March 1, 2022

Chagigah 14

Today’s daf (Chagigah 14b) informs us how four different Torah scholars – Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher and Rabbi Akiva – entered the ‘Pardes’ (which is a word literally translated as meaning ‘orchard’, but which is – in fact – the root of the English word ‘Paradise’), and that while Rabbi Akiva entered and left in peace, the other three scholars reacted quite differently: Ben Azzai ‘gazed and died’, Ben Zoma ‘lost his mind’, and Acher ‘lost his faith’.

Clearly, just by reading about what happened to these scholars, it is evident that what is being described is not a simple walk in a fruit orchard, but rather, something much more sophisticated. As such, this text is understood to be describing how each scholar went on their own mystical journey during which they each sought to ascend – as Rashi explains – to the divine firmament.

As one may expect, much has been written about this text, and especially about why each scholar reacted the way they did (nb. for a great analysis about Ben Azzai and Acher, see Ch’s 6 & 7 of Rabbi Ari Kahn’s ‘The Crowns on the Letters’), while others – in seeking to explain the ‘Pardes’ experience – have focussed on the idea that the word פרדס can be understood as an acronym for the four different ways we can engage with Torah, namely: פשט (peshat ) – understanding the straightforward meaning of verses, רמז (remez) – understanding deeper ideas which are hinted to by particular biblical words, דרש (drash) – understanding ideas embedded in words that can only be understood through homiletic exegesis, and, סוד (sod) – understanding mystical ideas that are hidden within the words of the Torah.

Of course, along with a deeper experience with Torah comes a greater depth and sensitivity in the observance of mitzvot, which means that to ‘enter into the Pardes’ has both intellectual and practical ramifications. However, if done right, entering the ‘Pardes’ offers the possibility of an extraordinary spiritual experience which is why entering the ‘Pardes’ is considered to be like entering ‘Paradise’.

But having explained all this, the question is why should a journey of Torah learning and mystical study be so dangerous? And why did just once scholar enter and leave the Pardes in peace? To answer this, I would like to share an analogy that I have used over the years to explain these four different ways that we can engage with Torah.

As you may know, an idea repeatedly mentioned by our Sages is that Torah is compared to water, and that the body of Torah is comparable to an ocean. With this in mind, I would now like to speak about four different levels of the ocean that we can experience and the skills necessary to do so.

The first level is surface level swimming, where a swimmer requires some skill, while what they see is primarily just the water ahead and around them, with limited ability to see far into the body of water in which they are swimming. Having been taught to swim, most of us can do surface level swimming, and the more you practice, the better you get.

The second level is swimming underwater with goggles. This requires more training than surface level swimming because the underwater swimmer needs to know how to take deep breaths before they take the plunge, and they also need to ensure that they are wearing their goggles correctly so that they don’t get filled with water. However, unlike surface level swimming, someone who swims underwater gets to see an underwater world that is not visible to those who just do surface level swimming – although only that which is a few metres below the surface of the water. Here too, the more you practice, the better you get.
The third is scuba diving, and to do this, a scuba diver needs to train in order to learn how to breath with an air tank, how to control their buoyancy etc. While both surface level and underwater swimming carry some risks, scuba diving is more dangerous and not all people have the skills to do so. Yet with this training and this greater risk comes the opportunity to encounter the exquisite underwater world of beautiful sea creatures and coral.

Finally, there are some people who, after a huge amount of training, can develop the skills to deep sea dive. This type of diving carries way more risks than all others, and surfacing too quickly can be incredibly dangerous. As such, only a small number of people can deep sea dive. However, a deep sea diver sees things that others are unlikely to ever experience or fully understand because they encounter creatures that only reside on the sea bed.

Having explained all this, when I think of people wishing to enter the ‘Pardes’, I think of scholars trying to journey from peshat, down to remez, down to drash, and down to sod, like a swimmer who attempts to go deep sea diving in order to experience the paradise of the deep sea. And just as very few people can safely and successfully go deep sea diving unless they have rigorously trained their body and mind, and just as those who attempt to do so without the required training and experience risk severe sickness, permanent damage to their lungs, or even death, so too, very few people can enter and leave the Pardes in peace.

Based on all the above, the question I would like to address is what lessons can we learn from this story since few of us have necessarily attempted to ‘enter the Pardes’, or ascend to the divine firmament. And to answer, I would briefly like to talk about those who – in terms of religious practice – try and go too deep too quickly, those who don’t know how to take the right breaths when they swim underwater, and those who surface too quickly.

In terms of the first category, I am primarily referring to those referred to as Ba’alei Teshuva and who – in their choice to become more religiously observant – often try and adopt many mitzvot all at once. Of course, the desire to do so is understandable, and it may be compared to how even a beginner swimmer wants to see underwater and encounter beautiful sea creatures and coral. But just as it is unsafe for someone who doesn’t know how to swim to try and dive deep into water, there are serious risks that exist with those who try and go too deep to quickly in their religious growth.

The second category refers to those who are already observant and who swim somewhere below the surface of the ocean of Torah – which includes underwater swimmers or scuba divers. Yet while these are not the same, both can prove fatal if the swimmer doesn’t know when to take a breath either before swimming underwater, or while attached to their scuba gear. With this in mind, I think that one of the errors of some people who live religiously intense lives is that they fail to take a breath when they need to – which itself carries various personal and religious risks.

Finally, there are those who, for whatever reason, feel the need to decrease the depth with which they are swimming, yet here too, surfacing too quickly can also be incredibly dangerous. As such, someone who wishes to do so needs patience and wisdom.

Overall, Jewish learning, and Jewish living, is not risk free, and even great scholars can make the mistake of trying to reach a level that is not right, or safe, for them. Which means that while it is important to strive to reach our potential, it is equally important to know our limits as well.

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