Bitter and Sweet

“One should always go on the “King’s Highway”, and keep one’s distance from extremism: neither too bitter nor too sweet. [Sayings of Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, p. 143]

The King’s Highway or Derech HaMelech is referred to in the Book of Numbers, (Numbers 20:17, 21:22), where it is related that the Israelites, in their Exodus journey needed to use the roads for travel. They had left from Kadesh, and requested the right of way from the king of Edom to cross his lands, but they were refused passage. He vowed he would attack them if they used the road. The Israelites even offered to pay for any water their cattle drank. Still, the king of Edom refused them passage, and advanced against them with a large and heavily armed force. After making a detour and coming to the Transjordan area between the Arnon river and the Jabbok river, they directed the same request to Sihon the Amorite King; for the second time on the same road they were denied passage, and King Sihon engaged them in battle at Jahaz. And they won that battle by the edge of the sword, a close call. As a result, the Israelites gained control in that land and to the north of it. The tribes of Manasseh (eastern half), Gad, and Reuben subsequently settled those territories.

So how do we think about the King’s Highway, in our Mussar terms?  It seems that is the road that we need to take, to get where we are supposed to be. And there will be obstacles, to be sure.  These battles were emblematic of the struggle of faith in divine promise. The Israelites already had done poorly with that – the spies who only saw challenge, the Israelite people who begged to return to Egypt, even as God promised redemption and deliverance. They just couldn’t wait (no savlanut!) But now, the Israelites prevail in these battles, they overcome high odds, and end up where they want to be, where they need to be.  The balance point is not always the sweetest or the easiest; there will be some bitter, we can’t cling to only the sweet, for that is not equanimity.  We need both sides to be balanced.

There is scientific evidence that the taste sensations of both bitter and sweet use quite similar signaling pathways in the cell to perceive those tastes. The elimination of any either bitter or sweet receptors on the tongue results in a decrease or complete loss of sensitivity for both sweet and bitter tastes.  They are intertwined.  This Shabbat, rather than pushing away the bitter, negative imbalances, how can we embrace them, weave them with the sweet to find true equanimity?

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Spiritual immortality through generosity

“Why does the Torah say incongruously: ‘Abraham stood over the angels and they ate (Gen. 18:8)? Angels have virtues and flaws, and people have virtues and flaws. The virtue of the angels is that they cannot deteriorate, but their flaw is that they cannot improve. Humanity’s flaw is that they deteriorate, but their virtue is that they can improve.  Someone who practices n’divut acquires the virtues of their guests.  Thus, Abraham acquired the virtue of the angels, that of not being able to deteriorate.  And so he stood over and above them.” [R. Yaakov Yitzchak of Przysucha, Tales of the Hasidim, bk. 2]

I am struck reading this, as next week on Thanksgiving, most of us will either be guests or be welcoming guests. In this text, Rav Ya’akov Yitzchak here joins two different ideas – that of humanity’s virtue of being able to grow spiritually over the course of our lifetime, and what happens in the relationship of host and guest when we practice n’divut (generosity). For our teacher here, deterioration is equivalent to mortality.  Aangels – God’s messengers in this world – are immortal, but they are stuck where they are. Humanity’s gift is the power to grow in relationship and spiritual stature. 

Abraham doesn’t actually acquire immortality, but he is known for his embodiment of hospitality and lovingkindness. That legacy comes to us, having lasted for thousands of years.  I would call that spiritual immortality. 

When we practice n’divut, we acquire all kinds of potential from the guests in our lives, that becomes part of our own spiritual legacy.  Standing over someone as Abraham did is not about bragging or boasting about how much better we are than someone else, but rather about an internal spiritual aspiration beyond what we believed to be our limitations. 

How will you practice n’divut in the days to come?  Notice what gifts you receive from each act of generosity.  Reflect upon how that might impel you to your next action.

Does equanimity equal tranquility?

“As long as one lives a life of calmness and tranquility in the service of God, it is clear that he is remote from true service.” [Rabbi Israel Salanter]

This is a busy week for many of us – you may be getting ready to host a Thanksgiving feast, or perhaps preparing to travel in order to be with family and friends, or just as the winter is approaching with school and life underway there are a myriad of tasks we put on ourselves to accomplish.  The busy-ness that so easily overtakes me has me yearning for some calm and tranquility.  This text challenges the notion of equanimity as an end in and of itself. Rabbi Salanter reminds me that finding equanimity in a given situation is to enable me to be more present in a given moment, giving my attention to the situation itself rather than my own internal experiences that may be distractions from the truth of the present.

I can only hope that God fully expects my distractibility.  It is neither tranquility nor asceticism that God desires of me, for that would mean that I am living a life of isolation and disconnectedness.  Being created in God’s image, b’tzelem Elohim, means that I live in the world of relationships. And that comes with being buffeted by everyone else’s experiences, needs and desires.  Like bumper cars, we are all bumping into each other, connected to one another – but we don’t stay still; we keep moving forward.

Take a moment this Shabbat to find your internal measure of equanimity – menuchat hanefesh, literally the resting of the soul – in a way that can prepare your heart for the certain rolling and upsurges that come from sharing time and relationship with family and friends.  And, don’t cling too dearly to any sense of tranquility; recognize that our buoyancy  comes from riding the waves.

10/20/17 – Da’at – How can God know our thoughts?

“Examine me, O God, and know my mind; probe me and know my thoughts. See if I have vexatious ways, and guide me in ways everlasting.” (Psalm 139:23-24).

How can God know our thoughts? And why would I want God to know my  mind, to probe my thoughts?

What do I have to do, to open up to for that depth of knowledge to be apparent?  When I practice for awakened, present attention – noticing distractions but not drawn by them – I learn to respond to myself without harshness, without blame for my distractedness.  When I can release myself from those constricted experiences, I can recognize the truth in my thoughts. And when I know myself more deeply, the evidence of God in my life emerges for me to recognize.  For me, that is the point of God knowing my mind – being honest with myself.  My ‘vexatious ways’ become evident for me to see – the ways of distraction, of anger, of blame are not wicked or evil. They, too, are some manner of God knowing me.  Rather than banish the distractions; my work becomes to raise them up, transform them, and know that they are part of me as well, the fullness of me in the image of God (remember our blessing, that we are made ‘b’tzelem Elohim’ –  in the image of God).