Are You a Square or a Circle?
Years ago I taught an introductory course on
Jewish mysticism (also known as Chassidus or Kabbalah) to
a class of high school seniors. In one of the written tests
I asked them to describe in their own few words the difference
between various entities: the difference between body and
soul; between the animal force and Divine force; between
material and transcendental needs; between the secular and
the sacred; between heaven and earth; between selfishness
I was struck by the large number of answers that distinguished between all
these categories simply with the words “evil” and “good.” The body is bad
and the soul is good. The material is bad, and the transcendent is good. 20
out of 30 questions were answered with the one word “good” or “bad.”
Children think in terms of black and white: Good and bad; sweet and sour;
light and dark. Young, undeveloped minds don’t yet appreciate the nuances
of life; the gray areas; the ambiguous and the ambivalent.
There is purity in the innocence of simplicity. And many adults would do
well to not lose that enchantment. But life is complex as well.
Western thought is often criticized for being linear, especially relative
to Eastern thought. Linear defines a very structured and organized way of
looking at things. Relentless cause and effect is the heartbeat of phenomena.
In Eastern thought reality is seen in an amorphous state; things do not have
stark definitions. Linear, logical thinking is limited, and paradox is the
closest reflection on the true nature of existence.
In truth, to truly appreciate life in its entirety we need to embrace both
dimensions into one integrated whole.
In modern day physics, for instance, we now know that on
the macroscopic level (the world that we perceive and experience
with our five senses) grand order and design drives the
machine of the universe. Newtonian physics – defining
phenomena in terms of the “billiard ball” cause
and effect – stands as the dominant way of looking
at the world. However, on a microscopic level it has been
clearly demonstrated that reality functions very much in
an amorphous “state of probability.” In the
inner world things are not quite defined in the same structured
way as in the outer world.
Indeed, in Kabbalistic thought there is the cosmic distinction between “circles”
(iggulim) and “lines” (yosher). A line is made up of defined
points, structured in a clear order of higher and lower. By contrast a circle
is one continuous flow, with no top or bottom. All of existence is made up
of both lines and circles: The outer world is driven by order and organization
– the linear structure, that evolves in an orderly sequence. But beneath the
surface, in the “engine room” of the universe, the driving force is “circular”
In Kabbala there is even a metaphor of the “square within the circle” and
the “circle within the square,” because the linear and the circular of existence
is intertwined into one seamless whole.
Thus we live in a world that is both orderly and paradoxical.
As children we may perceive life in black and white terms. As we mature we
learn that life is far more nuanced and complex.
When asked the question: “How is your life?” a child usually answers “good”
or “bad” based on his/her emotions of the moment. An adult (not just a chronological
one) would answer: “Some thing are great; some not so great; some so-so; and
the bulk is in between, and can go either way.” In other words, life is complex.
There is no such thing as good without bad, and vice versa.
The challenge is to appreciate the flow and ride the waves.
The holiday of Passover celebrates the paradox of life – the structure and
the unstructured; the defined and the undefined. We don’t just remember the
exodus but also the exile. We don’t just recreate the joy, but also the pain.
We drink wine, but also taste bitter herbs. We respect the process – the entire
process – from the lowest points to the highest, and we recognize how it replays
itself in our lives today.
The Passover Seder orbits around the three matzos and the four cups of wine.
Matzo is the “food of the impoverished;” wine is the drink of royalty. Eating
matzo is symbolic of our humility; wine demonstrates our proud sense of freedom.
Are we kings or paupers on Passover night?
The answer is both.
True humility brings one to true greatness.
That is the ultimate truth of life.