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“.

Tell Me What These Words Mean

The 3rd member of a Sukkot series. Member the 1st. Member the 2nd.

“Every single thing one sees or hears is an instruction for his conduct in the service of G-d. This is the idea of avoda, service: to comprehend and discern in all things a way in which to serve G-d.”
-The Holy Baal Shem Tov

Oh, good, you’re reading this.

You’ve already fallen into my trap.

Elephant. Monism. Solar Eclipse. Bucharest. Vlad the Impaler. Mauve. Your grandmother.

Remember, everything you see is an instruction for your behavior in the worship of G-d.

Don’t try and push the interpretative responsibility back onto me; I can’t figure out what the words teach you. No one can.

It is not my soul who places these nouns before you. As far as you know, I, the alleged author of this short note, do not exist.

The universe and everything in it is created ex nihilo, you see. When a human being (again, purportedly) “creates,” they make something from something. They are never the sole cause of what they form: their words need air, their crafts need materials, their children need food. But G-d makes stuff from nothing.

When you see a page with words upon it, only a small aspect, hard to pick out at first glance, is attributable to the author. The rest comes from his “partners”—paper, ink, language, inspiration.

Yet if you encounter the page in G-d’s universe (and they are all G-d’s universes, this being part of what makes Him G-d), you know that everything about it, from its texture to its color to the picture of the monkey, comes from Him and Him alone. The only other partner is absolute nothingness, a party notorious for being the laziest possible contributor; ex nihilo nihil fit.

Picnic. Quasar. Robin Hood. Neural network. Leptons. Your mom. Harmonica.

You cannot attribute the appearance of these words before your eyes to some allege, purported, and extremely so-called “author.” Everything in G-d’s world is attributable, in form and matter, to Him alone.

So you read these words for a reason. They’re a lesson from G-d; he is speaking to you. No human “writer” could bring you to this moment. No one has the power to create this confluence of your mind with this essay, except the One G-d.

Oh, sure, some Lamy fountain pen might be moving across a page of high-grade lined Rhodia paper at this very moment, apparently “composing” an online work for you to read. But can this “composer” really bring these words to your consciousness? Can I truly reach out across the infinite divide, manipulate social media and your schedule, and assure you end up clicking on this link, moving your eyes across the black shapes, and comprehending them?

One is reminded of the silversmith who challenges G-d to remain unimpressed with his abilities. After creating a full silvery replica of a Hazorfim shop and presenting it to his creator, the Deity winks at him and says, “Very good, now do it with your own silver.”

In this world, no one has their own silver. So what you’re reading, here, can come only from G-d. Why would G-d send this to you? To help your serve Him, which is the very purpose of your existence.

Your whole life may have been leading you to this moment, so you can learn from this:

Tangerine. Curses. Osaka. Torsion. Redwoods. Forgiveness.

What are you meant to take from these words? Only you can really know. Perhaps you are learning, right this second, to read fewer things on the Internet. Perhaps you are discovering that no one can tell you what to learn from, Baal Shem Tov notwithstanding. Or perhaps you see significance in my semi-random nouns!

But maybe what you are learning is the very thing I’ve been trying to tell you. The BeSh”T did say that everything you see is a lesson for service. He also said, what is service? To see in everything a lesson.

Maybe the words point at nothing other than themselves. Maybe they are both the lesson and the service. Perhaps you are seeing them in order to see them, and know that in the seeing is G-d, and in the seeing is you. And why not? G-dliness is everything and everything is G-dly.

No one can decide what the lesson is when you read this, just as no one could tell me what the lesson was when I wrote it.

G-d has no partners in creation.

Except you.

Originally posted on Hevria.

The Baal Shem Tov’s Question

“Whip the horses until they know they are horses.” “Whip the horses until they cease to be horses!” – Two versions of the words that inspired Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi to stay in Mezritch and continue his study of chassidus.

