Constructive Conflict

DaAti Healthy CompetitionHuman-beings are a contentious bunch. Just ask any historian, or better yet, read your daily newsfeed (plenty of evidence there). Let’s face it; we all love a good fist fight, and, surprising as it may sound, the Torah (Bible) actually ok’s it! Explain the Sages, our need to challenge (our competitive spirit) has given rise to astonishing innovations, breakthroughs that have occurred precisely because we stood up and challenged the status quo. From a Torah perspective a little “duality,” a little healthy friction, is useful provided it’s growth-promoting. If so, we must ask the following: When does “constructive-conflict” (growth promoting confrontation) become destructive? At what point is the duel no longer beneficial?

Healthy sparring, explains the Talmud (Tactate Ta’anit), is likened to “Two knives sharpening each other.” To clarify, the friction caused by two “knives” (two sharp minds) “colliding” (disagreeing on a given topic) “sharpens” (matures) both parties regardless of who wins. Simply stated, if conflict is done right - with a Talmudic spirit - the parties engaged will emerge faster, sharper, and wiser. And here lies the great secret to achieving “sagely conflict”: always strive for truth. To constructively “do battle” and grow from a challenge, we must remember that it is never about us (our ego). It’s about discovery. It’s about chipping away at the proverbial stone, the barriers to our clear understanding, and finding the diamond (the spark of truth) within. Such an ability (setting aside ego in favor of truth) is termed “sagely” because it requires years of practice to achieve.

In the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, “We pray daily that God will grant us just a moment of authentic truth.” It’s that rare! So embrace your conflicts and remember, it’s only about the truth.

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Always Look Below

Garden of EdenBiblical history paints a stunning portrait of the human experience. It tells of great heroes, evil kings, selfless acts, and tragic losses. In short, it is a mirror of our experiences, the journey of mankind. Perhaps, the most emphasized theme in all Biblical literature is “evil” - the great antithesis to mankind's spiritual mission. On the very same day Adam was formed, placed in “Gan Eden” (the Garden of Eden),  and given the command to not eat from the forbidden tree, evil got busy. It searched high and low for a “gateway,” a portal into man’s psyche. It found its would-be-messenger in the form of a “Nachash” - the “snake” of Eden. Our Sages, of Blessed memory, tell us that this “snake” stood upright (it had legs) and possessed illustrious faculties second only to man himself. Explain the Sages, it (the snake) was intended to be the great “servant” of man - an extension of his spiritual mission. Sadly, its great potential, its noble destiny, was never realized, for the snake possessed one particularly loathsome trait that would transform it into an agent of evil: jealousy. The snake was jealous of Adam and Eve’s love (the bond they shared) and desired nothing more than to take Eve for himself. Evil rejoiced for its search was finally over, a deliverer had been found. Evil “hijacked” the snake’s faculties and, using its insatiable envy, contrived a plan that would culminate in the death of mankind.

        Such is the danger of jealousy, for it robs a person of happiness (the good fortune he/she possesses) by affixing the “eyes” (the focus of the mind) on the blessings of others. Now, if jealousy is indeed the “gateway” to all evil - the first of all negative traits mentioned in Torah - it stands to reason that its fixing is the “gateway” to all good! Simply stated, when we stop lusting after the riches of others we become greatly attuned to the riches (the Divine gifts) we possess. In short, we become happy.

And how may one reorient his/her eyes to see (and hence appreciate) the good fortune in one’s life?

Answer: look down!

        Explains the Talmud (last Mishnah in Tractate Ta’anit), when the unmarried maidens would seek out a potential husband (this occurred twice a year) they would prepare by borrowing a simple white garment. This ceremonial garment could only be taken from one who was “below” in status, e.g. the daughter of the king (the highest status in the land) would borrow from the daughter of the High Priest (the status directly below). Each maiden would borrow a garment (for the duration of the event) directly from another who was one step below in status and rank. Question: why is it so important that each maiden acquire her “evening gown” from one who is “below”? Is it really so wrong to “look up” and ask one who is more privileged for the required textile?

