I Saw G-d on Facebook

We do not, in Judaism, agree with the philosophers that greatness is greatness no matter who or what possesses it. Korach erred to think he could bear Moshe’s greatness as easily as Moshe and Aharon’s holiness as easily as any Kohen. In this, he was a heretic, ultimately denying creation ex nihilo, that Moses could be a radically different creation than Korach. So I do not mean to say that a Facebook comment can be genuinely great per se like (l’havdil) a work of Torah.

But if it is no longer a “Facebook comment per se,” if Korach ceases to be Korach by becoming Moshe’s man, then true greatness is possible, the greatness of the inifite. All finite things hold an emptiness at the center called bittul, a negative space that may contain the infinite. Through bittul, the non-great may become great. When we talk about a great FB comment, we’re talking about one that’s becoming nothing inside and out.

 

Here’s what it looks like: I met a severe Yeshiva student on one of my wanderings. He was of European slimness, shorter and younger than average in the study hall, and brilliant. He pursued Judaism with the dangerous fanaticism of a broken-hearted youth.

The ‘danger,’ such as it is, lies in the multi-layered nature of the pit, the hole inside that Judaism will fill, because Judaism must, because if it doesn’t, what am I? Many souls contain a Machpelah, a cave within a cave, a cave above a cave. Only Judaism fills the most bottomless hole, the cavity closer to us than our very being. We can plug smaller, more superficial spiritual needs with worldly pleasures, therapy, art, friends and family, secular knowledge, political activism, or a gratifying job. Sometimes the upper chamber may even be filled by time, the spiritual agonies of adolescence calloused over by the 20s.

The trick of the hole-filling Baal Teshuva, the returnee to Judaism looking to satisfy a need, is to realize that beneath the sinkholes opening along our contingent path through circumstance lies a broader existential tale tied to our very being. We possess emptiness born not of the path chosen for us but of we who walk it, that deep inner vacuum to which Judaism speaks, the infinite desolation that only G-d can make whole. Torah and Mitzvos will contextualize the other problems, the ones of nature and nurture, and may repair them at the level of what they are. They will transform us from biological beings dealing with problems into G-dly souls wrestling with them. But all direct changes to the form of our questions do not require Judaism. Self-discipline and a regimented life come from the army; self-help books and gurus can transform your attitude; medication and diet help depression and anxiety; friends and family give us love.

One of Chassidus’s penetrating insights is that to live a G-dly life is different from conquering the form of your troubles. To heal the animal soul—the path of Mussar/Ethical teachings—may be a prerequisite to the work of the G-dly soul, but it is not that work. The Baal Shem Tov revealed that a commandment performed for a reward demotes the commandment to below the reward. So, too, if the point of the commandment is self-improvement, it elevates the animal traits above the mitzvah. A Korach cannot become a Moses from the outside, by slowly improving his Korach-itude, because Moses is not merely a more ethical Korach. Korach becomes Moshe by first becoming nothing, by finding the infinite emptiness within and introducing it into his life. He does this no matter which contingent foibles and character flaws lie in his way.

It should not surprise us that many a young Baal Teshuva, thinking it’s Chassidus they seek, join a yeshiva and start studying the Tanya. They soon discover the Tanya addresses only a single problem, the union of the souls with the divine. They then remain in a frustrating stalemate until something else shows up to solve their problem. Occasionally it is Mussar that saves the day. More often, it’s one of the other hole fillers, and, their itch scratched and their issue resolved, they stop seeking G-d. My acquaintance, the young zealot, seems to have done just that. He now often posts pictures of himself, bare-headed and often bare-chested, luxuriating in an exotic locale, to Facebook.

 

There was another student in that same yeshiva where I met the first. Where the first was young, this second was older than the yeshiva average. Where the former was fanatical, the latter was disinterested. The first was hungry, seeking satisfaction from every page of the Talmud, every letter of each Chassidic discourse. The latter seemed to hate everyone and everything about our little school, often missing classes, arriving at strange hours with odd friends to study the talks of the Previous Rebbe of Lubavitch in Russian-accented Hebrew. The only things the two students had in common were their distinctive approaches to yeshiva life apart from the established order, tormented spirits, and a penchant for cigarettes.

The Russian (let’s call him) was, without doubt, the most abrasive person I met in perhaps my entire yeshiva career. He had no air of glory about him whatsoever, no sense that, by participating in Judaism, he was doing something noble or extraordinary. He spoke with all the tact of a Moscoloid street rat and had physically assaulted a non-zero number of his fellow students. He had studied philology in university back in the Motherland and spat out the names of philosophers like curses. He liked the Kuzari and alcohol. I think he is an orphan, but he found no loving family amongst us; if he has a void in that sense, it’s hard to imagine we were filling it with our constant exasperation at his moods. He was no Moses (lacking the piety) and no Korach (lacking the delusions of grandeur and the pictured path to fulfillment). He was more a Dasan or Aviram, kicking over blocks for fun, and you wanted to ask him, “Why are you here?” However, in retrospect, it is clear he possessed the knack of every successful fulfillment-seeking Baal Teshuva. He could be here because he was here. Dogged, senseless, persistence without reason or clear reward is the trick of the Baal Teshuva, and you can’t teach it. It appears in other areas of life aglimmer with the sheen of the infinite. The advice for writers, I have learned, is to write. The ingredient of cake, when G-d makes it, is cake. That which is created from nothing has no explanation. Moses can be Moses only because he is, and this mystery the Russian embodies.

 

Today, checking my Facebook feed, I see two truly great words, words that ring with the full hollowness of a Chassidic story. You must recognize those involved, read the words in an irritated Russian accent written to an old non-friend, a youth from yeshiva. The Russian was never there when the youth slaved over the holy books, was not around when he sculpted a shining new face for himself in the night, was not awake when he closed the book, picked up his jacket, and quit. But beneath the latest in a string of frivolous photos of a new life, the Russian has commented,

with the mournful triumph of the eternally satisfied,

with the confident disregard of those who cannot break free from the bundle of life even if they wished,

with the greatness of those who are empty and thus are Moses,

with the longing of an inner cave so long-buried the explorers have stopped looking for it,

with the laconic, mystified bemusement of those who have suffered worse yet never managed to leave:

“תחזור כבר”;

“Come back already.”

Testing for Prophets

Can A Politically-Fanatical Jew Identify a Prophet?

Would we be able to tell an Ezekiel or a Jeremiah from a false prophet today? Judgment and intellectual objectivity are necessary factors in a moral life, as Rabbi Dessler explains so well. Upon further reflection, intellectual integrity is no mere moral tenet or a prerequisite for sitting on beis din. Intellectual honesty is also vital for identifying prophets.

Consider a person claiming to be a Jewish prophet approaching the constant online fray, the dust in which to secure victory many of us have chosen the desired reality and gone on to interpret all words to fit as necessary, processing everything through a Bed of Sodom. The only way to determine a true prophet is, as the Rambam writes in his Introduction to the Mishna, to test their prophecy against the future. If every single word the prophet says (apart from predicted punishments) comes to pass in every detail, we are obligated by the Torah of Moshe to listen to them. If even one particular turns out to be false, we know they are no true prophet, and do unto them as the Torah prescribes.

Once, this test for prophecy may have been reasonable. Today, the president says a sentence on video, and one half of the country decides his words erupt from a wellspring of genius that has never been wrong. At the same time, the other half finds them flowing from a pit of foolishness that has only ever poisoned minds. The actual words he says have no bearing on these conclusions. How could we ever find a prophet with such a mindset? The exact half-and-half split would prevail. We would be stuck.

Of course, the same question applies to the law of Moses itself. If we can reread any of the prospective prophets’ statements, we can reread those of the Greatest of Prophets for the same price. The difference is that Moses enjoys the safety of ancient words with an unbroken interpretive tradition. By definition, we must file any new prophet under ‘current events.’ We set a reminder on our phones to check whether the prediction has come through, and judge it with the same mind that posts novel interpretations of the latest safety briefing on Facebook.

 

Why The Future Is His Alone

The test for prophets may also reflect a difference between G-d and idols. Prophecy of G-d is unlike deep spiritual intuition, astrology, or other forms of ‘spiritual prognostication’ at a pragmatic level. Per the Rambam, true prophecy is correct in every detail, whereas all other ways of predicting the future are always wrong in some detail. This contrast makes sense in light of the metaphysical difference between G-d and mere gods, between creation ex nihilo and creation from something.

Creation ex nihilo is the result of a single cause. All other “creation” (really, per the Ramban, the term properly applies to creation from nothing) is just the actualization of some preexisting potential, the meeting of formal and material causes that the Alter Rebbe calls the “צורף כלי,” the smithing of a vessel. Furthermore, no form of magic or mystical power can create from nothing; this ability, the Alter Rebbe explains, is in the domain of G-d alone, since He alone is a necessary being.

It follows that prophets whose insights derive from lesser powers or beings and the perception of their natures, as astrologers understand the stars or the spiritual forces that the stars express, only ever have a partial picture of reality. The subject of their insight is necessarily only one of the multiple parties bringing about the future. Their predictions must be imperfect because they stem from mere partial contributions to the reality of tomorrow. The prophet of G-d, by contrast, with a hotline to the Sole Creator of All, can authoritatively say what will happen tomorrow, for only he has insight into a single cause of everything today. (Of course, the Jew believes that since no finite being has any power to bring about any future, and that all of reality is in the hands of the Creator alone, that the astrologer’s predictions are also insights into G-dliness, of a sort.  However, the astrologer may not know this, and their knowledge is limited to G-dliness as it has already concealed itself within the workings of nature.)

 

Infinite Test

Just as our judgment, even when unrestrained by bribery or preconception, cannot bootstrap morality, it alone can serve as no basis for accepting an individual as a messenger of G-d. The infinite regress of doubt must stop somewhere. We must follow Moses not because we have tested him against an intellectual standard but because of our faith in him and our direct experience of G-d at Sinai. Only this will allow us to check for prophets in our own time with any sense of certainty.

The Torah is no medical text but by dint of faith lends more authority to doctors than doctors could claim even by reason alone, allowing them to abrogate temporarily (by declaring a situation life-threatening) certain commandments of G-d. So, too, is the Torah of Moses no tested prophecy but a faith-reality lending authority to a test of future prophets. And just like doctors, those prophets may, too, abrogate certain commandments of G-d temporarily, as Elijah did when offering sacrifices on Mount Carmel.

The Sinatic Event made from every Jew a prophet, and so broke the cycle of prophet-tested-by-test-of-another-prophet. We knew Him, at that time, much as we know ourselves, and saw His presence with our own eyes. It is only this that lends a rational test for prophets of G-d any force.

