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.

There’s No Such Thing As A Simple Idolator

Fourth member of a Sukkot series on the teachings of the Holy Baal Shem Tov. Members the 1st, the 2nd, and the 3rd.

“The wholesome simplicity of the simple Jew touches on the utterly simple essence of G‑d. ”
The Holy Baal Shem Tov

It’s tricky to be simple. The opposite of chassidic simplicity is often characterized in the discourses as tachbulos, i.e. schemes, machinations, attempts to engineer, from the raw materials of life, positive outcomes for oneself. A schemer denies the absolute dominion of the Creator over the Creation. He denies individual divine providence, a major theme of the Baal Shem Tov’s Judaism. He denies miracles, too. His world is ruled by…whom, exactly?

The Rebbe writes that worldly hanachos, that is, the grounding axiomatic assumptions provided to the mind by the world, are the first step on the road to deep spiritual rot. One who plans to get ahead by scheming has made an error that surely impacts his heart.

I am reminded of a different teaching attributed to the Baal Shem Tov: He refused to ride with a non-Jewish wagon driver who would not cross themselves as they passed their place of worship, for fear they would steal from him, or worse.

This teaching makes many of us uncomfortable today, and for a number of reasons. One of them is our difficulty relating to the Baal Shem Tov’s distinction. Today, thank G-d, we do not generally assume that, barring some sort of religious test, any person walking down the street is a thief. Perhaps this is a testament to our greater ethical standing today, the way even the “irreligious” members of our society tend to be raised with religious virtue. Perhaps it’s the opposite: religion today is so weak that it has no influence and we thus have no useful distinguishing metric and must merely hope the citizens around us will be compelled by law and custom. Paradoxically, thrown back on our own resources, we fear mutual destruction.

Whatever the reason, we need a new notion of the village pagan, the baseline Jew-hating idolator uncivilized by the mores of Abrahamic religion whom we might find rolling in the mud of Poland three hundred years ago. We need to understand why we would fear him, why a bit of G-d* would make him less scary, and why any of this matters in a Sukkah in the suburbs of Atlanta in 5780.

A wagon driver steals from you as a scheme, a means to get ahead, whether physically (he needs to eat) or emotionally (he needs to pay back some perceived slight) or spiritually (he needs to enforce his own sense of his existence by wilful action, thereby holding emptiness and futility at bay). He does not trust G-d to fulfill these needs.** He takes matters into his own hands, and not merely to make a vessel for G-d’s blessing, as he would by working an honest job to provide for his family, etc. No, he believes that some kind of success will result purely from his own action.

He is not so different from the generation of Enosh described by the Rambam in the Laws of Idol Worship, who came to pray to sun and moon because he saw these luminaries providing the crops with succor. The wagon-driving thief is like the sons of Egypt, who worshiped the Nile, not because they did not understand it or feared it but because their lives seemed consistently to depend on it.

Tachbulos/schemes are similar to idolatry in the sense that both ascribe efficacy to the finite and manipulable. They both find force in knowable forms. When Pharaoh says he does not know the G-d of the Four-Letter Name, and the wagon driver fails to acknowledge his ostensible place of worship**, they open themselves up to alternatives. Pharaoh says “The Nile is mine and I have made it for myself.” The wagon driver says, “I earn by the power of my own hand.”

That’s what makes these men dangerous. It’s not that a believer in G-d can’t be a murderous king or a robber. It’s that others possess no inner countermeasure they can place against these impulses, nothing as real as the need for their own satisfaction. Ultimately, their reality is ordered to their own ends; everything in the world may be used to further their purposes, and it’s unclear why, if one is physically able, one should not take advantage. Sure, other people are real, and all human beings feel hurting others is wrong. But the reality of the other is ever-grounded in myself; they are as real, ultimately, as they may be some portion or corollary of myself; my mother, my neighbor, my comrade.

In other words, the hidden axiom underlying the revealed “gods” of idolatry is that all realities may be expressed as a function of my own. The concealed G-d of Abraham, by contrast, is Himself the basis of all realities; the axiom is named and placed infinitely beyond our reach.

The way to touch that ground of all things, as the Baal Shem Tov teaches us, is therefore not through striving and scheming, but through simplicity and sincerity, the lack of striving, transparency to the G-dly truth at the heart of all things. If the wagon driver acknowledges G-d, then he acknowledges something real inside him to place against the animal cries of his own being, to contradict the inner pharaoh.

We would be deeply mistaken to assume that idolatrous tachbulos no longer exist. Perhaps among the general population in a kind and religious country, the Baal Shem Tov would be less concerned. Then again, when order is crumbling and the wild eyes of a younger Europe are showing through the cracks, perhaps not. Either way, we’d be wise to watch for signs of danger.

