With what may we light? Shabbat 18-21

We begin the second chapter of Shabbat with some words we are all too familiar with:

Bameh madlikin uvameh ein madlikin – With what may we light and with what may we not light?

The question is a good one:  what is it that kindles our fire, and what does not?  What is it that brings us enlightenment, and what does not?  With what are we brought to life and what causes our flame to peter out, to turn to charcoal and ash?

We ask this question every Friday night as part of our prayers, and I think it is a good question with which to commence Shabbat, with which to begin our day of spiritual rejuvenation.

What was it in our week which enlivened us, which filled our hearts with love and warmth?  And which parts of our week turned out to be draining, to be an emotional dead end, to lead us into ever greater anxiety?

What surprised us by turning out to be a lot more rewarding than first appearances suggested, and what disappointed us, whispering promise yet leaving us hollow?

And, looking to the future, where should our hearts and minds be directed, where is the truth in our life, what are the things that connect with our depths, which of our cares have nourishing roots in something sustaining?

The first part of the Mishna is concerned with the wick, with the medium that carries the flame and ensures that the fuel is able to reach it.

What is it that makes for a good wick, what part of our personality connects the flame of activity to  the underlying energy which fuels it?

We may find ourselves overwhelmed by anger, by envy, by hatred, by vanity.  And up to a point these feelings might energise us, might give us the strength to achieve things, to make a certain sort of progress.

But they do not make for a good wick, for a wick which will be steady, reliable, consistent, enduring.  They fall into the category of things ‘wherein the flame flickers on them’ and they do not meet the criteria of something ‘wherein the flame ascends of its own accord, rather than being powered by something external’.

Certain emotions endure, they work away quietly in the background, but we do not always give them their due attention and respect.  They perhaps lack the dangerous seduction of others, they are perceived as boring, as homely.  The exotic is often attractive, but that doesn’t mean that it leads to a better place.

It is in this sense that we follow false idols, that we are led astray by the harlots of alien cults.

And this leads us to the second part of the Mishna: what is an appropriate fuel, what aspects of life might be the ones which have legs, which will bring us lasting joy and peace?

It will come as no surprise to hear that  I sometimes get frustrated and irritated with my children.  Even as it’s happening I know that it’s foolish, that my overriding emotion towards them is love and concern, that it’s my tiredness and impatience which are really at fault, that their unwillingness to do exactly as I wish is a healthy reflection of their independent natures.  But it happens nonetheless, and it’s only later, perhaps when they’ve gone to sleep, that I’m able to properly re-connect with those positive emotions, to see that the earlier flare up was very much of the surface, that it lacked any depth.

And when I do remember, I resolve to stay connected to that positivity, to prioritise the tender affection which I feel for them and which they need above all else.

And when the disparity between who I am and how I act hits me particularly hard, (I hope one is allowed to posit such a gap, or we’re all pretty much damned), let’s say after a day of particular moodiness on my part, I can be quite amazed by how alien and unwelcome this alternate personality is, by how clearly I can see that I don’t want to be like that.  The short livedness of it is a blessing, but there are other fuels which seduce us for a much longer spell.

I can sometimes get excited about a project or idea for a few weeks or months, only to find that my interest soon fades, that it no longer stimulates me.  And there is no way in knowing in advance what will or won’t work, what is or is not a good fit for our personality.  Life is about constantly figuring ourselves out, about finding the right fit between self and world, about understanding where our energies will flourish most successfully.

Some people might be lucky, and stumble on the right formula early on, for others it can take longer, and the difficulty of the search can be unbelievably painful, the disorientation can be profoundly damaging.

The enduring flame, the one that burns brightly and cleanly, which will not require constant attention and adjustment, this is what our attention is directed towards, this is what we should be seeking.  And the wick should connect with the fuel, the personality should connect with the deeper currents in life, this is the path towards a redemptive anchoring.

As the nights get longer, as the darkness sets in earlier, we must perhaps be particularly attentive to the manners in which our light might be burning.  Let us ponder the mishna’s question, let us remain open to the surprises it might help us uncover.

Keeping Charity at Bay Shabbat 2 and 3

My first impression of Massekhet Shabbat was not a favourable one.  The opening Mishna is a dense and arcane listing of the ways in which one might transgress the prohibition against transporting objects from the private to the public domain on Shabbat.  This is already disappointing, there is no gentle transition from the Biblical or conceptual roots of Shabbat into its detailed laws, no opening musing on the spirit it creates, no encouragement to ‘taste it and see that it is good’ (Ps.19).  Rather, we are just thrown in at the deep end, and the feeling is quite disorientating:  my love for Shabbat is not finding any mirroring echo in the text.

