The Blessing of the Flood
— Samach-Vav Part 19 —
“Great waters cannot quench the love, nor can the rivers wash it away” – Song of Songs 8:7
A century ago (5666/1906), the Rebbe Rashab (Rabbi Sholom Ber), delivered the classic series of 61 discourses, called Samach-Vav. To commemorate this centennial this column of during the past year has periodically addressed some of the central themes discussed in this monumental series, with particular focus on its relevance to our lives today. (The entire series of articles, plus a running summary and related commentaries, can be found in our special Samach Vov section on our website).
The Samach-Vav series (hemshech) actually continues into the next two years. 41 of the 61 discourses were delivered in the year 5666. 15 more discourses were delivered in 5667, and the final 5 discourses are from 5768.
This week marks a century from the 46th discourse delivered exactly one hundred years ago on Shabbat Parshat Noach. Its focus, which continues the theme of the previous discourses, is on the enormous power of self-generated initiatives, which even a son who inherits his father’s wealth can access by becoming a servant, who achieves results through his own efforts.
Some of its lessons are surprisingly relevant to our lives.
Torah is called a blueprint for life. Every event in the Torah has layers of personal, psychological and spiritual messages relevant to our lives today. One of the most powerful lessons from the great flood in this week’s Torah portion is explained by the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) in a discourse titled “Great waters cannot quench the love, nor can the rivers wash it away:”
“Great waters” refer to our life struggles. As the great waters of material worries overwhelm us and we find ourselves drowning in a flood of financial concerns, we must always know that these anxieties “cannot quench the love” of the soul nor can the rivers of worry “wash it away.”
On the contrary, our material challenges not only do not quench our souls love, but the flooding waters actually lift the “ark” of spirituality to greater, unprecedented heights. As the Alter Rebbe says, “the mistake of businesspeople is that they think that they cannot pray [and achieve spiritual heights] like the scholars [who spend their time immersed in spiritual activity]. On the contrary, they reach even greater heights, because the most powerful light emerges from the darkness.”
The challenges of material life elicit deeper strengths that can not be accessed in the spiritual realms. Resistance always generates power. A soul on its own naturally reaches toward the sublime and is never dying of thirst. But a soul that descends into the material world and manifests in a physical body flooded by rivers of narcissistic desires builds up a deep longing for transcendence, like a thirsty mouth in a parched desert, which a sated soul can never appreciate.
This is also the central theme of the Chassidic discourse delivered a century ago on Shabbat Parshat Noach.
Within this context, allow me this opportunity to answer a question I recently received which reflects an interesting twist to the manifestation of the “great waters” of material concerns plaguing people today.
Dear Rabbi Jacobson,
I read with great personal interest your article about wealth and the many responses to the question you posed “What does wealth do to families?”
Here’s my dilemma: I was blessed to be born into a wealthy home. With all the blessings of prosperity, it also brings much pain and little true happiness. In my case, I feel that it has destroyed my inner life. For years I did not need, and have therefore never pursued the route, to earn my own way. I would say that I have been castrated in the process. Due to the fact that my father is a rich man, I (as many of my friends born into wealth) have a false sense of entitlement, which today I have come to understand is utterly repulsive and vulgar. Though most won’t admit it, I actually felt – I’m ashamed to even say it – that I was better than other people.
You will never believe the extent of the distortion. Living off my fathers’ wealth I completely lost touch with reality, and actually convinced myself that I was wealthy, that I was all powerful and that I can to anything I wish. I was globetrotting and rubbing shoulders with movers and shakers, making investment decisions – while losing millions of my father’s dollars in the process – completely forgetting that this was not my money. I did not earn it, I hardly made any effort – yet I was behaving as if this was all deservedly mine. In retrospect, my arrogance, my delusion – every move I made – now appalls me.
My father, the good man that he is, of course, let me play my games. I actually wish that he would have been more disciplined. Sometimes I wonder if my parents weren’t smothering me in their own pride to have “made it” and in their laziness allowing us kids to just become an extension of their vanity.
I am now in my mid 30’s, and want to find a true soulmate with whom I can build a serious relationship, not built on distortions and illusions, but I don’t feel that I can overcome the so called “gifts” that have undermined my ability to truly grow.
Is there anything you can tell me that may help?