Explains the great Kabbalist, Rabbi Yoseph Chaim of Baghdad (known affectionately as the “Ben Ish Chai”), there is a great lesson to be learned from these maidens about achieving lasting happiness. In short, when one practices “looking down” and seeing (internalizing) that, compared to so many others, one’s lot (one’s good fortune) is truly abundant, happiness is fostered. Explains the Ben Ish Chai, if, God forbid, we practice “looking up” (fixating on the possessions of others), we will always feel (for lack of seeing our own good fortune) deficient. Such an emotion leads to the jealousy that robbed from the snake of Eden its Divine potential and future happiness - seized as he was by evil’s merciless grip.

Summary: Jealousy (the trait of the snake) begins with a shift of perspective, a change of the eyes from “below” (seeing the difficulties of others and appreciating one’s good fortune) to “above” (fixating on the holdings of others and forgetting one’s good fortune). To rectify this primordial tendency (this ancient character flaw) we need only remember that when it comes to happiness, ALWAYS look “below”!

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Evil Has Two Faces

Daati Wave Burning“The wave that sinks the ship has a white face with burning coals at its base.” So declares the Talmud describing evil’s more deceptive nature - “white face” (pure in appearance) with “burning coals” (evil) “at its base” (hidden within). But evil isn’t always so cunning. Sometimes, explain the Sages, it really is that horrid monster lurking under the bed, i.e. Kabbalah teaches that evil’s degree of sophistication

(how it appears, hidden or obvious) directly mirrors the maturation of the one it engages. For example, children will encounter (due to their lack of cognitive complexity) evil of a far simpler nature, e.g. stealing candy because, “It tastes good and I want it.” Adults, on the other hand, due to a fully functioning frontal lobe, can be much more  sophisticated in their justifications, e.g. “I am not stealing this because I want it, but rather, because it’s owed me.” They find a creative way to justify their immoral behavior (“cognitive dissonance reduction” in the terminology of psychology). Because the adult grapples with moral complexities in the abstract and the child does not, evil must “switch costumes” (change tactics) to be effective. This leads to an intriguing question: If adults, by definition, are more complex in their processing, why do they succumb (at times) to silly childlike impulses? Wouldn’t their robust mental prowess (their advanced cognitive ability) prevent them from stumbling into such silliness? Explains Kabbalah, human beings possesses two primary states of consciousness: 1) “Expanded consciousness ” and 2) “Constricted consciousness.”  Simply defined, “Expanded consciousness” is when I sense Godliness in my moment to moment reality - I am aware of the source. Constricted consciousness,” in contrast, is when I do not sense the Godliness behind the experience - I do not sense the presence of Him. Explain the Sages, depending on which state (expanded or constricted) we are in, determines how evil approaches - sophisticated (the wave with the white face) or simple (coarse and obvious).

And how should we best deal with evil’s two faces? Explains Master Kabbalist Rabbi Hillel Paritcher, when evil arises from the mind (the level of adult) “use the mind to overturn it” - look deeper beyond evil’s “white face” (deceptively innocent appearance) until you find its “burning coals” (poison.) Once revealed, you will be able to maintain your righteous posture having exposed evil’s true intention - to “burn” you. Explains further Rabbi Hillel, when evil arises from above mind (the level of child), “Transcend the mind to overcome” - turn away quickly from the evil impulse and run (like a child without thought) from the danger, i.e. do not mentally engage.

When we learn to identify evil’s two faces (sophisticated/adult and simple/child), being careful to respond according to Rabbi Hillel’s instruction, mind (when adult) and above mind (when child), we close the portal of vulnerability - secure the soul from every side - thus preventing evil from gaining a foothold. 

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Fires Within/Fires Without

Daati firestormFires rage, bullets fly, lands quake, and rivers flood. It seems like violence (natural and otherwise) is fast becoming a daily reality, and we are given front row tickets (courtesy of modern media) to behold its fury. Amidst all the chaos one can’t help but wonder, “Why is God allowing this to happen?” If the basis of Theism (the practice of which is Theology) is a God/man relationship, where is our heavenly “partner” in this, our hour of need?

