Spirituality, Belief and Celebration

    March 2010            
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Believing and Celebration

By Yechezkel Gold

How can we deem a religion and a life - based on commandments celebration? Do we not tend to resent being told what to do, especially when it is difficult? On top of that, the Bible even abjures us to praise God! This includes texts we are bid to recite each day! These texts are clearly inspired, but how can we celebrate meaningfully simply on command? Similar to this is Maimonides' query how there can be a commandment to love God; is love something we can turn on and off? Besides, has Jewish history been a joyous romp through the ages?

Psalms 146 begins "Halleluya! Praise God, O my soul! I will praise God with my life and sing to him with my utmost!" The entire prayer section called pesukai dezimra, as well as other portions, is devoted to singing God's praises each morning. We welcome each Sabbath with other Psalms in a similar vein. Sabbath arrives regardless of our circumstances [Pesachim chapter 10], obligating us to delight spiritually and materially. How can that be? Nevertheless, this approach is codified in halacha, the literature of Jewish law. Examining some fundamental issues of the Torah approach to life can shed light on these questions.

The BaHaG, a very early medieval codifier from Babylon, observed and opined that if we do not already believe in God, it does not make sense to command us to do so. He considered the very notion of commandment to be premised on there being a priori belief. However, Maimonides, Nachmanides and other authorities consider belief in God to be a commandment as well. They hold this way despite BaHaG's earlier opinion. If so, how do Maimonides and Nachmanides think about the nature of commandments so that it is logical that God command us to believe in Him, too? Does this apply to the commandment to love God, to praising Him and to delighting in the Sabbath?

Living a Torah life is somewhat like following a recipe. You put in the correct ingredients in the right proportions and it comes out delicious. Follow the commandments and it comes out Godly celebration! Honor the Sabbath and it comes out Godly. Indeed, the holy Zohar, core book of Jewish mysticism, calls the commandments "counsels", advice how to achieve genuine closeness with God.

Believing in God is a credo, a conviction that God is good and that the reality He created is meaningful, that in the end all will come out for the best [Messiah]. It is a directive to look at every occurrence spiritually, to see the good and the Godly in it and to become excited about the privilege of expressing that Godliness through one's life and especially through performing the commandments. So, the commandment and counsel is to believe in God, to celebrate life in the way that this credo fashions our reality. Thus, the Psalm [97] states: "God is King, the earth shall rejoice!" This idea can explain Maimonides' and Nachmanides' reasoning. When you follow the directive to believe, you enter the realm of celebration. Moreover, we understand intuitively that to live life in that manner is even a moral obligation: the opportunity and privilege of life deserve celebration.

The Talmud discusses the notion of a flying tower [prescient of airplanes?]. The Baal Shem Tov related to this mystically [in Tzavaat haRivash]: Spirituality [bina] is like a flying tower. A spiritual flying tower remains stably above and independent of the ground, requiring no basis or grounding in the physical realm. Similarly, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, in his classic work, Tanya, interprets the Prophet Zacharia's vision of a flying scroll [which the sages explained to be the Torah] as a reality above circumstance: it is absolute and does not change according to fashion and the winds of ideology. Living the Torah means centering life in that flying tower, being connected to God and exulting, and celebrating Him and, hence, reality, His creation, regardless of external circumstance. It is unconditional joy. The commandment to do so renders this possible because commandments are absolutes. While application of other commandments may vary with circumstance [such as when life is threatened], one must never surrender belief in God.

This does not mean ignoring what happens around us. It means facing reality, including dealing with practical issues in a manner consistent with halacha, from the base of a profoundly, unflinchingly positive perspective that refuses to be crushed or grounded: a flying tower above and independent of changing circumstance. It means optimism and discovering the spiritual good in each occurrence and unconditional determination to realize the potential good in each situation, to elevate one's corner of the world to a higher level.

Indeed, that is what life fundamentally is. This is something all living things have in common, each in its own fashion. Even plants organize the inert raw materials of this world to fashion a higher level. Animals actively change their environment to accommodate their implicit picture of a better world. We living beings do not content ourselves with living with the status quo; we humans work to have a more comfortable house, better food, recreation and all of the "good things in life" because that is part of the inner character and meaning of life: active devotion to something higher and better than what there is now. We seek pleasure, celebration. These are prosaic expression of the flying tower. However, often this effort is misplaced, narrow and selfish. True reality true celebration is in living a Godly life as the righteous person does.

