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Toldot: The Power of Human Exertion

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Unleashing the Infinite

— Samech Vov 100 Years – Part 5 —

How do you access the innermost recess of your soul – your deepest state of supra-consciousness? What power does human exertion wield? Is there any deeper significance to our struggles?

This week’s Torah portion, flavored by the unique Samech Vov touch, holds the answer to these any many other fundamental questions.

In the first installments of our continuing series discussing the Rebbe Rashab’s magnum opus, Hemshech Samech Vov, we reviewed the central themes of the first nine discourses of Samech Vov (see the running summary). To sum up briefly: The purpose of existence is to 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 “supra-conscious.”

We reach the Divine essence by accessing the essence of our own souls – the state of supra-conscious pleasure that lies at the core of our beings: A deep-seated reservoir of profound calm which give us an innate sense of belonging and indispensability.

After discussing the nature of the supra-consciousness, Samech Vov now begins to address – in the discourses of Chayei Sarah and Toldot 5666/1905 delivered 100 years ago this weekhow we actually access the supra-conscious state?

One of the most controversial stories in the Bible is in this week’s Torah portion: How Jacob in collusion with his mother Rebecca “steals” the blessings intended for his brother Esau by deceiving Isaac into thinking that he is actually blessing Esau when in truth it was Jacob dressed up and pretending to be his brother.

How could Jacob the Tzaddik, “a wholesome man, who sat in the tents” of study, behave in such a deceitful way?! And not once, but twice:

“First he took my birthright [earlier in the chapter Jacob “buys” the famished Esau’s birthright with a stew] and now he took my blessing.”

Can blessings be won through deceit? Even if Rebecca was convinced that Jacob deserved the blessings, why did she not attempt to communicate that to Isaac? And what was Isaac thinking; is he not a tzaddik who knew what he was doing? The questions are as timeless as the story itself.

The question is really much broader: What is the significance of the struggle between the twin brothers, Jacob and Esau? Even in pregnancy, “the children clashed inside” Rebecca. When Rebecca is confused, “Why is this happening to me?” G-d replies:

“Two nations are in your womb. Two governments will separate from inside you. The upper hand will go from one nation to the other. The greater one will serve the younger.”

And so it was. The twins Esau and Jacob are born, with diametrically different characters. Esau is a “skilled hunter, a man of the field.” “Jacob was a wholesome man, who sat in the tents,” a scholar who dwelled in the tents of study. Their entire lives the two brothers fight with each other. Jacob “steals” the birthright and the blessings, and Esau swears to kill him causing Jacob to flee. And then – as foreseen – Jacob and Esau give birth to nations that have been at war for millennia: The battle between the children of Esau – father of Rome, Christianity and the Western World, and the children of Jacob – father of the Jewish people.

Why did G-d initially set up a situation in which Esau and Jacob are in perpetual battle from the moment of their conception?!

The story of Jacob and Esau reflects the struggle of life itself resulting from the tension between matter and spirit. Esau and Jacob represent two forces in each of our lives and in the world as a whole. Esau symbolizes the body, the material world, whose untamed elements need to be conquered. Jacob symbolizes the soul, the spiritual world. Initially these two worlds do not co-exist. Matter and spirit are at war with each other. “When one rises the other falls.”

In mystical terms the struggle between Jacob and Esau represents the process called Avodat habirurim (literally, the work of extrication, separation, refinement or clarity). Everything in our material existence contains Divine ‘sparks,’ i.e. spiritual energy, and we are charged with the mission to extricate, redeem and elevate these sparks, to uncover the spiritual opportunity embedded in every experience, and thereby refine the material universe and transform it into its true purpose: a vehicle for spiritual expression.

This refinement work implies a battle: The material surface of existence is a deceptive, seductive force that doesn’t allow us to see the “hand within.” We don’t much proof to support this statement. Just look around you. How often do we see spiritual transcendence prevailing over material pleasures? Where ever we turn we witness narcissism, greed and corruption dominating the scene. Thus, the process of redeeming the “Divine sparks” requires a battle: Who will triumph – the selfish forces of matter or the selfless forces of spirit? Hence, the perpetual struggle between Jacob and Esau.

