Where Form Meets Function
— Samach-Vav Part 14 —
“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your G-d, am holy” – this week’s Torah portion (Leviticus 19:2)
We are all servants. Some of us serve ourselves; others serve a higher purpose. Most of us compartmentalize and our lives become a mix of the two. But can we really be satisfied with this sort of compromise?
Paradoxically, the happiest people are those that are not consumed with serving their own needs, but are dedicated to a higher cause. In the words of John Stuart Mill:
“Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.”
This is the central theme of the Book of Leviticus, known as the Book of Offerings, which we are currently reading:
“A person will offer of himself an offering to G-d.”
As we continue reading Leviticus, each progressive chapter teaches us how to grow in offering ourselves to our higher purpose.
Following the earlier chapters which discuss the general offering of our souls and bodies, this week’s chapter intensifies our service with the commandment:
“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your G-d, am holy.”
Do not be deceived by the simplicity of the statement. Had the verse only stated “be holy” and not added the reason (“for I, G-d, am holy”) then the commandment could be understood as another aspect of serving G-d. But by equating our holiness to G-d’s holiness the verse is actually saying that we mortal humans can become like G-d. To the extent that the Midrash has to qualify that G-d’s holiness is greater than our own (see G-d’s Vulnerability).
Indeed, Judaism never was satisfied with the mere spiritual journey. For many, it would be considered quite an achievement to be able to transcend the mediocrity of material existence and experience even a minimal state of psychological and spiritual freedom. But for the great Jewish leaders – beginning from Abraham and Moses – transcendence was not enough. They wanted a relationship with G-d; not just the ability to speak to G-d, but a relationship as in relating to G-d.
After all if You, G-d created us, then we have (contain) a “part” of You within us, and You have a part of us within You.
Take Moses’ memorable words, crying from the heart: Please G-d, “allow me to know Your ways,” “show me Your Glory.” Moses wants to see G-d’s face, and G-d complies, with a qualification.
But the big question is how? We humans are mortals, finite, limited – weak. G-d is immortal, infinite, eternal, omnipresent – all-powerful. We are creatures; G-d the Creator. How can the two meet?
Yes, we can serve G-d. We can obey Him, offer Him prayers and praise and look to Him for hope and salvation. But how can we unite with Him?
The entire Kabbalah comes to answer this very question. For in it lies the secret to life – the single greatest dilemma: How high can we reach? How eternal can we temporal creatures become? Do our choices matter in the long run; if we all perish at the end of the day, how invested should we really be in our choices?
Half-baked measures were simply not enough for the great spirits. They didn’t want to accept a limited relationship with the Divine. They refused to compromise and see their relationship with G-d as a one-way street: We serve G-d and G-d provides for us. That sounds great, but then why the need for the entire process in the first place? What Divine benefit is there in serving G-d? Yes, once we exist serving G-d may be the most redeeming factor of our lives – the only one that can connect us to the eternal – but why have us exist at all? If there was no creation and no service, what would be missing? And finally, there are many people out there that can serve G-d; what is unique about any individual’s service? We want to know that we are truly indispensable. That our individuality – our unique personality – has a relationship with and become like G-d.
This dilemma consumes every page of Kabbalah and Chassidus. It is therefore obvious that this theme is central to Samach-Vav – the masterful series of discourses delivered one hundred years ago (1906) – which codifies all of Chassidus and Kabbalah. Indeed, its author, the Rebbe Rashab, is known as the “Rambam of Chassidut.” Like the Rambam (Maimonides) the Rebbe Rashab organized the multitude of mystical discourses into one accessible structured text. No where is this more obvious than in the 61 sequential discourses of the year Samach-Vav.
In his flowing work, the Rebbe Rashab explains at length how we mortal humans can become like G-d – as has been elaborated upon in this column throughout the year. (The entire series of articles, plus a running summary and related commentaries, can be found in our special Samach-Vav section).
Basically, Samach-Vav tells us, that everything in existence has a Divine imprint. G-d imparted elements of the Divine “personality” in every aspect of the universe.
The entire purpose of existence is that we uncover this Divine force; that we transform the material world into a home for the Divine, and draw down new unprecedented energy that expresses “the innermost aspect and essence of the Infinite Light” – the essence of the Divine.
We achieve this by appreciating that everything in existence has two dimensions: Light and container – energy and structure. Both reflect the Divine but in different ways: The light (soul) reflects the transcendent dimension of the Divine – the selflessness, sublime and defiance of all definition. The container (body) reflects the Divine structure – how the Divine manifests in structure and form.
And the Divine nature of both light and container must be tapped and actualized to their fullest potential. The way of the “light” accesses the Divine energy within our souls and within all of existence. The way of the “container” transforms matter into spirit through our hard work.
Each of us has two dimensions in our lives: Our involvement in the material world, and our transcendental, spiritual yearnings. In one word: the body and the soul. Being G-dly means allowing your soul to shine (light) and sanctifying your body and material activities (containers).
More generally, this breaks down into two types of souls: Those who feel close to G-d, like children to a parent, and those that don’t, like servants to a master. Each type of soul has both lights and containers, yet the former souls are more “light-like” and the latter ones more “container-like.”
In the discourses we study these weeks (19-26), the Rebbe Rashab explains how the first type of soul accesses the Divine, and becomes like G-d, both through the light and container (soul and the body). Following the discussion about the first type of soul, Samach-Vav then continues to address the second type of soul, whose primary nature is material, and its’ service consists of the hard work to sublimate the “egocentric” personality of matter.
In personal terms this means that not only your soul but also your body and the material structure of your life can be sanctified and become G-dlike. The total fusion of form and function in a “spiritual union” is necessary for a balanced, wholesome life
(as discussed last week).
There are many far-reaching lessons that can be derived from this principle. For example: Two elements are necessary in the creation of every business, and the design of every product: Form and function. Both are vital components, and each has its own way of expressing truth. Function at its best should be like light, which reflects its source – the vision and purpose of the object. Form at its best represents the structure – the market, the audience that will benefit from the object. The key is to align the two in one seamless unit, which fuses the function and the form, the purpose and its expression.
On a practical note, after all is said and done, can we actually expect that ordinary people should serve only a higher purpose and not our own needs? Based on the above discussion the answer is both surprising and refreshing:
The structured “containers” have needs, the selfless “lights” do not; they are mere reflections of their source. But the needs of the “containers” are Divine in nature. With one crucial qualification: The objective is not to be fixated on satisfying the needs of the “containers” as an end in itself, but to recognize that these needs are also an extension of satisfying the higher, Divine purpose. In other words: To appreciate that the “containers” are just that – vehicles to express the Divine light.
So, in truth we really have only two choices in life: To serve yourself or to serve G-d. To serve your immediate perceived needs or to serve a higher purpose – the mission of your life.
And when you do, your needs will be fulfilled, and happiness will follow.
As the wise one says: I don’t sing because I am happy; I am happy because I sing.