Defining Reality and Illusion
Picture if you will, the Jewish encampment in the desert. Influenced by
the many artistic renditions we have all seen, you can just imagine a
plethora of tents surrounding a central structure. The central structure
is of course the Mishkan (Tabernacle) easily identified by a pillar of
smoke rising from the Mizbeach, (alter) and the surrounding tents are
usually arranged in tribal groupings around the Mishkan structure. The
setting is often a stark forbidding desert landscape with barren mountains
towering in the background.
Allow me to give you a insiders tour of a Medrashik (Talmudic) setting far
different than any you would imagine on your own.
"The Sinai desert is a forbidding lifeless landscape of rock and sand
bordered by craggy towering peaks. In the distance we notice what appears
to be a thick cloud-cover dominating the middle of the horizon. This
attracts our attention because it is very unusual for there to be any
clouds in the expanse of the blue desert sky, let alone having clouds
lying so close to the ground. Furthermore, some kind of light can be
discerned behind the veil of the cloud-cover illuminating whatever lies
hidden behind. Outside of the cloud cover an immense conglomeration of
tents can be seen with people of mixed nationality and dress moving among
the tents. They do not seem well organized; although, some attempt at
order is noticeable.
As we draw near, we see that the clouds are not moving. Regardless of the
desert wind the clouds remain stationary and unaffected. As we draw even
closer, we can see people making their way in and out of the cloud cover.
No gateway is yet obvious and it seems as if the individuals are being
swallowed by the clouds. Soon enough we get close enough to see a wide
pathway cutting into the cloud cover along which the people come and go.
Approaching the clouds with some apprehension, we decide to follow the
traffic and discover what lay behind the cloud-cover. Walking through the
thick clouds, we are overcome by an eerie sense of disassociation and
dejavue. The disassociation is a sense of transitioning from one dimension
to another, from one reality to another reality. The dejavue has the
distinct overtones of a time when we crossed the sea flanked by towering
walls of water; however, nothing could have prepared us for what we were
about to see.
Leaving behind the cloud cover, we emerged on a scene of spectacular
beauty, richness and order. Somehow, in a seemingly miraculous manner,
there existed within the confines of the clouds a veritable Garden of
Eden. Unfolded before us is a massive oasis of spectacularly colored
flowering plants, lush vegetation, streaming waterways, warm sunshine and
cool breezes. The size of the clouded enclosure is spectacular. Stretching
to the horizon for maybe 8 to 10 miles, there appears to be at least a
million tents arranged around a center building that is covered in
beautifully colored tapestries. The tents are arranged in orderly rows and
there are clearly delineated camps separated from each other by rushing
streams of water. Flying in the breeze high above the "tribal" divisions
are banners and flags of various designs and colors clearly intended to
identify the different camps. Wherever we look there are people, young and
old, engaged in discussions and various camp and home chores. What is most
spectacular is the tangible sense of calm order and purpose permeating the
entire scene. Where did this sanctuary come from? How could it possibly
exist amidst the towering severity of the desert landscape?
Rav Dessler, in an elaborate essay on the illusion of reality, explained
that what we perceive as real is in truth an illusion intended to hide the
absolute presence of G-d. Rav Dessler does not mean that we are some
virtual computer program designed to perpetuate its own illusionary
existence! Such fanciful plots are best left to the screen writers of
Tinsel-town and the silver-screen. What Rav Dessler means is that our
existence is as real as we make it. The notion that there can be an
independent existence removed from the ongoing ministrations and control
of the Creator is the illusion. Yes, our bodies are real and not ethereal.
The physical world does exist and it challenges our souls and consciences
to discover who we are and why we were created. However, that challenge is
complicated by the human drive to seek a physical and materialistic
existence independent of G-d and His expectations. Therein lies the great
illusion and challenge of independent existence.
Following Exodus and Matan Torah (giving of the Torah), the Jews were
transformed from seekers of who and why to knowing who they were and why
they were created. Having heard G-d speak and learning His commandments
from the mouth of Moshe, they knew what to do.
