What is greater: To do the right thing or to avoid doing the wrong thing? To be good or to not be evil?
A healthy, organized life requires five steps:
Everything begins with a mission, a statement of purpose, which defines the plan and outline. Then we find the tools required to implement the mission and plan, followed by actual implementation. To succeed we must also anticipate unexpected challenges and resistance, and adjust accordingly. Finally, we report, review and assess our success.
Torah, called the book of life, provides us with the ideal model for life. The Torah’s five books outline the five steps necessary to achieve our life’s goals.
The first book of Genesis lays out the purpose of life, and begins the training process, even equipping us with the basics we will need to transform the material world. In the second book of Exodus we acquire the tools and the methodology how to achieve this transformation: Transcendence from our limits and constraints (Mitzrayim), a blueprint for living a transcendent life (Sinai) and building a Divine home in the material world (Temple). The actual work begins in the third book of Leviticus, which opens up with the service in the Temple – the purpose of all life: “A person will offer of himself an offering to G-d.”
Now we enter into the fourth book of Bamidbar (the wilderness), where the real challenge begins: How to live a wholesome life in a sinister and threatening world. It’s one thing to find beauty in heaven, to discover wisdom on Sinai, to experience spiritual harmony in an oasis; but the biggest question of all is this: Can we maintain a soulful life in an alien environment? Can we survive – let alone thrive – in a corrupt, narcissistic wilderness called the material universe?
To be committed when the water is flowing is not that surprising. But what happens when you enter a parched and arid desert?
This is the theme of the fourth book of the Torah, which is primarily the story of the Jews’ 40-year wandering journey in the harsh wilderness. [The fifth book, Devorim, Mishne Torah, is the review of the entire process – to be addressed in a later article].
Samach-Vav, the Rebbe Rashab’s magnum opus (a series of 61 comprehensive Chassidic/mystical discourses) delivered one hundred years ago (1906), parallels the Torah narrative: After first laying out the purpose of existence (Genesis), and the methods for transcendence from our mundane world, to get inspired and remain inspired, the hemshech (series) continues with its analysis of light and the Divine service of offering your body and soul to G-d.
But then, as the Torah takes a turn into the dark wilderness, Samach-Vav accordingly enters into a profound discussion on how to access hope and love even when the Divine is hidden and it seems as G-d has forsaken and forgotten us. Invoking the verse “I remember the devotedness of your youth…how you followed Me in the wilderness,” the Rebbe Rashab explains that the dark journey through the wilderness of life is like a father who hides from his child in order to evoke the child’s ingenuity to find the hidden father.
The foolish child misunderstands the concealment and first gets consumed with self-pity, fear and tears, which then turns into resignation and denial, finally wandering off into a life thinking that the father has disappeared forever (or never existed in the first place). The wise child, however, is not perturbed by the concealment, but recognizes that it is G-d’s way of testing us. Thus, the child exerts himself to find the father within the concealed layers of material life. This extra, often super-human, devotion (“how you followed Me in the wilderness”) in turn elicits an infinitely deeper expression of love and kisses between father and child, precisely because it comes after utter concealment and the hard work of discovering your hidden father. Samach-Vav explains that this is the profound love, and energy, generated by our struggle in exile, when the Divine is utterly concealed – a love that will be revealed in the final Redemption.
This week’s installment of Samach-Vav – delivered one hundred years ago this week – continues the theme by addressing the way we search for the hidden good and Divine concealed in our layered universe.
When Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden they were given their calling: “To serve and to protect.” There are two types of mitzvoth: Positive ones (thou shalt) and negative ones (thou shalt not). We serve with our positive acts; we protect through avoiding the negative.
We too are charged with the mission “to serve and to protect” the world in which we live: To serve by creating beautiful environments and structures. And to protect them from negative elements.
When we do a positive mitzvah and act virtuously we build beautiful structures. However that is only half – actually less than half – the story.
What happens if you build a beautiful home, decorate it with lovely ornaments and fill it with exquisite furnishings – but then allow rodents, dust and mold into the home? Beauty is defined not only by what it is, but also by what it is not.
Indeed, a defaced work of beauty is much uglier – and more disturbing – than a disfigured work of mediocrity (or plain ugliness). The worse part of a child abused at home is that the abuse is coming from people who are supposed to (and often do) love you. If a stranger hurts you – you don’t necessarily expect more, and you don’t allow yourself to be vulnerable to a stranger in the first place. But when the hurt comes from a parent – someone who assumedly loves you, and often shows love to you, than you as a child get all confused by the snowballing of love and pain. This mix of beauty and ugliness is the root of some of the most devastating distortions in our individual and collective psyche today.
In a revolutionary statement, Samach-Vav declares that the negative mitzvah – avoiding the ugly – is more powerful than creating beauty. And indeed, the negative mitzvoth (thou shalt not) protect the positive ones. In mystical terms, the positive mitzvah generates a defined form of Divine energy, one that can be contained in the particular act of each respective positive act. The negative mitzvah, on the other hand, manifests the Essence – the Divine energy than is beyond any form of expression, one that cannot be contained in any particular act, only in a non-act; in the sheer effort of withstanding temptation to do something wrong.
And it is these negative mitzvoth that most manifest the potent strength and devotion of the child searching for the concealed father. Positive acts of virtue express love; serving someone you care for demonstrates devotion. But the deepest love is expressed, and the strongest effort exerted, in protecting your beloved from destructive forces.
“I remember the devotedness of your youth…how you followed Me in the wilderness,” when you did not see My Divine face and did not experience revelation.
The ultimate test of devotion and commitment is in “your youth,” in your behavior when you are spiritually and emotionally young and undeveloped, and when you follow the path of truth even in the “wilderness,” where there is no apparent revelation and direction.
We find many loving people in our world. Much beauty and nobility. But mixed into it all we also find much pain and abuse. To be a good person means not just doing good things, serving a good cause, but also protecting – ensuring that the non-good does not intrude and infiltrate the good.
Many of us serve, but do we protect? Many parents care and love their children, but do they also protect them? We often know how to love others, what to do to express love, but do we also know what not to do?
— Samach-Vav Part 15 —