Divine Timelessness II, Hebrew Tenses

I – Perfect and Imperfect
Hebrew verb conjugation is usually taught by making the student memorize tables organized by tense and person. The tenses on those tables are past, present, future and imperative (avar, hoveh, asid and tzivui, respectively).

However, it’s unclear if these are the primary tenses in biblical Hebrew. Rather, many translators — from traditional Teimanim to Genesius — understand Tanakh’s Hebrew to be based around two tenses: perfect and imperfect. The perfect tense is used to describe events that are completed. “He went.” Imperfect, actions in progress, “He was going.” Both of my examples refer to something in the past, but one is from the point of completion, and the other not; perfect tense isn’t the same as past tense.

How does this translate into biblical Hebrew? To continue with the example “go”, the perfect tense would be “halakh“, and the imperfect, “yeilekh“. To say “He was going”, we would use the imperfect tense. But we need to connect it to the point in time in the narrative that we’re up to, to say that it was still in progress at this point of the story, not at the time of hearing or reading it. Vav is the letter used to connect (and in fact a vav is a connecting hook, see Shemos 38:10), so we get “vayeilekh“. The vav hahipuch (tense reversing vav) is therefore not a distinct grammar rule, but follows logically. The switch from yeilekh (future) to vayeilekh (past) is possible because the placement in time is not a primary feature of the conjugation.

There is a significant philosophical implication. Time is only introduced to the sentence in relation to something else (which can equally be the time of telling or the time the story is up to). It makes biblical Hebrew better suited for communication between a Timeless Being and ourselves.

II Present Tense

What does it mean when we close the berakhah in Shemoneh Esrei with the words “bonei Yerushalayim“? Are we saying that Hashem is the “Builder of Jerusalem”? Or are we acknowledging that He is “building Jerusalem”, even today, although perhaps in a manner we won’t see until later?

In Hebrew there is what seems to be a basic ambiguity between the present tense and nouns. The word “boneh” is both “builder” and “is building”. Similarly a “shomeir” is a guard, but the same word is used to say “he is guarding”.

I said “seems to be a basic ambiguity because in order for a word to mean two things we have to be convinced that the two meanings are really different. Perhaps that is the whole point. In Western thought, we are taught to make a distinction between what a person does and who he is. However, in Hebrew, it is difficult to articulate that distinction.

Hu omeir” — he said and during that while, was a speaker. One doesn’t say “He is speaking” but identifying him as a speaker. Again, it eliminates the role of time in Hebrew conjugation. Hashem isn’t currently building Jerusalem, because He has no time, no “currently”. However, we can call Hashem “the Builder”, and say that we relate to Him in our now in those terms.

III Adjectives

Another apparent ambiguity arises earlier in Shemoneh Esrei. In the first berakhah we quote Moshe Rabbeinu who praises G-d as “HaKel haGadol haGibor vehaNorah“. Translations vary. Some render the phrase “The Great, Mighty, and Awe-inspiring G-d”. Others, including the Vilna Gaon, treat it as “The G-d, the Great One, the Mighty One, the Awe-Inspiring One”. One understands it as a noun and three adjectives, the other, as four nouns.

Again, in order for this not to be ambiguous, we have to identify adjective with noun, describing a feature of the thing with the thing itself. Aristotle makes a distinction between essence, what the thing is, and accident, properties it happened to pick up along the way. If Hebrew blurs the distinction, then the speaker of biblical Hebrew was discouraged from making this distinction.

So, in Biblical Hebrew, the same conjugation is used for nouns, present tense verbs, and adjectives.

There is a major mussar statement. You can’t fool yourself into saying that “really” you’re a good person, deep down. You are what you do. While you are building, you are a builder. You can’t fool yourself by saying that you just act one way, but deep down youare otherwise. (Of course, when speaking of ourselves, “otherwise” means “better”, and when speaking of others, we mean “worse”.) What you make of yourself isn’t simply adjectives, attributes atop your essence, it’s who you are.

We might see these possible sources of confusion as flaws, but in reality, we’re eliminating artificial distinctions that get in the way of understanding G-d and ourselves.