They were the descendents of the Avos (patriarchs) and Imahos (matriarchs)
who had been gifted with G-d's Torah and the means for assigning Kedushah
(sanctity and purpose) to the existence of the universe. Literally, the
world was created for them to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."
In that capacity, they were first responsible to learn G-d's intentions
for the universe and all of humanity and then infuse the universe with an
understanding of G-d. The outcome was to be that everyone would know their
personal reasons for having been created.
In essence, their job was to learn and teach in both theory and practice
the intent of G-d for creating everything. That is the meaning of the
verse, "and G-d placed them (Adam and Chava) in Gan Eden to work and to
serve. The work was to know what G-d wanted for the universe and the
service was to share that knowledge with the rest of the world. Infusing
the world with Kedushah (sanctity and purpose) means revealing G-d's
purpose for creating the universe. This can only be done by learning His
commandments, doing them, and teaching others to do the same. Learning and
teaching bridge the illusion of independent reality with the actuality of
knowing Hashem (G-d) and His purpose.
The original Gan Eden was the physical manifestation of purpose and
design. It was a setting wherein which G-d's presence was easily
perceived. All Adam and Chava had to do was not transgress the single
commandment "not to partake of the trees in the center of the garden." It
was a single Mitzvah (commandment) which declared to Adam and Chava that
existence had a purpose transcending the illusion of physical
independence. It only took one Mitzvah to accomplish that understanding.
Had their existence been independent of G-d's direct intentions, they
would not have been compelled to listen or follow; however, because they
were the creations of G-d He had the right to impose restrictions and
Every time Adam and Chava looked at the "trees in the center of the
garden" and did not give into their curiosity or desire, they loudly
proclaimed that the universe and their existence had intent and purpose.
The moment they transgressed the one commandment and ate from the tree,
they entered the world of self-imposed illusionary independence. Once they
engaged the illusion, they were unable to see G-d as clearly as before.
The world of sanctity and reality became a world barren and empty. Instead
of lush gardens and fields, the land gave forth thistle and thorns. By
virtue of its being there, fruit proclaims purpose. Thorns and thistles
require much greater study and sophistication to realize and understand
the divine purpose hidden behind the illusion of nature. "And behold the
bush burned mightily but the bush was not consumed!"
Within the illusion of the burning bush resided the presence of G-d.
Within the illusion of the physical was the actuality of G-d's intended
purpose. To see G-d's presence, to hear His words, Moshe first had to
look. Sensing the sanctity that was there, Moshe had to take off his
sandals because the "earth upon which he was standing was holy." Not just
the actual place where Moshe was standing but the entire earth was holy.
Revealing that sanctity was to be his job and the work of his people. "The
proof of your mission will be when you bring the nation to serve Me on
this mountain!" "At that time I will give the nation my Torah and reveal
to them the who and why of their existence. I will give them the means of
recreating a world otherwise ignorant of My intent and purpose, divorced
from Kedushah, and mired in the illusions of their own independence. I
will give them the knowledge of how to infuse that ignorant world with
sanctity and turn the thorns and thistles back into flowers and
The Israeli encampment in the desert was a reenactment of Gan Eden. Placed
in the barren inhospitable wilderness of Sinai, G-d showed them that we
are responsible for making the reality of illusion or the reality of
Outside the cloud-cover was the illusionary world of the Eruv Rav - (mixed
multitude of nationalities who elected to join the Jewish exodus from
Egypt) who existed side by side with the inner magnificence and sanctuary
of the Jewish encampment. The only thing dividing the two realities was
walls of clouds. Outside the cloud-cover, the human creature struggled to
attain a glimmer of understanding and to survive. Within the cloud-cover,
the human creature did not have to struggle to see purpose and intent.
Within the camp, Kedushah was self evident.