But as difficult as the struggle may be, this battle yields enormous power. On a subtler level, the power released by the struggle can be understood by studying the nature of human comprehension. Who has a deeper grasp of a concept – one with a sharp mind that quickly understands an idea conveyed, or one who exerts himself and struggles to understand the idea?

Initially it would seem that the superior and swifter mind would have a better understanding of the idea. But on second thought that is not the case. The crystallization of a concept is in direct proportion to the amount of exertion applied to comprehend the thought. By exerting your mind and delving into a concept, studying it from different angles, challenging the idea with questions and counter questions, you come out with a much deeper and clearer comprehension than one who understands the concept at first glance, even if the latter has a better mind.

Indeed, the confusion and questions that present themselves at the outset of assimilating a profound concept serve as a catalyst to access its depths. The deeper you dig into a concept, the more is revealed. Just like digging a well in the ground: When you dig in shallow ground, you may discover river water; but when you dig really deep you can discover hidden wellsprings that would never be exposed had you not dug that deeply.

We thus have two forms of comprehension: Wisdom that comes through “ohr yosher,” direct light, and one that comes through the process of “ohr chozer,” reflective (or returning) light. The “ohr chozer” understanding reveals a much deeper dimension – a light that emerges from grappling with darkness, providing answers that are derived from questions.

Even though both types of understanding are rooted in the unconscious mind, nevertheless they express two different dimensions of the concealed unconscious: One called “concealment of substance,” or the “defined unconscious,” and the other “concealment of no substance,” or the “undefined unconscious.” An example of the two is the difference between a white-hot coal and a flint stone. The fire in the coal is hidden, but it exists in the coal. All you need to do is fan the coal and the flame will emerge. In a flint stone no physical fire exists. However by striking it with force, you can release its spark.

Because the fire in the coal has substance, it also is limited and finite: At some point the coal will burn out. By contrast the flint stone, no having a flame of substance, can be struck again and again and continuously release sparks.

[Another example for the “concealment of no substance” is perhaps nuclear energy that is released through intense force – fusion of fission – applied to the subatomic particles even in a strand of hair. The energy within is completely “undefined” with no substance; yet when released it is infinitely greater than any revealed source of energy. This example is obviously not mentioned in Samech Vov, which was written before the advent of nuclear energy].

The way to tap the unlimited reservoirs of intellectual energy within the “undefined unconscious” is through pressure and force (as one strikes the flint stone) – the intellectual exertion applied to comprehend the ideas. The deeper the questions and contradictions, all the more refined and clearer is the resulting comprehension. The more intense the challenge and force applied, the more profound are the ideas that come flowing out of the “hidden essence” (“helem ha’atzmi”).

An additional and even more powerful dimension to this is the fact that questions themselves are a form of “darkness.” They are compared to the impurities and particles that need to be cleansed or sieved from a product. A good mind can quickly grasp an idea, but it will retain “impurities” and “particles” if it does not go through the vigorous process of questions and counter questions. Through back-and-forth arguments and throwing the idea around from every angle, our questions get answered thereby cleansing the idea and arriving at a refined clarity. Like a wine crusher that separates the grapes from the stems, every additional time that the process is repeated more sediment is cleansed, and the resulting product is more refined. Or like the silver “refining pot” which smelts the metal in order to remove impurities.

All the above describes the refinement process in the study of Torah – the exertion and effort necessary to understand Torah, a reality that manifested with the second set of Tablets given after the sin of the Golden Calf. This refinement process is especially pronounced and in the Babylonian Talmud, whose conclusions are arrived at through questions, arguments and counter arguments.

Beyond the toil in the refinement process of Torah study is the actual refinement process of the universe itself, which requires an exertion that is far more intense than what is required in study alone. The resistance of the material world to spirituality requires a true battle be fought, to break through the impediments and release the Divine sparks embedded within all of existence.

