Health, Harmony and Judaism



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Jewish Spirituality and Health

by Yechezkel Gold

Health means integration and harmony. All parts of our body -indeed, all elements of our being - are interconnected. Rabbi Dov Ber Shneuri wrote that malfunction in one part of the body afflicts the entire person: localized pain causes the whole individual to be in pain, suffering and perhaps unable to concentrate. Impairment of vital organs - brain, heart, liver, etc. - dramatically influences the whole. Even imbalance in more peripherally important organs - such as a burn on the elbow - may interfere with sleep and make the person fuzzy and irritable. Concomitantly, emotional tension and other psychological difficulties can distress organic functioning as well.

Jewish mysticism approaches health holistically. The soul, the psyche, and the body are all aspects of the same thing. Indeed, the healthy individual's view of reality is unified with the universe with all of its spiritual worlds as well as the physical domain and functions integrally as a part of it.

This is not to say that Jewish mysticism is unaware of the separateness of the individual components of reality. It is well cognizant of existence of individual selves. Jewish mysticism recognizes and affirms the great value of cultivating individual specialness. However, this great value accrues when individual specialness is harmoniously integrated with the whole. This is so regarding individual organs vis-a-vis the body and regarding individual souls vis-a-vis the entire spiritual and physical universe. Primary focus on the individual's concerns is most commonly associated with the evil inclination.

The sefira associated with health is tif'eress. Thus, the Divine Name that Cabalists intend in the benediction for health in the Amida prayer relates to tif'eress. Tif'eress denotes beauty. Beauty is achieved through elegantly combining disparate and opposing elements, arriving at a balance through access to a truth deeper than, and yet common to, the disparate elements. The resulting integration attains a stability and depth the individual components lack. Thus, health is an elegant balance of disparate elements integrated through connection with a deeper, underlying reality.

The classical opposition of elements resolved by tif'eress is between chesed and gevura. Chesed means kindness. Associated with the right (or more dextrous) hand, it denotes love, comfort, tolerance and natural spontaneity. The extreme of chesed lacks boundaries and form. Gevura means power. Associated with the left (or less dextrous) hand, it denotes fear, sternness, exacting caution and constraint. The extreme of gevura takes too much account of external standards and of others; it is rigid and unnatural.

The Mishna in " The Ethics Of The Fathers " says the proper way a person should live is to be " a tif'eress to its doer and tif'eress to him from people ". That is, a healthy life integrates spontaneous self-determination with taking proper and responsible account of others. This is not simply the ability to employ chesed and gevura, however. Like chesed and gevura, tif'eress is a Divine emotional attribute its own right manifested within the human psyche. We feel the beauty, refinement and depth of tif'eress, not just the balance. It is an exquisite sensitivity and awe, a delicate self transcendence openly and joyfully involved with life, with the moment. Tif'eress is actively and genuinely living a life imbued with carefully considered and profoundly cherished ideals.

This ability to integrate disparate elements by having them serve as vehicles for transmitting profoundly experienced ideals and insights is artistic genius. Composers convey emotions or impressions through sound, artists portray the inner character of their subjects, poets, whose words evoke an atmosphere quite beyond the simple meaning of their words, all share a modicum of the genius we are able to infer to exist in the creation. The creation is a vehicle for revealing the Creator's inspiring intent. Tif'eress is the sefira joining the various elements of spiritual reality and in particular integrating the upper and lower realms. Reflecting creative genius, it brings about spiritual health.

Thus, tif'eress is the way of life in which sublime inspiration and profound insight find expression in the affairs of men. Tif'eress is the source of Torah which connects our daily activities and goals to the innermost levels of the soul. To achieve this delicate integration, the soul's beauty needs a fitting vehicle, one which preserves its unique inner character while affording it authentic expression to the outside. This is mankind's archetypical life mission.

Thus, the Torah relates that God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, whose character our inner soul reflects. His mission was "to work it and to guard it". Torah is the means for us to reenter the Garden of Eden. The "work" is to express the soul's inner beauty through the active commandments in outer reality while "guarding" through the commandments forbidding unseemly behavior that the more mundane character of outer reality not spoil the soul's inner specialness.

The soul's inner beauty and the commandments as the means of expressing and preserving that inner being together constitute tif'eress. In general, the commandments - actively doing God's will and refraining from what opposes His will - elicit and reveal the inner aspect of beauty. This relationship is symbolically expressed by the commandment of sitting in the Succah.

The Succah defines a space within which we sit. Its walls both create a space and shut out what belongs outside. This is like the positive and negative commandments that respectively engender a particular space of reality while eliminating those parts of life that are spiritually undesirable. The space so defined is the choicest and most beautiful segment of reality. Thus, those who sit in the Succah are the chosen.

