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.

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.

The Jewish Case For Not Being Born

Two souls meet, one ascending after a long life in this world, and the other descending to be born. “What’s it like down there?” asks the descending soul.

“Well,” says the ascending soul, “have you heard of Tzitzit? Down there, Tzitzit only cost a few kopecks.”

“Only a few kopecks!” exclaims the descending soul. “Why, Tzitzit are the marvel of heaven, the praise of infinite angels!” The soul throws itself downward, hurtling toward life.

“Wait until you hear what you have to do to earn those few kopecks, though,” cries the ascending soul…

-A Chassidic Tale

The New Yorker has given a platform to the ideas of David Benatar, an anti-natalist philosopher arguing that it is better never to be born than to live and that the human race should go gently into that good night without having children first. An Indian man has already taken this philosophy so seriously as to sue his parents for the damage of creating him, an extortion tactic reminiscent of the rock star in one of Douglas Adams’s novels who spends a year dead for tax reasons.

Jews are inclined to laugh at this philosophy and the resultant antics. It is hard, in fact, to imagine a less Jewish philosophy that did not involve overt idolatry. We are the faith that brought the world the Imago Dei and the exhortation to “choose life.” G-d is the G-d of life in Judaism, and He commands humankind, before all else, to perpetuate their own presence on earth. Like all Torah laws, this commandment is binding upon the Jew whether they subscribe to trendy philosophies of despair or not.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot, however, does give a mysterious nod to not wanting to be born: “Against your will you live,” Rabbi Elazar HaKappar teaches. And then there is this passage from the Talmud:

[Source]

In this debate between Hillel and Shammai, Shammai wins; everyone agrees in the end that “it would be preferable had man not been created.” Somehow, the great sages seem to have possessed an anti-natalism of their own within the very faith that so values life. How may this be reconciled?

What is so great about life anyway? After all (and contrary to popular myth), Judaism has a rich conception of the before- and afterlife, involving among other things the cleansing of the soul, basking in the revelation of G-d, and eventual reincarnation in the Messianic Age. Our life on earth is, in some sense, merely an interlude between other forms of our soul’s existence. As we have learned before, the physical universe actualizes no potential nor has any inherent value in the eyes of its Creator. The physical universe exists only because G-d wills it needlessly, as it were.

What, then, is accomplished by being born? One old answer expressed in different ways in different places is that we are born for our own benefit, that is, to actualize some potential within our own souls. Being born allows one to be better and more perfect than is otherwise possible, and to achieve greater states of spiritual existence than are otherwise possible. True, the soul may start at a great spiritual level, but life in this world improves upon than level and brings us new perfection. Thus, being born is a gift. Call this answer the old answer.

There is also a new answer, the one that makes room for the anti-natalist position. Of course, anti-natalists don’t argue against being born because they think the alternative is the soul’s perfection before G-d, but because they think it is simply better not to be than to be at all. If we are consigned to existence regardless, whether within a body or abstracted away from one, then being born may perhaps be an opportunity to improve that existence. This is what the old answer said.

But if being born is the very act by which we exist, then how can it be said to improve upon what we were before birth? Before we were born (or conceived, or what have you) we simply did not exist, and after we die we shall not again. Rather, all of life’s benefits must be judged on life’s own terms, not by what life accomplishes for a soul that persists after death, but rather what life accomplishes per se. This is the new answer: being born accomplishes being alive. Astutely, David Benatar assesses being alive, sees a lot of suffering, and seeks a return to non-existence.

The Talmud agrees with neither the old answer nor the new one. As in so many areas, the new answer is right to judge things (in this case, life) on their own terms, but the more superficial ancient reasoning (that life is justified by the perfection of our broader existence) is correct in its conclusion — to choose life!

The houses of Hillel and Shammai argue all over the thousands of pages of the Talmud, and most of their debates share a common denominator[i]: The disciples of Hillel follow the actual, whereas the disciples of Shammai follow the potential. The classic example is in the laws of Chanukah. Hillel says we light one candle on the first night (and this is the law we follow) whereas Shammai says to light eight candles on the first night. The former wants always to act on what has already come to pass, whereas the latter wishes to act on what remains to be done.

So, too, in their argument over whether it is good for man to have been created. Both houses agree that man’s creation, like the rest of the physical universe, brings no perfection to G-d. Their disagreement is whether the soul is G-d-like in this regard, whether the human being benefits from being created.[ii]

The House of Shammai says it is not good for man to have been created, for there is nothing gained for the soul in this world that the soul does not already possess in potential. Their position is more closely aligned with the new answer (unsurprisingly, as Shammai’s way of thinking is described as messianically progressive) — that a human life on its own terms adds no absolute value to the soul. True, the disciples of Shammai do not believe this because they deny the afterlife[iii], but they nevertheless agree that life is not meaningful for purposes of self-perfection. Because we judge things according to their potential, and the soul already in its potential has attained all that being born might accomplish, there is no reason to actually be born. In other words: The atheist’s denial of the spirit and the Rabbis’ utter exaltation of the spirit both lend no meaning to being born.

Hillel, on the other hand, argue it is better for man to be created, that the soul benefits from being embodied, that actualization has inherent value over potential, and we should look at life as an opportunity to raise ourselves higher in ever-greater perfection. This roughly parallels the old answer, which says that embodied creation serves our broader existence beyond the body.

Both Hillel and Shammai, however, believe in being born, as Judaism necessitates, for neither position is ultimately beholden to what is good for a human being. Even though Shammai win and the Talmud expresses a form of “anti-natalism,” never are we directed to pursue merely what is good for us when we are born. The entire debate of Hillel and Shammai concerns only what is “preferable” for man, in man’s own terms, in terms of human self-betterment, and that is why Shammai wins.

