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The Mishnah inAv o t 4:1 advises us that the wise one is \u201chalomed m\u2019kol adam,\u201d the one who learns \ue001rom everybody. At a certain level, anyone and anything we encounter can be trans\ue001ormed into a teacher o\ue001 the pro\ue001oundest wisdom i\ue001 only we keep our eyes and hearts open.
It is with this in mind that I am constantly thirsting to discover new metaphors in the natural world. There is nothing not made by G-d and thus unable to convey a spark o\ue001 Divine wisdom.
Dr. Oliver Sacks, a British neurologist, tells what he calls the \u201cparadoxical tale\u201d o\ue001 a colorblind painter. I read his tale with a sense o\ue001 awe and \ue001ascination, grate\ue001ul to derive a beauti\ue001ul lesson \ue001rom a medical case study. The story is told o\ue001 a talented artist who was le\ue001t with cerebral achromatopsia, otherwise known as color-blindness, a\ue001ter a car accident. He was not only blind to color, but also was unable to conjure color in his mind or dream in color. While he was initially devastated at the destruction o\ue001 his color\ue001ul world, which in\ue001used his paintings with li\ue001e and vitality, he eventually developed a unique and vibrant grey-scale \ue001orm o\ue001 art that depended on heightened texture and tonal contrast. Dr. Sacks and his colleagues aimed to explore the neurology underlying this trans\ue001ormation.
Translating an object in the outside world into a visual perception involves an extremely complex series o\ue001 events. The optic nerves carry impulses relating to light \ue001rom the eyes to the primary visual cortex o\ue001 the cerebral cortex. Here, in a cell cluster known as V1, wavelength-sensitive cells use this input to extract data on basic vision, such as motion, \ue001orm, and texture. This data is sent up to the secondary visual cortex, and more speci\ue000cally, a cell cluster known as V4, or the \u201ccolor center.\u201d Color-coding cells in this cluster correlate the input data with colors; a new level o\ue001 perception is thus enabled. The data is then sent on its way to the hippocampus \ue001or memory storage, the limbic system and amygdale \ue001or association with emotion, and other parts o\ue001 the cerebral cortex. The result is a perception that is an integration o\ue001 \ue001orm, motion, and color and is tied to memory and emotions.
vision is essentially experienced as an output o\ue001 the primary visual cortex. Wavelength data without integration o\ue001 color has been described as unbearably ugly. This artist initially perceived objects as having \u201cdirty\u201d textures and harsh contrast. Writes Dr. Sacks: \u201cFor us, the output o\ue001 V1 is unimaginable, because it is never experienced as such and is immediately shunted on to a higher level, where it is \ue001urther processed to yield the perception o\ue001 color. Thus the raw output o\ue001 V1 never appears in awareness \ue001or us.\u201d In other words, we are, ironically, so \u201cblinded\u201d by color that we do not perceive deeper layers o\ue001 tonality and texture. What is remarkable is that this painter came to embrace his new world o\ue001 V1, seeing and producing paintings rich in a new depth o\ue001 pattern. With the door o\ue001 color closed, a \u201cwhole new world\u201d opened to him. The cortex virtually rewired itsel\ue001 to create new memories and emotional associations with the new colorless world .
The rewiring o\ue001 the brain in response to damage in a speci\ue000c area is the well-documented, albeit poorly understood, phenomenon o\ue001 neuroplasticity. We\u2019ve all heard that blind individuals somehow \u201ccompensate\u201d \ue001or their lack o\ue001 sight with intensi\ue000ed hearing and touch. A\ue001ter all, with the bene\ue000t o\ue001 sight it is hard to imagine the \ue000ne tactile distinctions necessary to read Braille, yet the brains o\ue001 blind individuals are somehow rewired to make this possible. This has been con\ue000rmed by studies indicating increased blood fow in the visual cortex o\ue001 blind people
Just as the brain learns to
compensate for a loss in one
area by heightened sensations in
another, we can all learn that
when one door closes, it is only
so that another one will open.
while reading Braille. To \ue001ully appreciate how phenomenal this is, it has to be understood that the visual and tactile regions o\ue001 the cerebral cortex are entirely distinct. Their respective outputs are independently sent to levels higher in the cerebral cortex, where they will later merge to provide an integrated perception o\ue001 the outside world. Greater blood fow to the visual cortex while \ue001eeling Braille is clear indication that new relationships were somehow \ue001orged between the visual and tactile centers . Studies have also shown a similar phenomenon with the auditory center. In one study, an array o\ue001 small speakers was assembled in a room. Both blind and blind\ue001olded, sighted individuals were asked to point to the sources o\ue001 various sounds. The blind individuals \ue001ared better, and it was suggested that brain plasticity accounted \ue001or reorganization o\ue001 the visual cortex into a center that processes auditory messages .