When you meet, today, an idea that has a person, rather than vice versa, this emits the scent. Ideas please us because they fit with our reality rather than deny it, the same way the affirming and kind Nile pleased Pharaoh, and may be manipulated accordingly. Would you ride in a cab with a driver who is a known member of an extremist group, whatever its political persuasion? Would you be secure knowing that they believe in an image of what is good and right, and anything that will serve that image is itself good? Would you sit comfortably knowing that they acknowledge nothing real that encroaches upon their visions?

The holy Baal Shem Tov came to redeem Judaism from the images that attached themselves to its true inner simplicity. He taught that G-d is not an idea, that sincerity is worth more than study, that He cannot be known. He taught that the Mitzvah itself, the commandment, is of inherent infinite worth, that it is not a means to an end but an end unto itself, as is the Jew. He hoped to rescue us from the striving of self-perfection and -preservation, to reach into these webs of logic and draw forth a soul, a single point, perfect and whole no matter how deep it was buried.

Sit in the Sukkah, shake the Lulav, give Tzedakah, and do it not to accomplish anything, but simply because it is the will of G-d. This is simplicity: The place within us from which shines into our every act the faith that we were not created, except to serve Him.


*If he’s Jewish, he may know the unique mishegas of praying as you dig your tunnel for success in your theft, or attending shul on Yom Kippur even if you “don’t believe in G-d”. This is why we find many Chassidic tales, especially those of the Shpoleh Zeide, redeeming Jewish thieves and exploring the great worth of their hidden simple faith.

**Putting aside for the moment the question of whether Christianity itself constitutes idolatry. For an exploration of this tension hidden in the story of the Baal Shem Tov, see “On Churches, Wagon Drivers, and Contradictions“.

Mutually Assured Destruction

I once read in an economics book that the reason Jews are successful in the diamond trade, an industry where the merchandise is portable, difficult to trace, and extremely valuable, is because of their close-knit social structure. A group of self-selecting strangers, the type of group normally comprising industry players, must slowly over time establish systems of trust and punishment to prevent fraud. But if your client is married to the tochter fun shvigger’s shvester or the like, they won’t cheat you, because they have to face you at the seder. At least, it is significantly less likely. This system of social trust gives the religious Jews a competitive advantage.

A different name for the “system of social trust” is mutually assured destruction, a theoretically macabre but practically quite peaceful state of affairs you may also recognize from the Cold War or driving a car. In these outlandish situations, what keeps the actors in line is a powerful sense that steering out of one’s lane will instantly incur upon oneself at least as much pain as it will upon others.

Mutually assured destruction may seem a necessary evil of an imperfect world where love and trust do not prevail. Then we read the Midrash:

Bar Kappara said, the soul and the Torah are compared to a lamp. The soul, as is written, “The lamp of G–d is the soul of man.” And the Torah, as is written, “For a lamp is the commandment and the Torah, light.”

G-d says to man, “My lamp is in your hand, and your lamp is in my hand; you have my Torah and I have your soul. If you preserve my lamp, I shall preserve yours, and if you extinguish my lamp, I shall extinguish yours.”

Devarim Rabbah 4

This talk of extinguishing makes us anxious, and indeed, can even read as a threat. On the other hand, it is a very poor threat that points out we can extinguish His lamp…

Mutually assured destruction is, in fact, a form of closeness deeper than love, the way politeness and decorum are deeper than camaraderie. When the love and the camaraderie run out, protocol remains, regimentation to fill the gaps in our aptitude. Just as the wood of my shelf can hold hundreds of pounds of books with shocking inanimate strength, so do the orders and duties bear the weight of experiences that would crush our more “human” faculties.

If an ideal world and an ideal relationship with G-d (but I repeat myself) lacked any uncomfortable closeness, any mutually assured destruction, would it not be a shallower world than ours? It would surely be a victory to never have any talk of extinguishing the very light and life of our beloved, but a victory at what cost? Do we want to win on a technicality, because no one ever finds a reason to extinguish the flame? Or have we been placed in this world to learn to accept the terrible entwining of our being with G-d, beyond the level of choice? Is this not the positive outcome of stuff happens (and happens for no apparent reason)?

“Diamonds are forever” has become easy to mock in recent years in light of the dirty and manipulative industry devoted to making the gems desirable. But the slogan is a perversion, not an invention, and we throw the underlying truth away at our peril. We desperately need things that are valuable for no reason, valuable like family, valuable like G-dliness.

Mutually assured destruction is necessary to teach us trust. The Rebbe, too, was in the diamond business. He said about standing and greeting people for hours at Sunday dollars that “counting diamonds one doesn’t get tired.” Just as those religious Jews need trust because they trade in objects of inherent value easily lost, so does G-d, so do we. Trust is necessary in a world of scarce reasons and true souls, and the trust is born of entanglement. We carve letters out of our very flesh, placing shapes into ourselves that become our own form and so cannot be washed away without our own dissolving.