Proof that Humans Exist

If the religious community has focused more on proofs for the existence of G-d than for the existence of mankind, it is only because the former is denied far more directly than the the latter. We are told all the time to doubt the existence of human beings, but in subtler language. The question is not whether fuzzy bipeds walk the earth, speaking to each other, playing baseball, writing books, etc. The question is whether they’re human, that is, essentially distinct from all other beings. The voices ring out with a resounding No!: “A human being is just an ape plus details.” “A human being is just an artificial intelligence minus details.” “A human being is like any other localized set of particles plus (illusory?) details.”*

It is not (just) a particular disdain for human beings that motivates these arguments. We can hardly blame the contemporary thinker for denying human beings in particular if he denies all non-reductive essences in general; in fairness, he also says a frog is something else plus details, water is just two other things combination, and so on. The denial of human beings per se is just the subset of denying anything per se, of denying anything has essential characteristics making it what it is. This is, in most cases, called nominalism and may or may not be the scourge of modernity.

Whether there’s a particular ire for humanity or merely no apparent reason to exclude them from the illusory appearance of essences, the result is the same. In essence, the human being is a concept that needs defense, demonstration, proof. It would be extremely helpful to discover or rediscover arguments that point to something like the “essential nature” of the human being, something very much akin to a soul, as we shall see. Such an argument would preferably be logically sound, easily-conveyed, and rooted in easily-acceptable premises.

One such argument is dropped like a bomb in a short paragraph by David Berlinski on p.116 of his outstanding collection of essays, Human Nature:

A simple modal argument is sometimes of use in this argument; and if not of use, then carelessly neglected. If human beings are largely insignificant in the cosmos, then surely they are not necessary either. Krauss says as much explicitly. “You could get rid of us and all the galaxies and everything we see in the universe and it will be largely the same.” But if human beings are not necessary to the universe, then it follows that the universe is not sufficient for human beings. If ∼(∼Q⊃∼P) then ∼(P⊃Q). If this is so, anything that might reasonably be called a naturalistic explanation for the emergence of human life is beside the point. There could not be any such thing.

This “carelessly neglected” line of reasoning is directed toward those who would offer a “naturalistic explanation for the emergence of human life.” That is, it speaks to those who view humanity as something like a cosmic accident, a meaningless complication thrown out by impersonal universal forces for some infinitesimally short slice of time, preceded (in time or in importance) by eons and likely followed by infinity. This view is a subset of those who deny humanity per se; in this case, the human being is reduced to forces of nature plus details.

This sort of naturalist inevitably believes that human beings are not necessary to the universe. After all, if human beings were necessary, a built-in outcome of all those universal forces, then the forces would not be impersonal at all, but rather inherently geared toward producing not just life, but human life! They could do nothing else but result in human beings; humanity was baked into the universe from the beginning!

No, per the naturalist, human beings must be unnecessary, or merely possible, to the universe. The difference between being necessary to a prior state of affairs and being merely possible to it can be illustrated by two different recipes for cake. The baker for whom the cake is necessary to the recipe writes the following:

Chocolate Cake Recipe:
1 x Chocolate Cake

There is no outcome from these ingredients other than cake, and no other ingredients are required to produce the cake as an outcome. These ingredients inevitably yield cake, to the extent that the baker doesn’t even have to do anything. If we have the ingredients, we actually already have cake, just as when humans are necessary to the universe, they already exist in a certain sense from the moment time begins; we are truly inevitable.

The naturalist baker views the human cake as having a recipe more like:

Chocolate Cake Recipe:
2 x Eggs
4 Tbsp. Baking Chocolate
2 Cups Flour

None of these ingredients on their own is cake, and on the contrary, they must come together in a specific way under specific conditions (e.g., mixed together and then baked in a pan at 350 °) to yield cake as their outcome. The cake is not a necessary result of this recipe; if we forget the eggs or fail to mix the ingredients properly or don’t place them in a warm enough oven, there will be no cake. The naturalist claims, at the very least, that the ‘starting ingredients’ of the universe (e.g., matter, energy, forces) necessitate no human beings, that human beings could have or could not have existed just as easily as far as those starting ingredients care.

In truth, the naturalist claims the ingredients are not even ingredients except in retrospect when they happen to have created a cake. Ingredients imply that there is a purposive process intended to produce a certain result. The naturalist, as explained above, won’t have it. To them, the ordering “recipe” is an imposition of the human mind rather than an expression of qualities inherent to the ingredients. But to make this claim of purposelessness, one must already have concluded that human beings are not necessary to the universe, or in other words, that it could have turned out differently, with no human beings emerging on the scene at all.

Berlinski then makes a rather straightforward argument: If human beings are not necessary to the universe, then the universe is insufficient to produce human beings. In the language of our metaphor, if the resultant cake is not necessary to the second cake recipe, then the ingredients of the recipe are not sufficient to produce the cake.

In other words, the first recipe plus nothing equals its result. The second recipe, however, being a normal recipe, requires additional things to produce the result.** The ingredients alone are insufficient to produce the cake because if they alone were sufficient, we would have the cake already! Since we do not necessarily have the cake just because we have the ingredients, the ingredients are not enough to produce the cake on their own (without mixing, baking, etc.).

This leaves our friend the naturalist in a bit of a bind. On the one hand, the naturalist cannot say that human beings are necessary to the universe, like the first recipe, because that would imply human beings are as important as the entire universe; after all, the universe must produce humankind the way the first recipe must produce a cake. On the other hand, the naturalist cannot say that human beings are not necessary to the universe, like the second recipe, because that would imply the universe is insufficient to produce humankind, that the universe needs mysterious outside help to create a human being. Either we are a totally predetermined inherent reality to the universe, or the universe alone cannot create us at all.***

The naturalist’s description of us as insignificant accidents of nature seems, well, half-baked.

 

While Berlinski has not demonstrated the human essence or soul, exactly, he has given us a nudge in the right direction. He shows that understanding the recipe for a thing tells us a lot about it. When we say ‘recipe,’ we mean not only the material components but what it means for something to have a recipe, what it means for something to have a necessary or unnecessary effect, for its components to be sufficient or insufficient grounds.

As my teacher, Rabbi Yitzchak Kaufmann, points out, a similar argument to Berlinski’s is found in the Discourses of the Tzemach Tzedek, the third Rebbe of Lubavitch. This argument does speak directly to the human essence and the human soul. It is found in Torah Ohr, Bereishis, Hosafos p.434, and in Sefer HaChakira, p.63, and it starts like this:

In Midrash Rabbah, Parshas Bereishis, ch. 8, on the words (Genesis 5:2), “male and female He created them”:

Rabbi Yehoshua bar Nechemya says in the name of Rabbi Chanina bar Yitzchak, and the Rabbanan say in the name of Rabbi Eliezer: G-d created in humankind four qualities from above and four qualities from below. They eat and drink like an animal, reproduce and multiply like an animal, leave waste like an animal, and die like an animal. From above: They stand like attending angels, speak like attending angels, have knowledge like attending angels, and see [both to the front and to the sides] like attending angels.

In my opinion, we learn from this a demonstration of the soul’s persistence [after the body’s death], for Maimonides writes in his Guide for the Perplexed, pt. II, ch. 1, in the second argument, that when we see the composite of two components, and then we also discover one of these components alone, then certainly the other component exists on its own. For example, there is a honey/vinegar mixture, and when we know that honey also exists without vinegar, we may deduce from seeing honey alone that the mixture of honey and vinegar is not necessary. And therefore, we know that vinegar exists apart from honey. Even if we’ve never seen pure honeyless vinegar, we know it exists from the fact that we’ve seen honey alone.

What happens if we buy a cake made of eggs, flour, and chocolate, then later see eggs by themselves, without the other ingredients? This would prove to us, beyond a doubt, that our cake is not made with the first type of recipe mentioned above. The recipe for cake is not simply cake. Rather, it’s made with the second type of recipe. By seeing that eggs can exist on their own, we show that the cake is an unnecessary composite. If the recipe for cake is just cake, its ingredients always come together; you will never find an ingredient apart from the whole. Since we’ve discovered the eggs on their own, the cake’s ingredients must come together only sometimes, but not always. And if they don’t always come together, that means there must be chocolate out there, too. Even if I’ve only ever seen a cake and the eggs that are one of its ingredients, I know that these ingredients don’t always occur together, and so, at least sometimes, chocolate must exist without eggs.

So, if we knew that a human being was just such an unnecessary composite, we would know that a human being’s component parts must, at least sometimes, occur independently of one another.

Continues the Tzemach Tzedek:

So, too, in man, do we see a composite of animal and human life. Man has four qualities, as the Midrash describes, that are just like an animal’s, and four additional qualities that animals have not at all. This means man is a composite of the animal and the human. Even though the animal in man is more refined, it is still literally like that of an animal and equal to an animal in the four traits mentioned above. It is just that man has an additional four traits from above, knowledge and the faculty of speech, etc. And since we find the four animal traits in animals without the higher traits, from this we can judge the four traits from “above” to also exist on their own, without animal aspects.

That is, the “animal” [in man must be just] the physical body of flesh and blood receiving life, and therefore say that the four aforementioned heavenly traits of knowledge, speech, etc., exist without a physical body in abstract intelligences [e.g., angels]. And this is demonstrated through the above demonstration. And now, since the soul of man contains aspects from intelligences abstracted from matter, even if the animal soul does not persist [after the destruction of its physical matter], the human soul certainly does.

And even though we believe in this according to the Torah without any philosophical investigation or [need for] human intellect, as the verse says (Shmuel 25:29), “the soul of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of life” and (Zecharia 3:7), “I will permit you to move about,” nevertheless, nothing is lost by supporting it with this demonstration as well. And even though the philosophers bring other demonstrations for the soul’s persistence, this demonstration is supported by the above Midrash.

The Ephodi and ReSheT question our principle and say we indeed to find composites and one of their components alone without discovering the other component alone. [For example, a] man contained both life and speech, and life is found without speech, but speech is never found without life.

But according to what was said above in the name of the Midrash, on the contrary, this is proof for our point. Speech is found in man from above, i.e., in speech, he is like the attending angels, and it is about this that the verse says, “man is created in the image of G-d.” And if so, speech is found apart from life, that is, apart from bodily life, in the abstract intelligences.****

The human being is made of multiple components, multiple ingredients. These components do not exist as a necessary composite; that is, they can exist apart from each other, just as the eggs can exist apart from the cake. Just as man eats and drinks, for example, so does an animal. This shows that the various faculties of the human being do not have to coincide. But if the human being is not a necessary composite, this means that those aspects of man which do not occur in animals, like his abstract intellect or his ability to speak, must occur separately from the animal faculties of man as well. If the egg exists in a pure form unmixed with any other ingredient, so much the chocolate.

