Types of Thought: Progressions

The first of the requests of the Shemoneh Esrei is Birchas haDa’as, the blessing on understanding. We first state “Atah chonein le’adam da’as – You grant humanity understanding, umelameid le’enosh binah – and teach man comprehension.” What is da’as that is chonein, granted freely, whereas binah is taught, and therefore requires that the student participate by learning it? And why is da’as a feature of adam, whereas binah is that of enosh?

The Reisha Rav, R’ Efrayim Levine (HaDerash vehaIyun, Parashas Bereishis), explains that da’as is knowledge of a single fact. Singular, like Adam, an individual. While “adam” means man, it is not pluralized. On the other hand, binah is the ability to combine ideas in order to produce new ones. Binah is most effective in a community, as anyone who studied with a chavrusah experienced. One of the forty-eight ways necessary to acquire Torah listed in Avos is “pilpul hatalmidim – the sharp give-and-take of the students”. (Beraisa Avos 6:6) The usual Hebrew word for people is anashim, plural of enosh. Enosh, Adam’s grandson, was the first generation to consist of multiple nuclear families living together. Adam and Chavah were a unique couple. Their children Kayin and Hevel certainly could not combine into a society, leaving Sheis and his wife as another unique couple. Until Enosh, there was no concept of “society.” Thus, binah was incomplete until Enosh.

Perhaps we can answer our first question by utilizing R’ Efrayim Levine’s idea. Binah requires working at the idea, the give and take. Da’as may be gifted, but binah cannot be fully absorbed that way. This is the need for ameilus baTorah, toiling in Torah, “melameid le’enosh binah.”

The Eitz Chayim, the tree-structure of the 10 sefiros of Qabbalah describing how G-d’s Good flows down to us, is described either with keser, a Crown that is the source of chokhmah and binah, or it has da’as, the synthesis of chokhmah and binah. We can look at da’as either as the product of thought, or as the source for future thought. The da’as of an idea is both what it is upon which binah acts, as well as the conclusion toward which binah works. This might distinguish da’as from the realm of zikaron. It’s not just knowledge, it’s knowledge that shapes thought.

Da’as‘s role in binah is pretty straightforward. They even teach courses in deductive and inductive reasoning; there are lists on line of common fallacies of reasoning (proof by authority, post hoc ergo propter hoc, etc…) Proper reasoning is a skill to be learned. The connection to chokhmah is less obvious. On the right is a famous picture by WE Hill “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law” (published 1915) that might help. Who one sees in the picture is decided preconsciously by what one brings to the experience. See also my earlier essay “Free Will and Environment“.

Shlomo Hamelech writes, “Have you found devash – honey? Eat only your limit of it lest you fill yourself and vomit it” (Mishlei 25:16). The Vilna Gaon explains the metaphor of honey, devash, as coming from its being an acronym of de’ah, binah, and seichel (insight). One’s progress in Torah needs to be slow and progressive. “Eat only your limit” – attempting for too much too rapidly invites failure.

The pasuk does not make sense if it means the cerebral and abstract pursuit of Torah. The Alter of Kelm told a student celebrating his third Siyum HaShas, “It is not a discussion of how many times you have gone through Shas, but how many times Shas has gone through you.” It is of that kind of Talmud Torah that Mishlei speaks. And it is that kind of self-changing wisdom that we ask for when we request dei’ah, binah, vehaskeil – knowledge (dei’ah), developed through reason (binah) to be applied in one’s life (haskeil).

Someone who tries for results without the skills, for dei’ah without da’as, haskeil without seikhel, tevunah without first aspiring for binah, can not retain either – they get vomitted out.

This version of the text recognizes the progression set up in the opening of the berachah. Adam receives da’as, Enosh develops it as binah, and request from Hashem that this progression continue into haskeil. However, it has the clause “chaneinu me’itecha – grant us from You,” which does not fit binah, and certainly not haskeil. Haskeil must be self-developed; people must have the power to shape how they apply their knowledge as action, or else there is no free will.

Perhaps the Nusach Sefarad chose a different progression because this implication is difficult. But it does so at the expense of continuity with the ideas already developed. In Nusach Sefarad, the progression is chochmah, insight, according to the Tanya (Likutei Sichos, ch. 2), the gifted-from-G-d awareness of an idea, raw, undeveloped. This is then developed in binah, and da’as, knowledge, is produced.

Rather than Ashkenaz’s progression from knowledge to action, Nusach Sefarad gives the progression from inspiration to knowledge. Nusach Ashkenaz focuses on how the intellect is used for self-perfection, sheleimus. Sefaradim and Chassidim speak of knowledge as a flow from G-d’s Divine Wisdom, a connection to Him, temimus. (See also the posts on the “forks” topic, the difference between the misnageid‘s quest for perfection in the image of G-d and the Chassid’s life-mission of cleaving to Him.)

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