Balak: The Secret to Immortality

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From the ancient pyramids to post-modern cryogenic freezing, man has always been in search for immortality.

Even today’s cosmetics industry, botox and all, is a take-off – no pun intended – of the timeless quest for the “fountain of youth,” something, anything that would abort or reverse the aging process.

In one verse in this week’s Torah portion (Balak), the prophet Balaam tells us the secret of immortality.

Some background: Moabite King Balak, fearing the power of the Jewish people traveling through his land, commissions the prophet Balaam to place a curse on the Jews. Instead, Balaam – being no more than a medium for Divine revelation – ends up blessing them with the greatest of blessings.

Much has been written about the transformational power of these blessings. They demonstrate the ability to convert liabilities to assets; curses to blessings. Coming from Balaam – the alter ego of Moses – these blessings are especially potent: They express the “profound light that emerges from darkness.” And indeed, Balaam’s words reverberate through history with their prescient vision and their prophetic description of the Jewish people (see Are Jews Treated Differently?).

Of all people, Balaam – no friend of Israel – is the one that teaches us the way to reach eternity.

“Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the seed of Israel?” Balaam declares (Numbers 23:10).

Ostensibly, the verse is quite cryptic. And even contradictory. What sort of compliment and blessing is comparing Jacob to… “dust?! And what virtue is there in the fact that no one can count them? Finally, the nations of the world are much larger in number than the Jewish people. So why exactly is Balaam using numbers to describe the uniqueness of the Jewish people (that they are multiple like dust and therefore can’t be counted)?!

This is not the first or only time when the Jewish people are blessed to multiply like the “dust of the earth.” Abraham and Jacob are both blessed in this fashion. “And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could count the dust of the earth, then your descendants also will be countable” (Genesis 13:16. See also 22:17. 28:14. Hosea 2:1). Here again the seemingly derogatory expression of “dust” is used! To describe their large numbers why not use a lofty example, say, of the “stars in heaven” – as is indeed stated in other places (Genesis 15:5. 22:17)?! And here too the obvious question can be asked: The Jewish people are the “fewest among nations.” Not even 1% of the entire population of the world – hardly uncountable, especially in contrast to the other nations!

Balaam’s blessing actually answers all these questions and explains the uniqueness of the Jewish people whose numbers can’t be counted.

It’s not their quantity but their quality that makes them uncountable. And this quality is expressed best with the metaphor of dust.

And with this we shall introduce a new word into the English language. The word is “bittul.” Never heard of it, right? Because there is no such word in English. It’s actually quite impossible to fully translate, perhaps because the concept is not (yet) contained or tolerated in the English (secular) world. Bittul is a combination of selflessness, humility and modesty. And more than that. It is a form of subjugation, but out of strength not weakness. And more than that. Bittul is the art of self-suspension – suspending your self to serve a cause greater than your self. And more than that…

“Dust” is a metaphor for bittul. As we say at the conclusion of the amidah prayer: “Let my soul be as dust to all.” Dust does not have an ego. When your soul feels like dust, it means that it is not filled with its proud self. The soul feels like dust in face and in awe of something far greater. The soul does not experience itself as a self-standing entity, but simply as an extension of a higher reality.

This expression of dust is not to be confused to its disparaging use as in dismissing something that is insignificant and meaningless like dust. Something that people ignore, step all over or see as a nuisance. The dust we are referring to is quite the opposite – a sense of being lifted to a far greater place than you can ever reach one your own. As the prayer continues: “Let my soul be as dust to all. Open my heart to Your Torah.”

There is nothing and there in nothing. There are two types of nothingness – one belittling, the other be-greating. There is a nothing that is lower than “something,” like the dust beneath your feet. Psychologically, this type of nothingness is expressed in feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem, lack of confidence and security. Then there is a nothing that is greater than “something” – being that it transcends the very boundaries of the “something.” And the more “nothing” it is the greater it transcends all definitions and boundaries, until… it becomes one, and extension of, the ultimate Undefined Reality. This experience of “nothingness” (bittul) expresses itself in ultimate humility, which should not be confused with low self-esteem. Humility is a strength that is completely aware if its own strengths (as opposed to someone who has no confidence), yet recognizes that the strengths are not self made; they originate from a higher source. Humility is utter self-assuredness, but always cognizant of a higher presence.

As such, bittul is the single most powerful force in life. It is the recognition that you are not an entity unto yourself, but a channel for that which is greater than you.

Without bittul there is no growth. A seed must decompose before it turns into a sapling that will grow into a powerful tree. A mother goes through birth pangs before a beautiful child emerges. Creativity is a child of frustration; the greater the creation the more the frustration that precedes it. All clarity comes after a state of utter confusion. You have to melt down gold before reshaping it into a stunning ornament.

