The Mission Continues – Stage Three
After a short break to discuss some recent events – actually, it wasn’t a break as will become soon apparent – let us return to the theme we have been exploring. Namely: The search for our personal mission statement.
As discussed in previous articles, the Torah chapters from the beginning of Genesis outline the story of our life’s mission:
The mission begins (Bereishit). The mission is revitalized, with the cleansing of the world following mans’ great fall (Noach). The mission is embraced and begins to be realized by Abraham, with the first step being the need to transcend our own subjectivity (Lech Lecho). To embrace the mission we need self-sacrifice (Vayeira).
In the next chapter (Chayei Sarah) stage one of the mission concludes with the passing of Sarah and then Abraham – the first pioneers who discovered the mission of the human race.
This is then followed by stage two, the life of Isaac and Rebecca. Followed, in this week’s portion by stage three – the story of Jacob and his journey.
The psychological eloquence, and relevance, of this sequence can be appreciated by looking closely at the personalities and the life stories of these individuals.
The mystics teach us that the characters in Torah are archetypes of different traits that we all carry within ourselves. Abraham embodies Chesed, loving-kindness. His life is one of enduring generosity. Isaac personifies Gevurah, awe and discipline. Jacob incarnates Tiferet, beauty and compassion.
Chesed, Gevurah and Tiferet are the three central forces and building blocks of all existence. Every aspect of life is comprised of a right, left and center. Right brain, left brain, middle brain. The entire body is structured in three columns: The right side (right arm and leg), the left side (left arm and leg) and the center – the spine, which creates balance.
In the order of things, first must always come love (Chesed). Like watering a flower, the nurturing and flowing nature of love nourishes the spirit and allows it to emerge. Then comes restraint and discipline, which allows for proper discretion and containment. Following the water analogy: Free flowing water will flood the earth and actually damage the flower. Rain must fall in measured drops so that the soil can absorb it. Successful communication necessitates a transmission that is tempered and tailored to the recipient. A brilliant teacher will overwhelm his/her students if no “brakes” are used to channel the information.
Chesed is the gas, Gevurah the brakes.
Then comes the more complex Tiferet, which blends both Chesed and Gevurah, and adds a new dimension called balance. Balance is not just the absence of chaos, nor merely disciplined love. It is an entity of its own.
The spine introduces a new dimension; it gives the body structure and support.
Tiferet is also beauty, which is not the absence of uncomeliness, but a power in its own right. Beauty is not merely the combination of several colors, hues, shades or shapes. It is not just the sum of the parts; it contains an invisible force that transcends the details while revealing how they all reflect a bigger picture. Without this third element the individual parts lack cohesion.
Shalom is another property of Tiferet. Shalom is not merely the absence of war, but a powerful force that transcends differences, and is therefore able to reconcile diverse, extreme and even diametrically opposed positions. Shalom is Hebrew means not only peace, but also completeness, wholesomeness.
The number three throughout Torah literature has cosmic power. The third day, the third month, the third year, the third verse – all channel a new dimension that embraces a higher unity, a unity that is not the absence of diversity, a unity that is not the converse of individuality, but one that reaches a deeper place where one and many are not a paradox.
Take the human body (“from my flesh I behold G-d”): The healthy body consists of myriad systems, billions of cells, all working together as one unit. On one hand, each organ and limb, each system (e.g. circulatory, nervous, respiratory) has its own unique structure and needs. On the other hand, they all are coordinated in one seamless whole. If someone who never saw a body were shown all its dissected parts, it would be utterly unfathomable how all these components can work together. Yet, the fact is that despite the utter diversity, the body functions as one entity, as if an invisible voice is telling each body part to work together with the others.
This is the power of Tiferet: Harmony within diversity.
In Kabbalistic terms: Tiferet is the “middle rod” – the spine – that “runs [secures] from end to end” (Exodus 26:28). Tiferet is the center column that runs a direct line from “one end,” Keter (the crown), to the “other end,” Malchut. Like the spine, which runs from the skull down to the lower back.
Tiferet therefore embodies a paradox: It is one of the structured Ten Sefirot, yet it gleans energy from Keter, which is beyond the Sefirot structure. This dual nature gives Tiferet the power to integrate extremes.
Jacob was the living example of Tiferet. Of all the Patriarchs Jacob faced the greatest challenges. He suffered more than the others. When Pharaoh asked his age, Jacob later says, “I lived a few cruel years.” First his lifelong battle with his twin brother Esau. Then 20 years suffering in the employment of his corrupt uncle and father-in-law, Laban. When Jacob wants to finally settle down, his beloved son Joseph is ripped away from him, only to be reunited 22 tragic years later.
Indeed, even the name Jacob captures his difficult life. Jacob (Yaakov) is so named because he was born grasping the heel of Esau. Hence, the name “ekev.” Add a yud in front of “ekev” and you have the name “Yaakov.” Why give a son such a strange name? Because this name reflects the life that Jacob would live. A life in which he would be thrust into the lowest extremities – the “heel” – of existence, with the mission to illuminate it with, and reveal within it, the “yud” –the Divine spark: “Yud, Ekev.”