~2500 years ago, Pythagoras proved his famous theorem with demonstration strong as prophecy. To this day, the majority of the public who never uses geometry after freshman year still knows that A squared plus B squared equals C squared. This, at least, can be relied upon. The Greeks knew it well. Brilliant men such as Pythagoras and Plato formed (pun!) a religious attachment to mathematics and its truth that nowadays, despite our vastly increased knowledge, seems kind of off. Oh, how the heart in the grips of terror and despair leaps to behold the square on the hypotenuse, a solid form in the midst of so much shifting doubt, the rock of our deliverance!

We may laugh, but we should mourn. It is a terrible tragedy that we have kept the theorem but lost what made it sacred to wise men’s eyes. Indeed, it is perhaps our greatest tragedy. Much of our current confusion is due to a surplus of answers to questions we have never asked. Just as the average man today has possesses riches King Midas could not dream of, we each, through advances both in knowledge and communication, have access to information that would drop Pythagoras to his knees. It does not drop us to our knees or draw our eyes heavenward because, again, like our physical wealth, our knowledge floats around us in a sort of unidirectional nimbus, a halo of stuff that just is, its purpose mysterious. The wealth of Wikipedia or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy seems to sit there awkwardly, immodestly huge, unable to insist on a particular purpose, because after all knowledge is just knowledge and though I can tell you more about triangles than Euclid ever suspected I cannot tell you why it’s important. Though Plato knew less math, he knew what question his math answered and thus he consecrated it.

In losing the questions, our answers cease to seem like answers at all.

I propose that, generally speaking, we are lost in a doubled darkness. Darkness, because we don’t know the question the triangle answers. And a deeper darkness, because even if we had the questions, we wouldn’t know which questions the questions answered. In other words, when we think of this whole business of answers and their questions, we may feel that it’s not so bad. After all, we still have the answers, the facts, whole and complete, and the main role of the questions was to make the answers seem meaningful, to help Plato sleep easier at night. But that’s not how Plato, nor Aristotle, nor, l’havdil, the Rambam saw it. On the contrary — the question that draws forth “the answer” of any creation (what we might in Kabbalah call its chochma) is one of its causes and ultimately the thing that gives it not just meaning to the observer but Meaning in the scheme of creation. Indeed, the notion that each question of a limited nature is the answer to yet another (higher-order) question eventually led even the philosophers of pagan societies toward the existence of something which simply is in-and-of itself, and is not the answer to any further question…

So our path back into the light of understanding, for the Pythagorean theorem or anything else, is to learn the question and then to see how the question is essential to the answer.

Take, for example, the terse teaching of the Baal Shem Tov I wrote about last year at this time“Everything is by Divine Providence. If a leaf is turned over by a breeze, it is only because this has been specifically ordained by G‑d to serve a particular function within the purpose of creation.”

It is entirely possible to know this teaching for years and even think about it often without ever knowing what question it answers. I’ve done it.

It’s not just the question of whether G-d has divine providence over everything. If that were all, the teaching would just say that. It appears that “everything” is not enough; we must hear about a leaf in a breeze, and the leaf in the breeze is not itself merely analogous to “everything.” What is the significance of the leaf?

The significance of the leaf is its insignificance. We are learning that G-d cares about the leaf in the wind because something about the leaf implies G-d shouldn’t care about it. The Baal Shem Tov doesn’t teach that “Every single hand you are dealt in poker is ordained by G-d,” or “Every wheel that falls off one’s wagon is divinely decided.” Such teachings imply a question predicated on a deterministic universe, where the antithesis of divine providence is luck or happenstance. The question would be, “Does G-d rule over even the things that seem random?” and the answer would be yes. Instead, we have a leaf turning in the wind, an example we wouldn’t normally consider luck or happenstance because we barely consider it an occurrence. In fact, the Baal Shem Tov’s question, as betrayed by his example, is, “Does G-d rule over even the lowly, insignificant creations?” and the answer is yes. In short — Q: Does G-d have time for my frivolities? A: G-d has time even for a leaf.