Or: If Judaism reduces to a question of self-perfection and self-benefit, there is room to argue for nihilism, to turn to the “Utter futility! All is futile!”, for G-d’s ways are inscrutable and His Torah concludes that we will never in our lives compare to the spiritual state of our souls before we are born.

Or: The “meaning” in a meaningful Jewish life does not necessarily mean very much if that life is a self-actualizing or -fulfilling existence taken on its own terms.

The only matter on which there is no debate is that it is good to be born and to cause others to be born because G-d wills it. It is only when life is for Him that life becomes inescapably meaningful. “Now that he is created, he should examine his actions” — for it is only by acting in service to G-d, our sages knew, that being born is justified beyond the question of potential and actual.

Perhaps most powerful of all, once we see ourselves as existing merely to serve our Creator, we can even admit that the House of Shammai is right, that there is wisdom in David Benatar’s argument. To live life merely for an afterlife is to define life away, and life purely on its own terms may be full of suffering. Perhaps even the House of Hillel came to realize admitting this truth is a step on the path toward a G-d who is beyond potential and outside our contrived “meanings” and is, therefore, the only one who may justify our blood’s warmth.


[i] For all of the following on Hillel and Shammai’s debate, and much more, see Likkutei Sichos vol. XXII, second Sicha of Shmini.

[ii] By “creation” we here refer to the verb used in the above-quoted passage in the Talmud implying creation ex nihilo, existing apart from G-d as an ostensibly separate being. The human being is thus “created” when the soul is embodied, prior to which the soul exists in a state of (at least relative) nullification before G-d. This understanding of “creation” is consonant with the view that, generally speaking, man is a soul in a body. Thus, what exists beyond the body is neither “created” nor “man.”

[iii] i.e. the existence of the soul apart from the body, including the beforelife and the world to come, etc.

Stuck Inside of Elul with the Tishrei Blues Again

Here we are again.

We made it. Congratulations. Last year’s Rosh Hashana can’t have been a total disaster.

Now what?

Look, I know you’re busy, and honestly, one more discussion about how profoundly meaningful it all is and I’d be spitting nails myself.

“Meaning” is overrated, seven pale splintering letters holding up the levy, preventing the flood of the world from obliterating the way of G-d and summing up what makes “having” “Him” “in” your “life” so special after all.

Might as well admit it – “Meaning” just means that the room has a sunlight, that the stupid system (all systems, including intelligence itself, are stupid) is not the end but only the beginning of a reality, a metaphor, a symbol, shadows on the cave wall.

So yes, Elul is “meaningful,” it’s not just a month but the time that we blah blah blah.

Elul is nice. it makes us happy, productive, it’s healthy and helpful and really good for getting where we’re going and doing deep things along the way with the people we love and even with our Creator. There are scales, a king, a judge, memory, music, honey, apples, joy, a field, guilt, a desert, sin. It hurts but in a good way, and we’re definitely going to change.

Okay?

Okay.

I know, I cling to my cynicism as a crutch because I’m really afraid of the bright light of God’s salvation. I don’t change because I don’t believe I can change, which I can change, by believing I can change. I’m being overly dramatic or not dramatic enough. I’m whirling in epistemological circles. I need to just get over it. I need to farbreng. I need to study. I need to daven. There are solutions.

The problem is too much I; it’s too little I. It’s not enough learning. It’s too much learning. It’s idealism, it’s pragmatism. I need to spend more time outside; I need to stop thinking I need to. The answer is street performance or street violence or street sweeping. Real men are busy making money. This is not how a business runs. Get it together. It’s insulting not to have it together. It’s insulting to have it together. Read my book. Five simple steps to fixing everything. Acquire something, lose something, follow the steps, fit the form.

I know.

I’ll figure it all out in the morning, with a structure, with a calculus. I’ll cobble something together at the last minute, find the cruse of sincerity in some un-excavated corner, make some dumb resolutions, keep half of one.

It will be drenched in meaning. Meaning will suffuse it like a fine chai. It will be so soaked in meaning I’ll need to use three Clean & Clear cloths.

It’s probably part of the plan, one of those dastardly Jewish plots to crash the stock market or end apartheid or circumcise the lizard people.

For weeks they trot out all the lectures and the books and the explanations and the alcohol and the heartfelt sincerity, intentionally trying to goad and annoy us.

So what? So what?

The only relief from all the meaning, from the too-familiar face, is G-d, arbitrary, non-existent, the chooser.

He wants it all for no reason at all; he wants it for what it is; it means nothing.

Either clean up your pathetic act and do the damn Mitzvos, Tzvi, or don’t. If you choose the former, you just have Him. If you choose the latter, you have nothing.

There are no stories about Him, there are no words that capture Him, nothing compares in individual or species.

How do you even know it’s Him you’ve met?

You’re just going to have to trust Him.

If He is indescribable, what’s so good about Him?

Answer the question before you show up here.

We find Him either in the brute manipulation of stuff into the correct configurations, or not at all.

If the correct configurations correspond to forms emanated both necessarily and willfully in a mode of infinitely detailed inter-inclusion as a web of meaning that captures all of the creation and neatly dices each being and all of their properties into a perfectly balanced framework whose very shapes convey the Truth unknowable and permeate reality with unlimited purpose, okay.

Whatever.

It’s only because He wanted it that way for no reason.

Or didn’t.

It means nothing.

Just do the damn Mitzvos.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.