And it seems to get worse.  The model for the prohibitions is the case of a man giving charity to a poor person.  What we are presented with is a list of all the ways in which one must not give charity.

Gone is the spirit of Isaiah 56, wherein charity and Shabbat sit side by side with each other as the embodiment of the Divine Ideal.  Here they are presented as conflicting forces, and I think we should be deeply bothered by that.

(As an aside, we should also be bothered by how easily a lot of people might learn this daf and not even notice this, how a certain approach to Talmud looks only for halakhic details, without any feel or sense for the context of their presentation.  It is too easy to not ask the right questions because we are seduced by the intellectual challenge the Talmud sets up, by the scholastic thinking with which it sometimes assaults our psyche.)

So, can we redeem this Mishna?

Let us begin with the assertion that the Rabbis assumed that we were already deeply familiar with Isaiah’s views on the subject, and with all the Biblical material which connects Shabbat with creation, rest and breathing space.  And I don’t think this is too far-fetched –  I have often been struck by how the Rabbis have Biblical verses and phrases at their fingertips, they are genuinely immersed in them; they form the backbone of their thought.

Ok, but doesn’t this just make the conflict even more perplexing, isn’t it even harder to understand why they are set up as opposites?

Perhaps we can offer the following interpretation:  In the Rabbinic worldview, there is indeed a conflict between Shabbat and charity, and at this point they wish to emphasise that they are coming down on the side of Shabbat.

There may be an ethical core which gives meaning and energy to the religious project, but that is not the same as saying that charity will always trump ritual, that doing for others is always more important than doing or creating for oneself.

We might read the Mishna as a discourse on boundaries, as an unconscious expression of the need to partition space for the self.

We have spoken lately about narcissism, of excess concern for the self, of a failure to engage with reality.

What gets less press is the opposite problem: an excess of concern for the outer world and a neglect of the self.

The self needs looking after, a functional personality requires a certain level of energy to maintain its structural integrity.  And it also needs some love, some warmth, some attention.

If  a person directs all of their love outwards, investing all of their energy and concern in charitable projects or other family members – including their children – they may end up paying a heavy psychological price.  They may be left with inner resources that are too stretched and too thin to cope with the adversity that comes their way in life, they may find that there is actually a weary emptiness at the point where their confidence and self-esteem should be.

And without this genuine inner conviction of self worth a person will not get far, they will be forever chasing the wrong shadows, living the desires of others, driven by a misplaced fantasy of what they ought to be.

To live authentically is to be guided by a genuine expression of our personality and being, by the voice of our deepest calling.  And this requires courage and a specifically inner confidence.

It’s important to note that this is a very different beast from the bombastic and loud confidence which people sometimes manifest and project in their dealings with their outer environment.  I might go so far as to call that type of confidence compensatory; it is sustained by detachment and dissociation from the doubt and perplexity which characterise the attempt to maintain full contact with the roots of one’s personality.

Shrill confidence is a mask; an obliviousness to the subtle and multi layered complexities of life.  Genuine thoughtfulness is marked by consideration, by trying to gently feel one’s way towards resolution.

And so the Mishna adopts this view, that Shabbat is about the need for spiritual rest and rejuvenation, about the need to maintain energy and attention for the self.  It is about redirecting us inwards, even if this means that our charitable instincts must be questioned and temporarily stifled.

There is an image depicted of a person bound to their home, to their private domain, and they are being instructed to diminish their interaction with what goes on outside their doors and windows.  Do not try to give to that outer world, and do not try to take from it either.  Rather, focus on your own home, put your own affairs in order and use the atmosphere of rest to ensure that your inner battery is recharged.

We read today that God rested on the seventh day.  I think we must understand this as teaching us that everyone needs rest, that every spirit would otherwise work itself towards exhaustion and dissolution.

In Kiddush we use the term ‘Vayinafash’, which is probably best translated as ‘He gave Himself Spirit’ or ‘He refreshed His Spirit’.  Rest is not simply cessation from activity, it is about giving the inner a chance to breathe, allowing it to recover and re-root.

So this very problematic Mishna might actually be teaching us something profound about what Shabbat is and what Shabbat isn’t.  Religion might be about ethics, but ethical beings require energy and soul, they must be connected to something authentic within themselves.  They can never just be automatons acting out a clear set of external instructions – that image is both conceptually flawed and pragmatically unsustainable.

On Shabbat we look to restore this connection, to give it the water and light that it needs to grow.  We relinquish some of the omnipotence that charity gives us, but in the humility of this renunciation we might just find that something new and profound is able to gestate.

