Are we running on empty? Berakhot 40 and 41

Rabbi Zeira, and some say Rabbi Ĥinnana bar Pappa, said: Come and see that the attribute of flesh and blood is unlike the attribute of the Holy One, Blessed be He.

The attribute of flesh and blood is that an empty vessel holds that which is placed within it, while a full vessel does not hold it.

The attribute of the Holy One, Blessed be He, however, is not so, as if God adds to a person who is a full vessel in terms of knowledge or good attributes, he will hold it; a person who is an empty vessel will not hold it.

It is difficult to speak about the state of one’s spirit, of the plane of emotion that runs deeper than the surface.  We are forever employing forms of metaphor that only hint at the feelings, and we hope that we make ourselves understood through their use.

We speak of being high or low, open or closed, sensitive or numb.  And another of the key distinctions we use is between feeling full and empty.

We speak of fullness in terms of an abundance, of love, of energy, of will.  And it can also denote a certain contentment, completeness, peacefulness.

And we make speak of emptiness in terms of exhaustion and lethargy, and also in terms of impatience, irritability and a lack of concern.

What is quite perplexing though, and what the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan particularly emphasised, is that out of this absence, out of this emptiness, often emerges desire.  We might have thought that desire springs from a fullness of life, out of a sense of strength and of energy.   But no, it is not so;  in his view desire is born out of emptiness, out of a lack.

We should probably clarify what we mean here by desire.  Desire is not the healthy activity of fulfilling our genuine needs that comes about naturally, that is a basic expression of our personality and life force.  No, desire here is something more alien, something which is sought out in order to fill a void, in order to overcome the emptiness, in order to make us feel real.

Desire in this sense is seeking out stimulation, provocation, excitement, but doing it because we are otherwise too dead, because we are unable to connect with genuine energy, because the reality of our life is simply not what we want it to be, it doesn’t motivate us sufficiently.

To be sure, it is not always easy to distinguish between the healthy activity born of fullness and the desperate desire born out of emptiness.  It is perhaps the hardest thing in life to be able to read our own desire and know whether or not it is real, to discern whether it comes from a place of happiness or a river of sadness.  The words, the ideas, they can help, they are tools, but they never do the job on their own, the work is truly never completed.

But let us leave the question of desire for now and return to the idea of emptiness per se.  As the Talmud observes, physical emptiness is something very different from spiritual emptiness.  Physical emptiness is easily filled, and indeed, once filled, can be filled no more.  There are limits to what can be contained, if we are existing on the purely physical plane.

In the realm of the spirit however, emptiness is not so easily corrected, it becomes a rut, a trap, an inescapable vortex of negative energy.

Fullness however, has a very different dynamic.  Once it is attained, once the winds of inspiration have lifted us, it can continue to grow, to develop, to become richer.

But we can say more than this.  The key to physical containment, to being able to hold on to the love and energy which animate us at times, is the ability to give it spiritual expression.  When we successfully connect the two realms, when we are able to pour ourselves into something much bigger, into something which is greater than us yet intimately related to us, we achieve, quite literally, an expansion of our self.

The vastness of nature, the sense of the sublime, religious imagery of grandeur and infinity –  all of these allow us to stretch out our imaginative muscles, to experience an expansiveness which our purely physical existence precludes.

Rachel Elior suggests that the intricate mystical constructs of the Kabbalists came out of a Spanish Jewry which was oppressed and constricted  by the ravages of the Inquisition.  The physical reality of their lives was so limited, so difficult, that it was only through growing new fields in the imagination that they were able to keep their spirit alive.

Our circumstances are different, but the demands of contemporary life often seem endless and thankless, and we too, in spite of our physical affluence and abundance can often be left trapped and empty.  We too can find nourishment and space by engaging with the world of the spirit, by attempting to connect with something  larger.

One of the things we desperately cry out for at this time of year, in the heightened emotion of the Selichot service, is that God should not take his Holy Spirit away from us – ‘v’ruach kodshecha al tikach mimenu’.  We do not wish to be left abandoned, forsaken, we want to be full, to be complete, to be connected.  We need the possibility of a spiritual grounding in order to maintain and to root our physical lives.

Indeed, we say every day in the Amida, ‘umilfanecha malkeinu raykam al t’shiveinu’ – ‘and from before you, our Majesty, do not return us empty’.  The Divine presence is not something incidental, something that merely surrounds us.  It is something we need to bring inside us, something to combat the emptiness which can otherwise wreak havoc on us and unleash all manner of unholy desires.

And I think it is no co-incidence that we stumble into this discussion in the midst of a discussion of how to say grace after meals.  We seek fullness and satisfaction from food, and to an extent that is of course necessary and right.  But there is always a danger lurking, the possibility that we confuse our spiritual thirst and hunger for something physical, and that we eat in the wrong way, and use food to fill the wrong holes.

In the discourse of fullness and emptiness, the worlds of the physical and the spiritual become enmeshed and entangled.  The Talmud shows awareness of this, and recommends that we always listen, that we attend to what is really happening, and ensure that our responses are the right ones, the wise ones.

What is God wearing? Berakhot 10

There is a interesting discussion today about the different occasions on which David used the expression ‘Barkhi Nafshi’ – ‘May my soul be blessed’.