This is the rule of existence and beyond. The bittul of one state is necessary to reach a higher state. Basically, one layer of skin must be shed to assume a new layer. A filled cup cannot be filled. The Kabbalists call it the “ayin” that comes between two states of “yesh” (being).

Bittul, therefore, can never be counted and can never die. Bittul is immortal. Nothingness cannot become nothing. Nullification cannot be nullified. The more it is nullified, the greater it becomes.

This is Balaam’s blessed message: “Who can count the dust of Jacob.” Jacob embodies bittul. Since Jacob is bottul like dust, “Jacob is the small one” who is not consumed with self-value, but has suspended his self and become an extension of that which us beyond himself, than how can he ever be counted? There is no measured entity to be counted.

As long as there is a “self” – a sense of your own being – then you are measurable and countable. But if you free yourself of your own boundaries and feel like “dust”, not through self-annihilation and lack of self-awareness, but because you feel that your self is just an expression of a higher entity – than you no longer can truly be counted. To count you, to measure you, to define you in any way would need to include that which you are a channel of. Being that you are channel of the eternal and infinite Divine, then you are as uncountable as Eternity itself.

Of all people, Balaam the enemy himself, tells us that you have two choices:

You can be dedicated to you own needs, your own growth – your own being, expanding and self actualizing in every which way. Then you can be great, but only as great as a mortal can be, with your particular parameters.

Or you can dedicate you life to a cause far greater than you are. And then you become greater than you self could ever be.

The formula is simple: If you are dedicated to something mortal and finite, then you are mortal and finite. If you dedicate yourself to the immortal then you become immortal.

Now choose.

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shlomo dror
9 years ago

this is a very good explication of a subtle idea, and idea that is certainly central to Judaism (and perhaps other religions as well). Thank you Rabbi.

Esther Sarah
9 years ago

bH
Right on, Rabbi, right on. May you write on only in this vein, and I think youll help bring Moshiach right now.

Esther Sarah
9 years ago

bH
Right on, Rabbi, right on. May you write only in this vein, and I think youll help bring Moshiach right now.

Dan
9 years ago

A stroke of genius. Ive never understood this passage. A mystery of scripture unraveled, revealing the greatest mystery of avodah! To be a piece of dust suspended in infinity is a very fortunate piece of dust indeed! BH!!!!!

sheila lewis
9 years ago

The amazing insights in the article about bittul and the nature of soul or nothingness identification vs. self-actualization was a healing balm. I never thought of Balaam and his message in this way. Thanks for sharing.

Karen Stock
9 years ago

interesting – thank you

Jon Moreshead
9 years ago

AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH, Yes!!
Thank you.

Irene Brunstein
9 years ago

As a youth I was an assimilated Jew, raised without love of G-d. I was searching throughout my life for meaning. I was in an ashram in India, I embraced all religions looking for meaning. Only by Hashems grace have I found what I was looking for. The universal flow, the oneness, the essence of life, timeless, with no beginning and no end that our connection with the Blessed One brings. Now every moment, every thought, idea, action is full of grace and love of the Lord and others. If we take our daily prayers seriously, and set our minds and hearts to Hashem, we can find satisfaction beyond comparison, beyond anything we can conceive. People, as a whole need to put aside their religious differences. There is not one way to pray but there is only one way prayer is meaningful – if you ask Hashem to bring you closer to his countenance, his countenance will fill you up, his light will shine upon you and understanding will come to you. May G-d bless you and keep you!

Patricia Grossman
9 years ago

And the next to last sentence will always be remembered for its exactedness and my and others connectedness to it for us to understand the message as the writing is that eloquent and descriptive.

Tone Lechtzier
9 years ago

Shalom,
I have found this to be true. Its indeed a
great comfort.
By the grace of HaShem ~ Tone

ruth housman
9 years ago

This is beautiful and I wanted to add a few comments.
First let me quote your words: The formula is simple: If you are dedicated to something mortal and finite, then you are mortal and finite. If you dedicate yourself to the immortal then you become immortal.

Here is another way to word this, and I think both are correct, and that is: to devote oneself to tikkun olam in the here and now, meaning on earth, in our everyday work, is to do Divine Work, and to divine this, is to realize bittul, in that we are all of us part of a far far greater whole, and are as dust in the wind, meaning we are the seeds of potential for change, for positive change, and we recognize that we are plugged into The Source. The energy and opportunity for tikkun comes directly from G_d.

What we experience here, has reverberations that are cosmic, so that mite and might are related words. As we move the cosmos down below, even as we plant, cosmos, in loving kindness, in our gardens, both in real soil and in the gardens we seed with love, our lives, we are doing an equivalence. To be humble is to recognize this deep truth, about all of our lives, and the journey we take from merger to merger, that deeply involves the path that is empathy itself.