Likewise, waving the four species of the lulav in the six directions around the heart, south, north, east, upward, downward and west, defines a space. Perhaps the space created by waving the lulav expresses the inner beauty issuing spontaneously from the heart while the space created by the Succah, a bigger and more objectively delineated area, defines a more heavenly, sublime beauty, tif'eress of the supernal sefiros. Many Hasidim combine the two by being particular to wave the lulav inside the Succah.

The parameters and boundaries of this particular space - the Torah and commandments - may seem arbitrary, but they create, define and elicit inner beauty. Indeed, although beautifying the performance of God's commandments is always meritorious, it is particularly emphasized regarding the commandments of Succot.

The soul's holistic health and inner beauty are a state of joyful transcendence integrated with involvement with the affairs of life. For many of us, much of life is uncomfortable, reluctant drudgery. We do because we feel we must. Underlying our feeling is fear. Fear derives from being overly impressed by and dedicated to external matters. This insidious process banishes the soul's holistic health and inner beauty.

For example, many people take mundane logic so seriously that they dismiss Torah and its commandments because they cannot prove their validity. They regard the Commandments as arbitrary. As a result, they deny themselves the experience of spiritual health and inner beauty contained in this Godly, sacred framework. In fact, the Commandments' arbitrariness communicates its transcendent character. Torah is not a mundane viewpoint but rather centers around a Divine transcendent inner-ness that requires no external validation. Its prohibitions prevent superficiality from extinguishing this transcendent, joyful, holistic spiritual health while its active injunctions integrate and express this glad inner beauty in all of life's affairs.

Living a genuine Torah life, carefully observing God's commandments, openly and sincerely exploring the depths of Torah, and experiencing standing before God in prayer brings ever increasing awareness of this jo, transcendent reality. It becomes part of, indeed central to oneself, to the experience of life.

As we discussed above, tif'eress is the sefira associated with holistic, spiritual health, ingeniously integrating glad, transcendent inner beauty with the affairs of this world through Torah life. Tif'eress is associated with the Patriarch Jacob. The sages tell us that God blessed Jacob with a limitless portion in his dream with the ladder. That is, through the creative integration achieved by Torah, by tif'eress, all of reality is permeated with glad, transcendent inner beauty. Without Torah, this transcendent joy would hover over and around the created world, a dim, perhaps totally unconscious awareness of our deepest hopes, of how things should be.

We understand that Torah's forbidding certain thoughts and actions, too, imbues all of the creation with glad, transcendent inner beauty. At first glance, it may be difficult to understand how restraining oneself from prohibitions integrates and merges the lower realms, the site of the prohibition, with the glad, limitless transcendence of the upper realms. We might think the opposite is true, that self restraint interferes with transcendent inner beauty. And if the forbidden action would block the transcendent inner beauty, it is difficult to understand how self restraint would create this harmonious experience.

In fact, only transgressing destroys merger of the upper and lower worlds. Transgressions are incompatible with transcendent, inner beauty. However , the occasion of choosing between the commandment and the sin, between transcendence and spiritual unhealth, is a state of potential, not actuality. Virtually all of us are tempted sometimes. A person heeding the commandment to refrain from sin converts the potential for sin from a negativistic, insidious trap to an occasion for affirming the transcendent, inner beauty. Thereby, potential for sin too becomes integrated with transcendent spirituality.

Difficulty relating to prohibitions in a positive light began with Adam and Eve. They were forbidden to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Being the direct product of God's hands and living in the Garden of Eden, their spontaneous impulses were favorable and good. The prohibition to eat the forbidden fruit was designed to bring a still higher level: awareness of God, of a power above, greater and more important than themselves. Respecting God's command would have elevated them to awareness of transcendent inner beauty which they would have naturally expressed but it required an effort to go beyond themselves, to recognize a reality more sublime than their ability to grasp spontaneously. Indeed, accepting authority is difficult for all. Adam and Eve refused God's commandment just as we tend to rebel against God's prohibitions. They lost the opportunity to reveal the transcendent inner beauty and were banished from the Garden of Eden.

Banishment from the Garden of Eden was something like the present exile, removal from God's presence. We might ask how this could be possible since " the whole land is filled with His glory." The answer is that we are no longer able to perceive God's presence. Godliness permeates all of reality but we are largely oblivious of this. Through the sin, man changed.

We all are capable of perceiving God in our lives. This must be our ideal if we truly want closeness to God. It requires willingness and effort to live in a Godly world. Actively living this ideal means believing and assuming that all that occurs is from God, is meaningful and for the best, and undertaking to act in each situation according to the ideal. God's will, the Torah, is the ideal. It is objective: a balance of love and fear, of joy and dread, of self interest and self denial. The ideal is tif'eress, the ultimate realism. Living the ideal brings God into our lives.