See but not Seen

The best day of my life — my rebirthday, so to speak — was when I found I had no head… I had for several months been absorbed in the question: what am I? The fact that I happened to be walking in the Himalayas at the time probably had little to do with it; though in that country unusual states of mind are said to come more easily… What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: I stopped thinking… Past and future dropped away. I forgot who and what I was, my name, manhood, animalhood, all that could be called mine. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, that present moment and what was clearly given in it.
… It took me no time at all to notice that this nothing, this hole where a head should have been, was no ordinary vacancy… it was very much occupied. It was a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything — room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far above them snow peaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world.

-D. E. Harding, “On Having No Head”, The Mind’s I (Ed. D. Hofstadter, D. Dennett) pp. 24-30

We don’t see our own heads. As D.E. Harding so humorously writes, we never experience our heads. Instead, we experience these wondrous holes in which all of our experiences, entire universes, somehow miraculously fit.

Later in the essay he notes something about movie production: When we see a memory or dream sequence that includes the person as we would see him, say, the child they once were, it lacks realism. A good producer would film the scene from the person’s perspective, placing the camera where his eyes would be. We should never see the person’s head (although perhaps a reflection of it).

An Empiricist places the most confidence in things in his physical experience that he could repeat and show others at will. Des Cartes questions that position. We can never rule out a trick of the senses or a “Deceiving Daemon”. In fact, there is only one thing he believed we can be absolutely certain of — Cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am. What he meant by this is that I know I exist because I’m the one doing the thinking, wondering what I could know for certain, and whether I could be certain I exist. The existence of the question itself is proof of its answer.

Returning to Harding’s idea, we are actually more sure of that wondrous vacancy than of the things we see. Whatever the truth of the things I see, the fact that I’m there seeing them is more sure to us.

In the general introduction to Alei Shur vol I (pg. 12), Rav Shelomo Wolbe zt”l writes:

We read in Berakhos 10a: “These five [passages of Tehillim that begin] “Borkhi Nafshi” (My Soul shall Bless), corresponding to what did David compose them? He didn’t say them but corresponding to HQBH and corresponding to the soul.
“(1) Just as HQBH fills the whole world, so too the soul fills the whole body. (2) Just as HQBH sees but Is not seen, so too the soul sees but is not seen. (3) Just as HQBH nourishes the whole world, so to the soul nourishes the body. (4) Just as HQBH is tahor, so too the soul is tahor. (5) Just as HQBH ‘dwells’ in the rooms of rooms (chadrei chadarim, an idiom: in a very hidden ‘location’), so too the soul dwells in the rooms of rooms.
“Let the one that has these five things, and let it give praise to He Who has these three things!”
We find that we can learn from this that the soul in particular can praise HQBH, because only it as “an aspect in common” (tzad hashaveh) with him, as it were. Only from the aspect of the soul can man serve his Creator, and in particular the “duties of the heart/mind” (chovos halvavos) which are associated with the soul — they are the essence of such service!
Also this we learn from their statement, that among the attributes of the soul is to be something that “sees but is not seen”. In this, Chazal explain to us what ruchniyus (“spirituality”) is in its entirety: it nourishes the whole world and the body and fills it; the root of every created thing in the world, and every limb in the body is in ruchniyus, and from this root life reaches them. This spirituality fills the whole existence until “there is nothing free from it”. This ruchniyus is itself tahor, it is internal, “dwelling in the rooms of rooms”…. Chazal reveal the central point, upon which we must base our avodah (service of Hashem) if we want to work in ruchniyus, and that is “Just as HQBH sees but Is not seen, so too the soul sees but is not seen.”

In an endnote (pg. 339), Rav Wolbe adds this comment from a student:

It would seem that from the words of Chazal it is not compelling that the central point of the five is in particular this one [i.e. that the soul "sees but is not seen"] of the five that features that Chazal enumerate there. However, one of the students of the yeshiva n”y found a source for it from what it says in Devarim Raba 20:26, “Let the soul come, which sees and isn’t seen, and let it call to HQBH Who sees but Is not seen.” There is doesn’t mention all five criteria, just this one — for it is in truth the central point in avodah.