This is not simply a natural personality trait. Mere self-confidence is a relative, personal matter. Belief is different. It is connection to an absolute reality independent of self. It means taking a joyful stance toward life, not worried and obsessed with self-aggrandizement. Life is serious if it is not worth taking seriously, how could a person be happy? But concomitantly, it is spiritual delight. The commandment to believe elevates the natural potential we have in us to be positive about life to celebrate life and transforms it into an absolute ideal, into something holy.

A word about spiritual delight: The story is told about a man skeptical about the notion of righteousness. He arranged for an interview with a famous Rabbi and accosted him: "It seems to me that to be righteous is a type of self-indulgence just like any other". The Rabbi responded: "Quite true. In fact, it is the ultimate delight, except that in order to attain it one must relinquish the baser pleasures."

How can we glimpse something of that reality? Here is an illustrative anecdote. Reb Itzik'l from Pschevortz [and later, Antwerp] was already a famous Rabbi when the German forces entered Poland in World War II. His followers wanted to arrange his escape, but the Rabbi refused. With his extensive contacts, he would be able to arrange for many people to escape and survive. Not until forced to conclude that there was nothing further he could do did he agree to save his own life, after he had organized the escape of several thousand people!

Reb Itzik'l certainly could not have physically enjoyed that grim work. But the spiritual delight of having had the privilege of saving thousands of innocent lives is surely unsurpassed. Nor is this a matter of ultimate reward in heaven. The sages taught: "[Antigonus, the man from Soho ] was accustomed to say: Be not like servants who serve the Master for the sake of receiving recompense, but rather be like servants who serve the Master not for the sake of recompense." The privilege of saving those thousands of people is its own reward. Doing things like that is a spiritual celebration of life. Being a tzaddik, a righteous person, is spiritual pleasure and its own reward!

One can go further: The deeds and personages of the righteous demonstrate God's reality. True, logic and increasingly, the findings and theories of science -compel us to conclude that the universe has a beginning, and if so, there must be some cause of that beginning. The wonders of nature enthrall us, too. But to say that the main point of religion is that there is a Creator, a First Cause, is to miss the real content of Torah. Belief is steadfast connection to what Torah teaches us about God and reality. The best proof of God's reality and of Torah is the tzaddik whose life, deeds and personage radiate Godliness, whose love and active care for others, whose wisdom and exemplary personal qualities bespeak a reality far more genuine and important far more real - than the secular world's outlook.

Living according to the Torah like the tzaddik, according to a standard centered in a reality higher and better than this world that elevates and celebrates life, is its own truth. The Talmud relates that a non-Jew once challenged Rabbi Akiva about the covenant of circumcision. The man reasoned that if God wanted men to have no foreskin, He could have created them accordingly. Rabbi Akiva's answer compared circumcision to grinding wheat and making it into flour and bread. We would not say that if God wanted us to have bread He would have created it directly, and therefore settle for eating raw wheat. The same applies to circumcision.

Rabbi Akiva was not giving a simplistic explanation. Rather, he was explaining the difference between the challenger's premises and those of Torah. Circumcision is a covenant with God, committing us to His reality because Torah God's reality is more genuine and important, more real, than the material world. We strive to change and improve on nature through grinding wheat, through circumcision, through Torah and the commandments, because there is a higher, truer reality, and we strive to accommodate our world to that higher, spiritual realm. We do not simply resign ourselves and accept nature, such as by saying that famine and suffering are natural and inevitable. Intuitively we know that a reality an ideal exists that is truer and more real. This is the spiritual flying tower. The righteous person's life demonstrates and celebrates - that reality.

