The Mistake Not To Make In 2017

The mistake not to make in 2017 is the mistake of thinking we know what’s going to happen, or, more precisely, that it makes any difference whether we know what’s going to happen or not.

This should not even be possible for a Chassid. Kabbalah is, if it is learned badly, gnostic, platonic, and reductionist; a learner can convince themselves that they are gaining knowledge of the secret undergirdings of the creation, knowledge that can be used in some practical way. These are the patterns; these are the rules that bind the way things work.

Philosophy, on the other hand, does not claim to know of a priori categories from which everything is built with little variance; philosophy is essentially at liberty to follow the evidence where it leads, and if it leads to a place that we cannot know, we can at least be certain of the truth of what we don’t know.

Chassidus is an unfair, paradoxical melding; it says that we can be what we cannot know and we can use all that strange, intervening Kabbalah to get there. Chassidus says that it’s all about G-d, but G-d wanted it to, in a sense, be all about us, and so condescended to make a world that runs parallel to our structures in every way which in turn run parallel to His chosen mode of expression which means that the place which is furthest from him is not so different from one facet of his infinite truth. Chassidus says that the Darwinists have it backward, that it is not that something is True because it happens to survive long enough but that life itself is the truth which is following G-d’s plans.

So much for all of the inevitables, the things that must be, the Kabbalah, with its forms and faces and spheres, the spiritual blueprint of the world that allows too many students to mistake the map for the landscape and assume that the world actually IS predictable.

But the joke was on us; the Kabbalah is just the post-hoc interstitial stuff, the logical outgrowth; “I wish to create a terrible, dark thing called a world, but I wish to dwell there as well, on its terms — I had better create some sort of blueprint, so that all my pieces can find their way back…”

No, our reality is more like philosophy, which seems mundane when “follow the evidence wherever it leads” includes only the broad, stable categories but grows increasingly tumultuous when “the evidence” includes independent beings with wills of their own. Indeed, this mode, in which G-d allows Himself to consider things purely on their own terms, is what allowed the world of Tohu to arise, unsustainable, wild, real, the short-long path, similar to G-d but not close to Him, just like an “independent” human being, just like a world that, with man at the reins, can shoot off at a moment’s notice into the wild unknown.

It turns out that G-d and what He creates in his image are not rule-followers by nature; they do as they please; they create. The world is full of madness and randomness and unpredictability, and (to the horror of the badly-learned Kabbalah) he who knows that he does not know is wisest of all.

And so, according to all the “right” thinking, the “religious” thinking, the rules that all dead things follow, 2016 was just some arbitrary bound, a meaningless set of time signifying nothing of great significance. But we are not dead things, and in some sense a significant time has passed; many of us have felt it, cursed it.

I entered this year with hubris; forgot my place and the place of my chosen discipline. We are not here to understand it — on this, at least, the Darwinists may agree. We are here to take our potential for doing whatever we damn well please and actualizing it in selflessness; we are gods set free with the greatest faith of all time, the faith G-d has that we will choose to be servants to him than deities over our own worlds.

Until we reach that unity and there is only One Will in this domain, literally anything can happen, and this year, it did. We were certain; we thought it could not be; just as certainly, it came to pass.

The reaction is not to cry over our own uncertainty like a first-year student whose Sephiros chart does not match all thirteen tribes.

The reaction is joyous, rapturous awe; the happiest feeling in the world, to lose ourselves and find some truth instead, to remember that we are not the creators and we do not understand.

The mistake of 2016 was to think we could understand.

The lesson for 2017 is to give up more easily, to have faith, to trust, to be willing to follow it wherever it leads.

Just like He does.

Again

I don’t even really like my job. It’s tedious and annoying. I live and work in a Jewish academy in the middle of nowhere (it used to be a monastery), and my job is to record exactly who is in the study hall when learning is in session. The students range from seventeen to twenty and from immature to not-quite-mature.

So why am I in so much pain, leaving?