This idea is the core of Harding’s observation; our soul “sees but is not seen”. The notion of “sees but is not seen” is what makes the spiritual more fundamental, the source, and the nourishing force of the physical. And, as we saw above, the observer is actually more certain and more real than the observed.

The Psychological Model of Orechos Tzaddiqim

(First paragraph edited on July 16 in response to R’ Seth Kadish’s comments. -mi)The following is culled from the introduction to Orchos Tzaddiqim. Orchos Tzaddiqim, was written anonymously some time between 1306 and 1400 CE. It was written in Hebrew, but first printed in Yiddish. The earliest copies still existing are Hebrew, with great disparity in the versions of the text. The original title was “Seifer haMiddos”. The edition I’m using is a critical reconstruction by Rabbi Gavriel Zaloshinsky, who based his Hebrew on printed manuscripts; in some places where he could not determine an authotiative text, he used the language employed by earlier works upon which the author built.Orechos Tzaddiqim (OTz) starts the process speaking of our senses. Our heart follows our senses. We wear tzitzis so that we will not “wander after our hearts and after our eyes, which we are wont to stray after.” “The eye sees, and the heart wants.” Therefore, we must use our senses wisely.What does it mean to use our senses wisely? Don’t we simply see what’s out there — what’s the pro-active element. I could think of two possibilities, both true. First, and most simply, we select our environments. If some temptation poses a threat that we are not ready to handle, we can simply avoid it. Second, there is a huge step between sensation and perception. To a large extent, we choose what we see. What we carry with us and shapes us is not merely the raw physical sensation, but the order and context we impose on them.

(An interesting qabbalah would be to see if you can find each day a decision that you felt was compelled by what you experienced, and see how much of that was experience rather than the interpretation of the experience.)

Dei’os are created in five different ways. (1) Some are innate to us, there since birth — until we elect to change them. (2) Others may not be innate, but the propensity to get them is. A person could not be born vain, but born with everything in place for vanity to come easily to them. (3) Some are picked up from our peers. (4) We can also reason our way into accepting a dei’ah as proper. And, as a variation of the last, (5) some are learned from books, seem to make sense, and accepted.

The final four, the acquiring of new middos comes from our senses. Our interactions with our peers. How we perceive the ideas of others, and the ideas from which we reach our conclusions.

Dei’os, though, are not a complete description. There is not only the question of which attributes to have, but also in which proportions to have them. Interestingly, at this point, R’ Zaloshinsky’s Hebrew shifts from speaking of dei’os to middos. The word “middah” literally means measure. OTz consistently gives examples of measuring a dei’ah in two different directions: frequency and intensity. Someone can be egotistical because they frequently lord over others. Someone else may not be haughty more often than most, but when he does, he’s overwhelming about it.

A healthy person is like a stew. To make a good stew you need to put in a lot of meat, a little salt, and various amounts of other ingredients.

To know how much of each ingredient requires chokhmah, wisdom, and yir’as Shamayim — the awareness of the greatness and significance of the One in heaven, and therefore of our mission. Our middos are like pearls, and yir’as Shamayim, the strand which holds them together. Trying to proceed without yir’ah is like trying to go into banking without knowing which coin is worth more, which less, and which the king decommissioned altogether. One may be able to change one’s middos, but one can’t identify which ones need changing. Keeping the fact that we were created for a particular goal and to be a particular kind of person in mind gives us a scale by which we can assess various middos and their value to the whole.

It’s interesting to contrast this with the Rambam’s notion in Hilchos Dei’os of the shevil hazahav (the Golden Mean). The Rambam describes dei’os as the ends of a spectrum, and the Chakhom (which seems to be only one of two ideals that he draws for us) chooses the middle between them. In OTz, each middah is described as having more than one dimension, therefore there is no one middle to seek. In addition, one isn’t recommended to seek the middle in all things — some middos are the “salt”, others the “meat”. Anger has its place, but since that place is so much smaller than patience and compassion, it can be labeled in general a middah ra’ah, a bad trait. Back to the OTz’s introduction…

The next element one needs is tevunah, the ability to apply that wisdom. The chokham without tevunah is like a paraplegic; he might be able to see his goal, but isn’t equipped to reach it.