The difference between the actual question and the possible question is vast. The Baal Shem Tov is not asking whether G-d has control over those things which seem given over to chance or nature. This would implicitly acknowledge a dichotomy between the things that we think must happen (e.g., our rug must stay on the living room floor and not levitate us to a whole new world) and things where, well, the Creator can fudge the numbers (I get a straight instead of a full house), and we would be answering that both deterministic nature and “chance” are ruled over by one G-d. Compare to the leaf in the wind, in which the implication is a hierarchy of significance, that G-d would seem to care more about the Truth or human beings or animals than He does about a single part of a single plant, and we insist that, in fact, even the unimportant things are important to Him.

It is the difference between whether we have as our baseline a universe of unranked answers, or a universe of answers demanding questions which demand further questions. To say G-d cares even about a poker hand is to have as our question whether anything is truly random, to look at the universe as a collection of facts possibly attributable to a different cause than the apparent one. But to say G-d cares even about a leaf is to have as our question whether the inherent hierarchy of the universe, the fact that some things are greater and better than others, is reflective of G-d’s involvement in the creation — that better things are close to Him, and smaller/worse/lesser things are far. The first approach says that everything matters because nothing matters because the hierarchy is an illusion. The second approach says that the hierarchy is true but G-d still cares about everything, and you work out the contradiction.

If the teaching were about playing cards or wagon wheels, we might think that G-d treats differently with necessity and happenstance, and the Baal Shem Tov comes to teach us that he cares equally for both. Really, the Baal Shem Tov teaches us something far deeper and more profound — that there is a G-d utterly unbound by nature, and a universe of occurrences that spirals forth from the creator in ranks of importance, purpose, and meaning. It is only logical that G-d should care more about an angel or the form of a triangle than a single leaf in the wind. It is only logical that He should care more about the question than the answer.

The Baal Shem Tov comes and teaches us that G-d cares even about the answers, about the brute facts, about our dead triangle, and not just Plato’s sacred one. The Baal Shem Tov teaches that even now, at the end of history, in the multilayered dark, the appearance of chaos and questionless answers is false, because even the answers come directly from G-d, and what at first glance seems unimportant is as G-dly as the Infinite Light.

We live in a time when our answers have forgotten they are answers. The Baal Shem Tov’s question, about the significance of that which seems insignificant, reminds the answer that it is an answer, that G-d cares about even the irrelevant leaf. But now that the G-d cares about the leaf, how insignificant is it really? The need for the question, for viewing the leaf as a tiny creation in a universe of vastly more important beings, is eliminated. The leaf, by the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching, has gained its own direct connection to G-d; its own soul is on display.

The answer has been whipped and forgotten it’s an answer, much like the unmoved mover who creates and sustains the world, and even the darkness has become light.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

A Leaf In The Wind: Three Meditations

“Everything is by Divine Providence. If a leaf is turned over by a breeze, it is only because this has been specifically ordained by G‑d to serve a particular function within the purpose of creation.” – The Holy Baal Shem Tov

It is Thursday, the morning after the Day before, and life blooms. It is a time of sweet autumn breezes and the ingathering of our hard-won crop. The next couple of weeks are all about things the grow in G-d’s green earth, from the lulav to the schach. It seems right, then, to revisit one of the Baal Shem Tov’s (himself a walker of the forest and lover of nature from a young age) most famous teachings, and to examine the ripples it casts in our minds and hearts.

-1-

Consider the leaf.

There are many like it, millions like it, but that it not important. There are animals that move, people who speak. But they don’t matter. All that matters right now is this slender, veined membrane, so green you can almost taste it, its dorsal side foreshortened as it rotates slightly on its stem.

This leaf has moved many times since it blossomed at Spring, and it will move many times more before it withers and falls in the coming weeks. But none of that matters now.

All that matters is this one leaf, and this one twist against the shocking blue sky.

G-d made this happen for a reason.

But why?

If there are so many leaves and so many motions, if the same wind has blown over tyrants and tycoons, graves and glory, what role plays this humble leaf in G-d’s vast, endless plan?

Perhaps we can explain it like we explain the butterfly.