Not only are we either necessary to the universe or beyond its sufficiency, as Berlinski would have it. We are also human beings. We are not an ape plus details, or an artificial intelligence minus details, or any other being plus or minus a few incidental traits. All of these beings’ traits are bodily. In us, bodily traits exist in addition to unique human traits. Since the composite is not a necessary one, our unique human traits also must exist alone, apart from any bodily traits, persisting beyond (chronologically and spiritually) our body, the way a piece of chocolate persists beyond a chocolate cake.

This persistent collection of human traits constitutes human life and human identity, and may comfortably be called the human soul. If we have not found G-d, we have at least found ourselves. And that is a large part of finding G-d as well, if our holy teachers are to be believed.


* It has especially been the role of Darwinism to displace this essential distinction; other modern philosophies like transhumanism have merely rushed to fill the gap left by evolution’s assertion that species are infinitely malleable. This is what Darwin means when he writes (quoted in Berlinski p.109), “[W]e will have to treat species in the same manner as those naturalists treat genera, who admit that genera are merely artificial combinations made for convenience.” Since species can change into other species by a series of piecewise steps, the species themselves cannot be essentially fixed. Each species becomes like a genus, that is, a group of species. Philosophically, there is nothing below the genera in this system, which to this essentialist sounds almost like an infinite regress, a tower built on air, a bunch of zeros summed to produce not just one but all known numbers. Darwin, of course, did not invent the philosophical aspects of evolution in his theory; earlier, more coherent versions trace all the way back to the essentialist Plato. His influential theory of forms implies an order of being such that differentiating essences may be appended to shared common denominators. Aristotle’s definition of man as the ‘rational’ animal is a prime example. To him, animality is a true shared essence and rationality the distinguishing factor, such that man and animal are metaphysically “related.” The Talmud (in law) and Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah (in metaphysics) repeatedly deny this ‘accretion of forms,’ particularly due to their commitment to creation ex nihilo.

**In fact, this is what makes the second recipe a normal recipe; “normal” for finite beings like us means “something from something,” the creation of a new thing by multiple parties in agreement. When G-d makes the universe ex nihilo, from nothing, He does so as the sole party to the creation (and He does not and cannot count as a “something,” hence, “from nothing”). He says, “Let there be light,” and there was light, and what was the cause? G-d alone. Nothing in our reality works like this; when we make something, it is by actualizing an already-existent potential, by attaching form to matter. Thus, there can, in principle, be no recipe (in the cookbooks of the finite universe) with only a single ingredient and no further instructions; this is not a “recipe” but just a food ready to eat. When we say G-d creates ex nihilo, then, we are saying He creates with no ingredients and no process. It is not just impossible for us to understand because we’ve never seen it, but impossible to understand in principle; there is no answer to the questions of “how” or “by what process” or “by what means” or “on what basis.” Creation ex nihilo is, by human standards, very not-normal.

***There is a third option, which is that the universe does not necessitate human beings but rather wills human beings to exist. Will has the advantage of being free, rather than necessary, and so ‘the universe’ can be sufficient to produce humankind without having to do so. For some reason, naturalists don’t seem comfortable saying an infinite intelligence willed humanity into being. If I had to predict, I’d say they’re far more likely to take the first option, that human beings are necessary to the universe, and downplay this concession by saying everything else in the universe is necessary to it, too. But this merely elevates all creatures to a position of literal cosmic significance, rather than returning humanity to the desired(?) position of insignificance.

****The conclusion of the discourse, moved to this footnote so as not to confuse the reader, is as follows:

And this that they ask based upon essence and accident, the ReSheT already answers there, that accident is not its own existence and exists only with an essence. Thus, it is not true that when you find the essence without the accident, you will also find the accident without the essence.

An example of this question and answer in the ReSheT, as I understand them:

(Q) You say if I run into a composite and one of its parts I will know with certainty that the other parts exist apart from the composite, but that seems to imply if I see a brown cake and then the same cake colored white, that “being brown” exists in a pure state apart from any cake! And this seems absurd.

(A) “Being brown” is the sort of thing that exists only as a quality of another thing, but is not a thing in-and-of-itself; it is an accident, not an essence. Accidents are exceptions to the rule outlined by the Rambam and with which we have learned the persistence of the soul from the Midrash. They cannot, by definition, exist alone, apart from any composite. This is in contrast with speech or eggs or eating, which are substantial.

G·d vs. The Virus

All it takes is a global pandemic for all the philosophy to come out. Though most of us are hard-pressed to describe a constant system of causality, that is, to trace actions or events definitely to what caused them, we suddenly must know. The virus must be so harmful as to justify our knowledge, a prime example of desperate measures calling for desperate times.

Even before the wet market and the outbreak and our collective gasp for breath, some appreciated the power of simple direct causation: “Vote Republican and my grandmother will die.” “Drive your car, and everyone will die.” “Teach that in schools, and everyone will die.” Death truly is the last refuge of the scoundrel and should be denied to him at all costs. Every personal and political decision in history has killed thousands, surely, and what we could have, should have done to preempt this Coronavirus is no different. But I am not going to the effort of putting pen to paper merely to laugh at consequentialist morality (an act, surely, that will eliminate some rare species of botfly from the heart of the Congo, etc.)—there is G·dliness to contemplate! (Animal soul: “Booo!” Me: “Can it, Sheldon!”)

The question is a simple one: To what extent does COVID-19 control G·d, and to what extent does G·d control it? We once discussed this in terms of Purim, the lottery, His face concealed and revealed in the nature of the day. The point, however, is profound enough, central enough to the difference between a G·dly and unG·dly life, to deserve a lifetime of contemplation (perhaps in this way we can fulfill the facet of divine worship called Mesiras Nefesh, self-sacrifice for G·d). Let us attack the question from a different angle called Hashgacha Pratis, individual divine providence, and the way Chassidic teachings transform the concept.

Individual divine providence means that G·d is actively involved in the universe at the level of each creation. It is a Jewish doctrine transformed by the innovation (revelation) of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, the Holy BeSh”T, a theological radical in all the best ways. It also, like many other principles of Chassidus (“G·d is everywhere” is another), is the way a typical eight-year-old in Hebrew school understands G·d. This childlike perspective is no accident. The simplicity of a simple Jew touches the simplicity of the Creator. But it would be a mistake to call the BeShT’s theology childish. It is nothing short of revolutionary:

“As explained by our master, the Baal Shem Tov, not only are all the particular activities of the created beings under Divine providence, and this providence is the life-energy of the created being that maintains its existence, but every particular movement of an individual created being has a connection to the intent of the creation as a whole…A slight movement of one blade of grass fulfills G‑d’s intent for the creation as a whole.”

from the discourse “Al Kein Yomru” 5696

Divine providence has historically been denied even by those who believe that G·d created the world from nothing. These are the deists and their ilk (in the straightforward reading) to whom the Alter Rebbe rebuts in the 2nd chapter of the 2nd part of the Tanya. Like other idolatry-adjacent beliefs, Deism derives from bad philosophy rather than simplemindedness. Because they imagine G·d can only cause effects through a close relationship with those effects (a limitation that only pertains to finite creations), they think divine involvement in His world contradicts His simplicity. They believe G·d abandoned the earth and is merely the ‘G·d of gods,’ the ultimate cause beyond, and today uninvolved in, nature. The response to this position, as the Alter Rebbe writes at length, is that creating something from nothing, on the contrary, necessitates the constant involvement of the Creator.

Jewish sages and rabbis, of course, have never denied G·d’s constant involvement in the creation, G·d forbid, just as all Jewish sages maintain that there is perfect and total divine knowledge. The debate has always centered around the extent and nature of G·d’s involvement in what He knows. Before the holy BeSh”T, some, like the Rambam, explained divine providence to rest only on individual people, but over all other species only in general. Per this view, G·d does not decree whether a specific fish should live or die, only that the species as a whole should survive, because it is only the species as a whole that is central to His plan. If the life of a single animal becomes a human concern, e.g., the peddler’s donkey dies and he suddenly has no more means of making a living, only then is G·d concerned with the individual animal. Even these sages seem to agree that the “chance circumstance” which rules over the lives of non-human creations is itself a decree of G·d, just as G·d decrees that human beings should have free choice. He decrees, in other words, that here something else should decree.

Opinions also vary as to whether there is divine providence over human beings equally. The Rambam in his Moreh Nevuchim (The Guide for the Perplexed) says providence is a function of the intellectual bond between man and G·d. Thus fools and evildoers are separate from total providence and left to some extent in the hands of nature just like other species.

The Chassidic doctrine of individual divine providence first introduced by the Baal Shem Tov is genuinely original, at least among the stated opinions and known philosophies of the Torah that have reached us. Although previous Jewish sages strongly support both G·d’s omniscience and, possibly, His constant creation of the universe, the holy Baal Shem Tov came and revealed a new light, a new facet of the Truth. G·d is involved in every aspect of the creation, and every aspect of the creation contributes to His plan for the entire universe.

In the Baal Shem Tov’s world, there is no room for chance.

But what if we are not stones or donkeys or even wicked fools? What if we are righteous, deserving of individual divine providence according to all Jewish opinions? Is there any innovation, then, in the Baal Shem Tov’s light?

A further wrinkle: Hashgacha, divine providence, as so far discussed, is a doctrine drawing G·d closer to mundane worldly realities; hence the Rabbinic hesitation to embrace it fully, for fear of contradicting His simplicity, His transcendent perfection. Providence, in other words, means G·d is involved even where He’s not expected, in the affairs and logic of finite and worldly things. But a Jew intertwined with Torah and Mitzvos, with the divine Wisdom and Will—what use does this Jew have for providence? The Creator shows Himself openly and directly in their G-dly affairs, within their holy pursuits! Per the sages before the Baal Shem Tov, providence is needed specifically where it will not go, to the mundane and the separate. And even the BeSh”T, who says there is providence for sinners, does not seem to explain why the non-sinners need it. A saint, a holy Tzaddik, does not need G·d’s hidden machinations; his very soul is a revealed instrument for the divine!