Let us examine what that means. Reality can be divided among different rungs. Physics distinguishes between a quantum reality of quarks, for example (or even smaller, as postulated in superstring theory), and that of atoms, then of molecules, as we enter the realm of chemistry. Each level, of which there are many more than enumerated here, has its own rules, its own nature. Many scientists hold that it is impossible to predict what sort of reality will emerge merely from knowing the rules of a more primitive level. Biology "rides" on top of physics and especially on top of chemistry. But could someone studying quarks or even chemistry - predict on the basis of that study that there will certainly be red oaks, fallow deer and salmon? Ethology and ecology are higher levels. For humans (and, arguably, for the entirety of the earth), psychology, sociology, economics and political science come next as levels of reality. In Jewish mysticism, too, spiritual reality has different levels. Moreover, one can distinguish between levels of theory and practice, ideal and practicality. If asked whether one level is more real than another, perhaps we might be tempted to answer affirmatively: surely, physics is more fundamental than biology, for example. That perspective is called materialism.

But Rabbi Akiva answered this question differently. Torah, the Godly level, is the most real, the true reality. The subject of charting our proper course in life, of good and bad, of values, of spirituality, is the true reality, upon which everything else should be, and spiritually speaking, really is, focused. Just as we do not resign ourselves to eating raw wheat because our values implicit or explicit - place human needs above the notion of not interfering with nature, so we circumcise our sons and heed the other commandments because they are the true standard, the highest value. The world even the course of nature needs fixing. The tzaddik demonstrates that truth.

People choose their reality. When we deviate from focus on higher reality, make no mistake we do so out of choice. We may pretend that our deeds are absolutely controlled by our nature and there is no free will, basing ourselves on some materialistic ideology, but this is a mere pretense to excuse not living on a higher rung. But choosing God and Torah is sublime.

The Zohar (Miketz, page 295) has a passage alluding to the Torah's point of view as opposed to a materialistic, nature-based perspective, as embodied by Pharoah. But first, this requires a short introduction to the concepts: The Bible refers to God with different names. Each name connotes a different manifestation of Godliness. In this passage, we encounter the ineffable name YHVH, generally called Hashem (i.e. the Name), connoting eternity, transcendence, ungraspable reality above the reality of creation. It is associated with the faculty of compassion, a manifestation of otherworldliness; the rules of nature are harsh and if the Torah did not mandate compassion, the weak would perish. The name Elokim, though, is the name employed in recounting the world's creation. It connotes stern judgment. The holy books tell us that the numerical value of Elokim is eighty six, the same as hateva which means nature, because nature is often harsh. Here is the passage from the Zohar:

Rabbi Aba said, come and behold that iniquitous man Pharoah who said (Exodus 5) "I do not know Hashem". Pharoah was smarter than all of his sorcerers, and certainly knew the name Elokim, as is written (as Pharoah exclaimed about Joseph): (Genesis 41) "Could we find such a man as he whom the spirit of Elokim is in him?" And since Moses came to him mentioning only the name of Hashem and not Elokim, it was most difficult for him (Pharoah) because he knew that this name (Elokim) rules the world (i.e. nature.) But he was unaware of the name Hashem and therefore he felt sorely confronted.

Moses referred to God only as the name Hashem to compel Pharoah to deal with a transcendent reality of God, not as part of nature. This is similar to the flying tower alluded to above, and it is the true basis for Torah and the commandments and, for that matter, for ethics. This was difficult for Pharoah to accept, since it is a reality beyond grasp. We might ask why Moses spoke about God only employing the name Hashem. From a simplistic point of view, clearly, God could have coerced Pharoah to release the People of Israel from their bondage by natural processes, represented by the name Elokim. But on a deeper level, the story of the exodus is the story of liberating the Godly spark within us, symbolically represented by the People of Israel, from the bondage of materialism, represented by Pharoah. For this to occur, acknowledging Godliness as represented by the name Hashem is the step necessary for enlightenment.

Enlightenment and liberation is not an all-or-nothing affair. True, a person must come to a general realization, and decide to insist on escaping from spiritual bondage. However, afterwards begins the process of progressively attaching the various parts of personality to God, thereby liberating them and achieving celebration.

Each basic aspect of every individual's personality can celebrate the life God gave us in its own unique way. Perhaps the dimension of personality most difficult to see as celebration is servitude. Most servitude is drudgery. Against our will, we submit to the demands of reality to compute and pay our taxes, wait on line, and contend with annoyances. These are all forms of servitude, and we each have an aspect of personality that reluctantly accepts the need to be servants at least part of the time. So each of us has a potential servant within us that can be used for God's service, but how is that cause for celebration?

