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.