Which makes it strange to read the words of the Rebbe Rayatz. The 6th Rebbe of the Lubavitch dynasty, R’Yosef Yitzchak, a leader of the Jewish people whose very life was the Jewish practice and education he spread under the deadly watch of Stalin and the KGB makes a remarkable statement about his imprisonment, torture, and commuted death sentence in 1927. He says that if it had not been for his discussion of the Baal Shem Tov’s doctrine of individual divine providence in the discourses of Rosh Hashana of that year (תרפ”ז), he would not have had the strength to withstand his imprisonment.

To which, three questions:

(1) Every Rabbinical opinion we know would agree that the Rebbe, a saintly Jew who gives his whole life to the service of G·d and the Jewish people, experiences individual divine providence. So why was it the Baal Shem Tov’s doctrine, precisely, that gave him strength?

(2) Why is divine involvement in private affairs even relevant in this case? The Rebbe’s entire existence is a public devotion to the betterment of the Jewish people and the furtherance of G·d’s Will and Wisdom on earth. His life is inseparable from G·d, regardless of G·d’s involvement in mundane worldly affairs.

(3) Even if we wish to propose that the benefit of his contemplation of providence is finding G·dliness even in his enemies and imprisonment, why is providence the object of his thought? The heartening concept that finds G·d even in terrible oppression is “everything that comes from G·d is good”! Hashgacha Pratis, individual divine providence, merely says that G·d is involved, not that the bad is good. Under providence alone, we might say that G·d is involved in the thing, but it is indeed a harsh punishment or a bitter exile!

Indeed, there is an implicit tension between questions (2) and (3). If the Rebbe Rayatz’s whole life is one with public service in matters of Torah and Mitzvos, if his entire being is about G·d and not about himself, why would the apparent evil of his enemies and imprisonment bother him at all? We are speaking of a saintly Tzaddik who risked his life day after day to serve the Jewish people. The holy Rebbe had little concern for his wellbeing in a state of literal self-sacrifice. He was like the holy Rabbi Zushya of Annipoli, who said to the student sent by the Maggid to learn from him how to accept suffering with joy, “I lack nothing and have never suffered!” Such souls do not feel difficulty, do not feel pain, do not feel stress. Why does the Rebbe need to contemplate individual divine providence in the first place? On the contrary, like Rabbi Akiva, a Rebbe is grateful for the opportunity to give up his life for G·d!

Rabbi Akiva, however, who yearned for self-sacrifice and even to die for the sanctification of G·d’s name, is not the only Jewish path. Avraham, Abraham, our father, did not seek out self-sacrifice. His total devotion to G·d expressed in the spreading of monotheism. If this devotion called for self-sacrifice, he was willing to give up anything (indeed, even his divine mission itself, which is the secret of the Akeida, the binding of Isaac), but he did not seek it out. Thus, when Abraham sat in prison, he would not have enjoyed it. It would have been an interruption to his life’s mission of spreading the worship of the One G·d.

Thus, the Rebbe’s pain is like Abraham’s pain. The existence of a holy Jew is one devoted to G·d and others and especially to connecting others with G·d. In this mission, the personal risk or threat of bodily harm concerns the Tzaddik not in the least. (And here, the FIRST LESSON: to focus on helping others in the time of crisis will lessen our pain.) The righteous Jew is instead pained that his self-sacrifice might interrupt his holy work, might imprison them where they are unable to carry out G·d’s Will (here, a SECOND LESSON: where we can do G·d’s Will, we are free). It does no good, either, to say that because the Rebbe is now in prison, being in prison is now G·d’s Will. A Rebbe is not G·d’s employee, merely contributing to the cause to the best of his ability. The Rebbe, the Jew, is co-owner of the enterprise. Owners are in it for the result, and no to absolve themselves of responsibility. If the Rebbe is sitting in prison, he may not be guilty for his inability to spread G·dliness, but it still hurts.

Facing a global pandemic, and at any other time, there are two types of souls, each with its distinct mission. One gives itself over to fulfilling the task to the very end, no matter the coast, but in the end, once all effort has been expended, it feels no pain. All is by G·d’s design. He planned and expected the whole story, not just my part, but whether the thing will succeed at all—so why should I worry? So do faith in G·d, and the faithful execution of my responsibility, make for peace of mind.

Then there is the Jew who cannot rest, who is so bound up with G·d that G·d’s Will is his will. The Jew does not serve than then wash his hands. The Jew is a piece of G·d; G·d’s concerns are not merely his mission but his entire being. Never mind what G·d expects of me—what does G·d want beyond my responsibility? The job is on pause. It hurts.

(We see it in the story of the Rebbe Rayatz’s father, the Rebbe Rashab, in Petersburg, at a rabbinical council. He witnessed the Tsar’s ministers attempt to coerce the gathered Rabbis, with the threat of pogroms, to agree to secular education for all Jewish children. The Rebbe spoke so vociferously against the idea that he fainted, and his words were so pointed he was placed under house arrest. Once the Rebbe was freed, one of his rabbinic colleagues came to visit and found him weeping. The Rabbi asked, “Lubavitcher Rebbe, why are you crying? We have done everything we could do!”

The Rebbe replied, “But we still haven’t accomplished it…”)

Those with no faith, who do not believe G·d controls our affairs and whose lives are egocentric, feel pain when the crisis exceeds their ability and expectation. Those with faith whose lives are devoted to G·d in the selfless pursuit of the mission and who know G·d’s total control of all things feel peace. But those with faith, who know G·d controls our affairs, but for whom G·d’s mission is their very self—the crisis causes them pain, not because they are pained but because G·d is pained. They do not say, “G·d has other messengers to accomplish the mission.” Such false humility has no place in the inner spark of G·d that knows if its assistance were unnecessary it would never have been brought into being.

Thus, the THIRD LESSON: Pain in the faith of the crisis does not necessarily reflect a lack of faith. If we feel the pain, we should make it that pain that, as the Rebbe Rayatz says, the Baal Shem Tov’s doctrine of individual divine providence can heal.

As every chassid knows and rushes to explain, the descent is for the sake of an ascent. The concealment of G·d is that He may reveal Himself further. The essence of “Cursed is Haman” is “Blessed is Mordechai.” Moses doesn’t enter the land and passes away in the desert so that Moses’ work may become the possession of the entire nation. The darkness exists for the sake of greater light.

And yet, the darkness is still darkness. Jail time is by definition time spent not spreading G·dliness or helping Jews, despite all the inspiration that may eventually come from it. The virus is a killer and a terror, even though so much good might emerge from it. That’s why it still hurts. That’s how it yet, in its way, has control, yet denies G·d.

Unless you believe the Baal Shem Tov. The holy BeSh”T says that not only is every detail of the creation in G·d’s control, but every particular fulfills G·d’s purpose for the entire universe.

What is critical, in other words, is not that the BeSh”T extends individual providence to every detail of every creation. What matters is why. Until the Baal Shem Tov, divine providence was a hierarchy. The Rambam says individual providence is a function of the extent to which something understands G·d. The righteous have more providence, the wicked less. The enlightened more, the benighted less, a rock none in particular, for it knows nothing of G·d intellectually. A virus is more rock than a human being…Comes the holy Baal Shem Tov and reveals: Not only is every detail of each thing from G·d. Not only is it all by G·d’s plan in general. But each creation itself fulfills His general plan for the entire creation.

The Baal Shem Tov is no longer talking about G·d’s plan and the human being, as not-G·d, dealing with it, being at peace with it or feeling pain because it’s on hold and we are helpless. The Baal Shem Tov’s divine providence, at the fiery heart of Chassidus, is that there is nothing to fear but G·d alone because there’s nothing but G·d alone. The BeSh”T says if we have no pain but G·d’s, then there is no pain anywhere, for G·d’s will is everywhere fulfilled and nowhere unfulfilled. Light has no privilege, is no speedier or more direct a fulfillment of G·d’s plan, than darkness. The Rebbe remembers this and thereby makes from his imprisonment itself a G·dly perfection. The Soviets themselves decided to set him free. G·dliness did not merely emerge from the dark. The dark was G·dly and did not have to become light to be so.

The FOURTH LESSON: There is no despair in this world. G·d is not merely its Creator, not only deeply involved in it but equally present in all aspects of all creations beyond by our understanding of their natures.

Those who have not yet tasted the taste of Torah think that effects derive from comprehensible causes. In the crisis, they are either crushed (if wrong) or arrogant (if right). Until the Baal Shem Tov, those who made their will G·d’s will knew that their lives were the effect of an incomprehensible Cause, but the effects themselves were still comprehensible; dark is dark, no matter the light that emerges from it. The BeSh”T reveals that you understand the darkness as little as you know G·d because the darkness is just as immediate to G·d’s unfolding plan as the light, a direct and necessary fulfillment of His purpose for the entire universe. What you think darkness and light mean, they do not mean…

This freeing ignorance, this relinquishing of judgment, this disappearance of contradictions to G·d’s plan—this is the real freedom. We do not and cannot know what the virus is; all we can know is that it cannot contradict G·d’s highest and deepest intentions, any more than a thing can hide behind itself. The Creator is just as concealed by the virus as He was by the status quo ante. Whence despair?

We are bound up in the life of the living G·d. We have a mission. Nothing stands in our way. Let us proceed, without delay, to the immediate and complete redemption, when these truths will be as common and straightforward as a sour headline.


Based on the Rebbe’s renowned letter on Hashgacha Pratis, Igros Kodesh vol. I p.168ff and the Rebbe’s sicha for the 12th of Tammuz, Likkutei Sichos vol. XXIII p.157ff.

Purim in the Time of Coronavirus

There has never, in the history of the world, been a better week to celebrate Purim. Never have we been so instantaneously connected, so able to join our voices and declare, “According to my senses and calculations, we’re all going to die.”

The pain, the disappointment, the terror, when life makes no sense. Our role models who do real good turn out to do real evil as well. A people whom G·d has chosen to serve Him until the end of time is split over the nature of their terrible enemies. New diseases spread like wildfire, showing little concern for whether their victims are good or bad people. A world of madness, a lawless jungle whose only logic is power and whose only wise men are mad, nihilists, or hermits.

That’s why Purim is the holiday. There, the Jewish people in exile, cradling in their arms the shattered vessel of their faith, Babylon ascendant, then Persia. Look at their sages, dying embers with no land and no Judaism structured to last without a temple. The most powerful sober man in the civilized world is a descendant of the king of the Israelites’ greatest historical enemy, the one their king failed to kill. Economists and pedants say with great authority: The Jews (as they are now called) have no future in Persia; their prophets were mistaken; their G·d has forsaken them. End of the road.

“All the finite worldly things on which I have mentally and emotionally come to rely turn out to have been playthings in the wheel of chance!”