Usually we associate servitude with relinquishing personal aggrandizement and pleasure. As well, the very notion of commandments implies something like servitude. Yet, the Torah calls Moses God's servant, and in the Sabbath morning prayer we say: Moses rejoiced in the gift of his portion, for You called him a faithful servant. Clearly, then, to be God's faithful servant is cause for rejoicing. This is as explained above: the commandment to believe in God is part of the recipe for spiritual celebration. Indeed, it is considered the most fundamental commandment and hence, the main ingredient. If we keep in mind that through the commandments we serve and are connected to God, the sense of privilege and spiritual awareness of closeness engenders true, meaningful delight. This sense of spiritual privilege and meaning operates on at least two basic levels.

The first level relates to people's scale of values. In the event of conflict between two different values, someone who functions properly will choose the one higher on the scale. When Godliness is the highest value, as it clearly should be, one rejoices to be able to serve Him despite renouncing other values and pleasures. True, to rejoice in this manner requires spiritual and emotional subtlety, but thinking out that the sacrifice is worth it helps tremendously in this regard. The sages said: "God wanted to give merit to the Jews. Therefore He gave them many Torah ideas and commandments." If we are constantly involved in practically applying our celebration of God and faith through living according to the Torah, we have a continuous source of joy.

Nevertheless, we often experience in our own Divine service, that even when deriving satisfaction from doing the right thing, we feel somewhat wistful about not having indulged ourselves. A second level of spiritual delight develops when in addition one rejoices specifically for the privilege of sacrificing for God. This is no simple matter, though.

Each commandment, including those that do not apply nowadays, has an eternal spiritual message that can be realized spiritually if not in practice. The sacrifices in the Holy Temple , where individuals willingly brought gifts to God at personal effort and expense, doubtless were accompanied by this form of spiritual satisfaction. The same applies today when we serve God with personal sacrifice. This highlights our especially sublime connection to God which is even more important to us than ourselves. A story from the Talmud (Berakhot 61b) illustrates this notion.

Once the wicked Government issued a decree forbidding the Jews to study and practice the Torah. Pappus ben Judah came and found Rabbi Akiba publicly gathering people and occupying himself with the Torah. He said to him: Akiba, are you not afraid of the Government? He replied: I will explain to you with a parable. A fox was once walking alongside of a river, and he saw fishes going in swarms from one place to another. He said to them: From what are you fleeing? They replied: From the nets cast for us by men. He said to them: Would you like to come up on to the dry land so that you and I can live together in the way that my ancestors lived with your ancestors? They replied: Art thou the one that they call the cleverest of animals? Thou art not clever but foolish. If we are afraid in the element in which we live, how much more in the element in which we would die! So it is with us. If such is our condition when we sit and study the Torah, of which it is written, For that is thy life and the length of thy days, if we go and neglect it how much worse off we shall be! It is related that soon afterwards R. Akiba was arrested and thrown into prison, and Pappus b. Judah was also arrested and imprisoned next to him. He said to him: Pappus, what brought you here? He replied: Happy are you, R. Akiba, that you have been seized for busying yourself with the Torah! Alas for Pappus who has been seized for busying himself with idle things!

Life, to be worth living, to be more than what nature provides, demands sacrifice. Serving God means celebrating, but other servitude is onerous. Do we busy ourselves and sacrifice - for Torah or for idle things?

Perhaps you, the reader, find yourself bemused. Part of you is drawn, even inspired by this approach to Torah. You are not alone. Something deep in our souls affirms this celebration and resonates with it. This is called the Godly soul. But part of us feels unable to live accordingly because it does not come naturally. Those are the feelings of the natural or animal soul. The Tanya teaches that the Godly soul resides in the mind and the natural soul in the heart. This is not to say that the Godly soul does not feel and the natural soul does not think. Rather, the Godly soul's premises and awareness are clear and objective and the animal soul is subjective and self centered. The Godly soul's feelings are more exalted and more absolute in short, celebration. The joy we have in profound thought, in flashes of insight, in plumbing the depths of Chassidic mysticism or Talmud, in discovering the spiritual truths and beautiful world conveyed by the words of Torah, is a different kind an objectively, buoyantly glad, even rapturous kind - of feeling. If you are intelligent and willing to connect yourself to the thoughts of Torah and to introspect, that world of celebration is accessible to you.


from the March 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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