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)

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Hell No

The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat gives Hell a good name. He argues that belief in hell is necessary to a meaningful religious outlook:

Atheists have license to scoff at damnation, but to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.

I'm sure that Hell will have currency for those who are made uncomfortable by the supposed obfuscation of boundaries between good and bad in contemporary society. If you need the idea of eternal post-mortem punishment to shore up your vision of the Good Life here on earth, enjoy yourself.

But how distant this is from the Jewish vision of an inspired life of meaning. While ancient and early rabbinic Judaism did have an idea of a place of torment after death, it does not have a central role in Jewish thought.

Look at this beautiful teaching of Rabbi Natan of Breslov. An antidote to the grim notion that a life of meaning takes shape only against a backdrop of eternal pain.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Pesach Passes

A beautiful teaching I came across in preparing for Passover:

B’chol dor vador chayav adam lirot atzmo k’ilu yatza mimitzrayim.

In every single generation, one must see oneself (atzmo) as if one had come out from Egypt. - The Haggadah

Rabbi Aaron Friedman of Sadagura (Ukraine), in Kedushat Aharon, focuses on the dual meaning of atzmo to come up with a surprising interpretation of this well known phrase.

Atzmo usually means "himself." But Rabbi Friedman uses a related but distinct meaning of the word, which is "essence." He writes:

I think that atzmo refers to the atzmiyut, the essence of a person – the soul which is a part of God....One must look to see the inner essence, the divine life point that is within... When one attains this level of religious devotion, it is considered as if he or she has left Egypt...

When a person ceases looking merely at outward forms and instead looks at the spiritual essence then one’s devotion becomes an Exodus from Mitzrayim: from every confine, from materiality, from all boundaries....

This teaching is so beautiful. It amplifies the radical nature of the Exodus and personalizes it. We have within us a confine-destroying light, if you will. That light cannot be extinguished by any external condition of our lives. Not by social decay, not by corruption, not by poverty, not by slavery. It is always there. If we can reconnect with this essence we are reminded that we carry part of God within us. It is that pure point that cannot be overcome, and that can give such fierce hope that it can give us a vision of what our lives, as individuals and as members of a community, should look like.

The challenge is that we spend most of our days focusing not on our essence, but instead on externals. But we carry this around with us always...