Just as the brain learns to compensate \ue001or a loss in one area by heightened sensations in another, we can all learn that when one door closes, it is only so that another one will open. Loss o\ue001 ability in one sense opens us to tap in to new potential that may have otherwise \ue001orever lain dormant.
I\ue001 we think about what in\ue001uses our daily li\ue001e with spirituality and a chance to connect with G-d, we probably will think o\ue001 prayer. As Jews, as human beings, we melt ourselves into the prayer\ue001ul experience. The synagogue is the center o\ue001 the Jewish community, and we assemble regularly to pray together. There is a daily structure that we are all accustomed to and must arrange our schedules to accommodate. It is thus incredible to think that prayer did not always occupy such a central place in Jewish li\ue001e; \ue001or much time it was peripheral, overshadowed by a di\ue001\ue001erent experience: the world o\ue001korbanot, sacri\ue000ces.
WhenAv o t 1:2 teaches that the \u201cworld stands on three things: Torah, avodah \u2013worship-, and acts o\ue001 kindness,\u201dRashi andRambam identi\ue001yavodah as re\ue001erring to the worship o\ue001 sacri\ue000ces.Rabbeinu Yonah writes that in our time, since the Temple was destroyed and we can no longer worship G-d through the means o\ue001 sacri\ue000ces, ouravodah is our prayer. We see how prayer replaced sacri\ue000ces \ue001rom the Talmud in
prayminchah, the a\ue001ternoon prayer, until evening because theminchah o\ue001\ue001ering could be brought until evening. The Talmud continues, explaining the time \ue001rame o\ue001 each o\ue001 our
daily and \ue001estival prayers as derived \ue001rom the corresponding sacri\ue000cial o\ue001\ue001erings. From here we learn the \ue001amous principal explained byRambam, that the set prayers were established by the sages to correspond to the biblically ordained order o\ue001 the sacri\ue000ces . Our prayers are all we have le\ue001t. Indeed, the Talmud inTa a n i t 2a identi\ue000es the phrase \u201cavodah o\ue001 the heart\u201d in the Torah as re\ue001erring to prayer. I\ue001 we still had the Temple, our primaryavodah would still be through sacri\ue000ces, and prayer, the more hidden avenue o\ue001 worship, would never have been \ue001ully explored and given the \ue001ull expression we experience today. It is as i\ue001 we have experienced a national spiritual plasticity, a rewiring o\ue001 our worshipping machinery, to uncover a bottomless wellspring o\ue001 prayer.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook wrote that the destruction o\ue001 the Beit HaMikdash changed our nation in another way. Israel o\ue001 the \ue000rst Temple era was a national people. As inkorbanot, the \u201cradiance\u201d and communal spiritual experience o\ue001 the nation shadowed the private spiritual experience. Rav Kook notices that the Bible rarely alludes to an a\ue001terli\ue001e, while the Mishnah, which was compiled post-Biblically, exhibits a virtual explosion o\ue001 explicit re\ue001erences. (A good example isAv o t 4:21: \u201cThis world is like a passageway to the next world.\u201d) The a\ue001terli\ue001e, being an article o\ue001 our \ue001aith  was certainly not invented in the time o\ue001 the Mishnah, rather it was given new emphasis. Rav Kook suggests that the \u201croots o\ue001 individual religious consciousness\u201d were born \ue001ollowing the destruction o\ue001 the Temple and its concomitant sense o\ue001 national glory. The \ue001ocus was shi\ue001ted \ue001rom national attainment to individual \ue001ul\ue000llment, and thus the individual became concerned with his own soul\u2019s journey . This internal shi\ue001t is also evidenced by the transition \ue001rom the Temple-era experience o\ue001 prophecy to the post-Biblical situation o\ue001 having Torah study dominated by Oral Law; G-d\u2019s will is no longer received externally by a prophet, but must be revealed internally through personal intellectual study o\ue001 Torah. The Talmud in Bava Batra 12a states: chacham adi\ue000 m\u2019navi, the scholar is better than the prophet. Were we still in a state o\ue001 prophecy, the development o\ue001 the Oral Law would never have been possible .
I am awed by the depths o\ue001 personal spirituality that our historical shi\ue001ts have granted us, and how we see this lesson taught by the very cells o\ue001 the human body. May G-d grant us the wisdom to uncover hidden potential in any situation that li\ue001e may bring us.
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