Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Personal Reflection on the Rebbe's "VaYishlach" Teaching in 1991

I just studied a very lively teaching that the Lubavitcher Rebbe delivered during December 1991 on the Torah portion of "VaYishlach". The usage of rich imagery on the dynamics of cosmic male/female interplay made reading this teaching feel like reading an old fashioned romance novel. I also felt a faint emotional echo of the teaching's musical quality. The more I read, the more I got the sense that this teaching should have been set to music or better yet, inspired a composition of it's own. My mind began to envision a period when people will become so spiritually advanced that music will replace words as the primary means of human communication. Whereas language is culturally specific, music is universal - just like body language or gestures. If tuned in enough, people can understand each other's musical communication innately.

To me the true musical beauty of the Rebbe's teaching is the way he builds up the cosmic female. No longer is she a mere dimmed reflection of her cosmic male. She's matured into a unique being in her own right. She can now view her cosmic male "face to face", at equal height. She brings into the relationship something entirely new, not merely a reprocessing of what her cosmic male already brought. Shifting to the human level, in the old model, a husband brings home money or raw materials and his wife reprocesses these valuable resources into a fully functioning household.  The man provides her with seed and she reprocesses the seed into a baby. Of course, her reprocessing has her own touch and style. This is part of why kings or great personages of humanity's past often had multiple wives. Just like anyone needs a mirror to see his/her face, a male only sees a certain part of himself when it's reflected back to him in a female. The broad scope of a king or great personage's expansive personality often required multiple woman to reflect back for him a fuller image of his inner subconscious spectrum. 

This makes sense in a period when the function of female was to process and reflect what's male. However, when the female is built up and matures into her true role, polygamy is no longer necessary - as each gender plays both roles, shining and reflecting. However, there must still be some difference between male and female. Otherwise, what sets off the basic attraction between the two? What makes one male and the other female? Why should they interact at all?

I admit that while I understand that the ultimate source of cosmic maleness is the "line of light" and the ultimate source of cosmic femininity is the "afterglow" of the Infinite Light, I still don't have a good handle on how they interact in their ultimate state. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto clarifies in "138 Openings of Wisdom" the role of each in the early cosmos, which is a classically male/female paradigm. However, their true interaction in the later cosmos, like during the messianic or near-messianic period, I have yet to learn about.

Another feature of the Rebbe's teaching is that during this period the Rebbe was strongly pushing messianic awareness. Part of my reaction to this teaching is that I don't know quite how to take it. I certainly enjoyed both the depth and breadth of the Rebbe's Torah scholarship, as well as, his skillful interplay between cosmic male and female.

However, what left me baffled here is the Rebbe portrayal the Messiah's imminence. The Rebbe employs phrases that give the impression that the world is really ready for the messiah and the messiah himself is also really ready to reveal himself.  Yet, look at the world some 20 years later and it still seems eons away from this very sublime image that the Rebbe presents. How? Why?

It's quite possible that under ordinary circumstances I would have shrugged at these questions and simply moved onto to the next available Torah teaching, accepting that if I remain stuck in every difficult detail, I won't be able to accomplish the cumulative knowledge that I might eventually need to answer that very question. The Talmud cautions, "The Torah is lacking in one place and yet, abundant is another place". So sometimes the answer for a problem in topic A is found in topic B. This means that I'd have to study topic B to arrive at the answer which arose in topic A.  Spending too time stuck in topic A won't help.

However, in this case there are a couple of people who are waiting in the wings for my comments and insights. One of them is my Torah study partner, who asked me to study this teaching with him. Another, is an member of the community I belonged to some 13 years ago, whom I just became reacquainted with on facebook.

So before discussing this teaching with anyone, it might be helpful for me to formulate an understanding of how the Rebbe was so "Messiah-like" in the years of 1990-1992 and yet, the world that continued over the next 20 years had seen too many events which don't fit into a messianic era;  specifically, those events  which are clearly not in the spirit of the prophet Isaiah's promise, "No nation shall lift a sword to each other and they will no longer train for war."

It's possible that the answer lies in a comment I heard last week from an elder follower of the Rebbe. He taught me that no matter what the world's spiritual level is, a person should not lose heart. The Rebbe valued individuals being ready for the Messiah's arrival, even if the rest of humanity isn't. The Rebbe took his cue from our patriarch Jacob, who moved back to the Holy Land, even though his brother Esau neglected to prepare himself for the redemption. Some possible reasons for the Rebbe's position might be ...

A) The more people are prepared for the Messiah's arrival, the more likely it is to happen. The Maimonides teaches that in the Creator's eyes the world often hangs in balance and one slight good deed can tip the scales of justice in favor of blessing the world with divine kindness and abundance.