Should we be protected? Sukkot 5773 Berakhot 56 and 57

As a trainee psychotherapist, the following was always going to make me chuckle:

Bar Haddaya was an interpreter of dreams. For one who gave him a fee, he would interpret the dream favourably.  And for one who did not give him a fee, he would interpret the dream unfavourably.

Is this a winning business model, a quick fix for psychoanalysts struggling to make ends meet?

Of course we all blush at the suggestion –  “We would never, we should never, we mustn’t even entertain such an idea…” – but I wonder if the matter isn’t actually a little more subtle than it seems, if maybe we don’t actually get ourselves into something of a muddle over it.

To put it bluntly, what is the role of the therapist?

On one reading, our role is perhaps to comfort, to console, to understand and to empathise.  And there is certainly some truth in this approach, there is definitely an aspect of care and concern to the profession.

That said, this is not the whole picture.  Sometimes, and this is true of all relationships, being understanding and empathetic can actually harm the person we are engaged with, it can re-enforce their sense of being a victim, it can discourage them from thinking seriously about the changes they could and should make in their lives.  If one always assures a troubled or distressed person that they are in the right, one might actually be helping them to miss an opportunity.

Many – though of course not all – forms of frustration have their source in the way a person approaches life, in the way they conduct their relationships, in the difficulty they have in genuinely connecting and relating to the other.  This is hard, sometimes we think we’re relating to the other, but we’re actually relating to the imagined version of the other that lives inside our head.  In Kleinian terms, we are relating to a ‘phantasy’ version of the other, or an ‘introjected’ other.

Frustration and anger can arise because the other is not behaving in the way we expect, they are radically deviating from our imagined sense of who they are.  And we are somehow not able to cope with that, their reality outside of us is unbearable, it unsettles and confuses us.

At this sort of juncture, it can be extremely helpful to tactfully and delicately try to get a person to see what is happening, to see what it is that is really distressing them.

It can be harmful and counterproductive to assure them that their behaviour has actually been impeccable, that they are right to be outraged.  The fury must be held, it is a valuable therapeutic commodity, and it must be unpacked and explored.

Holding onto the fury, to the rage and hurt a human being sitting opposite us is experiencing, is an extremely difficult task.  It requires one to be extremely rooted and solid, involved and attentive but not overly swayed or moved by the emotion.  And it requires insight and tact to be able to work it back into the conversation, to turn it into an object of study, to bring out what is revelatory in it.

It is much easier to move in for the comforting gesture, to try to rescue a person, to make all that horrible stuff just go away, to be the fixer.

Easier, but ultimately less productive.

Neville Symington, in his excellent book on narcissism, puts it like this:

My experience tells me that it is necessary for the analyst to be unrelenting in stripping away the false consolations with which a narcissistic person is surrounded, while holding them firmly, as it were, with care and concern.  (Narcissism: A New Theory  p.93)

It takes tremendous experience and skill to carry off this strange conjunction of gestures, to be  relentlessly stripping away whilst simultaneously holding with care and concern.  And yet, when we can manage it, we might be doing a person more good than we can possibly imagine.

I can’t help feeling that there’s something of this dialectical complexity in the relationship between Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

On Yom Kippur we are stripped of our defences, we are made raw through the purity of the honest encounter with our weaknesses.

On Sukkot we are held in a protective environment, in a space which takes away our comforts and consolations whilst simultaneously offering us shade, shelter and a modicum of warmth.  It is not the ease and luxury of our sturdy homes; we are rattled, shaken, provoked by what has been stripped away.

At this point, in this difficult and jarring environment, we are instructed to turn our eyes towards heaven, to peer at the stars, to be open to the majesty of external reality, to be confronted  by the other.  We are instructed to find new resolve, to creatively re-engage with our relationships and to try to overcome the ways in which we are numbed to the world around us.

The combination of Yom Kippur and Sukkot should pierce us, it should enable us, to quote again from Symington:

To crash through this inner fortress, and bring the patient out of this turning inward and into relation with objects [people, ideas] in the outer world.

Sukkot is not easy, it does not always feel like the party it was once intended to be.  In Britain especially it can be harsh, a somewhat ascetic exercise.  And it flows from Yom Kippur in ways that were probably not intended.  And yet, it can be an extremely valuable opportunity, it can teach us something significant about the dangers of excessive comfort;  it can shake us into continued reflection on our fragility and our mortality.  It takes us outside: outside of what is homely, outside of our comfort zone.

Bar Haddaya met a gruesome and horrible end.  There is grave danger in attempting to offer false comfort, and also in acting harshly for the wrong reasons.  Harsh yet concerned, this is the challenge, both in our relations with others and also in our relations with ourselves.

