Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Az Der Eibishter Tanzt

This week's parsha, Toldos ("Generations"), speaks of the birth of Yaakov and Eisav (Jacob and Esau), Yitzchok's movement within the lands of Avimelech to escape famine, and the eventual giving of the birthright to Yaakov instead of Eisav. The culmination of the parsha, with the blessing of Yaakov, gives tremendous insight into the nature and essence of Judaism, in contrast to other faiths and contemplative practices.

The Torah records the bracha (blessing) given by Yitzchok to Yaakov, beginning,"V'yiten l'chu Ho'Eloikim mital hashomayim imishmanei ho'uretz, v'roiv dugon v'siroish" ("And G-d will give you from the dew of the heavens and the fatness of the earth, and an abundance of grain and wine"). From the very first word, the blessing seems to use strange language. What is the reason for starting the bracha with the word "and", as if the bracha is a continuation from a previous statement? Rashi, the historical supercommentator on the Torah, cites a Medrash (allegorical source) saying that to begin a bracha this way means that it will happen, and then happen again. However, does this imply that without the word "and" attached to the first word, the blessing would only be fulfilled at one time, and then end?

From a second angle, the bracha seems odd in that a spiritual inheritance should revolve completely around physicality. On the surface, this presents the idea that though we are here for a spiritual task, the task does not include going without our physical needs, and sometimes (if we happen to come to the place of matching our desire with the will of G-d) our wants. It is not the plan that we suffer in this world in order to reach an enlightened state, but that we should instead strengthen and comfort ourselves so that we might be better equipt to do our jobs in this world.

For the Sfas Emes (a previous rebbe of Gerrer Chasidus, about whom enough cannot be said), the union of these two concepts explains the true meaning of the beginning of the bracha. By receiving an abundance of material things, and using them to complete the will of G-d (ex. using food to strengthen our bodies), we return the essence of these objects (which is spiritual, as the essence of all physicality is spiritual) to their source. In return, we receive more from above. The Medrash presents this idea in the imagery of a cave near the ocean. At first, the cave receives water from the waves, but then the waves retreat, returning the water to the ocean, with the cycle repeating over and over; a constant reciprocation between man and G-d, the lower world and the higher one.

In Judaism, this is the task of humanity. The world was created in the mystical emptiness left when the Ein Sof (Infinite Presence) was withdrawn, and all of physical existence is only a game of hide-and-seek with sparks of the Divine. By reaching out to the physical world, accepting the task at hand when we find physicality presented to us, and acknowledging that physicality is a necessary means to the final end, we reunite the Divine sparks with their source(a process known by the name 'shevias hakeilim'). It is not for us to run away from the world and retreat into contemplative, monastic life. We must recognize that physicality is a bracha, but it is left to us to confront it and elevate our surroundings.

"The religious ideal is not withdrawal from the physical world in an attempt to become an angel. On the contrary, we want to be involved in many different facets of the world and apply the moral and spiritual guidance of G-d to every aspect of life." -Unknown