To empathize fully with another suffering being, is to realize that one ness, and then, we are them, and life becomes MIRAR, as in WONDER, as in ONE der, but to reach this comprehension of One ness perhaps takes a deep and ongoing journey of soul.

You are right, and I am right. It all does mirror.

Hugh McCaffery
9 years ago

I have been seeking for 45 years. Never have I heard it put so clearly
Thank you for being you
I will copy this and reread it until I have my own experience with it.

K. Rbogen
9 years ago

Very good. I gain peace out of this.
Meaning if I can do for others, and try not to compete against the rat race and others, which in itself creates stress. How to put it in words… if I get into competitive mode and I get hit hard when the world does not recognmize me as a person, i lower myself in my self esteem and in what I perceive as others eyes.

If I can shift my burden to doing things for the world and allow myself to be dust and be inconspicuous, I would find I make more of an impact upon the world when I lower my expectation to be acknowledge A powerful message I feel.
To deflect the stress away from me and try to make a difference without expectations of any acknowledge which can create a high level stress. Maybe this is the reasoning to do a blessing for another anonymously. Or to do a special act of kindness and not be known one did it, raises one to a higher level.
You stirred my thoughts dear rabbi. Blessings to you of the highest order.

lakshmima
9 years ago

As I stood in circle with my native american brothers and sisters we awaited the passing of the peace pipe over our head, smoke is gently blown over the keter and we await our turn.
My eyes were closed and it was my turn, I heard the divine om being sung by a multitude,and we were passing through the light, hundreds of us like dust particles..we floated upwards to the tune of Om and it was so beautiful. Suddenly I had this thought.I never knew theat the native american tribes sang the OM, it was at this point I returned to my body and realized no one was actually singing the Om..It was the understanding that as one rises up , the many rise as well, very much like dust particles seen in the light. We all were taken to a dimension beyond this plane of exsistence..it was sublime. however an added a note to the commentators, This dressing of nullification, of going thoriugh darkness to attain the light, its a misnomer, this ascnscion took place before an awakening..The emphasis needs to be more on loving the creator, glorifing the divine creative rgies we are all part of. the concept of darkness is not understood in its mystical context. confusing two differnet concepts and joining them incorrectly. It is true that we meet the darkness of the infinite before the creative light is bestowed from this soup with shades of golden filments.. This preceeds an awakening. However ascension, is her great force carrying us into other dimensions, some call it shekinah, others kundilini, Chi, Kei, holy spirit..yes, it is from the almighty the active principle bringing us closer to his house. Austerity, is not the answer to the expansion. or the greater part of the world would be ascending. Thses two concepts have been historical misunderstood and need correction if the many are to know their birthright. Buddha gre to know this after great experimentation..why do we not listen to the sages that knew self realization first hand. respectfully submitted lakshmima

augie mackenzie
9 years ago

R Jacobson…..it is a nice idea you peddle. All things alive decay, all.
No man will rise from the dead, or enter eternity as immortal. You keep on peddling your message that is most disingenious. I know you will not even deign post this at all.

David Aiello
9 years ago

You never cease to bring delight. This is a wonderful distillation of the challenge of having a real spiritual life. Thank you!

balak
9 years ago

It is not just a choice to be nullified in that which even the Angels cant perceive–Perfect Unity. The correct choice begins a long arduous journey– lifes very-purpose itself!–Hatzlacha -May we merit to Moshiach.

H.T.G.
9 years ago

Good, enlightened message for immortality. As dust could be a metaphor for “bittul”, so is emptiness, nothingness and infinity, since those are uncountable and refer to selflessness, humility and modesty too, or Ego renunciation. The selfless cannot be counted, measured, or defined; it is infinite and eternal. Without everything together there is nothing separate. All clarity comes after a state of utter confusion; light shines from the dark; wisdom shines from ignorance.The selfless is the immortal truth.

4 years ago

Secret of Immortality? – Relax! – I got it! – I can make everybody Immortal in less than a month – We humans can stop aging (by wiping out all diseases) and live forever (like our Creators from the planet of Nibiru – The Anunnaki) – I got the key to our Biological Immortality – By staying absolutely healthy all the time – By doing my discovery (just an exercise for a minute a day) – My WVCD – The Weapon of Virus and Cancer Destruction, that cures and prevents any diseases, known on Earth for millions of years, even radiation disease (concerning space flights) – I will describe my WVCD to everyone, who sends me a check for one million bucks – Everybody will stay absolutely healthy all the time, living their Endless Lives, for Infinite Health = Immortality.