So the progression to picking up a healthy middah is: proper use of the senses to develop a dei’ah, and chokhmah and yir’as Shamayim to know the right measure for that dei’ah, and then the sevunah to be able to shape the de’iah to the desired middah.

Last is the role of hergeil, habit. Someone can be ensnared by a habit to the point where they can’t change a middah. There are times when this is constructive; we can use hergeil to build and cement appropriate middos. At times it’s destructive, so that even the chokham can’t reach his goal.

Animals are born with instincts. They therefore are born more able than we are, and stand and walk at much younger ages (in some animals, right after birth), eat on their own far younger, etc… People are born as blank slates. This means we’re born weaker. However, it also means we have the ability to write upon that slate our own personalities.

It is like a silver platter. New, it’s all shiny. Bury it for a while and dig it up, and it will require repeated polishing. Once we start setting who we are, it’s far harder to change — the habit both blinds the chokham from the dangers and poses a bigger problem for tevunah to surmount.

Hergeil is not a bad thing. Quite the reverse, it’s our ability to “write on the slate” that makes us independent and individual beings.

Hashem and Logic

Can G-d make a square-circle, or a thing which is both red and not-red, or a rock so heavy even He can’t lift it? In other words, must G-d obey the laws of logic?This question is more serious than it seems. In Principia Mathematica, Bertrand Russell derives all of mathematics from the roots of symbolic logic. This means that if Hashem can not defy logic, he also can not make pi=3.5. Even worse, if physicists ever get a theory of everything, or if such a theory exists and is never found, than the laws of nature are forced by the laws of math which in turn are all derivable from the laws of logic. If we answer that paradoxes about Hashem aren’t true, we would need to explain, then, how miracles are possible.The nice thing about logic, however, is that a wide variety of things can be proven as long as you pick the right set of postulates. While all of math including geometry are derivable from boolean logic, there is no indication that reality has to map to Euclid’s postulates. (In fact, it doesn’t.) Math gives us many models, reality only conforms to one/some of them. Proofs are simply systems for taking a set of postulates and finding their conclusions. The postulates themselves, come before the application of logic.

Both extreme positions are supported. The Ramchal (Pischei Chachmah 30) insists that G-d’s omnipotence is absolute, even with regard to things we would regard as impossible. The Rambam, on the other hand, (Moreh 3:15) states:

That which is impossible has a permanent and constant property, which is not the result of some agent, and can not in any way change, and consequently we do not ascribe to G-d the power of doing what is impossible. No thinking man denies the truth of this maxim; none ignore it, but such as have no idea of Logic…. Likewise it is impossible that G-d should produce a being like Himself… to produce a square whose diagonal is equal to one of its sides….
We have shown that according to each of these theories there are things that are impossible, whose existence cannot be admitted, and whose creation is excluded from the power of G-d, and the assumption that G-d does not change their nature does not imply weakness in G-d, or a limit to his power.

R. Aryeh Kaplan, in “Jewish Life – Summer ’74” discusses the question of paradox. He raises a number of classical paradoxes:
How can G-d know what I will decide tomorrow, and yet I have free will in that decision?
G-d is unchanging. However, He is now “the One Who created the universe” whereas He wasn’t before creation. How?
Can G-d create a stone so heavy even He couldn’t lift it?
(I addressed the first two in terms of the inappropriateness of using time-based language when discussing G-d in an earlier entry.)

R’ Kaplan explains:

A very good analogy would be trick glasses in which the right lens is red and the left is green. Therefore, if a person wearing such glasses looks at a white paper, he sees it as red with his right eye, and as green with his left. If he looks at it through both eyes he sees some psychedelic mixture of red and green, but under no conditions can he perceive the color white.

With respect to the stone:

The attributes of action would say that He can create such a stone, “G-d is omnipotent and can do all things.” The negative attributes would indicate that such a stone could not exist.