To understand the Divine lesson in “struggle”, we must first begin with the following Talmudic axiom: “Evil does not descend from Heaven.” Clarify the Rabbis, God never causes evil to descend “from heaven,” i.e. from the spiritual worlds above. Meaning, evil (as a mechanism) exists only “below heaven” - in the consciousness of our world. And what is its purpose? Explains Kabbalah, to cause an awakening (“evil” in Hebrew, “Ra”, when inverted - A before the R - forms the word, “Er”, the meaning of which is “awakening!”) Evil, in any manifestation, explain the Rabbis, comes to awaken us to the existence of an uncorrected weakness - a flaw in our lives (our consciousness) that has persisted too long. And how should we respond to the evil that rises before us? “Teshuvah” (“repentance”) answer the Sages. By aligning our behavior (our thoughts, words, and deeds) with the Creator’s will, we create a Godly center - a refined spiritual core.

The masters of Kabbalah teach, when we shift inwardly (evolve to a more Godly plane) reality - the world around us - shifts (changes) outwardly - becomes beautiful. Did you read that carefully? Reality actually changes (for better or worse) because we change! This phenomena is known in philosophy and science as, “Biocentrism”, or, the creation of outer space (physical reality) from inner space (our reality.) This “man creates his world” hypothesis is fundamental to Torah practice (as seen in many places in Talmud and Kabbalah). Perhaps one of the best examples of this Torah Biocentrism is the Messianic prophecy, “The wolf will live with the lamb” (Isaiah 11:6). Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimonides (RAMBAM) explains that the wolf and lamb are literal - the wolf (predator) will “live with” (no longer attack) the lamb (prey). Why? Because nature, explains the Rambam, will change upon the Messiah’s arrival, i.e. will become kinder. Other commentators take a very different approach, explaining Isaiah’s “wolf” and “lamb” to be a metaphor for our animal soul and Divine soul. Hence, when the Messiah comes, our “wolf” (animal soul) will “live with” (peacefully coexist with ) our “lamb” (Divine soul).

Question: which perspective is correct? Explains the Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Blessed memory), they both are, for the peaceful coexistence of the wolf and lamb without (physical nature) depends on their peaceful coexistence within (spiritual nature). From the above we can see that nature’s harmony depends on man and is thus a Biocentric expression of his/her consciousness! And this, then, is the lesson, we (human beings) are given the keys to determine our fate. If we unite in peace, love, friendship, and respect, (making Godliness our principle preoccupation), nature will become beautiful - align with the spiritual beauty of our inner space. But if, God forbid, our divisiveness continues (chaotic consciousness), nature will continue her violent assault - a Biocentric expression of human turmoil.

May we all commit to being just a little kinder, patient, giving, and more loving as if the fate of the world depends on it!

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Going Down To Rise

Daati Soul huskOne of theology’s greatest quandaries is the reason for the soul’s descent. Specifically, why must the soul descend into physical consciousness (a finite body) if, following death, it returns back to its source - where it began? To clarify the question, if we leave only to return, why descend to begin with? What are we achieving? Let’s examine two famous answers:

Rabbi Ya’akov Abuchatzeira (famed Moroccan Kabbalist) explains in “Pituchei Chotom” (His commentary to the Torah), the soul descends in order to escape “bread of shame”, or, undeserved reward. To clarify, prior to the soul’s descent into the “glowing husk” (the Kabbalistic term for good and evil) of this world, it receives Divine kindness only “passively” - a recipient without merit. This is why the “bread” is termed “shame,” because it is given without merit. To remedy this undesirable condition, God sends the soul into physical consciousness to earn (by choosing good) its place above. In Jewish philosophy, the act of choosing good and rejecting evil (called “clarification”) is termed, “Tikkun”, Hebrew for “fixed”. Most beautifully,  the Hebrew word “Tikkun” (“fixed”) exactly equals (each of the 22 Hebrew letters possesses a special numerical value) “Alma d’ati” (“World to come”, i.e. world of souls where reward is given!) This equivalency teaches that “Alma d’ati” (“world of souls”) is attainable only via “Tikkun” (“Fixing”). To summarize: from the perspective of Rabbi Ya’akov, and those that hold according to his reasoning, the soul descends below in order to earn its place near the Almighty (by choosing good and rejecting evil). Let’s examine yet another answer.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (Master Kabbalist and founder of Chabad) explains in “Torah Ohr” (his commentary to the Torah), the soul’s descent below into the world - physical consciousness - is in order to achieve an even greater ascent. Meaning, via the soul’s enduring the tests, trials, and tribulations of this world (the “glowing husk” of good and evil mentioned above), it achieves (assuming goodness was chosen) an even greater “ascent” (experience of God). In fact, so great is this power (explains Rabbi Zalman) that it lifts the soul to an altogether higher level of Divine experience than anything possible before the descent. In the Zohar (first comprehensive work of Kabbalah), this is termed, “Greater is light that shines from darkness (the darkness of this world) than light that shines from light.”

