetics’[4]. At first Moshe’s words entered the people’s ears but not their souls. Gradually though, their souls began to awaken.

The soul’s greatest expression is in reaching the condition in which one is prepared to risk experiencing, defending and respecting deep emotion and meaning.

In the words of Mark Helprin: ‘The intellect and the conscious mind are like kindling. The flame that results is something else entirely, and leaves behind all the scaffolding’.

Each year as we read of the path that our ancestors took towards such an awakening it stirs us to consider our own. How open are we to experiencing a rich, beautiful, interesting and complex world in which we are offered, through these experiences, a direct connection with God

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck

[1] Chapter 24

[2] 6:6-8

[3] 6:9

[4] Cf. Exodus 15

Law and Lore

The Amida II


Every amida has three sections. For most, sections one and three are relatively uniform. Section two varies greatly depending on the occasion.

Section I – Praise

The first section of any Amida is dedicated to praising G-d. Before we ask for anything in our prayers we speak to G-d of our awareness of His greatness and all that He invests into the world for us. We also speak of his covenant with us and His commitment to bringing the world forward towards redemption. In the First section there are three subsections comprised of three berakhot.

  1. In the first berakha we speak of G-d’s love for, and commitment to, our forefathers and highlight our connection to them. We hope that we will find favour and be loved in His eyes as their descendants. We speak of G-d’s greatness, His patience, and the wonder of His creations. We then speak of His kindness and His commitment to redeeming the descendants of Abraham, Yitshak and Yaakob. The blessing ends speaking of G-d as Magen Abraham – ‘Abraham’s shield’.


  1. In the second berakha we speak of G-d’s overall commitment to sharing and cultivating life. We mention that G-d will resurrect the dead and highlight that His ultimate desire for creation is to share life rather than to produce creations that are destined to die. This relates to G-d’s commitment to life and his sustaining the earth with precipitation in kindness and great mercy. We speak of His ability to help the downtrodden, heal the sick, and free those in bondage. He is the faithful G-d of both death and life and is faithful in His commitment to bring the dead back to life. The blessing ends speaking of G-d as Mehaye haMetim – ‘Reviver of the dead’.


In the third berakha we speak of G-d as the source of holiness and that He and His expression in the world (His name) is holy.  Holy creations will praise Him daily in recognising His ways. The blessing which closes the first section is HaEl haKadosh – ‘Holy G-d’.

Parasha Perspectives

II Vaera

6b       Fulfilling the Covenant (6:2-9)
7         Reiteration of the mission (6:10-12)
8a       Moshe and Aharon given the command (6:13)
8b       Genealogy up to Moshe and Aharon (6:14-28)
8c        Return to the command (6:29-30)
9          History of future: God unfolds plan  (7:1-7)
10a      Stick to snake (7:8-13)
10b      Warning of Plague of Blood (7:14-18)
10c       Plague of Blood (7:19-25)
11a      Warning and Plague of Frogs (7:26-8:11)
11b      Plague of Lice (8:12-15)
11c       Warning and Plague of Gnats (8:16-28)
12        Warning and Plague of Cattle (9:1-7)
13a      Plague of Boils (9:8-12)
13b      Warning of Plague of Hailstones (9:13-21)
14        Plague of Hailstones (9:22-35)

Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS