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Inspiration and Disappointment
The natural pathway of all life experiences begins with inspiration and soon fades to disappointment. Let us analyze this phenomenon and understand it. Human consciousness and human senses are tuned to an initial burst of sensitivity and then rapidly decay into dullness. Sights, sounds, smells, even tactile stimuli are felt sharply at first and then hardly at all a constant sound is not registered; one suddenly becomes aware that it was present when it stops! We are incapable of maintaining the freshness of any experience naturally only in the dimension of miracle is that possible: the sacrificial bread in the Beis Hamikdash, the Temple, remained steaming fresh permanently to manifest the constant freshness of Hashem's relationship with the Jewish people. The natural pathway is that things which are fresh become stale.
One of the Torah sources for this idea lies in the sequence of events surrounding the exodus from Egypt. At an extremely low point in our history, during the intense misery of slavery in Egypt, literally at the point of spiritual annihilation, the Jewish people were uplifted miraculously. Ten plagues revealed Hashem's presence and might, culminating in a night of unprecedented revelation with the tenth. This spiritual high was amplified by many orders of magnitude at the splitting of the sea there the lowliest of the Jewish people experienced more than the highest prophet subsequently. And suddenly, once through the sea, they were deposited in a desert with many days of work ahead of them to climb to the spiritual status of meriting the Sinai experience, the giving of the Torah. Mystically, a desert means a place of intense death-forces, a place of lethal ordeals. No water means no life. (And we see later the potency of the ordeals which faced them in the desert.)* What is the meaning of this pattern? The idea is that in order to save the Jewish people in Egypt outside help was necessary. Hashem appeared and elevated us spiritually although we did not deserve it intrinsically, we had not yet earned it. But once saved,
" There are mystical sources which state that the plagues in Egypt were ten in number in order to destroy the ten dimensions of evil with which the Egyptians had "contaminated" the ten sayings of Creation (and hence occurred in reverse order: the Creation developed from an infinite point in concentric layers, as it were, and the plagues reversed this order to peel away the layers of impurity from the outside to arrive eventually at a pure center the first saying of Creation was "In the beginning"; the last plague was destruction of the firstborn, the manifestation of "firstness", of new creation; the second saying was "Let there be light"; the second-last plague was darkness! And these sources proceed to work out the entire sequence thus). However, in the desert the Jewish people faced ten trials, each representing a battle with one of the ten dimensions of evil on a cosmic scale, their challenge being to defeat all evil on their journey to holiness and thereby return the world to its perfection; had they succeeded they would have arrived at the borders of Israel able to usher in the final and permanent redemption with their entry into the Land. The desert, in other words, is the dimension of cosmically concentrated evil.
once inspired, once made conscious of our higher reality, the price must be paid, the experience must be earned, and in working to earn the level which was previously given artificially, one acquires that level genuinely. Instead of being shown a spiritual level, one becomes it.
And that is the secret of life. A person is inspired artificially at the beginning of any phase of life, but to acquire the depth of personality which is demanded of us, Hashem removes the inspiration. The danger is apathy and depression; the challenge is to fight back to the point of inspiration, and in so doing to build it permanently into one's character. The plagues in Egypt and the splitting of the sea are dazzling beyond description, but then Hashem puts us in the desert and challenges us to fight through to Sinai. In Egypt He demonstrates destruction of ten levels of evil while we watch passively; in the desert He brings ten levels of evil to bear against us and challenges us to destroy them.
This idea recurs everywhere. Pesach occurs in Nissan the zodiac of this month is the sheep, an animal which is passively led. Next comes Iyar the ox, an animal which has its own wilful strength. And thereafter comes Sivan twins, perfect harmony. It is like a father teaching his child to walk: first the father supports the child as he takes his first step, but then the father must let go; there is no other way to learn, and the child must take a frightened and lonely step unaided. Only then, when he can walk independently, can he feel his father's love in the very moment which previously felt like desertion.
Unfortunately most people do not know this secret. We are misled into thinking that the world is supposed to be a constant thrill and we feel only half-alive because it is not. Let us examine some applications of this fundamental principle.
In aggadic writings we are told that the unborn child is taught the whole Torah in the womb. An angel teaches him all the mysteries of Creation and all that he will ever need to know in order to reach perfection, his own chelek (portion) in Torah. A lamp is lit above his head, and by its light he sees from one end of the world to the other. As the child is born, however, the angel strikes him on the mouth and he forgets all that he has learned and is born a simple and unlearned baby. The obvious question is: why teach a child so much and then cause all the teaching to be forgotten?
But the answer is that it is not forgotten; it is driven deep into the unconscious. A person may be born with no explicit knowledge, but beneath the conscious surface, intact and rich beyond imagination, is all that one wishes to know1. A lifetime of hard work learning Torah and working on one's personality will constantly release, bring to consciousness, innate wisdom. Often when one hears something beautiful and true one has the sensation, not of learning something, but of recognizing something! A sensitive individual will feel intimations of his or her own deep intuitive level often.
The pathway is clear a person is born with a lifetime of work ahead, spiritual wisdom and growth are hard-earned. But the inspiration is within; you were once there! And that inner sense of inspiration provides the motivation, the source of optimism and confidence that genuine achievement is possible, even assured, if the necessary effort is made.
A second application: a characteristic feature of childhood, and relatively, of the teenage years, is inspired optimism and the lack of a sense of limitation. Children believe that they can become anything. The world is larger-than-life to a child, a child is not oppressed by a limited sense of what is possible. A child has simply to be exposed to almost any form of greatness (unfortunately, all too often physical and meaningless) to begin fantasizing about becoming or achieving that same thing.
However, later in life one is lucky to have any inspiration left at all. Many adults wonder why life seemed so rich when they were teenagers, why they could laugh or cry so richly, so fully, back then; and why life seems so flat (at best) now. But the idea is as we have described above. First comes a phase of unreal positivity, a charge of energy. And then life challenges one to climb back to real achievement independently.
A third application is to be found in the ba'al teshuva world (ba'al teshuva describes a person who has discovered a Torah-oriented way of life after living a more secular lifestyle). Many ba'alei teshuva experience an unexpected and disturbing letdown. Often the pathway is as follows. A young person discovers Torah, becomes inspired by a Torah teacher, and begins to study. Every Torah experience, whether in learning or in contact with the Orthodox world, is spectacular. Every text
* This also gives an insight into how a person can generate a chiddush (novel idea) in Torah. How can a human being originate Torah? Torah is a gift from a higher dimension, surely. But the answer is clear: a human being can bring original, genuine Torah into the world because it is contained within him already, at a level deeper than the conscious. All that is needed is to lower a bucket into the deep well of the neshama (soul) and draw that wisdom!
studied is alive with significance, every Shabbos experience is high, and there is a phase of euphoria. Somehow though, subtly, this changes and growth has to be sought. Learning may be very difficult. Often the difficulties seem to far outweigh the breakthroughs. Many are tempted not to persevere in learning. Of course this is exactly the way it must be, real growth in learning comes when real effort is generated. Just as physical muscle is built only against strenuous resistance, so too spiritual and personality growth is built only against equivalent resistance. A person who understands this secret can begin to enjoy the phase of work; a maturity of understanding makes clear that the first phase was artificial, it is the second phase which yields real development.
Perhaps the sharpest application of this idea in modem Western society is in marriage. Marriage today is to a large extent in ruins in the secular world. In many communities divorce is more usual than survival of marriage, and even in those marriages which do survive it is common to find much disharmony.
One of the prime factors in this disastrous situation is the lack of understanding of our subject. Marriage has two distinct phases: romance, and love. Romance is the initial, heady, illogical swirl of emotion which characterizes a new relationship and it can be extreme. Love, in Torah terms, is the result of much genuine giving. Love is generated essentially not by what one receives from a partner, but by the well-utilized opportunity to give, and to give oneself. The phase of romance very soon fades, in fact just as soon as it is grasped it begins to die. A spiritually sensitive person knows that this must be so, but instead of becoming depressed and concerned that one has married the wrong person, one should realize that the phase of work, of giving, is just beginning. The phase of building real love can now flourish. In fact, in Hebrew there is no word for "romance" in its depth it is an illusion. However, in the world of secular values, the first flash, the "quick fix", is everything. "Love" is translated as "romance" and when it dies, what is left? No-one has taught young people that love and life are about giving and building, and so the tendency is to give up and search for a "quick fix" elsewhere. Of course, the search must fail because no new experience will last. Understanding this well can make the difference between marital misery or worse and a lifetime of married happiness. Jewish marriage is carefully crafted to transition from initial inspiration, not to disappointment but to even deeper inspiration. The menstrual separation laws are just one example instead of allowing intensity to dull into tired familiarity, phases of separation generate new inspiration and the magic never fades.
* * *
In all these applications, and in fact in all of life, the challenge of the second phase is to remember the first, to remain inspired by that memory and to use it as fuel for constant growth. The Rambam describes life as a dark night on a stormy plain lashed by the rain, lost in the darkness, one is faced with despair. Suddenly, there is a flash of lightning. In a millisecond the scenery is as clear as day, one's direction obvious. But just as soon as it is perceived it disappears; and one must fight on through the storm with only the memory of that flash for guidance. The lightning lasts very briefly; the darkness may seem endless.
That is the pattern of life, short-lived inspiration and lengthy battles. The tools needed are determination, perseverance and a stubborn refusal to despair. Personal ordeals which make despair seem imminent are in reality a father's hands, withdrawn so that you can learn to walk. And the work of remembering the flash of light when it seems impossible is emuna, faith.
The third phase, and happy is the one who attains it while yet alive, is transcendence. It is a regaining of the level of the first phase, but now deserved, earned, and therefore far beyond it.
There is a statement of the Sages which describes the final transcendence, the transition from this world to the next, and it describes the angels which come to greet a person at that time. One of these angels comes to search out "Where is this person's Torah, and is it complete in his hand." The Gaon of Vilna points out, chillingly, that the higher being which asks this question is not a stranger. Suddenly one recognizes the very same angel with whom he learned Torah in the womb! And the question to be answered is: Where is that Torah which inspired you then? Have you brought it into the world and made it real? And can it now be called yours?
Let us look more closely at the transition from ordeal to deliverance. A most illuminating way to approach this subject is to understand the deeper meaning of laughter, for the mystical concept is that the response to deliverance from imminent disaster is the root of laughter.
To understand this we shall have to note a basic premise: the physical world is constructed on a root dimension of deeper forces. Everything in the world reflects its root in a higher level exactly. That is how we can have access to understanding the spiritual world: although we have no sense organs to apprehend it directly, we can grasp the nature of the physical world and then translate its structure, in every detail, to an understanding of the spiritual world. In fact, the only path to the spiritual is through the medium of the physical. Perhaps the most potent illustration of this idea lies in understanding the manner in which we relate to another human being. When someone does or says something significant or meaningful and you respond inwardly, emotionally, what you are conscious of is the appreciation of that person's attitude or feeling towards you and its effect on your relationship. What you are not conscious of is that person's lips moving or muscles twitching, which in fact is exactly what is happening in the physical world. In other words, we automatically translate the vehicle of the physical into its deeper meaning. One can access another person's mind or personality only by means of the physical vehicle of their body, and yet that access is achieved effortlessly and naturally.
The skill of spiritual living, of course, is to use that subtle and powerful "switching mechanism" always, in relation to everything in the physical world, and to inwardly perceive the deeper level and meaning behind all the world's objects and phenomena.
So if we wish to grasp a spiritual idea we must analyze its expression in the physical. What is the nature of laughter in the physical world? What exactly provokes the universal human response of laughter?
An examination of human laughter will show that what causes us to laugh is a sharp and improbable juxtaposition of opposites. When a process moves in one direction and then suddenly and unexpectedly changes to its opposite, laughter is generated. In fact, the more extreme the contrast, the more extreme the tension before the reversal and the more sudden the snap into reversal, the more intense the laughter. Strangely, this is true even when the events or processes observed are not intrinsically funny at all: laughter at the plight of the victim of a practical joke is highly incongruous and yet may be almost unavoidable why is this so? The spectacle of a pompous, conceited individual strutting along in overbearing self-confidence laid low by a mere banana peel is not at all humorous, and yet even those rushing to help may not be able to hide a smile; what is the meaning of this strange phenomenon?
The idea here is as follows. Real, spiritual laughter is the cosmic response to a real change. We find this expressed in p'sukim (verses): "Az yemalei s'chok pinu Then our mouths shall be filled with laughter"; "then" but not now. In fact according to halacha we may not laugh with complete abandon in this phase of the world's history while the pain of exile is still with us; but during and after the transition to redemption full laughter will be appropriate. And amazingly: "Va'tischak le'yom acharon"; a woman of valor will "laugh at the last day" imagine laughing at the day of death! But of course the transition into eternal life, when that reality is revealed, is the happiest event imaginable! A woman who is "of valor", correctly prepared in spiritual strength, will certainly feel that simcha (joy); and particularly a woman, since she has just that greatness of spirit which enables her to be a vehicle of birth, she can most deeply understand the happiness of potential life becoming actual.