“The logics with which I have tended the garden to turn fate to my favor have been maliciously upended. I am being laughed at!”

“There is no G·d! We are but cockroaches in the wheel wells of a car heading down a ravine with no driver at the wheel!”

“It turns out I’ve been sating my inner emptiness with little puzzles as a chaotic jungle churns all around, and now it has stepped on my toys!”

This is our exile. Our exile has always been so sunny, so fair, so brimming with the rational possibility of our survival. But Purim is THE holiday because it’s the holiday of exile, and Purim is no mere survival. The Jews in Egypt toiling endless aimless labor were surviving. Purim is redemption. Purim is joy in that place of pain, disappointment, and terror. In the place that makes no sense.

The only interludes in the exile, the only times Purim no longer seems vital, are when we are so inured to the darkness it no longer seems dark. When we turn as those Jews did to Achashverosh, name some small realm of the senseless dark a dependable salvation, and settle for a partial explanation of some whorl in the vast churning unknowable. We make it first and worship it. This stage is called “prelude to Haman,” and Purim will again be demanded soon enough.

We have called senselessness the sign of exile. Knowing, logic, sense — a fitting in, a connection, each thing arrives at its place among the other things as Adam knows Eve. But Purim is not the apparent solution to exile, its opposite, that is, enlightenment, knowing.

Purim — to not know, to lose that place among things, to be blind to their interlocking:

“One is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until one doesn’t know the difference between ‘Cursed is Haman’ and ‘Blessed is Mordechai’.”

Talmud, Megillah 7b

Some authorities in Jewish law say that the comparison is mathematical, that it is no mere coincidence that the Hebrew terms ‘Blessed is Mordechai’ and ‘Cursed is Haman’ have the same numeric value in the Gematria. Thus, the Talmud is saying you have to drink wine on Purim until you can no longer reckon this mathematical equality. But (aside from not fitting the words well—you are not then drinking until you don’t know the difference but rather until you don’t know the equality) there is more to not know about Haman and Mordechai than the mere math of the thing.

Esther, the heroine queen who lends her name to the whole story (Megillas Esther) is named after concealment, “I shall conceal my face.”[i] Not only is her identity long-concealed from her husband, but Esther is itself a pseudonym for Hadassah, a name of doubled and redoubled darkness, concealment that is itself concealed.

Esther is not just the name of the work but its theme. Every other book of the holy Jewish Tanakh mentions G·d by name. Esther does not. It is apparently a story of natural events, political machinations, reversals of fortune, the workings of happenstance. These must pass for G·d in the story of Purim.

Mordechai, a hero of Purim, is the nemesis of the evil Haman. Yet in this respect, they seem to work together. Mordechai writes the Megillah and hides G·d’s presence within it. Haman is a scion of Amalek; hiding G·d’s presence is his specialty. Mordechai does not name G·d; Haman says naming Him would make no difference. Amalek has the same numerical value as safek, doubt. Haman is doubt. Should Mordechai not have stood against doubt, and named G·d?[ii]

Nowhere is happenstance, the Hamanic G·d, more present than in gambling and chance. The honest scientist, in his exile interludes, admits his firm laws are bound by the rules of possibility and statistics, down to (and especially in) the quantum realm. Even regular laws of physics from Newton to Einstein and beyond are applied “with all else being equal.” The sun will probably rise tomorrow and the eggs on my breakfast plate will probably be better on my digestive system than the plate itself unless something happens, something unpredictable. The dice roll, we find the ends of the bell curve, the impactful and unlikely, the proverbial black swan. As the Yiddish saying goes, Mahn tracht un G·t lacht. Man plans and G·d laughs.

If the book of exile is named Esther because G·d is hidden within it, exile’s holiday is named Purim because stuff happens, no matter the plan.  Pur is the Persian word for ‘lottery’. It is the lottery that lies curled at the heart of darkest exile. Who catches the virus? Not whom a just G·d chooses, but those who are exposed. Ah, some who are exposed don’t catch it? Luck of the draw. The thing-that-just-so-happens happened to just-happen to them. The only knowledge in the face of Cornovirus is knowledge for shifting the odds in one’s favor, not unlike praying to a trickster god in ancient Sumeria. No finite being can make real assurances, after all, for there is no being enforcing logical laws in the particular, that all things should fit, and something may fail to fit today. That’s Haman, that’s doubt, that’s the roll of the dice, a Pur.

This is what Mordechai and Esther name the holiday celebrating Haman’s defeat. Just whose side are they on?

There are so many things to not know. Rather than assuming Mordechai and Esther should be agents for knowledge and enlightenment, we attend to the very core of Purim and find a battle over ignorance, a fight for the soul of unknowing.

Attend: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, may be read as the ‘Day like Purim’. Superficially, they are quite different: Fasting and feasting, solemnity and joy, apologizing and celebrating. Yet on Yom Kippur, we find a striking parallel, a commitment to unknowing:

The High Priest on the Day of Atonement would choose by lottery between two goats, one exiled to die in the desert of Azazel, and the other designated a sacrifice to G·d in the Temple. On this holiest day of the year, not only were the goats chosen by lottery, but the randomness of that lottery is openly emphasized in Jewish law.[i] The goats must be equal in appearance, size, and value, and should be purchased at the same time. We are not to see any reason why one should go to Azazel and one to G·d. A lottery is not, after all, a logical choice, but a random selection among equally-likely outcomes. With minds like human beings or “G·d”, there is arguing. With the lottery, the forces of nature, Haman’s favorite things, there is no arguing. The doubt is inherent.

But the joke is on Haman. He thinks Amalek has penetrated the temple on Yom Kippur. In truth, ranks of infinite angels have praised the lottery, “happenstance,” doubt, and chance long before Eisav first sired Amalek or exile darkened the face of the earth. Haman’s favorite things are the source of all repentance, the essence of Yom Kippur, and even more the essence of Purim.

Repentance is the most powerful force in the universe, without which life would be completely impossible. Even the greatest Puritans, the greatest flingers of fire and brimstone (today often not religious in the monotheistic sense of the word), believe in repentance even as they are rebuking the heathen and condemning him to death. The proof: They believe they themselves are good, not bad. Without repentance, at this stage in history, it is impossible that they can think of themselves as good, and their enemies bad, without a belief in repentance.

This proof holds across widely varying definitions of evil. Repentance is a robust existential proposition, not merely a moral one. Let’s take an outlandish figure from the late exile: Hitler, may his name be obliterated. Old Adolf had an unusual definition of evil, we may all agree. The details don’t matter. What matters is that repentance is the essence of life itself, even for monsters. Just as no story of a sinner’s life does not include sin, no story of Hitler’s life does not include his enemies. It doesn’t matter if you demean those enemies, send them to the gas chamber, deny to the death any association with them—you are causally bound. That is, part of what makes Hitler, Hitler is what makes a Jew, a Jew. He can say he hates it and wants to destroy them; this is what the sinner says about his past. But how can the sinner escape? Just as there is no “pure Hitler” without the Jews because Hitler is defined in relation to the Jews, just as his every move is pervaded by their presence, how he cannot relieve himself without being a Jew-hater relieving himself, so are the sinner’s desire not to sin, his attempts at compensation, his apologies, indelibly tainted with violation. Oh, a sinner is asking forgiveness…?

Hitler, or the sinner, or any who seek to find innocence in the face of perceived corruption, those, in other words, who seek to be good while others are evil, have two options:

1) To refuse to acknowledge any influence. Reject the notion of logical connection per se and declare all actions to be a pure willing-into-being from the self. I am not a sinner; I am nothing but myself.

2) To somehow not be a sinner even while acknowledging the past connection to sin. To rewrite the past with the present.

The former option may be understood as logical, even in its negation of logic, like negative space. The latter option does not provide a means or an explanation at all.

The former is to doubt all defining truth in favor of on’s own will. The latter is to doubt the negation of logic itself, to doubt the doubt, to doubt the question.

The former is to cast a lottery among the actions, no one superior to any other, for no one can know which is preferable. The latter is to soar when one runs out of intellectual road, to do good even when my mind says good and evil are equal.

The former is to say that all actions are equal and so the difference between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai’ is illusory. The latter is to unknow into existence their inner similarity, to transform what is surely as evil as Haman into what is surely good as Mordechai.

The former is Amalek, Hitler, Haman. The latter is repentance and the light of the Jewish people.

But wait, did we not say repentance is essential to every living thing? If Amalek is able to reject repentance in favor of nihilism, of pure skepticism—if it can declare its doubts certain with total certitude—then there is another path, and one doesn’t need repentance in order to live.

Come to think of it, Hitler and Haman didn’t live very long…

We unknow the ‘cursed is Haman’ into ‘blessed is Mordechai’ not through ignorance or an appeal to the inner equality of all things, but repentance. The two goats of Yom Kippur are equal not because G·d and Azazel are equal, G·d forbid, but because we acknowledge that, if LOGIC were used to choose between the saved and the punished, we would be punished. We are not innocent in our understanding. We do not, per the web of causes and effects, do any righteousness unaffected by our past transgression. The only escape is repentance.

Repentance: To transcend G·d’s will for what is right to ask forgiveness from G·d Himself. There is no averting a decree signed with the King’s signet. But the King Himself may still come to our aid and sign a new decree. We may, by dint of our inherent soul-connection with G·d[i], speak to the One Who Wills, the One who may have willed differently.

The true source of all doubt, of Haman, of the darkness of exile, is a place where good and evil are as nothing before Him. There is felt there not G·d’s eternal unrevoked choice of good, but His ability to freely doubt, the fact that ‘good’ may have been ‘evil’ and ‘evil’ ‘good’ before him. That He chooses freely in the way His creations have been allowed to choose freely. That He has never been defined by good and evil, and they have been defined by Him; they, too, are His creations.

From here He can forgive, for from here, things may have been different; from here, He escapes the forms of all His own chosen logics. From here, He can wipe the slate clean.[ii]

How do we reach a place where He is somehow both good and yet not defined by being good? How do we find this place both beyond all knowing and the source of all knowing?

Lean in, say, L’chaim, and hear: The place is inside us.

The secret inner place of unknowing, which reaches into the cruel terror of illogical exile, reveals its inner blessing, and subjugates it in the eyes of all to the One King—its name is Bittul, self-abnegation.

The Jews of Persia choose self-abnegation beyond reason. They choose G·d even on the pain of destruction. Even when their every sense and reason says their existence depends not on a hidden G·d but on worldly considerations, they reject (and so elevate) those reasons and logics in favor of G·d. The correct course of action remains the same, even as they are placed in a position where they may well, according to reason, have chosen the other course of action.