B) Even before the official redemption, select individuals can already taste the spiritual light of the redemption. The flavor of this spiritual light can inform all their devotional activities: their Torah study, their prayer/meditation and their acts of kindness. When filled with this light their devotions reach a much higher quality and possibly quantity as well. The way to become a vessel to receive and contain this light is to truly prepare oneself for the redemption. Also, since light's contagious, these people can possibly wake up others.

C) Life is rarely "black and white". Some people drawing down the light of redemption is much better than nobody drawing down this light. So even in a pre-redemption era there can be a lot of positive changes ensuing from the efforts of those preparing themselves for the Messiah's arrivals. The presence of even some of this light affects the thoughts and ideas that the whole humanity is exposed to and must grapple with.

The Rebbe modeled for us what it means to be a person filled with this light, as he was certainly perfectly ready for the redemption and inspired the masses to do the same. He demonstrated for us what a person filled with such a light thinks about, speaks about and most importantly, acts! In the spirit of this light, the Rebbe spoke with seemingly unbridled optimism - hoping to light the spiritual fires of the multitudes - sometimes, even 20 years later.


Monday, December 5, 2011

Only Blessings !

Tonight's both the birthday and anniversary of the passing away of phenomenally saintly figure in Jewish history Rabbi Dov Ber, the second spiritual leader of the Lubavitch Chassidic dynasty. They say that people who pass away on their birthdays have possibly achieved their full spiritual potential. Astrologically speaking, the birthday is an indicates a person's potential and the day of ascension is an indicates what the person did with that potential.

Rabbi Dov Ber's saintly father Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the first spiritual leader of the dynasty, was accustomed to read from the Torah scroll every Sabbath for the congregation. One Sabbath, Rabbi Shneur Zalman was out of town and a substitute was selected to read from the Torah. That particular Torah reading included the curses mentioned in Deuteronomy, chapter 28. When Rabbi Dov Ber heard the curses, he was so shaken that sickness overcame him. His illness was sufficiently severe, that weeks later there was still a lingering doubt of whether he healthy enough to fast on Yom Kippur.

Close intimates asked, "You hear these very same curses read from the Torah scroll every year. What was different about this year's Torah reading that the very reading of these curses made you sick?" 

He replied, "When father reads I don't hear curses, only blessings."


To me it seems like Rabbi Dov Ber was speaking on two levels at once. On the simple level, he was referring to the comforting tonality with which his father conducted his public reading of the Torah scroll. Even when the subject matter sounded harsh, with his finely tuned tonality Rabbi Shneur Zalman was able to convey to his listeners the underlying message of divine love. However, on a deeper level, Rabbi Dov Ber was also referring to his Heavenly Father. Actually, in some sense both levels of meaning are the same. His earthly father was a truly spiritually advanced person. His earthliness transparent, a window to peer into the divine. He served his Creator selflessly, without a trace of personal ego. Therefore, when the sensitive youth heard him read from the Torah, he was able to discern the Divine voice echoing within his father's voice. 

His response, "when father reads I don't hear curses, only blessings", epitomizes a whole spiritual pathway to take in Torah and life in general. The words of Torah should sound and feel to us as they truly are - as words read to us by our Heavenly Father. When the sacred text of the Torah is read with this emotional flavor, then even what could feel like harsh words, at times, is framed in an entirely different emotional context. Our hearts taste the underlying love flowing in these words; Words spoken to us by a loving Parent, doing His very best to achieve what's for our very best.

The same can be said for the life in general. Since our lives and the world around us is literally the "Torah in action", whatever seems harsh in the world are merely events whose proper intellectual and emotional contexts are unknown to us. If the Creator gave us permission to see their true context, we'd see these events as total love. Our previous concern for their spiny appearance would instantly transform into a delightful vision of sweetness.  

Since the underlying stories behind life's stories are often withheld from us, how do we hear our Father's voice behind the events of our daily lives?  Following Rabbi Dov Ber's approach, it seems to me that he didn't attempt to achieve his tuning in by "having all the right answers" to life's puzzles. Such an approach would be impractical because there's a limit to what a human being is privy to. Rather, he attempted to be sensitive the divine voice echoing within the Torah and life's scenarios without expecting to understand, but, simply by trusting his Heavenly Father and delighting in the nurturing sound of His voice.

On one level or another I think that we can all sensitize ourselves to the Creator's voice in our daily lives by living a life of spiritual devotion, which includes seeking out spiritual guidance, prayer, meditation, Torah study, and frequent acts of kindness.