Let us look deeper. In the spiritual path, what is the change which generates the exhilaration of spiritual laughter? It is the change from ordeal to redemption; and more specifically, from intense crisis to seemingly impossible redemption. When crisis leaves no option but total despair and at that point deliverance occurs, laughter is the result. When Avraham and Sarah give birth to the first child born into the line of the Jewish people, we are taught this secret. Avraham was extremely old. Sarah was far beyond child-bearing age. The gemara says that she was intrinsically infertile she had no womb. When these two people, totally devoid of any possibility of having a child, were told that they would in fact have a child, they laughed. And a child was born. And his Divinely-given name was Yitzchak "He shall laugh". And is that not the entire story of the Jewish people? We begin where the impossible ends.
When Yitzchak grows up, he is sacrificed by his father. Sacrificed, and not sacrificed. In physical terms, he is saved and climbs down from the altar. But the deeper wisdom states "The ashes of Yitzchak are laid out before Me" in spiritual terms he is sacrificed. One aspect of the meaning of this paradox is that Yitzchak subsequently lives in two worlds: physically here but spiritually transcendent. And the mystics again refer to his name: the word Yitzchak comprises "death in life", or better, "the next world while yet alive". The man whose name means laughter (and "name" always denotes essence in Torah) spans two worlds; he lives in the world of ordeal, of challenge, and has about him an aura of the world of deliverance. Is that not, indeed, the story of the Jewish people?
* * *
The Rambam explains that the birth of a child is a microcosm of this idea. The mystery and miracle of human birth powerfully reveal the forces of intense reversal which takes place at the interface between two worlds. The experience of the mother is perhaps the clearest example of the pathway of ordeal to redemption. Pregnancy proceeds gradually and predictably. Then, like most ordeals and crises, labor occurs abruptly and is incomparable in intensity relative to the preceding months. Labor certainly does not seem to be a life-giving experience if one who had no knowledge of human physiology and birth witnessed labor for the first time he would be convinced that a disaster was taking place. At the height of the labor, when superficially all looks worst, a child is born. And only then does it become apparent that the entire process was birth, not the opposite.
But more deeply, the experience of the child teaches our principle. The unborn child lives in a medium in which it is perfectly adapted submerged in liquid, with a blood circulation and other details of its physiology specific to its intra-uterine environment. Its lungs are collapsed and non-functional, blood bypasses the lungs, the heart has openings between its chambers unlike an adult heart; in short, many of its features are radically different from those of a person already born. But more than this, those features are life-sustaining in that environment and would be lethal in this one, and the features which are needed to sustain life here would be lethal there: truly a situation of opposites.
Then birth begins: a child perfectly adapted to one set of conditions is thrust into another set where death must be only minutes away this child has only the opposite of what it needs to survive! And miraculously, within a few critical minutes, everything reverses! "What is closed opens, and what is open closes", states the gemara. Almost instantaneously the lungs open and breathe, blood is simultaneously routed to the lungs, blood pouring out of the umbilical vessels is mysteriously arrested as those vessels powerfully constrict, and suddenly a child is alive in this world and perfectly adapted to it!
Birth is the symbol of all transitions, and it teaches us to be sensitive in understanding them. The Rambam quotes this phenomenon to illustrate a firm root for our faith that there is a transition from this world to the next: although on this side of the great divide we perceive only a change from life to death, we can begin to understand more deeply that fundamental of faith, that death leads, in fact, to life on the far side of that divide, the reversals miraculously begin. "Va'tischak le!yom acharon She laughs at the last day".
* * *
If this is true for personal crisis, it is true for the Jewish people too. We were formed in the crucible of Egyptian slavery. The root of that ordeal, however, was the experience of Yosef and his brothers in Egypt previously; the deeds and experiences of the sons are presaged by those of the fathers. An examination of the course of events which brought the sons of Yaakov to face their brother Yosef in Egypt will teach us all the features of ordeals and crises, both personal and national.
The brothers made a mistake they sold Yosef. The root of trials, often hidden, begins with human error. (One who wishes can trace this entire process in its own root the experience of Adam and all subsequent human history.) And that is when an agonizing ordeal began for them. When they returned to their father with the evidence of Yosef s fate, Yaakov lost his prophetic insight in mourning. The brothers witnessed their father lose his direct connection with the spiritual world, and they knew that they were the cause. Then, like many ordeals, the torment became prolonged they did not see the resolution of their mistake for many years; it was over twenty years later that they met Yosef again. During those years they watched their father mourn in the intensity of acute mourning for one newly lost; his emotion never abated. It must have seemed to them that they had been the cause of permanently obstructing the destiny of the Jewish people, and hence of the entire Universe; we can only imagine their suffering.