But this battle is not an end in itself. The “sparks” within the material world are very powerful, originating from the depths of the “unconscious,” far higher than the “revealed” levels of the Divine. The hard work of redeeming these “sparks” energy and refining the material world generates the “ohr chozer” (reflective light) power that reaches deep into the “undefined unconscious” – the essential state of supra-conscious pleasure.

This is the inside story of Jacob and Esau. They are at war because they need each other; they are “twins.” For all its greatness, the soul (Jacob) can access the deepest levels above only through descending to the material universe and manifesting in a physical body (Esau), which contains the deepest “Divine sparks” and the greatest spiritual opportunities. Each of us needs to have a “warrior” dimension to protect and defend against the difficult forces of material existence, and above all – to fight the battle of the “birurim” and free the Divine energy locked within. But the body must have a soul within, and the soul must be the directing force in life.

“The greater one – the powerful body – will serve the younger [gentler] soul.”

Your body has to be a vehicle for your soul not the other way around.

Our challenge is to reconcile and integrate the two forces of Jacob and Esau – to achieve seamless harmony between body and soul.

And this is the significance of Isaac’s blessings, which came to empower the work of refining and elevating the sparks:

Recognizing the depth of Esau’s “sparks,” Isaac felt that blessing him would redeem his powerful energy. However, Esau was not ready to do the work alone. Rebecca, his mother, realized that Jacob would have to harness these blessings and be the one that refines these “sparks.”

How does the soul go about training and teaching the body to sublimate itself so that together they can both serve and fulfill their purpose on Earth? The only way to relieve the tension between them, without compromising either, is to spiritualize the material. But the body has its own agenda; it is not ready to ‘listen’ to the soul’s wisdom. It’s busy hunting, surviving in the best way it knows how. The solution is that the soul must satisfy and nourish the body on its (the body’s) terms and slowly direct and align it to a higher goal. The soul feeds the body with “stew” and gratifies the body’s immediate needs, with the intention to harness and channel the body’s powerful spirit (birthright) toward its Divine calling.

The soul must dress itself up in the “garments” of the material world in order to refine the world and channel the hidden blessings and strengths of the material world. Thus Jacob dresses in Esau’s garments to receive the blessings. The soul is not taking the blessings away from the body; it only protects them so that the body not destroy them, and the soul uses them to help train and refine the body until the time when the body can co-exist peacefully with the soul, as one seamless harmony:

“The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”

And thus, Isaac blesses Jacob:

“May G-d give you the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, and an abundance of grain and wine. Nations shall serve you and governments bow down to you. You shall be a master over your brother.”

The Midrash explains that Isaac’s blessing refers to Torah (“the dew of heaven” is verse (the written Torah), “fat of the Earth” is Mishneh, “grain and wine” is Talmud and Agadah). Isaac’s blessing was intended to give power to toil in Torah study and refine the “sparks” concealed within, thereby enabling the refinement of Esau – and generating the undefined “supra-conscious,” which will be revealed in the end of days.

The unplugged application of this discussion can be stated as follows:

Each one of us struggles with one thing or another. The Rebbe Rashab teaches us that the struggle of life itself is the most sacred and powerful experience. It touches the essence of G-d Himself.

Usually we are told that “life is difficult,” but it’s still worth it for the benefits that life yields. Here Samech Vov tells us something much more: The difficulties themselves redeem and refine life, and generate the deepest possible experience.

A Chassid once came to the Tzemach Tzedek complaining: “What I should do, Rebbe. I have no desire to study Torah?” The Rebbe replied: “What should I do. I do have a desire to study…”

When you are concerned that you have no desire, when you struggle to understand a new concept, when you find it difficult to comprehend something you are studying, when you feel confused and full of questions – know that your sense of “darkness” is an opening to reach the “hidden essence.” The resistance you feel elicits your exertion and hard work to access your own inner essence, and the Essence of the Divine.

So next time you are faced with a challenge or find yourself under pressure, know that you carry in your hands the ability to realize the deepest recesses of your soul and reach the greatest heights.

Appreciate the power of human initiative, how your our exerted efforts, toil and labor in doing mitzvoth have the ability to transform the world and generate new energy.

May we all be blessed with only healthy forms of exertion and labor.

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