Situated in the middle of the camp / garden was the Mishkan. Glowing with
an inner Kedushah were the Aron (Holy Ark) and the Luchos (tablets) -
the "Tree of Life to all who wish to learn from it." (the tree that was in
the center of the garden) The Jewish nation was commanded to work and to
serve within that garden. They were given the jobs of learning and
teaching the intent and purpose of G-d. They were given the opportunity of
living within Gan Eden and seeing the purpose of existence. They were
given the opportunity of understanding and accepting their own absolute
dependency on G-d.
Before we address the Miraglim (Spies), it is important to note that the
experience of the desert camp had an added dimension that had not been
revealed in Gan Eden. Different than Adam and Chava, the generation of the
desert knew that it was possible to do Teshuvah (repentance) and stay in
Gan Eden! It was possible to fail, learn from the failure, and yet
continue learning and teaching!
According to many commentaries, the intent of the Spies was noble,
although wrong. They returned from their mission with a negative report
about the promised land of Israel, intending to force G-d into keeping
them in the desert. They wanted to stay in Gan Eden! Having experienced
Teshuvah in the aftermath of the Eigel (Golden Calf) and knowing that
Hashem desires to forgive, they counted on the Jews loosing faith in G-d
and Hashem deciding that they were not yet ready to enter Israel! Why
leave Gan Eden? Why leave the perfect world of dependency and knowledge?
Why return to the world of illusion and challenge when they could continue
to live in the reality of G-d's intent and purpose?!
However, they were tragically wrong. They assumed that living in Gan Eden
was the goal and the purpose. It wasn't. The goal and the purpose was to
return the rest of the world to a Gan Eden. The purpose was to work and
serve all of humanity in understanding why they were created. Living
behind a cloud-cover was self-serving rather than a service to humanity.
To best serve humanity, they needed the experience of Gan Eden and the
desert encampment. They needed the contrast between the barren illusion of
the Eruv Rav and their own lush reality. They needed to know that they
defined their own reality by either the virtue of their dependency on
Hashem or the illusion of their independence from Him. However, the goal
was to only remain behind the cloud-cover long enough to be certain of
their own reality. Once certain of the totality of their dependency on G-d
they were supposed to emerge from behind the cloud-cover and teach the
Eruv Rav the reality of who they were and why they were created. Then they
would be ready to do the same for the rest of the world.
The Miraglim accomplished what they set out to do. They forced G-d to keep
the nation in Gan Eden (the desert camp) for an additional 38 years.
During that time, the Jews continued to experience the totality of their
dependency on Hashem but at two terrible costs. The most obvious of the
two was the death of that entire generation. It was decreed that they
would both live and die in Gan Eden. Their purpose would be to teach and
train their children to accomplish what they failed to do - to emerge from
behind the cloud-cover and return the entire world to the pristine
dependency of Gan Eden.
The second consequence was far more subtle and far more devastating. The
second generation in the desert grew up in a Gan Eden that they thought
was the real world. They did not know that the manifestation of G-d in the
camp was unique rather than the norm. They did not perceive food from
heaven and water from rock as miraculous or unusual (as I was taught by my
Father Shlit'a). Instead, over the course of 40 years, the miraculous
revelation of G-d's absolute dominion became the reality they knew and
took for granted. Instead of the daily wonderment and excitement that
should have accompanied their perception of G-d's majestic grandeur, they
were challenged with an illusion of their own independence. Had they
entered the Promised Land still amazed and humbled by the revelation of
G-d's care and love, they would have applied the same acceptance of
dependency to the reality of Eretz Yisroel. Then, they would have been in
the position to teach the rest of the world the who and why of their
existence. They would have sanctified the entire world and revealed its
true intent and purpose. They would have turned the world back into a Gan
(Note: When the Jews live as they are supposed to live, Eretz Yisroel
blossoms like Gan Eden. When the Jews do not do as they are supposed to do
and instead they create the illusion of their own independence from G-d,
He takes away Eretz Yisroel from us and it reverts back to a rocky
wilderness. In the end, we are the ones who define reality and illusion.)
Text Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Aron Tendler and Torah.org