Friday, February 24, 2017

Just Can't Wait to be King

What do you think of when you think about the glory of a king? Probably about the luxuries of royalty, a private chauffeur, the finest delicacies, honor, women, and, of course, the royal crown. Well, the Gemara Brachos (17a) has a different idea of what comes along with a crown: "Rav used to always say, the world to come is not like this world. In the world to come there will be no eating, no drinking, no reproduction, and no business dealings" and then he continues "rather, the Tzadikim will sit with crowns on there heads and take pleasure (and sustenance) from the radiance of Hashem's presence." Very nice Rav, but do I still get a chauffeur?

Obviously, Rav sees something in the concept of a crown that we're not getting. A crown is not something that happens to be associated with being a king because of some historical fashion fluke that caught on. A crown is part of the very definition of being king. In Kabbalah, their are ten levels of creation, or of Hashem's expression (and therefore, also the expression of Man who is created in the image of G-d). They are called Sefiros. The bottom Sefirah is called מלכות Kingship, or royalty, while the top is called כתר, crown. מלכות, being at the bottom is always receiving a flow from above, while כתר is the original, unbridled expression. Interestingly enough, every set of ten sefiros is followed by another set, in a long chain of expression from on high all the way down. The bottom sefira of the higher chain (מלכות) is also the top sefira of the bottom chain (כתר). In other words, every כתר is also מלכות.
Lehavdil, if you remember the scene from the movie Inception, where they walk up the stairs and as soon as they get to the top they're at the bottom again... That phenomenon that we experience in our dreams is actually a very really part of the way the world works spiritually. (Penrose Stairs)

A true king is someone who's entire identity is a ruler of his people. The role he takes on is much greater than his own personal life, even if his personal qualities make hime suitable for the job. He wears a crown, which lays on top of his head, but does not surround his head like a hat, because the fact that he is living for something beyond his own existence is what makes him king. The crown is higher than him. But its a paradox - because he nullifies himself to the crown, he actually elevates himself and becomes royalty and honored by everyone. He makes himself a receptacle (מלכות), for the higher purpose of his role (כתר).

Every person has the sense that there is something about him that is not from him. Its the experience of this paradox, that I am something more than just what I am for myself. That's what Rav is talking about. A Tzadik is someone who lives for this higher part of himself, the part that connects him to something much greater than what he is for himself. And that is what gives him the greatest pleasure and vitality. Rav is saying that there will come a time when the true nature of a Tzadik will be revealed, and we'll see that their creative energy, their life force doesn't come from gratifying their personal desires at all. It comes from wearing a crown like a king.

The Rabbi's say, the servant of the King is a king. I think they were also hinting at this idea. When a person subjugates himself entirely to the higher part of himself, the part that wants to give, that wants his lower self to follow his higher self, he becomes identified with the crown that he is serving, and that becomes the real 'him'! May we merit to see this reality come to be, both internally, and revealed in the world we can see with our eyes, speedily in our days.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Purpose, Complacency, and Anxiety.

The notion that our technology and sociological advancement provide us comfort and independence is foreign to the Torah world-view. In fact, comfort itself can be anti-advancement.

When the Jews left the slavery of Egypt, they were leaving behind both the bonds of physical labor and the burden of an anti-spiritual world-view. Even the word for Egypt, מצרים comes from the word for narrow, צר, which also means suffering. The whole society was built on physicality without respect for intimate relationships, and worship of physical representations of spiritual ideas. The way this nature was established as its foundation was through the source of its livelihood: the Nile. The Nile was the sole source of irrigation in a primarily agricultural society. Everything depended on the Nile. Unlike in the land of Israel, where people depended mostly on rain, Egypt didn't have to turn to the heavens for life. שאו מרום עיניכם וראו מי ברא אלה, "Lift your eyes upwards and see who created these" (Isaiah 40, 26). They were comfortable, and their comfort kept them in their narrow world view, never thinking about where life comes from and what they could do to bring it down. Leaving the Egyptian mentality required the Jews to journey into the dessert without provisions and to depend entirely on sustenance from heaven. That was the only way they could begin to see things the way G-d sees them.

You also see this idea on a more individual level. King David said שמרני כאישון בת עין "Guard me like the pupil of the eye" (Tehillim 17,8). The Midrash explains Davids request in a metaphor, like two people, one from the north traveling south, and one from the south traveling north, asking each other to guard each other's vineyards. The Maharal explains (Nesiv HaTorah 16), just like each person has something precious that is far away from him, every Jew has a soul that is too spiritual to really belong in this physical world. That's why a person feels like he needs special protection. Just like the pupil of an eye is extra sensitive because of its refined quality, so too the soul feels vulnerable because it doesn't really belong in this world in the first place! This feeling, if it is directed properly, catalyzes a person to strengthen his relationship with Hashem through Torah and Mitzvos. It pushes him to recognize that the only reason his lofty soul is enduring in this physical world is so that he can acquire the goodness of a relationship with Hashem. But when he ignores this feeling of vulnerability, he can ignore the higher part of himself and just go along his merry way without ever getting beyond the surface. Or, he could stay in a kind of middle ground, where he doesn't totally ignore it, but also doesn't open up to see things differently - and that's where you find anxiety. Its the place between sublime calmness of purpose and the complacency of ignorance is bliss. 

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Anxiety and Vitality

The standard way to think about anxiety probably goes back to the idea of "fight or flight." It means when we encounter a threat, we instinctually release hormones that prepare us to solve the problem by either fighting or running away. This phenomenon has been observed and empirically tested in many ways, and is also in line with common experience. I'd like to suggest an alternative, Torah way of understanding what it means, and perhaps where it comes from.

The running theory of where it comes from is that way back in the day, humans lived under conditions under which the fight or flight response was very useful. It was not uncommon to encounter mortal threats. Nowadays, our living conditions are much more advanced and controlled, and the fight or flight response is a vestige of our evolutionary heritage, but is of little use to us. In fact, it is harmful, seeing as prolonged stress can be deleterious for health and well-being.

In the Torah, the concept of life is much broader than the animalistic picture of survival of the fittest. For example, it says that the righteous are alive even in their deaths, and the wicked are dead even in their life-times. A person can be alive in a circumstantial way, merely in the sense that he happens to have a heart that's pumping. Or, he can be alive in the sense that he is always making himself into something which is flowing forward with vitality. When the talmud wants to say that both sides of an argument are true, it says אלו ואלו דברי אלוקים חיים (these and these are words of living G-d). To say that the words are an expression of life is a way of saying they are true because when something clicks and works with a bigger picture of reality it propels you forward and catalyzes you. A person that has this quality isn't alive because someone gave birth to him - he's alive because he is creating himself, and no one can take that away.

Everyone relates to this higher ideal of what "life" is on some level. That's why as we go through the vicissitudes of life we experience anxiety. We feel something doesn't click, something is taking away our ability to be alive. Depending on how we understand what being alive means, we may think about it in more physical or more spiritual terms and experience different things as threats. Very great people have reached hights where even literal threats to their physical lives were not as frightening as the possibility of turning away from the living G-d.

Unfortunately, we develop a very narrow picture of what it means to be vital, and we experience things as threats that really aren't. I'll explain more in the following posts, G-d willing, but in short, the process of overcoming anxiety has to do with addressing what seems like it doesn't click with our view of a meaningful big picture, and coming to see how it is really דברי אלוקים חיים.