The Jews of Persia are given a situation of doubt, a lottery. They do not know which way things will go. They place a finger on the scale and certainly determine the course of events by turning to G·d beyond all reason. They reveal the lottery to be a means by which they are reminded of the only certainty beyond the limits of logic. That things could possibly go Haman’s way is the callsign of a G·d unbound by any rules, even the rules of exile. The Jews repent, and ‘cursed is Haman’ becomes ‘blessed is Mordechai.’ The genocidal lottery becomes the holiday. The doubt is not removed but transcended, for it, too, is G·dly.

So in the time of doubt, in the time of terror, the solution is not logic and enlightenment. The pure joy of Purim does not lie down that road. All logics and explanations may be doubted. The joy of Purim is the joy of certainty, and certainty cannot escape doubt on a raft of facts. It is the joy of repentance, and repentance cannot escape the past on some new assurances from a sinner.

Certainty transforms doubt as repentance transforms sin, by freely choosing G·d in the dark. The joy of Purim is not an ignorant joy, but simply an unknowing one. It looks at all the reasons and explanations why our existence is difficult and pained and uncertain and sees that they, too, were choices, little messages of G·d, signals that sound in the dark. We catch them, hear them, and come home.


[i] ”From where in the Torah [do I know] Esther? ‘And I will surely hide my face.’ (Deut. 31:18)” Talmud Chullin 139b

[ii] Not knowing G·d is no mere incidental detail in the Purim story. That G·d is not named is no accident, but fundamental to the entire story of repentance under the threat of mass slaughter. In Jewish history, Purim marks the conclusion of the receiving of the Torah, which is one of the reasons it’s the latest book of the Tanakh. It was only in the story of Purim that the Jews truly accepted the Torah, because we only know the relationship is real when it is truly tested. In the concealment of G·d, the people freely chose Him. Purim is the choice of G·d even when he appears to be in no position to reciprocate with blessing. It is the proof that the love continues even when there’s a chance it’s unrequited. His hiddeness is thus integral to the importance of the day, a detail far too important to leave to chance.

[iii] Mishna Yoma beginning of ch. 6

[iv] Amalek’s doubts and its severing of all logical webs also derive from an inner ‘soul truth’, but only by rejecting the logical and finite aspects of the soul. The litmus test here as in so many things is unity. The proof that Amalek is OF the exile rather than redeeming the exile is that they are not alive (souls in bodies) but dead, nihilistic, or insane, the three escapes from unity, the three abjurations of G·d’s purpose.

[v] This place of His Choosing is one of the most misunderstood places in history. The slightest error or impurity in one’s conceptions of G·d, and it is impossible to see correctly. The errors generally fall into two categories:

(a) Those who think that if G·d does not choose the good over evil because of some logic, then good is not really good and evil not really evil. This is the path of the rationalists, ironically named, for it is to ignore the rationally necessary supra-rational basis of all rationality. Indeed, the freely-chosen good is greater than any good by its own definition, since the freely-chosen good is chosen infinitely.

(b) Those who think that because G·d relates totally freely to good and evil that G·d really does not choose between them and that there really is no truth to the difference. Or in other words, that WITH G·D, the details of one’s actions don’t matter, and the entire notion of divinely-commanded morality is superficial. This was likely the mistake of the founder of Christianity and of Shabbatai Tzvi, among others. They do not see how the good itself is rooted in the very being of the chooser, just as they cannot see how the actual finite existence of the world is no contradiction to His infinite unchanging unity.

Everybody Poofs

“Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is coming out to the water, and station yourself before him at the edge of the Nile, taking with you the rod that turned into a snake.”

AS HE IS COMING OUT OF THE WATER to ease himself. For he claimed to be a god and asserted that because of his divine power he did not need to ease himself; and therefore he used to rise early and go to the Nile and there eased himself in secret (Midrash Tanchuma, Vaera 14; Exodus Rabbah 9:8).

Exodus 7:15 with Rashi

A Jew once spent Shabbos with the Maggid and then went on his way. En route, he decided to rest and tied his packages to a nearby tree. When he awoke, his Tallis and Tefillin were gone.

When he heard what had happened, the Maggid instructed his visitor to attend a bris milah (circumcision), in the next town. One of the poor people there, whom the Maggid carefully described, was the culprit. The victim was told to ask for his belongings back, and if the poor man denied taking them, he was to repeat his demand in the name of the Maggid.

These directives worked, but the thief agreed to return the stolen goods only in the presence of the Maggid.

When they came to Mezritch, the poor man said to the Maggid, “I see you are very perceptive, and I can’t deny your claim. But do you have nothing else to do but observe thieves at work?”

“I was in the lavatory at the time. Only there does one see such things,” the Maggid answered.

from The Life and Times of Rebbe Dov Ber The Maggid of Mezritch by Yitzchak Dorfman

Why is Pharaoh so afraid of being caught relieving himself?

Certainly, we think of expelling waste as a lowly and undignified human function. Most of us still intuit what we can no longer explain because our educations were deficient: certain bodily functions are undignified because, if seen by others, they force others to think of us in pure bodily terms. Burping at the table. Picking our nose. And most of all the top two, namely Number One and Number Two. So perhaps Pharaoh thinks it’s undignified to be caught on his morning river run.

But does it really contradict his status as a deity? This is a man who said (Ezekiel 29:3) “The river is mine and I have made it for myself.” On the contrary, many ancient paganisms attribute all bodily functions to their gods, even really unpleasant ones. Could not Pharaoh have argued that his expelling of waste was, too, an occult function, a blessing upon the land, and the like?

But there is no freedom for false gods. Like all klipot, all husks, the worshiped form is defined only by external relationship; its existence is pure superficiality. The Nile is worshiped because it provides life, but if it is also blue and runs north-to-south, these, too, are aspects of its form. These are surely mere secondary qualities, less central to the Nile being the Nile than its life-giving irrigation of the fields. But secondary qualities are still secondary, that is, in some finite relation with primary qualities.

If I worship the Nile because of one of its qualities that my mind comprehends (it gives life) then all its other qualities that my mind comprehends (its color, the direction of its flow) can be and are linked to that first, primary quality. The blueness of the Nile reflects the glory of its life-giving waters, reflecting the great cloudless sky above the Giza Plateau. It finds the great sea wherever the sea rests, just as it rushes reliably to feed our crop, etc. etc.

So if I worship Pharaoh in his kingship or his power, but Pharaoh also, it turns out, uses the bathroom…

Pharaoh’s power is inextricably linked to the rest of his form. Although he may have created the river, that creation must somehow be explained in terms of relieving himself in it. There is, to the idol, no immutable core identity, no power or majesty that exists unto itself, without a form, without a defined relationship to the context of the idol. Pharaoh is great because of his claimed relationship to the world. Any other way he relates to the world, even the way he expels waste into it, must necessarily contextualize that greatness.

Not so, the G-d of Israel. Not so, His laws and His will, concerned intimately with the process of human waste expulsion. Not so, his Tzaddikim and sages who represent Him on earth, who are unafraid to admit they have bodies.

The callsign of G-d, the one of the four-letter Name that Pharaoh does not recognize, is the way he relates to finite things: He creates them yesh mi’ayin, ex nihilo, something from nothing. This is a relationship unlike any found in our universe; it may be called a non-relationship relationship. That is, He causes things by remaining completely separate from them, completely apart. They simply POOF! into existence with no rational explanation, and the ancient philosophers understood the explanation to be the cause. G-d is not entangled in the web of the things He does or creates or affects; on the contrary, he only does or creates or affects them by remaining apart from them. He creates a bathroom and yet is utterly and entirely undefined by what He has created; let’s see Pharaoh try that.

Thinking like an idolator is to find the relationships between finite forms. Thinking like a child of Abraham is to see that no such relationship can be the ultimate truth, that the Ultimate Truth stands beyond that web.

And so, a wondrous thing: The ancient idol worshipers, from Egypt to Greece to Sumeria, are obsessed with intermediaries and hierarchies, the chain of being, causes and effects, abstract and immanent forms. They know that excrement is lowly and kingship is lofty. And yet, kingship may never be so lofty as to make excrement purely lofty, too. Reduction to the lowest is not a modern invention.

G-d and G-dliness, however, fears nothing and embraces everything, because none of its relationships are defining relationships. Everything may move relative to G-d, but G-d does not move relative to them. And not as Aristotle would limit Him, to being an unmoved mover, an uninvolved abstraction, a non-creator. On the contrary, the mystery of something from nothing is that He is intimately involved, constantly creating, constantly “moving”, and yet he still does not move. Constantly burning, never consuming. Creating the dregs, yet ever remaining their Creator.

The fact that the king has to visit the river in the morning makes him less a king. The fact that the Maggid sat in an outhouse does not make him less the Maggid. It makes the outhouse a G-dly place.

The same way the Jew is not called to practice Judaism as some aspect of his or her life, but as an all-consuming full-time occupation. This does not call us to a monastery or a mountain, but to everywhere the non-Jew is called. Because G-d creates it all from nothing, all of it is part of being a Jew.

The same way even those of us who are, alas, imperfect, who have strayed from the righteous path, are undefined by our sins even as we commit them. Because G-d creates it all from nothing, none of it can deny Him. None of it raises a single echo when He declares, “I am the Lord Your G-d who has brought you out from Egypt.”

Four Useful Non-Jewish Ideologies

“The gentile makes gods of stone and we of theories.”
Isaac Bashevis Singer

Two questions:
(1) Is G-d true?
(2) Is G-d central to human perfection?

Judaism is not any particular combination of answers to these two questions.

If you answer no to both, you are what’s called an atheist. Atheism is the idea that G-d is not there, and that He plays no role in human perfection, which must be defined in terms of the human beings themselves. Atheism, however, is viewed as so contrary to logic that it is rarely mentioned in Judaism. It is, after all, merely an intellectually bankrupt form of idol worship and a spiritually bankrupt form of humanism.

Idol worship (a very common and relatively rational position) says G-d is true but that He is not central to human perfection. That is, there is such a thing as a Most High being, but that Most High being has abandoned the earth (or at least shared it) with lesser powers. G-d made the thunder, but some other being or concept rules it now; whether that concept is electromagnetism or Thor really makes no practical difference. G-d gave us a mind so we could bend these beings and concepts to our will, through sacrifice and understanding, to extend and improve our being. For the idolator, G-d answers a couple of bothersome questions so the real business of life, the navigation of the various finite powers, may begin. Judaism has been anti-idol since Abraham reached (or began to reach) intellectual maturity.

