An Ode to the Absurd
To reach the infinite beyond one needs to go beyond their “normal” state – Basi L’Gani 5710; 5715; 5735
Sixty five year ago today a great master ended his journey on earth and his leadership passed on to his son-in-law, the seventh generation of a distinguished line.
This transition was captured, as is the custom by masters and mystics, in an esoteric discourse (known as a Chassidic maamar), which was the last discourse he published and the first delivered by his successor.
Sixty five years ago today (the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat 1950) my mentor’s mentor (Rebbe’s Rebbe) ascended on high. His name: Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the sixth Chabad Rebbe. The last discourse he published in his lifetime was issued for study that very day (in 1950). The Chassidic discourse, titled Basi L’Gani, Come to my Garden (a verse in Song of Songs), consists of twenty chapters.
When Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, assumed formal leadership of the movement (on this day one year later, in 1951), he began his first discourse with the same verse, and elucidated on the original discourse. Every year hence, on this day, Yud Shevat, the Rebbe would focus, in consecutive order, on another one of the twenty chapters of the discourse, in 1952 – chapter two, 1953 – chapter three, concluding with chapter twenty in 1970. Then he began the order again. Based on this cycle, this year, 2015 (5775), corresponds to the fifth chapter of Basi L’Gani.
During this time of year, and especially on this auspicious day, many people study the Basi L’Gani discourse and the specific chapter corresponding to this year – chapter five.
What is the theme of chapter five? Holy madness. Craziness. Meshugas.
And not just that. In a fascinating way the chapter provides us with a formula how to transform our own foolish “meshugassen” — all the mindless things we do on a daily basis — into supra-rational transcendence, divine in-sanity.
But before you get the impression that this writer has gone off his mind (which may be true regardless, but why allow that to impede the reader from reading on?), let us define what the word “crazy” actually means.
Many of us may be frightened by the word due to its connotations and stigmas. But consider the following 1997 ad from Apple (who has in the last quarter racked up $18 billion in sales — pretty crazy, no?):
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them, disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward. Maybe they have to be crazy. How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels? While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
Yes, indeed, “the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do,” as Steve Jobs dazzlingly showed.
Is there anyone that does not want a bit of such craziness?
OK, now that we have established that there is a positive and intriguing type of “craziness,” let us address what we consider to be “normal” and “sane.”
Do you consider yourself a rational or irrational person? Clearly that is a loaded question. Who in their right mind (no pun intended) — besides for a self-loathing individual — would describe themselves as irrational?!
One person I know answered: “Are you kidding me?! The question is the other way around: Do I ever behave rationally?” Indeed, though most people like to believe that their decisions are rational, studies show that many if not most major life choices are driven by non-rational forces — emotions, impulses, habits, desires, fears, pride, obstinance and so one. You don’t need studies; just observe what drives most of your decisions in life. How often do you act in a way that you know, even while doing it, that your behavior doesn’t make sense. How many times have you been consumed by desire and succumbed to temptation aware all the while that there would be long term consequences and you would regret your behavior, and yet, that was not enough to help you control yourself and your instant gratification?
And how many of our day-to-day activities are simply based on mindless routines, patterns and social norms?
Just because everyone is doing the same thing, just because a certain behavior has become a pattern and routine, or even a culture, that doesn’t make it “rational” or mindful. It just means that we can have collective insanity, mass madness, herd mentality.
But regardless whether you agree with the irrationality of most human decisions, and even if you consider yourself a mindful person, none of us are immune from having done something irrational and foolish once or twice in our lives, if not more often.
The question is this: What is the antidote to impulsive, senseless, moronic if not outright destructive behavior? Our intuitive reply would be to either initially avoid falling into the trap of folly, or if we did, simply move on and put it behind us, behaving rationally going forward, learning from the experience.
Enter chapter five of Basi L’Gani, offering us a novel and even revolutionary approach to the absurdity of our lives. Instead of just avoiding or ignoring the irrational, transform that mindless mindset into a supra-rational force of transcendence, creating something absolutely unusual — something absolutely crazy. Since you are already in a mad and wild state of mind — turn that wild energy into revolution, changing the status quo.
Thus “the accuser becomes the advocate,”“the knife which harms becomes the scalpel that heals — even plain foolish behavior becomes a springboard, a catalyst ans fuel for reaching heights that are beyond the sober mind and its rationalizations. Moving from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Chapter 5 in Basi L’Gani goes on to challenge our very understanding of the mind and the rational, compelling us to enter the inner recesses of our minds and psyches, and ask the biggest question: Are we at heart people of the mind or of beyond the mind? What is consciousness? Is rational behavior more rational than madness? Is the rational rational? What lays beyond intelligence?