Embodying the balance of Tiferet, Jacob had the power to bring down the “yud” of Keter into the “heel” of Malchut, and transform the hostile challenges that he faced.
But for Jacob to be successful, he needed to build on the accumulative strength of Abraham (Chesed) and Isaac (Gevurah) who preceded him.
Our mission in life too requires these three steps/dimensions. First the love of Chesed, then the discipline of Gevurah, and finally the balance of Tiferet.
In healthy circumstances (the way it is meant to be), our lives don’t begin with immediately facing a hostile world. A child is nurtured protected and provided for, building up his/her confidence and resources, before entering the untamed elements. So, first comes love and nurturing (Abraham). Then the child learns discipline, self-control and discretion (Isaac). Finally, the growing adult is ready to leave the more spiritual environment and enter “Charan,” the wrath of this world.
And so the story unfolds: First we learn of Abraham’s journey – which reflects the journey of the Abraham within each of us. It is the loving search for a mission – a labor of love not of obligation, and a labor that is expressed with deep love, not in judgment.
Too often people in their embrace of their perceived Divine mission feel the need to condescend, judge and even impose their beliefs on others.
Next, comes the discretion of Gevurah. Unbridled love can “spoil” a child and undermine the healthy boundaries necessary in any relationship. The flowing love must be tempered and channeled into productive behavior.
But here too we must take great care. Excessive Gevurah leads to intolerance, aggression and even violence.
Once love and discipline are in place, we can then complete the structure, with Tiferet – the critical spine that carries the entire infrastructure. Tiferet creates a cohesive unit that includes all the variances of love, discipline and beyond.
All problems – personal, social and global – can be traced to the lack of balance and integration offered by Tiferet.
Most mistakes in relationships are due to an imbalance of love and boundaries; either too much Chesed or too much Gevurah, too little Chesed or too little Gevurah.
Microcosm macrocosm. The same is true globally. Most conflicts – and especially today in the Middle East – are rooted in the Chesed/Gevurah dichotomy.
History is a sad witness to this phenomenon: Excessive authority or excessive permissiveness are the hallmarks of our millennia-old journey. The tunnel of history is splattered with the casualties of harsh tyrannical regimes and religious institutions imposing themselves on entire populations, crushing individuality and basic freedoms. At the other end of the spectrum, extreme left-wing positions – perhaps in rebellion of the extreme right – in the name of individuality have stooped to unprecedented decadence, ultimately infringing on the rights of other individuals to choose a more disciplined life.
The missing ingredient then and now – and always – is Tiferet. At Sinai (called Tiferet) a third, vital component was introduced: power to integrate “above” and “below,” faith and reason, the sacred and the secular, individuality and G-d and matter and spirit. Indeed a paradox, but Tiferet reaches a place where paradoxes are not paradoxes.
One can perhaps say that an echo of Tiferet is contained in the fabric of the United States – one not yet understood in Europe which has been badly burned by their brand of religion, and thus taints the way they see faith in America, and definitely not by many Muslims, who are still enslaved by their own fundamentalism.
Etched in American currency are two Tiferet expressions:
E Pluribus Unum (from the many, one) – the beauty of integrating both individuality and community, individual liberty and the greater good, without compromising the “many” or the “one.” Indeed, from the many becomes one – harmony within diversity.
And this is made possible by In God we Trust: Integrating faith with a strong separation of church and state, by embracing the Creator that endowed us all equally with “unalienable” rights – a non-denominational G-d, not defined by any religion, individual or group.
So, you see that the discussion in my last two articles is not that political after all. Yes, it entered the political realm. But after all, G-d came first – before politics, before Bush, before Kerry, and yes, even before you and I. So it’s not G-d moving into the domain of politics, but vice versa.
Tiferet teaches us that we must align ourselves and follow G-d’s lead – not the G-d of any particular man, not any god created in mans image, but the G-d that created us all equally in the Divine Image, and the One that is the bedrock of a free civilization.
[By the way: For a fascinating rebuttal of my article America Speaks, the one that wins first place, check out Richard Schwartz’s take-off An American Speaks: Do Not Fear Higher Consciousness. Warning: Not for the light-faith-hearted].
This may all seem nice and theoretical. How, you may ask (as do I), can we ever hope to implement this?
First and foremost, know that Jacob and many others after him actually lived their lives in this way, facing the paradox and… thriving (not just surviving). An eternal reminder to their success is their offspring, who live till this very day, despite formidable and unimaginable odds.
What was Jacob’s secret, and the secret of all those that lived the Tiferet way?
The secret was Bittul – the power to suspend your ego, your personality, your perspective, your everything – and allow yourself to be a channel for something far greater than yourself.
Suspend is the operative word, not annihilate (G-d forbid). Suspend and empty so that your unique faculties, your individuality, your ego, your personality, your perspective, your everything can become a conduit for the Eternal.
Not a bad deal, would you say?
This is Part IV of Rabbi Jacobson’s Mission Statement Series.