From the above answers we can surmise that our journey here, however tumultuous, is only for our personal greater good. When challenges come your way (and you feel like relenting) remember that via our toil here - in the realms of the “Glowing Husk” - we reveal a power so great that it catapults us to levels of Divine experience that A) remove “bread of shame”, and B) take us to an even higher experience of Him!

May we merit to go from “Strength to Strength” achieving, via our struggle, all the great good our souls are capable of producing.

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The Unity of Self

Man in dessertHuman beings are not simple, but complex things rarely are. From a Torah (Biblical) perspective, human complexity begins with Genesis, that is to say, the two very different descriptions contained in the book of Genesis describing Adam’s (the first of our kind) creation. In short, part one (of the narrative) describes Adam’s creation as lowly, a derivative of dust and earth  - “The Lord formed man from the dust of the earth” (Genesis 2:7).

In contrast, part two (of the very same verse) describes his origins as lofty, a derivative of the Divine “breath” - “And God breathed into his (Adam’s) nostrils a living soul.” So which are we, dust or spirit, heaven or earth? Kabbalah explains that we are in fact both, and it is because we are both that complexity/confusion arises. Specifically, it is from our “dust” (physical consciousness ) that worldly appetites, e.g. food and drink, are formed. In contrast, it is from our source in the “Divine breath” (the Godly soul within) that Godly instincts, e.g. charity and prayer, arise.

It is painfully obvious that when these two “sides” of our psyche collide (each demanding the other yield), “complexity” (struggle) arises. Question? Is this duality inevitable or can peace be brokered between the “warring parties”? Are we “hybrids” of heaven and earth condemned to suffer eternally, one moment touching the stars above and the next, falling lifeless to the earth below? Or, is there a better way, a path to harmonize/unite the forces within? To answer the question we turn to a famous Talmudic principle (the last of Rabbi Yishmael’s 13 principles) which states, “When two verses contradict, a 3rd verse comes to resolve the contradiction.” In simple terms, when two verses in the Torah (Bible) contradict (point, seemingly, toward opposite truths), there is always a 3rd verse that comes to resolve the contradiction. In the language of Kabbalah, this “resolving force” is termed “Kav Haemtza” (“The Middle Line”). Kabbalah explains further, that just as a “Middle Line” exists in Torah (resolving apparent scriptural contradictions) so, too, in life-- in our spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical experiences. To say it another way, there is no challenge of body or soul that can’t be resolved, provided we tap (reach) the “Middle Line”. Why? Because the power to “resolve” (“Middle Line” consciousness) derives from a source higher than the initial conflict itself.

If so, what is the “Middle Line” strategy to resolve our physical/spiritual tensions? How do we bring together the dust and stars within? Answers Kabbalah, Torah - the Biblical path (613 Commandments for Israel and 7 Commandments for the nations). Here’s why; Torah is sourced in Godliness (as stated explicitly in the Holy Zohar that “God and Torah are one”), and Godliness is neither spiritual nor physical (“physical” and “spiritual” are creations of Divinity, not Divinity itself). Meaning, when Divinity becomes revealed, both body and soul, “vessel” and “light” in the terminology of Kabbalah, “submit”-- become nullified to their Divine source. Hence, when we tap into Torah consciousness, the “Middle Line” of creation, we infuse our “dust” and “stars” (body and soul) with Divinity itself, transforming completely the once incessant duel into a duet!

So study harder, pray with greater intensity ,and carry out good deeds......your inner duet is fast approaching! 

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