So, the authorities are split: no (Ramchal), yes (Rambam), and all of the above (Rabbi Kaplan). That should give me some room in which to speculate.

When we looked at Divine Attributes, we defined G-d’s omnipotence as a negative statement. A declaration about what He isn’t. G-d gets results without invoking the notion of “power”. Thus, it is meaningless to invoke the notion of “a rock too heavy for Him to lift” as it is to talk about “a song too red.” G-d cannot just lift a stone of infinite weight, omnipotence means that weight is a non-issue to what He can lift, just as color is.

The other question is can G-d defy paradox in general. I’d have to agree with the Rambam at least to the extent that some system of logic must apply. Didn’t Hashem intend us to use logic to come to understand what we can of Him. If He is above logic, what use is it? How can one say “Since Hashem created logic, therefore …” as the Ramchal does to start his very argument to conclude that theological answers needn’t be logical? How can we the proceed with the rest of this discussion if we didn’t already assume that logic works?

Contemporary logic seems to bear out a position very close to the Ramchal’s. Human reason seems to be closer modeled by Bayesian probability or Fuzzy Logic than the old Aristotelian-Boolean kind. In English: we are equipped to deal with things other than a black-and-white true vs. false. We can reason about things we can only know are probably true. And while happiness and sadness are opposites, ambivalence, where a person feels both because of different perspective on the same thing, is common. As are dialectics: People can believe “The world was created for me” and “I am dust and ashes” at the same time. Quantum level events conform to a Quantum Logic, which is also non-Boolean and non-Aristotelian. An electron can be in a superposition state, where it’s both in one state and another, even though the two contradict; at least until observed. (Don’t try to understand that — I didn’t claim it makes sense, just that it’s how subatomic particles work.)

Aristotle’s Law of Contradiction applies to neither our minds nor the constituents of our atoms. Why need it apply to G-d?

Related to this is my essays on logic and eilu va’eilu (plurality in halakhah) in Mesukim MiDevash for Naso,
and earlier in this blog.

Or, to put it another way — even if logic is a part of Truth, and therefore of Hashem’s essence, which of the many possible systems of logic does that mean? Presumably one of Infinite richness, not the Aristotelian that both the Rambam or the Ramchal were discussing.

Conflict Resolution

The first miracle disproving the claims of Korach and his followers was when the earth opened up and swallowed them, and fire came and killed the 250 men who tried to offer incense instead of the kohanim. (Bamidbar 16:31-35) Now one would think that’s pretty definitive, and things would end there. However, how did the masses react? “The whole congregation of Benei Yisrael complained about Mosheh and about Aharon, saying: ‘You have killed the nation of Hashem!'” (17:6) Mosheh and Aharon retreat to the Ohel Mo’eid, upon which the cloud demonstrating Hashem’s Presence descended. A plague ensues. And still, the matter isn’t over. Aharon’s role as kohein is demonstrated by his taking ketores and creating a border beyond which the plague can not past. And still the matter isn’t ended.Finally, each sheivet’s leader takes a stick, writes his name on it, and they are placed together in the Ohel Mo’ed. Only Aharon’s stick buds, flowers, and grows almonds. And finally, the masses accept Hashem’s judgment. What’s the difference between the earth opening up and the plague on one hand, and the flowering staff on the other?

One striking difference is that the first miracles aimed at vanquishing evil. However, that didn’t resolve the confrontation, not only one instead embraced and built upon the good.

The same is true in internal conflict. When addressing a destructive emotion or habit, one can gain a measure of success battling the midah directly. However, in that way the war is never won; it just continues battle after battle. Instead one has to build upon the more positive midah whose weakness lead to the existence of the negative. Rather than attacking a low frustration threshold, build patience; instead of trying to whittle away one’s stinginess, build generosity. The difference is largely one of attitude, but we can create permanent change only by building, not destroying. Particularly in our generation, one that responds more to carrots than sticks.

And it is also true when developing our children’s’ personalities as parents. As R’ Shelomo Wolbe titled his book “Zeri’ah uBinyan beChinukh — Planting and Building in Education.”