The opposite of idolatry is a dying art called “enlightened humanism” that says it does not matter if G-d is not technically true, since He is the center of a well-ordered life. In the beauty of art or the profound joy and pain of the human experience lies something once rightly called other, sublime, otherworldly. If philosophy cannot prove that these experiences point to an actually existing Infinite Creator, that makes little difference, since so much of our greatest artistic and intellectual endeavors point toward that Creator. Humanism is like the Pantheon in Rome. A beautiful classical structure with a high dome, at the center of which there is a hole, which at the time of its construction demonstrated a wondrous innovation in engineering: The building is no less beautiful, and can continue standing, even if the piece at the top and the center is missing. Judaism, of course, is founded on that center stone having taken us out of Egypt with miracles and wonders.

If you answer yes to both of the above questions, you are what is considered “traditionally religious.” You say that G-d’s Truth and His centrality to the human endeavor are one; G-d is both real, and I exist for Him. I am not sure you have yet discovered Judaism, however. The Rambam (never mind his kabbalistic critics like the Maharal) would tell you that calling G-d “true” is a gross intellectual error, and that all scriptural or rabbinic sources calling Him just that must be understood in the utmost negative abstraction, their names made possible only by revealed prophecy. A human mind landing on some notion called “truth” and then ascribing it to G-d? Preposterous. The Yiddish word for G-d is der Aibishter. The One Who Is Above, eternally above, above the thing we are conceiving Him of right now.

By the same token, to call G-d central to human perfection is so gross a contextualization as to be factually false. G-d in His Infinitude is far beyond being any basis of perfection humans may strive for, even moral perfection. Is this not the very essence of the chok, the suprarational decree no human being could possibly devise had the Torah not decreed it? We do not keep kosher for health or to have a nice ritual to make our community cohere; none of these can possibly explain the precise workings of the halacha, and bizarre cynical contrivances involving Rabbis making things up based on the norms of repudiated surrounding pagans (or the like) must come into play. This cynicism is important if you are traditionally religious; the Jew doesn’t need it, because he doesn’t have to answer yet to both questions.

Now, the Jew doesn’t deny that G-d being true and being central to human perfection are trivially (if not technically) correct. In this sense, traditional religion can serve as a vessel for Judaism, a sort of ideological shorthand for what it does not capture. Judaism as it speaks to these questions, if it is forced to speak to these questions, is like traditional religion. The problems start when that vessel coarsens and darkens, losing its role as a mere interface through which Judaism speaks to certain narrow definitions and becomes the definition itself. And when that happens, the other answers to the questions become incredibly useful.

If someone is getting too comfortable both intellectually and morally, that is, with the conflation of G-d with truth and of G-d with self-perfection, atheism is a good way to kick over their blocks. “Look at all these arguments that say the truth and the human being are both just fine without G-d.” Thus, the Chassidic Master who said that a Jew ought to be an atheist when their fellow man asks for charity or help. We ought not to say, “G-d will provide for them.” Atheism exists to break through the opacity and coarseness of our representations of G-d.

If their issue is primarily making of G-d a source of blessing and benefit to the human endeavor, idolatry is the temptation: “He exists, I grant, but it doesn’t matter! His benefits are achievable without Him. Why pray when you can work, protest, exercise, or study?” The difficult question for the believer that they ought to ask themselves every night: Is there more to me than there was to Abraham’s father? Would I have seen what my forefather saw?

Finally, if they are not concerned with fitting G-d in their heart but rather hold Him as an intellectual ideal, humanism retorts, “You can be spiritually ordered and complete as G-d would want without G-d needing to actually be there; G-d was the center of your heart all along.” Why do you sit at the Pesach Seder, or light the Chanukah menorah? Are these functionally any different than attending a museum? What makes the Jewish Film Festival Jewish? These, too, can be uncomfortable questions for comfortable Jews.

Traditional religion, in turn, reminds each of these errors that they, too, are errors. It fights atheism’s range of arguments when they wish to end the matter, rebukes idolatrous gnosticism, and rages against humanist myopia.

Meanwhile, the Jew. The Jew belongs to something else, and many sense it. As a perceptive fellow once said, “There is a certain people scattered and separate among the peoples throughout all the provinces of your kingdom, and their laws differ from [those of] every people, and they do not keep the king’s laws; it is [therefore] of no use for the king to let them be.”

The king is no mere drunk historical Persian lecher. The king is The Ruler of All. The problem is, this is a worldly concept, a translation of the truth. When the Torah calls G-d King, it means He is both more a king (in the defined sense of the term) and that He is not a king at all (in that sense). The space of the ark exists to express that there is no space. The center of Judaism is the center because it is not on the map. As ideologies fight and refine themselves upon each other, we remember that they exist for G-d, and not vice versa. So should we exist.

Morte e Satisfação Ao Lado do Tejo

Beneath the needled boughs on the banks of the Tagus. Why ever move again? The air is cool and breezy off the mighty estuary. Gulls croak all around. Behind is the bustle of Lisbon, the distant breath of automotive traffic, the clashing of a pot in a restaurant no-doubt desperate for off-season custom. Today is a good day; it isn’t raining.

Why ever move again? The Ponte Vasco de Gama, longest bridge in Europe, unfurls to my left like a misplaced spasm of Louisiana, a momentary whiff of Pontchartrain and beignets and bayou. The cable car to the oceanarium drifts silently overhead. It is impossible to wonder with anything more than the curiosity of the content whether today they have any takers. Calm waters and limpid skies give way at the horizons to clouds, not the droning omnipresent gray of Sunday but white cotton East toward the rest of Europe, and upriver, future rain-bearers. One of the restaurants has hung chimes which soften the squeaking and clanging of walkers along the promenade, their presence just constant enough to remind me I am not outside of civilization but on the edge of a pocket of peace folded against its loving bosom.

The bridge crosses the river so I don’t have to. Why ever move again?

It is possible to step on the Vacso de Gama bridge and walk to Vladivostok without your feet leaving pavement. But Vladivostok is only an idea in Lisbon, an implausible theory. If I was the bridge, a simple unprepossessing miles-long concrete structure, I could have Russia implicitly. I would in some sense run there at every moment, be there by being in Lisbon, my body my grandfather’s whom I have never met.

But I am not even the bench I am sitting on, nor this pen, nor even the fingers manipulating it. I’m certainly not the distant dirty-snowed port, salmon and cod by the millions failing to warm its air. If I want to cross the river, I have to move. I at the very least have to move my thoughts. But why ever move again?

“Your body will need something eventually,” a voice within threatens. Perhaps. But perhaps I reject the notion. Adam didn’t need in Eden; courageous Korach didn’t need in the wilderness. They were perfect just as they were. Perhaps I will waste away here on the bank of the river, because it is an insult to beauty and G-d’s creation to need anything, a rejection of the lapping waters and the moment in which they lap and all else that fills it. Motion is betrayal. Maybe I will die here with honor, the empty bench remaining as a testament to my discovery of G-d right where I sat.

As the sages or King Solomon might connote, and as I’ve been trying to say for a few paragraphs: existence is suffering. And as father Avraham teaches us, my still death beside the Tagus would itself be a motion, a furthering of my existence, a departure from the non-being I smell within the infinitesimal fraction of here and now.

It is no simple thing to cease to be accessible at your own metaphysical address, to rig your front door so that when they batter it down they meet nothing but G-dliness. An accessible existence is a notoriously difficult thing to dispose of. When Descartes said cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am, it was with a note of triumph, having ascertained that there was at least one thing he could not doubt, namely the existence of the one who was doubting, i.e., himself. He should have mourned. The prisoner cannot free himself. Actions grounded in our own knowing are grounded in us and so no matter their apparent valence shall always reinforce our existence.

Martyrdom is no escape. A monk sets himself on fire in protest. His form is lost in the flames; his soul passes from the material realm. His existence is no longer accessible, not as itself…right?

Do we not find the monk’s existence immortalized through his actions? Is he not found, there in the heart of his protest, for all eternity? He has become part of something larger than himself; he has traded a small mortal form for the form of the idea. His existence is now eternally accessible, more easily found. It is a martyrdom of self-extension.

The call sign of this self-perpetuating martyrdom is its logic. The human condition: our “independent” selves are functions of other selves. I’m bigger than little brother but smaller than father, smarter than a fifth grader but dumber than Einstein, a giver to students but a receiver from teachers. The tie that binds, the triangulating system binding us to other nodes in the web of being, is logic.

When the monk sets himself on fire, he does not sweep his locus on the web clean; on the contrary, he ascends to the state of pure logic, his node full of web. “The tenets of my religion define me,” he said before he was burned. “There is nothing here but the tenets of my religion,” he says now.

The node is not empty; it is so full as to merge into its surroundings. A living monk may sever the connections, shift his position, leave Buddhism for atheism or Sikhism. A martyr of self-extension has locked his logic into place. He has moved beyond being a single thing among all finite concatenated things, and become a principle of concatenation, an idea, infinitely more present, undying.

In other words, death and life are not continuing and ceasing to be in this world. Being is to be in the web of logic. Death can reinforce and intensify this being. It is not, itself, an escape.

Avraham is the first to break free of the web, to wrench himself free, to non-be. Our father rebels against all his holy logic by binding Isaac upon the altar. In his mad devotion to G-d he sets aside his beliefs and religion and the extension of his line. When logic tells him “G-d promise a nation through Isaac,” that his son and he are tied by the web, Avraham ties his son and thereby cuts the connection. When logic tells him G-d does not desire human sacrifice, he turns away. When it insists that martyrdom is only for a cause, Avraham is willing to not be a martyr, then. There is no ground for the sacrifice of Yitzchak in what Avraham is. On that mountain he exerts none of his own logic.

Is this not the very inscrutability of G-d made manifest? When Maimonides writes that we cannot even affirmatively say that G-d exists, what he means is that G-d is not a being of the web. He exists only because He is himself, relative to no other thing, and so the verb “to be” means something incommensurately greater in his case. Avraham is only able to be nothing before G-d by dint of the G-dly nothingness within. He is not nothing by external relationship to the Creator (a further web) but by faith, the inner path, a capacity built into his very being.

If he is not defined by any web, what remains is not more of Avraham, but none of him, which is also, absurdly, Avraham— the deepest truth of Avraham, his G-dly truth. He found it not through stillness and death. He found it by riding to the mountain on G-d’s command.

Why ever move? Because it is the only way to stay still. Why abandon this moment here, where the birds of prey swing low on the winds of the continent to hunt the glassy blue waters? It is the only way to keep it.