That famous delicate creature, whose wings with one gentle flap bring storms to far-flung places. The weather remains beyond our understanding because it is this sensitive, because our leaf being exactly where it is can effect global change.

If it is so for our one leaf, imagine how it is for every leaf, in every wind. A vast machination, an unfathomable calculus of change perceived only by He who grows the trees.

We do not know how powerful is our lead turning in the breeze; we know not what ships are brought to port and which levies are kept whole by its gentle arching in the flow.

Though its broader effects may be hidden from us

we at least understand

that this leaf

means

something.

 

-2-

Consider the storm.

Yesterday there was sun and tomorrow the trucks will poke around, picking up the pieces, but for now, the rain batters at the slats. In the yard, a hundred unmoored leaves turn frenzied circles.

This great force, power and noise, is possible because weeks ago in a far-away country a leaf went to instead of fro. But that is not important. What is important is the storm.

G-d has made this happen for a reason.

But why?

If one leaf can cause a tempest, then a tempest can cause a thousand tempests, which can alter human lives and sometimes end them, and in the withholding of streamlined traffic turbulence and the erection of gravestones tacking in the breeze, yet more storms will grow, and yet other hurricanes will dwindle to nothing.

If a leaf is part of something larger and the storm is one of many and wheels within wheels stretch upward to infinity, then purpose is turned back in on itself and meaning is lost, and we are unsure

what G-d sees
in the leaf
or the storm.
Perhaps we’re thinking of it all wrong.
Perhaps it is not membership in a system that creates meaning.
Perhaps purpose is what arises from a mind, from systematic understanding.
The leaf turning on the breeze isn’t meaningful, and neither is the storm.
Meaning is when a mind perceives how things
interlock.
A Mind above perceives synergy and creates a twisting leaf; It perceives a leaf and creates synergy.
A mind below follows the motions of the mind above and catches a flash of meaning.
It is not that the leaf is meaningful.
It is the leaf’s ensnarement in G-d’s way of thinking that lends is meaning.

-3-

Consider what it is to consider.
The mind takes bodies, dead letters, and weaves them together
to bring them to life.
First ideas play against each other, then from their strife emerges a single vision, a spark of truth.
Maybe that spark is what we normally call meaning.
But meaning has its limits.
Meaning is a double-edged blade.
As long as the mind perceives,
a chasm persists:
There is the leaf, and then there is its meaning.
Purpose does not inhere in its turning; purpose is an imposition, brought to bear on the leafstuff by a mind,
and the leaf
itself
is nothing.
But perhaps
perhaps there is one more party involved.
There is our frail, beautiful, turning leaf. There is His mind, which brings it meaning.
And there is a third thing, which unites them as one.
Because before the spark of mental truth, before even the dialectical play of concept against concept, there is the
initial flash
the question that draws forth the answer,
the meaningless void called
the soul –
meaningless because inexplicable,
meaningless because it just is; that’s all it does.
And though it wills and wants, savors and chooses,
it is like a higher animal;
it is not a mind because it’s beyond a mind,
and all of its actions are just the directing of its “is.”
(for to choose, or want, or will, is to “is” outward,
and to savor is just to be, in sweet satisfaction.)
And if it were to be that G-d’s soul
chooses to mean, and brings forth a mind,
it just as easily chooses to leaf, and brings about our green ribbon,
and meaning “is,”
and the leaf “is,”
and it is the same “is,”
and the turning of the wind and his mind are united,
entangled,
referencing each others’ definition,
two windows open to one truth,
and meaning itself is just another thing,
and maybe that is what the Baal Shem Tov meant,
that the leaf just is,
and that is the purpose of creation,
all tied up in a fluttering moment,
and then it’s gone,
and a storm rumbles in the distance.

-4-

Consider Sukkos.
Consider the joy there is in just being,
the joy in unity, the most transparent window,
the joy of meaninglessness, of water over wine.
May these insufficient words have been to you as the turning over of the leaf,
and may our joy know no end.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.