Reality — the Divine infinite — explains Basi L’Gani, is beyond anything a mind, let alone a mortal one, can grasp or understand. That may seem obvious. But the discourse takes it a step further: True reality is not simply beyond our intelligence, it is beyond the very structure and parameters of intelligence. Beyond our intelligence implies a relative distance — that it is beyond our present grasp, but with time and effort we can reach an understanding of that which is now beyond our intellect. But the true beyond is beyond the beyond — it is fundamentally and absolutely beyond the grasp of intelligence now and forever.
A very imperfect and limited example for this would be Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which established that both the position and velocity of a sub-atomic particle is fundamentally unknowable (not simply due to our lack of data or understanding).
Awareness of these new horizons doesn’t close our minds. Quite the contrary, it opens us up to recognize that beyond the known knowns, the things we know we know, and beyond the known unknowns, the things we know that we do not know — there are the unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
In other words (in the terms used in the 1955 discourse): There is what we directly know (through observation or deduction), what we interpolate (yediyas ha’chiyuv). Higher than that is what we extrapolate — we come to understand it through negating the opposite, process of elimination (yediyas hs’shelileh). Like saying about something beyond our comprehension: I know that whatever we know about this thing does not define it; it defies my definition. I can’t call it wisdom, but I can’t call it not wisdom, so I say that it is not not-wise. I know that’s its not like me or anything I can define.
Then we climb higher, and come to appreciate that Reality is not simply a negation of what we know, but utterly beyond even the beyond (shelileh b’hechlet).
And it doesn’t stop there. In the Rebbe’s 1955 analysis of chapter 5, and in a subsequent talk he delivered the following Shabbat, he takes us on a journey into an even higher level, where we cannot even negate the negative (shelileh muchletes, shelilas ha’shelilah). [See the discourse Ki Korov 5668 cited in the 1955 discourse].
Imagine you are marveling at an exquisite piece of art. From the masterpiece you can deduce to some extent what type of master artist must have created this work of art. Upon further contemplation, you come to realize that this artist is certainly capable of creating many other pieces of art, and of completely different genres and styles, winch you have no clue of. You only can extrapolate from this masterpiece that the creator can do a lot more, not just quantitatively but qualitatively.
Then you come to an even greater realization: Perhaps he is an artist of a different caliber that you cannot even fathom or imagine.
Furthermore: Is this creator only an artist? Can he even be defined as an artist? What else does his personality contain that is beyond artistry? Is he a father or a mother, for example? And then you realize that this piece of art, despite its beauty, can tell you nothing about the one who created it, except that he is a able to create such art. Not only do you know what type of artist he is, and whether he is even in the category of artists you are familiar with, but you don’t even know if “artist” defines him.
Finally, it dawns upon you, and you come to the awareness, that even saying that he beyond being an artist is limited. Perhaps he is both beyond the beyond being an artist, and at the same time also manifests as an artist.
Now apply this example infinitely times over to our relationship with Relaity — with the Creator of knowledge and all the ashtonishing beauty of our structured existence.
The more you cleanse your doors of perception, the higher you climb in your awareness of the Reaity beyond and beyond, the greater your holy insanity and divine madness grows. Not just a relative madness beyond your usual norms, but a fundamental and absolute madness. As demonstrated by the mad dance of the sages at the weddings they attended (as explained in chapter 5).
So if you thought you were crazy, think again. There is crazy and there is crazy. Do you want to dance, or DO YOU WANT TO DANCE?
But the objective is not to remain above and beyond, but to bring that awareness back into the “sane” and “limited” rational universe.
As we absorb Basi L’Gani — we indeed respond to the call: Come to my Garden — and discover how little our minds know and can contain. As we enter deeper into the garden we arrive at the secret of madness, and the mystery of our innermost souls.
When we access the true nature of our psyches we learn that the common mind touches only outer dimensions of the reality within, and when we travel inward we uncover new vistas, which when tapped, allow us to transform the irrational into the supra-rational, our stubborn foolishness into outrageous holiness, the energy of our irrational behaviors re-channeled into streams of insane goodness. — and the craziness of our impulsive lives into a holy craziness of utter transcendence.
And… to come back and tell the tale.
For an elaborate discussion on this topic, please go here to view Rabbi Jacobson’s latest class.