Parashat Ve’etchanan is full of dramatic and foundational texts that are deeply familiar to synagogue-goers. Ve’etchanan is the source of the Shma (its first paragraph), the retelling of the Ten Commandments, and perhaps less well-known, Atah horeita lada’at,  the opening line of the dancing on Simchat Torah. The Midrash (Midrash Rabbah, Ve’etchanan, 2:32) reads:

HEAR, O ISRAEL: That which the scripture says (Psalm 73:25) Who do I have in heaven? And I desire none other but You on the earth. Rav said “There are two firmaments: the heavens, and the heavens above the heavens.” Rabbi Elazar said “There are seven firmaments: the heavens, the heavens above the heavens, the firmament, sky (“shechakim”), dwelling, abode, and fog. The Holy One Blessed Be He opened them for Israel to show them that there is no other God besides Godself. The assembly of Israel said before the Holy Blessed One, ‘Master of the Universe, who do I have in heaven besides your honor? Just as I have none other in the heaven but You, so too do I desire none other on earth.’”

Rashi refers to this teaching in his comment on verse 4:35, which is the opening line with which we begin dancing hakafot on Simchat Torah: It was shown you that you might know that the Eternal is God; there is none else beside God.

IT WAS SHOWN YOU: When the Holy Blessed One gave the Torah, God opened seven firmaments for them (for Israel). And just as God opened the upper firmaments, God opened the lower ones, and they saw that there God is the only one. That is why it says “It was shown you that you might know.”

Both of the verses where this teaching about the seven layers of heaven opening to reveal God refer to moments of realization and awakening. “Hear.” “It was shown you.”

We are told that we have the capacity to pay attention, and to see through our habitual ways of seeing the world, and to stand in a moment in which we apprehend the most fundamental truths; to apprehend what stands behind existence itself. We can open up the seven firmaments of habit, of prejudice, of intellectual laziness, of communal pressure to conform to norms of behavior, norms of belief, of arrogance, and of self-doubt, and we can perceive the reality before us with clarity.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said (Avot 1, 17): All my days, I grew up among the sages, and I found nothing to be better for the body than silence. And it is not the exposition on scripture that is essential, but action. And anyone who spends too much time engaged in words brings sin.

Torah study is meant to help us to overcome those seven “firmaments” that stand between us and our moral and spiritual clarity. It can serve as a device to cloud our perceptions further if we get lost in its maze of words. If we come to our Torah learning with a non-judgmental awareness of what is being said on the page of what we are learning, and with clarity about the realities of the situation that any teaching comes to speak about; if we hear a person speak to us about their lives, and we listen with empathy rather than with preconceptions about what should and should not be, the Torah can help us to see past the seven firmaments that stand between our perception and full spiritual clarity.

Shabbat shalom!

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