Life itself is the greatest of all pleasures. While it’s unchallenged, we don’t even realize we enjoy it. But try to take someone’s life away…

 

They’re sitting at a picnic table near the parking lot, this afternoon. One guy’s a free spirit, so free he resents the concept of punctuality and punctuality’s patron saint (at least in northern New Jersey), me. Another is quiet; we’ve probably shared three scattered words since the year began. One is studious, a perfect student, never late, too perfect for antics. There’s a guy who’s just “one of the guys,” the guys I was never part of.

I never disliked them, or liked them either. They were simply the faces (so many faces) who’d pass by in the hall, who’d eat in the lunch room, who’d play Frisbee or soccer during lunch breaks. We’d complain together constantly – there was a lot to complain about. Terrible school, badly run. The food – isn’t. Can you believe who’s in trouble? And for what? Why can’t they see what the problem actually is? We can’t wait to just get out of here…

I sit watching these guys at the table and, out of nowhere, I feel it. It’s the end of a good novel or TV show. It’s the open lockers and papers everywhere on a summer afternoon in high school. It’s the buses lined up faithfully on the last day of camp. And today, it’s the luggage rolling down the passage outside my room and the loaned books returned to my shelf by people who I realize I love, not because of anything they did but because they were there for a time, a part of my life, another long day washed under the bridge.

It’s not even the end of the year; they’re leaving for the holiday of Shavuos, the day we received G-d’s Torah on Mount Sinai. But after that it’s just two weeks, and then no matter what I do or where I go, it will be after, beyond, the rest.

I will not return to my home of three years. I’m not truly happy here, not anymore. I can accomplish things elsewhere and I need change and there’s a whole life to live outside these four walls, but this afternoon, when they were on those benches, I wanted to keep Shavuos in place and cling to this mediocrity with iron fingers, because it’s my mediocrity and I live here and not again, not again, not again. Not the parting, the endless beyond, the unbearable future without them and these hallways painted hospital white and the deer in the woods and late night 7-11 runs and the guy at the gas station whose stomach hangs out of his T-shirt and the boiled eggs and my mail in the back office and the long winters. Why must I do this again? Why do I have to taste the warming wind, watch these rooms drain of people, blood from a limb, and then gather my things and move once more?

I sometimes think that G-d is the pack you put on your shoulders as you must, again, walk down the road.

 

Van from my phone; Van Gogh from Wikipedia.

Control

Shabbos ended three hours earlier but none of us had changed out of our sweaty slacks. My two companions, one a local, the other a visitor like me, wanted to see some sights in the town. I came with. We drove down the road parallel to the sea with the windows rolled down and the cool salt-sprinkled air soothed our every ache.

We made a few stops. First was the dramatic sea wall, where the breakers offered themselves up in spraying plumes and the sweep of the bay and arched sky dwarfed us. We clambered, dress shoes slipping, onto a rocky promontory that jutted from a tiny peninsula of huge houses on million-dollar acres, and felt like a coin in the Atlantic’s palm, unity just a wave away. Eventually we wandered a green park beside a harbor still clear of its summer yachts and cracked jokes about the two high school kids standing and smoking pot near the bathrooms instead of sitting on a bench by the water as G-d intended.

The wind shifted, warm and cool and warm again, and the conversation deepened. In the moon’s wavering reflection, one friend found freedom from the stress and worry of recent days. The other friend shared his desire to build a house there on the water’s edge, to possess the scene forever.  But, he mused, it was a false wish. We mustn’t live in the future and miss our current experience. That park and that night were ours for free, and a lifetime of work to “earn” it, constantly living in the future, would leave us in our ocean-view mansions hungering for somewhere else, and so on until death, unsatisfied.

It struck me that their feelings meshed with mine.

All things within our experience were born, and to nothing they must return. “Nothing gold can stay,” says the poet. It is inescapable, and, especially to my myth-rattled mind, sad. The problem: Humanity as a whole may last ‘till the end of the story, the stars may watch forever from their midnight balcony, but eternity is beyond the individual’s grasp.