On Cynical Chassidim

An argumentative tactic that has become a religion in our time is the reduction-to-lowest-quality. You may have heard it used to compare human beings to animals and find no difference, or Israel to Nazi Germany. The trick is not merely to focus on common denominators, which is the basis of probably all rational thought. It is to decontextualize the common denominators, to approach them as if they only lend context rather than absorb it and transform.

Take the example of man as nothing but an animal. Trivially, this is a self-refuting statement. No other animal has ever thought this about their own species; merely by considering ourselves abstractly and expressing this single consideration we pull away from all our neighbors. The reductionist knows this, and it doesn’t matter, because he decontextualizes common denominators. A chimp defecates and human beings defecate; a chimp fights over a mate and so does a man; these common denominators are meant to be determinate.* It is never that the human being’s waste disposal is different because he is able to think about it abstractly. It’s never, “Modern plumbing and meaningful ritual have elevated and transformed this common denominator so profoundly that it’s actually incomparable.” It’s always, “Modern plumbing and meaningful ritual must themselves be an iteration of something chimps do, because look, we defecate!” The common denominator is taken (on faith) to inform the difference and render it irrelevant, rather than vice versa.

This absurd devotion to the lowest in things is different from what we might call mere dispositional cynicism, that wariness attaching itself to mugging victims. These latter pessimists can easily repent, as their fear is conditional and grounded in rational reason. Reductionism, on the other hand, is a deep a priori commitment less easily repaired. The dispositional cynic is afraid of being hurt, so protects himself with distrust. The reductionist is afraid of not understanding so protects himself with willing ignorance. A regular cynic meets you without relying on you. The reductionist refuses to meet you. He fears not things being evil or detrimental, but simply things being things.

In fact, dispositional cynicism could be called a form of realism, for it is merely a certain way of reacting to negativity. A cynic, in fact, would usually argue that the non-cynic has a tendency to be reductionist toward the highest quality, leaving out parts of reality as much as his lowness-obsessed counterpart.

This explains how you can sometimes meet cynical Chassidim. Chassidus is meant to focus on and reveal the G-dliness within each person and experience, and so, in theory, the more one aligns with Chassidus the less cynical one becomes. This may be true, but not necessarily. There are some forms of dispositional cynicism that may be healthy on the Chassidic view. A Baal Teshuva, a penitent who was burned by his past mistakes may sometimes benefit from distrust and wariness toward his own inclination to evil. It does no good to overestimate our own achievement, either, to view our shortcomings as acceptable in light of mitigating factors. Nor are we to be anybody’s fool—Chassidim are meant to be clever. Perhaps, then, there is room for a Chassidic cynic by disposition. But where Chassidus is utterly transformational is in the area of the lowest-common-denominator reductionist.

Every year around this time we have an opportunity to contemplate the Chassidic rejection of reductionism because the daily Tanya has reached the fourth section, the lengthy and formidable Iggeres HaKodesh, consisting of the Alter Rebbe’s letters. These challenge the reductionist every day because so many of them are fundraising e-mails.

At least, that’s what a cynical reductionist might call them. It is vital to note that it doesn’t matter to reductionists how holy and great the Alter Rebbe is; that’s what makes them reductionists. No matter how much G-dly insight, Kabbalah, or deep moral teaching permeates every word of the Tanya Kadisha and it saintly author, the letters are in the context of soliciting money and the author wears a shirt, and that determines. You can dress it up real nice, they argue, but ultimately the Rebbe is climbing up the greasy pole, as Disraeli called it, as much as any telemarketer or politician. For a good cause, perhaps, but the action is the action.

It is the inner fire of Chassidus that burns at this conception with its every word. The Iggeres HaKodesh is, if nothing else, the utter redemption of fundraising e-mails. It teaches us, among many other things, that all greasy poles are created ex nihilo as an expression of an infinite and radically independent G-d, that worldly realities are mere vessels for a divine will, that these vessels are inert and unable to contextualize, that no human being or force of nature can shift one inch the decrees of the True Judge. It is the power of charity not merely to balance our lowest nature but to reverse it, because everything at its root is divine, not by additional context but by its essential being. “Lower” and “higher” are themselves mere means to a G-dly end, and without G-d, nothing can be a whole picture. No common denominator is so low as to escape its own nullification before G-d. What is a pragmatic concern then? How could fundraising ever outrun the G-dly root of its own being?

The Alter Rebbe fears no lowliness, not even enough to need to deny its lowliness. Pragmatic concerns are just as G-dly as the theology of Shaar haYichud v’ha’Emunah; perhaps more so. Everything, exactly as it is, shines the light of G-d. Do not despair.


*Evolution as presented is not merely that man’s origin as a species lie in animals, but that these common denominators are deeper and truer in him than what makes him a man, not unlike how hydrogen and oxygen are presented as deeper and truer to water than water’s own properties. These reductions ought always to be questioned.