Thank you for listening,
Allow me to quote from the Chassidic discourse – part of the Samach-Vav series – delivered one hundred years ago this week:
“A father has a gifted son endowed with all the qualities of wisdom and sensitivity. The son astutely runs his father’s home and assets with prudence and good sense. The son is completely dedicated to his father’s interests, even more than to his own, and builds his father’s holdings into a far greater fortune. Yet, despite all the pleasure and joy the wise son gives his father, and despite the phenomenal growth the son achieves in his father’s business, son and father are not fully satisfied because the son has not yet acquired the ultimate success which can only come through ones own efforts. All the son’s success and achievements are ultimately not his own; they are only a result of developing his father’s assets. The father supports his son and provides him with all his needs. All the son’s work is with his father’s assets, not his own. Thus, all the son’s success was essentially given to him on a platter. The son was provided with all the ready made resources to build upon. So while the son deserves credit for actualizing the potential of his father’s assets, yet after all is said and done, the son did not create anything from new; he only reshaped what was already there into something better – “yesh m’yesh,” “something from something.” The ultimate pleasure is derived when the son builds something of his own; with no initial resources and with his own self-generated initiative, he creates something new – “yesh m’ayin,” “something from nothing.
“For instance, when the son learns a new skill, unrelated to his father’s industry, and uses his newfound skill to build something new. Even if this effort yields less income than reinvesting his father’s money, the son’s initiative manifests a greater and deeper achievement than developing his father’s pre-existing assets. Living off his own limited income brings much deeper pleasure than living off his father’s abundant money, which is unearned “bread of shame.”
“How does the son create something new and original? This is not possible unless the son is far away from his father’s presence. For the son to truly excel and reach his greatest potential he must struggle on his own. Through hard work and exertion, with no help from others, the son learns to create on his own. Only then does the son create new initiatives that generate far greater power than he could ever have reached by expanding his father’s pre-existing resources.”
Samach-Vav uses this analogy to explain how the “son” can become a “servant” and gain all the advantages of self-generated effort of the “servant.” In earlier discourses Samach-Vav discussed the two types of souls and two types of service: The soul of Atzilut which is an extension of the Divine, and therefore serves like a son who has access to the inner revelations of the Divine. The soul of B’iya, which is a “new” entity outside of the Divine and serves like a simple servant through hard work and earns its right to the divine through exertion (unlike a son that naturally inherits his father’s wealth). Despite the greatness of the Tzaddik (the soul of Atzilut), the true innovation and the purpose of creation is fulfilled by the “simple servant,” for only he truly creates a new energy.
This week Samach-Vav explains that also the “son” can attain the self-generated initiative of the “servant,” but to do so requires hard work: To overcome the inclination of a “free ride” and take for granted your inherited wealth and spiritual resources.
As we leave the holiday-filled month of Tishrei and enter into our “ordinary” routines and are flooded with financial concerns and material worries – a flood that has the power to destroy a universe – this week’s Samach-Vav discourse reminds us yet again, based on the words of Rabbi Schneur Zalman in his Noach discourse (delivered 199 years ago) – that our material challenges do not quench our souls love. Indeed, the flooding waters actually have the power to lift our spirituality to new heights.
So I tell you my dear friend, son of wealth, the greatest achievement of all is to “make it on your own.” I am not suggesting that you completely break away from your parents and home. But frankly the more independent you become the greater person you will be.
Each of us is presented with unique challenges, with our particular “floodwaters.” The overwhelming burden of poverty challenges you to remain strong and proud and not allow the poverty to break you and flood you with bitterness and demoralization. Wealth challenges you not to allow the flood of abundance to turn you into a “spoiled brat” who never learns to earn your way in life.
Each of us feels that our particular challenge is the most difficult one. But we are told that we are never given a challenge we cannot overcome. Acknowledged, the challenge of wealth is formidable. How, after all, can you not succumb to the temptation to live off the “fat of the land” and benefit from your parents’ wealth? But be aware that as long as you stay in the “shadow” of your home, the price you will pay will be far greater than the wealth you will inherit. That price will include losing your self, compromising your destiny and the possibility that you may never discover and realize the purpose for which you were put here on earth.
If you are aware of the high stakes it may help you take on the challenge, and follow the Rebbe Rashab’s advice: Leave the sphere of your parents influence, and go make it on your own. You always know that you have loving parents that will support you and your decisions. Indeed, they of all will ultimately be far happier seeing you become yourself,
Above all, remember that the “raging waters” of prosperity flooding your life and your psyche is actually an opportunity to lift you to unprecedented heights, to motivate you to rise above the waters and make your unique, indelible mark on the universe.
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Question for the week: Are you for or against the war in Iraq? Why?