It came to me all at once:

One friend lives with a business mindset and he felt, not wrongly, that he must control his world, must manipulate the flotsam and jetsam of material existence (e.g. Starbucks, Gmail, checkbooks, TAG watches, sheitels) into a structure that will protect him and his family and allow them to thrive in the adverse conditions known euphemistically in Chassidic parlance as “Olam HaZeh” (“This World”).  The other friend wanted to own the waterside, to put it behind his own walls, to conquer it. I was depressed by my finitude in the face of G-d’s vast creation.

We’re all addicts.

At first glance, we might think that an addict is controlled by a substance or behavior, that an alcoholic is someone with an alcohol problem. In truth, an alcoholic is someone with an alcohol solution. Alcohol is the alcoholic’s way of controlling his or her life, or in other words, of being his or her own G-d. An addict is a remarkable spiritually sensitive person who, to deal with a painful world, turns to a behavior that relieves his or her pain. As Rabbi Shais Taub writes in his excellent GOD of Our Understanding, “(1) [Addicts] are profoundly disturbed and unsettled with their own existence as an entity apart from God; (2) for reasons unknown, they can somehow briefly simulate relief from this condition by taking their drug of choice.”

The first three of the famous Twelve Steps are  to admit that one is powerless over one’s addiction, to recognize a Higher Power, and to turn one’s will and one’s life over to its care. A parody of those first three steps (also in the book) describes the mindset of an addict: “1. We admitted we were powerless over nothing – that we could manage our lives perfectly and those of anyone who would let us. 2. Came to believe that there was no power greater than ourselves and the rest of the world was insane. 3. Made a decision to have our loved ones turn their wills and their lives over to our care even though they could not understand us at all.” Rabbi Taub explains at length how the addict needs spiritual care as well as physical and emotional care, and for many, it is only letting go of the need to control their own lives and reliance on a higher power that will heal the root of their addiction and not just its symptoms.

Addiction = Control.

What at that Massachusetts inlet freed us?

A sense of the miraculous.

Okay, the water merely lapped the shore; it didn’t split for us. The stars watched silently just as they watched Rome burn and the space shuttle launch. But they made us modern time-slaves feel like the Hebrews on the shore. We felt that there is something we cannot grasp, and we were emancipated by it. The need to be masters subjugated us, and when we saw the sea and the stars that we could not hope to own, we were allowed to escape.

In other words: No matter how many statues topple, no matter how many oppressors fall or pharaohs drown, someone will always rule over us, namely our own egos, our tendency to view everything in terms of ourselves. It gives us a sense of entitlement (and insists we’d survive the Total Perspective Vortex). It asserts that we’ve got it all figured out (unlike all those other saps). It contends that our way is probably the best way (and it always is, after careful factual analysis). Every time we free ourselves from some external limitation, it rubs its hands with glee – more time for me and my plans and dreams.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with having an identity. Ego, like everything, is healthy in moderation, and self-destruction in the name of humility might be one of the biggest challenges of our time, much more than the base arrogance common a hundred years ago. Nevertheless, enough self-absorption and self-centeredness and you end up on a beach in the wee hours of the morning, struggling. The solution to our pretensions of mastery and conquest is exposure to some form of the infinite, something that is above nature, beyond time and therefore beyond us. A proof that we are not G-d. A vast sea and uncountable stars. A miracle.

My father told me a story he heard second-hand of an atheist addict who struggled for weeks, perhaps months, with the concept of a higher power that the Twelve Steps demanded. One night he stood outside and looked up at the stars and came to a startling conclusion – “I didn’t make them. I cannot make them. Something else must have.” This thought was the linchpin of his eventual recovery. A quiet hour on a beach could do the same for us all.

The vastness of reality should not depress us but hearten us. What will happen, will happen, and the stars will watch on, forever.

 

 

Further reading: GOD of Our Understanding by Rabbi Shais Taub; ספר המאמרים עטר”ת פ’ חיי שרה

Image from Flickr. CC BY 2.0.