One of those occasions was when he was being breastfed – or more precisely, being breastfed and looking at his mother’s breast.  Rabbi Abbahu explains:

God placed her breasts near her heart, the place that is the source of understanding.

This seems to support what we saw on Berakhot 3: the image of the breastfeeding child really is central, it is the key moment in which love, nourishment and wisdom come together to give the child her indispensable foundations.

Another occasion on which David used the phrase was when he contemplated death.  On that occasion he said the following:

My soul, bless the Divine.  My Lord, God, You are very great; You are clothed in glory and majesty. (Ps. 104.1)

This idea of God being clothed is fascinating, we make reference to a similar idea every Friday night:

God has reigned, He has donned grandeur; He is dressed in might and has strengthened Himself. (Ps. 93.1)

In what sense does God get dressed?

At a first glance, it’s a very difficult image.  The second image in particular seems to see God as King of flesh and blood, who clothes himself for battle in whatever is necessary.  Grandeur and strength are at hand, those are the kinds of things a King would use to get ready for battle.

So at this level the image remains totally anthropomorphic, it’s a very difficult one for us to relate to – it’s not of our time, it’s from another world.

And yet, as the mystical traditions have emphasised, the idea of God being clothed is actually a philosophically profound one, and is definitely worth meditating upon.

In those traditions, we must first appreciate the idea that God exists in the beyond, that his essence and being are fundamentally outwith human perception and, perhaps, comprehension.

This is all very well, but the problem then becomes how we know anything about God, for surely we need some exposure to get us started on the religious path.  The mystical approach is deeply rooted in our experience of the divine, not solely in abstract speculation, so we need to know how we get that experience.

For the mystics, the answer comes in the idea of clothing.  God makes himself manifest in the world through putting on worldly characteristics, through making himself appear through Majesty, Glory, Beauty, Truth and Strength.  These attributes are not His essence, but He is palpably present through their existence.

It’s a bit like one of those films where an invisible man slinks around unnoticed.  In order to make himself known he puts on a raincoat, picks up an umbrella or starts juggling oranges.  At that point the other characters can see him, he becomes known.

So, on the first level of this mystical idea, God is working in this way.  He is radically other, yet in order to make himself known, he dresses up in worldly vestments, in the clothing of our reality.  Of course, he chooses noble and lofty aspects of that reality, but there is still a sense in which it’s all a little arbitrary, there is a huge gap between his essence and that which is manifested.

I believe, however, that the idea can actually be pushed even further, and made even more meaningful for us.

We start with the same question – how do we know about or experience God?

Two classic answers, ones we sometimes feel we ought to give, are that we believe He was once much more present in human life (i.e. through open miracles and revelation) or that we stand in a tradition which asserts such events, and we rely on that legacy even if we struggle to actually believe it ourselves.

Both of these are pretty weak responses, I feel, and religious life is never going to get very far based on such fragile foundations.

I side with the mystics, God must be real to us, the Divine must be something which is somehow perceptible, somehow powerfully present in our lives.

And in this vein, I get the idea of clothing, of manifestation.

God is manifest in Beauty, Truth and Glory, in Justice, Compassion and Kindness.  But he is not manifest in them arbitrarily, in the way that I’m wearing a blue t-shirt today rather than a white one.  We encounter the Divine when we encounter these aspects of reality, we are encountering a part of Its Essence, albeit not the totality of It.

God is not something we ‘believe’ in, rather we are constantly experiencing and learning about the Divine.  We make it our life’s business to learn and experience as much of the greatness of life as possible, and in every such encounter we are actually expanding our awareness of what is Divine.

We cannot learn about Truth without being exposed to lots of interesting truths, nor can we learn about Beauty without being arrested and moved by its presence.

In the same way, we cannot learn much about the Divine as children, and so we are given simplified stories about its meaning.

As adults we have the opportunity to expand our horizons and seek out all that is true and noble about the world.  And wherever we find that greatness, wherever something majestic and sublime whispers to us, we can be sure that we have encountered an aspect of the Divine.

We may at points struggle to see the connection between this idea of the Divine and the one presented by organised religion.  And sometimes there does seem to be some conflict between the two, religion can seem to bring out what is base and mean in man, rather than Heschel’s ‘Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity’.  I used to feel that ‘Moral Bankruptcy and Spiritual Destitution’ would be a more accurate analysis of the religious world we sometimes actually encounter.

And yet, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that this is all wrong.  When we return to the sources, when we read the poetry of the Psalms, when we get the awe inspiring ambition and vision which is at the core of it, we see that religion should be about what is best in us.  If there is a conflict then that needs addressing, but we must not give in to the voices which insist that the traditions of religion demand that we quell our natural sense of the great Beauty, Truth and Kindness that bring light to the world.

David meditated upon this as he was nearing death, at the end of a rich and dramatic life he could look back and see all the different ways in which Life had challenged, defeated and inspired him.  And through all of these he could see a unity, something greater, and at that moment he saw the workings of God.  He saw that the Divine is always lurking, waiting to be noticed, and that it is one of the tragedies of life that we sometimes just can’t make the effort to see and admire It.