A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The World to Come

Chevruta study links us with another person and so creates the future.

In Chapter Seven of Rabbi Stone's A Responsible Life, which we are reading in my 613 Habits of Highly Effective People class, a new and surprising understanding of Olam HaZeh and Olam HaBa appears. I want to summarize this dense chapter here for those in the class but I will do so by addressing the topics of present, future and past in a different order. Interspersed with the summary are my own interpretations of Rabbi Stone's ideas.

The past is pure spirituality. That is, it is not material - we can't touch it. Nonetheless, it is more than memory because it has a real effect on our lives. It shapes us. What makes the past Torah is the extent to which that shaping of our lives is purposeful. A whole series of events in the past may affect my life, but those might just be a collection of random experiences that have no purpose. But the Torah, the revelation, of the Jewish past, is trying to shape my life in a particular direction: cultural memory, the teachings of the Jewish tradition, the mitzvot, these all are trying to make me act in a certain way. The past reaches into the material world to guide it.

The present is where I exist. To exist in the present is to be conscious. Consciousness is most immediately tied to one's own experience, one's own needs. What it means to be me is to see the world through the lens of my consciousness of my own perceptions and needs. In this sense, the self is the "location" of the present.

This present is 'olam hazeh' - this world, the material world.

The present (the world of self) is interrupted by the awareness of the needs of another person, awareness of the reality of another consciousness that exists along with us. We suspend our interest in the self - we set aside the present - when we encounter another and we therefore have to look to the future to return to our self, with all of its demands on us. This is what Rabbi Stone means when he says that "waiting for another creates the future for me." If we sit and stare at our belly button, and a needy person knocks at the door looking for food, we stop staring at our belly button and think "I'll get back to that later, in the future" as we go to answer the door. That is a silly illustration of what he means.

The future is 'olam haba' - the world to come, a world that is both material (there is another physical being that causes it to exist) and yet spiritual (the process of waiting for time to pass is a spiritual experience, according to Stone).

We move between olam ha-zeh and olam ha-ba as we switch between a consciousness focused on self and a consciousness focused on others. Though orientation toward others is "responsibility" and in this sense is a burden, it is also liberating, freeing us from the unsatisfying entrapment in the prison of the present and the prison of self.

Apologies to Rabbi Stone for any possible misrepresentations of his ideas that may appear in this post.

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