November. Dusk. Lisbon.
All the demons here
are my own.

A million moorish tiles weeping.
Strangers on the Praça offer hashish and cocaine in stage whispers.
Dark cobbles, dark thoughts.
The square was urbane, European, and soothing
before I learned
from the Bubbe in the purple bonnet
urging me to plunge my youth
into the city
before the single synagogue
is returned by demographics and economics
to the post-Inquisition peace
with the pogrom.
Here they burned the Jews.

All the demons here
are my own.


The Jews of Lisbon saw the waters of the Rio Tejo from the Praça do Comércio before they were burned at the stake. They were no mere martyrs. They were descendants of Abraham, torn from the web, instantiating the inner G-dly void closer to them than any logic or definition.

There was, in the preceding silence, a perfection against which there is no rebelling, a stillness that could not be moved. There were no bodies that hungered, no directions to reach in, no seconds to measure. Why ever move?

Then, a sigh, and there was light.

11 Lessons for Existential Tourists

The Chassidic masters recognize there is something both profound and wrong with uprootedness, travel, the state of being on the road. Their approach is too complex for a full survey here, but we need for contrast look no further than the (desirable) recognition of the Maggid of Mezritch that he is but a traveler in this world and the (undesirable) doubled and redoubled darkness of the exile to which the Baal Shem Tov referred.

What seems clear is that Home is where we belong, but we may need to travel far afield before we are able to reach it, a “long short way”, through the deep night, the muddy road, with a faulty wagon and good cheer and a chassidic melody and perhaps just a drop of mashke.

This week I have been a tourist in the simplest physical terms, in cities of flesh and blood. Folded into the experience, resonant within its bones, are lessons I recognize from the long ride ’round to the entrance of the shining city of G-d.

1 – You only need to know a little to help others.

The Rebbe says, “If you know Alef, teach Alef.” A single letter, a simple principle. The beggar receives enough charity to give charity of his own and is in a way less the beggar with only two coins. I have never in my life been to the town of Sintra before this morning, but I already know more about it than I think. A Korean couple asks me how to get where they are going and I am wrenched from my private musings and find, to my surprise, I have the wherewithal to help. This never would have happened, had I remained home.

2We can choose what is best to see, and remain ignorant of the rest.

The Holy Baal Shem Tov says, “Where a person’s mind is, that’s where he is.” I am sure there are Portuguese politics and Portuguese complaints and sneering cynics who see the whole affair coming apart at the seams. These are things I am in America. But my surroundings have changed, and I wear my ignorance of even the language like a cloak. Is the architecture of Lisbon less magical because I’ve never seen “Iberian Peninsula’s Got Talent”? The question answers itself. Direct your heart to the good and true and beautiful, and the rest can simply fall away.

3 – There is obvious beauty where the crowds go, and less obvious beauty where they don’t.

Do not separate from the congregation, but woe is to the wicked, and woe is to their neighbor. If thousands are walking down a certain fork in the road, chances are, there is something worth seeing down there. But why rush? Take the wrong fork, and find something equally new to you, perhaps smaller and more modest, but no less special. G-d brings us to exactly where we’re meant to be, and sometimes that may well mean breaking from the group. Do not be afraid! He is the light to all feet, even those on the unbeaten path.

4 – The locals go around every day not realizing how beautiful it is, and we are all locals somewhere.

There are people (I’ve watched them) who put their heads down and walk to work right past the Rossio Station, one of the more beautiful buildings this yokel from suburban America has ever seen. We must not judge them. We surely do the exact same thing where we live. A guest for a while sees for a mile. When my friend David moved to Atlanta, he was shocked by the beauty of the forests. We must sometimes forget our homes in the past before our plane flights in order to remember them.

5 – G-d creates and sustains and dwells in infinite lives of which we’re not even aware.

How many are Your works! We can know this sitting on I-75, but a small curled thing deep within us feels egotistically that everyone on I-75 is somewhat like us, that somehow in proximity to our home they are caught in the web of our being. On the train into the Portuguese countryside, you see maids and police, apartments in a foreign style brocading a hillside, shacks in verdant valleys, and the same thought hammers again and again: “What is it like to live there?” Again and again, we have no answers. Yet G-d is as close to the residents as He is to us, closer than our very selves, and attends to their foreign path just as he attends to ours. What mysteries He knows beyond the small walls we build to feel large…

6 – If you build something really good it can bring joy to others for generations.

Not only dramatic crenelations or fine tile-work make for gifts to the future. A life of good deeds, each one eternal, raises a structure that no time may dull.

7 – The priceless, majestic things are less comfortable than our life today.

The king of Portugal’s vacation bedroom was less comfortable than our bedrooms at home, most of us. The bed is made of who-knows-what, the room is drafty, it’s cramped and not very large, and no matter how much gold and silver you inlay in the headboard, it does not grow more accommodating. The trick to being a king does not seem to be an easy life in particular, and if it was, there might not be much to marvel at in the old palace. We are privileged in our generation to face little external oppression, to thrive in comfort. We may set out from this place to discomfort ourselves with the burdens of beauty and purpose.

8 – A lot of people like Jews, and if you look like a Jew you will have the pleasure of meeting some of them.

Fear displaying your Jewish identity because of antisemites and you will not reap the rewards of Jewish pride. The Uber driver from the airport asked me about the Jewish history of Lisbon, and in exchange for tidbits on Sephardic Jewry, gave me a free brief history of Portugal. The doorman of a hotel where I am not staying flagged me down, asked me if I was Jewish, and told me I must visit the synagogue and the Jewish cemetery; he tells this to non-Jews as well; they are an essential part of the city. The light at my feet shone extra bright in these moments, like a swell of nachas.

9 – Getting lost is okay if you value the journey.

Just as most sin results from a disbelief in the ease and efficacy of repentance, the angst of getting lost with the useless Pena Palace map results from a need to be somewhere in particular right now. Trust a little that you can get back to the right place from where you are, that you are on the right path though not the one on the map, and life is blown into the nostrils of your errors. They carry you to places you never could have reached had G-d made you differently, that is, perfect.

10 – Effort is easier with knowledge of a worthy prize.

Sometimes we don’t have the energy, and often it’s because it doesn’t seem to be worth it. I am not speaking about distant afterlife rewards. I am talking about the indwelling reward at the heart of the experience itself. We do not climb the impossibly steep hill next to the funicular or the insanely tall steps of the Moorish Castle because of some distant present from a passive observer. We do it because they are redolent with their own reward; is not every single step another notch in the angle of the view? Can you not stop to catch your breath and look over your shoulder and see new lights of the city you have created as if from nothing with the simple lifting of your feet?

11 – More travel leads to more roads, and so the proper destination may be right here… 

Arriving is a mindset, not a place on the map. There is no destination we cannot dilute into a step on the path with our own doubts. But this is a good thing; just like the impossibility of knowing the entire Torah, it points to the potential infinitude of our own experience, the way G-d has placed no limits on our own growth. To be a happy tourist, then, whether in the National Palace or this life, is to hold two opposites in mind and appreciate both: we have reached somewhere worth reaching, and we have so much further to go. This is not a contradiction. The road lends meaning to our home, just as travel abroad lends meaning to our own country, teaches us how to look at it again, and find within it powers and potentials hidden by our tendency to see it as a sleeping place.

Celebrating Halloween the Chassidic Way

“Why can’t we just celebrate Halloween if it’s secular nowadays?” ought to be a self-answering question for observant Jews. Alas, our passion against paganism may still exist in at least a dormant state, but our passion against secularism does not. That the two are even related has been largely forgotten. Come, then. Let us celebrate the 31st of October in the Chassidic fashion:

The Rambam tells the whole sad story in the first chapter of his laws of idol worship, for it must be the reader’s goal to eliminate foreign worship from our minds and hearts, and our minds and hearts are where, in the story, it first got in. It was the mind and heart that first turned to idols and eventually away from G-d entirely.

No reasonable person could conclude that there is no ultimate purpose or end to the creation unless an alternate explanation presented itself. Man was formed by G-d’s own hands and spoke to Him face to face, so the alternate explanation had to be pretty good. And it was; it was based on G-d’s will itself, an interpretation of it.

First, the generation of Enosh erred in philosophy and reasoned that since G-d has placed the sun as the source of sustenance for the earth, it deserves worship, too. They applied this logic to all spiritual forces, the four elements, constellations. They valued G-d so highly as to make Him irrelevant, a watchmaker, a disinterested king.

False prophets then arose who claimed the intermediaries yearned for worship, that G-d Himself demanded it. And with the stretching out of years, the Creator, quiet and unnecessary, was then forgotten entirely.

If other beings, creations, have importance or efficacy, then they have explanatory power. So was room made for the secular, which existed in theory inherent to the nature of the sun, but needed human reason to bring it out. The realm of things having nothing to do with G-d is first created when we mistake G-d for having created it.

In the Rambam there is little separating idolatry from secularism.* One leads to the other directly; they constitute the error and its eventual consequence.

Today, for whatever reason, we have separated between the unnatural and the natural, the pagan and the secular, witchcraft and philosophy. As we have become ever-more physical even in our spiritual sensibilities, we have come to think of sun worship as something distinct from our experience even as we have come to see secularism as the natural neutral substance of life. A witch cursing an apple for Snow White is a fairy tale, but an apple as a colorless tasteless purposeless hunk of stuff that just exists is called “reality.”

We want to distinguish between sinister necromancy Halloween and cute kids asking for candy Halloween. The latter is clearly not as strange or threatening as the former. The latter could at least theoretically be diverted to G-dly ends, and that is the advantage of secularism over its idolatrous roots. Secularism wants to see things just as they are, and things as they are exist for G-dly purposes, no matter how narrowly you look at them. But if we seek no such purpose and take the secular merely for itself, we live in its lowliness, in its coarseness, in a state of idolatry to which an additional forgetting and numbing have been appended. Such was the world that our father Abraham was born into, per the Rambam, before he walked its sands and peered at its luminaries, before he rediscovered G-d and made Him an heirloom.

We shall not escape secularism through reason centered on our own benefit or perfection. Reasoning with the will of G-d as it relates to our benefit and perfection is what the generation of Enosh did. G-dliness can be found reliably only within a simple faith in Moses’s prophecy, something the Creator gives us and we cannot create. With this, a chassid celebrates the 31st of October and the 2nd of Cheshvan and all other days, past, present, and future.


*By providence, enlightenment secularism has called itself Secular Humanism, and humanity in modern Hebrew is literally Enosh-ity; perhaps we should begin calling it Secular Enosh-ism, to remember.