The Torah's holistic, balanced approach is quite different from how most people live, particularly in the age of democracy, psychology and evolutionary theory. The latter grasp of reality assumes a struggle between the self and the outside and evaluates life according to the self's success in overcoming the outside. The individual is the center, measured by achievement, intellect, control, wealth, popularity, strength and force of personality. What the individual has not achieved is considered a certain failure.

The Torah's approach is quite different. Individual success is far less important than harmonious integration with God and His spiritual and physical creation. It means a respectful, open attitude towards all predicated upon reverential love for the entirety: holistic integration. One need not control or achieve greatly. That would only accentuate the individual's isolation from God and the universe. Instead, honest humility and accepting the reality that God is ungraspable and infinite and one's capacity to influence the course of events is somewhat limited brings release from bondage to the self.

Thereby , one feels the universe's true, underlying spirit. God is revealed in sublime, transcendent inner beauty when we refrain from exaggeratedly asserting the self, accepting and respecting what is outside and beyond us. This is the Torah's approach, tif'eress, balancing love and fear, living the prohibitions as well as the active injunctions which holistically integrate sublime, ungraspable transcendence and daily life.

Psalms 119 contrasts the self's limitations with Commandments' transcendence in the verse "To every (yearned for) goal I beheld a limit; Your Commandment is extremely broad". Mystical texts explain that yearned for goals originate in a more superficial level of the individual's functioning than the commandments. Goals derive from chesed, love and/or gevura, fear, both aspects of the personality intently focused on the outside for the purposes of the finite self. Approaching the goal is a means to an end, not an end in its own right. A non transcendent way of being, it conceals sublime inner beauty. The commandments, however, and even the means to perform the commandments, are an end in their own right. They are not a goal for the self to attain but rather a spontaneous, transcendent, ungraspable process expressing sublime, Infinite Godliness. The commandments are not discreet, graspable points, the focus of self interest. Rather, their character is selflessness, open innocence, purity and true objectivity. This is the meaning of the phrase (Psalms 119) "Your commandment is extremely broad".

A selfless attitude toward the commandments is eminently fitting, as it is the manner in which the true character of the commandments is manifested. One sees oneself as a mere vehicle for the sublime inner beauty the commandments express. Otherwise, we distort the commandments, subjectively rendering them graspable matters of self-interest and hiding the Godliness they contain.

Freeing the individual from the hold of finite self is a wonderful, pleasureful release that brings him into contact with transcendence and sublime inner beauty. It is the spiritual Garden of Eden. At the very center - the core - of the garden grew the Tree Of Life (Ramban). The very center is tif'eress, perfectly, calmly balanced and objective, innocent and open. It is transcendent and eternal. Torah is called the Tree Of Life.

Adam's sin was to ingest the fruit of the tree of knowledge which was situated off-center in the garden according to Rambam. This replaced open, objective innocence with sophisticated self interest. The Book of Proverbs states: "God created mankind straight and they sought out abundant schemes." The result was that mankind felt exaggerated responsibility and personal threat. This brought worry, distraction, and the feeling of lacking.

This exaggeration meant man could no longer be himself. He had to live up to a higher, unrealistic standard considerably beyond his grasp or he felt doomed. The spontaneous, natural expression of transcendent inner beauty was thwarted by the need man felt to control and attain.

In the Amida benediction where wask God to return us to him, we say: " Bring us back, our father, to your Torah and bring us close, our King, to your service. " Torah study brings us all the way back to intimacy with God, so he is called our father there. Serving God requires effort, though. We must go outside and beyond ourselves somewhat. Thus, we view God as our King whom we must serve. When we view our goal and task from an exaggerated perspective of the self, we are distant from God. In that state we tend to set exaggerated goals for ourselves. When they prove to be beyond our grasp we worry. The burden of responsibility weighs too heavily upon our shoulders. We feel lacking. Distraction is the result. From the balanced, holistic, and openly objective approach emanating from our transcendent, inner beauty, though, we are close to divine service. We ask to be returned to that state.

The Talmud says that a Torah sage does not look beyond his own four cubits. We are reminded of another Talmudic expression, "the 4 cubits of the Law". That is, the Torah sage is fully engrossed in the Torah and in the world around him without departing from harmonious, transcendent integration.

Ability to do this derives from profoundly loving and trusting God. It is not self confidence in the usual meaning of the word. The sage does not place his trust in himself for that would be a superfluous and erroneous step which would interfere with holistic integration. Rather, he admits his weaknesses and relies on God and the Torah.

Relinquishing self-centeredness and admitting one's own weakness is the way to experience God's goodness. The verb hod in Hebrew has two meanings: to admit and to thank. By admitting one's own human, fault prone character one becomes aware of God's kindness and greatness. Deeply appreciating this brings one to thank G-d.


from the June 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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