This is the classic pathway of human difficulty an ordeal begins, and then seems endless. Its very duration seems to preclude redemption. And then it intensifies to levels which previously would have seemed impossible to survive ordeal becomes crisis. And the crisis gets worse: the brothers travel to Egypt in search of food. Instead of obtaining food with no hindrance, they find themselves accused of spying by a man who becomes their tormentor (Yosef, of course, unknown to them). Eventually they return to Canaan with food but leaving one of their number behind as ransom to force them to bring Binyamin (Benjamin) down to Egypt later. And we learn yet another feature of human difficulty it often seems so unintelligible, so unfair, in fact such a nightmare. They discover their money returned more confusion, and they return to their father.
Of course, as we witness events unfolding, we begin to understand what they cannot. Yosef is torturing them in order to bring about their redemption, for their good, motivated only by love for them. He wants them to bring Binyamin, another son of Rachel, just as he is, down to him so that he can place them in a crossfire of loyalty, tempt them to betray and reject Binyamin in circumstances similar to those in which they had failed so many years before with him, and this time to get it right, to correct their original mistake in full teshuva (repentance). And thereby to return cosmic history to its course. The ultimate stakes are involved. He cannot reveal himself to them, he must suffer as they suffer, he must be outwardly cruel to redeem them. The message we are being taught is obvious suffering has a purpose, a specific purpose, and even though it hurts like fire and seems impossible to understand, the Master of the Universe is engineering redemption and yes, somehow suffering with His people, individually and collectively.
Finally, the famine leaves Yaakov and the brothers with no food. He has no option but to part with Binyamin. They takeBinyamin down to Egypt and then, perhaps most cruel of all, things seem to be fine they are all released, homeward bound with food, all together, intact. Very often, final crisis is preceded by an illusion of salvation. Euphoria develops, the relief is tangible; and then unprecedented disaster arrives. As they travel, hoof beats are heard behind them Yosef has sent a messenger to search their belongings, he has been robbed. Thestolen object is found in Binyamin's sack. The brothers face the ultimate temptation (and how ready we often are to accept the facts at face value and clinch destruction ourselves) not only has Binyamin been given gifts by the Egyptian ruler in theirpresence (to tempt them into jealousy of him as they were jealous of Yosef long before) but now they have evidence that he is the cause of their predicament! And yet they come through, they stand by him, they redeem themselves by placing loyalty above their subjective judgment and emotions.
* Generations later, when Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses) enters the palace of Pharaoh and the Jewish people await seemingly imminent release can we imagine the bitter test of faith they experience when their redeemer returns from Pharaoh and they discover that not only is the slavery to continue, but they now have to produce the same amount of bricks daily without straw!
They return to Egypt for the showdown. As they face Yosef, the only options are all destruction. Either they return to Canaan, to face their father without Binyamin as Yosef demands and thereby kill Yaakov (the commentaries point out that Yaakov would have died of grief instantaneously upon seeing them without Binyamin); or destroy Egypt. The midrashim are clear that Yehuda (Judah) instructed his brothers that they were to literally destroy Egypt, the empire of the entire known world at the time (all the Patriarchs were of superhuman strength). Either option, total destruction.
Yehuda steps forward and faces his tormentor. The brothers had long previously realized that they were being subjected to this agonizing sequence because of their sin, but they were here about to expiate it fully. In that moment of confused agony, on the brink of certain oblivion Yehuda, as the leader, offers himself. He asks Yosef to take him instead of Binyamin, the ultimate act of loyalty and of correcting the root mistake.
At that moment, the brothers hear the words "I am Yosef". Through the haze of agony on the edge of disintegration "I am Yosef". That is the nature of deliverance preceded by a yielding of the self; occurring at the impossible moment, and most strikingly: spoken by the source of the torment! The cause of the problem, the Egyptian persecutor, is revealed as the source of redemption, Yosef their brother.
We can note two elements in this process of revelation of redemption, one deeply inspiring and comforting and one sobering. Firstly: a very deep and central concept here is that the redemption is not simply the ending of the pain of ordeal, the release and relief felt on waking from terror. On the contrary, the ordeal itself, the suffering itself, becomes the redemption. This must be understood. Everything Hashem does good, not just the ending. In the indescribable emotions the brothers must have felt when they realized they were facing Yosef was the understanding that what they had been through as essential, life-saving. They could appreciate every detail of the torment they had experienced as intrinsic to their happiness now, for without it they would not have achieved perfection. Now, in retrospect, they would not sacrifice one moment of their previous suffering! In fact they would savor and cherish each of those moments for the rest of their lives. That is the real joy of redemption,....
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