May it be a chag which pierces us in all the right ways, and may the joy we attain be raw and pure in its intensity.

p.s.  This blog is dedicated to the memory of my cousin Yoni Jesner, who was killed ten years ago today in a terrorist attack in Israel.  May his memory continue to be an inspiration to all of us.

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.

Gratitude. An attitude in need of restitution. Berakhot 35

We move today into chapter six, leaving behind prayer and starting to discuss actual ‘berakhot’, the ‘blessings’ we recite before and after food.  (I don’t much like calling them ‘blessings’, I think it misses the point, so I’ll refer to them as berakhot, or to an individual berakha. I’ve always liked the link between berakha and beraikha, a spring, a source of life.  The root in Hebrew is the same, suggesting there is a link there.)

The Mishna discusses some of the berakhot we say, and the Gemara proceeds to investigate the source of this idea.  From where do we know that we should say berakhot?  What is the meaning of a berakha?

The ensuing passage is a masterpiece of Talmudic baroque, with all sorts of twists and turns and logical hairsplittings.  Verses are read in all kinds of strange ways and yet we keep track of those readings with incredible precision.

In the end though, the Talmud comes to a very simple conclusion.  There is no source, no verse, no authority which tells us to make berakhot.  Rather, it is plain common sense:

It is founded upon reason: One is forbidden to derive benefit from this world without a blessing.

This is so much more powerful than if it was given a source, if we were somehow commanded or instructed to say them.  This way it is spontaneous, voluntary, it comes about because we see that we need it, because it would be all wrong for us to enjoy the world without appreciating it.

And this is what  a berakha is.  It’s an act of appreciation.  To translate it as a ‘blessing’ is a confusion, its purpose is not to bless God.  It exists so that we may give an outlet to our deeply felt need to express praise.  Through giving voice to that, we aim to keep the sentiment alive.  Even more than that, we hope to broaden its sphere of influence, for it to colour the rest of our personality.

It is a core belief of mine that religion is about the cultivation of an attitude of gratitude.

I always find it hard to express just how important gratitude is, how different is the person who exhibits and embodies it from one who exudes either deservingness or permanent dissatisfaction.  It is a fundamentally different orientation of the soul, and the effects it has one one’s life are profound and significant.

I was recently very excited to discover that gratitude has become something of a hot topic in experimental psychological research, and that the findings have been overwhelmingly positive.  They seem to back up everything religion has taught for thousands of years about the importance of not viewing oneself as the centre of one’s world, as the source of one’s own wellbeing or good fortune.  Religion is about allowing space for otherness, about reducing one’s pride and hubris.

In his book “Thanks!”, outlining some of this research, Robert A. Emmons says the following:

Our research has led us to conclude that experiencing gratitude leads to increased feelings of connectedness, improved relationships, and even altruism… when people experience gratitude they feel more loving, more forgiving and closer to God.  Gratitude, we have found, maximizes the enjoyment of the good – our enjoyment of others, of God, of our lives.  Happiness is facilitated when we enjoy what we have been given, when we ‘want what we have’. ..

Gratitude elevates, it energizes, it inspires, it transforms.  People are moved, opened, and humbled through experiences and expressions of gratitude.  Gratitude provides life with meaning by encapsulating life itself as a gift.  (page 12)

Amen to all of that.

Gratitude is good, and a berakha is the moment wherein we pause and enact it.  And we do it both before we eat, when we are experiencing lack, and after we eat, when we experience satiety.  At both of these points there is a need to remember, to reflect on how fortunate we are that our needs are about to be met, and perhaps to reflect on how easily satisfied we are, how are troubles are minor in the greater scheme of things.

We make berakhot part of the rhythm of our life, not because we have childish or naïve beliefs, but because we have a very mature and adult understanding of just how easy it is to lose touch with gratitude.  We know that we can get carried away with how much we deserve what we have, with the sense in which we are the authors of our success.

Is there really such a problem with this idea of ‘deserving’, are we not entitled to expect something form the world?

I’m reluctant to say we shouldn’t expect anything, a ‘good enough’ upbringing leads a person to live as if they expect the world to provide a loving and nurturing environment.

But ‘deserve’, maybe that’s going too far, maybe that’s when we expect on the basis of our ego, we expect love not because the world is loving, but because we, as individuals, as egos, are special, are deserving.  We are, at that point, a little too in love with ourselves.

The corrective medicine is a chunky dose of gratitude, wherein we appreciate and continue to expect good things, but never because we deserve them, never because we are special and chosen, never because of our natural or hard earned superiority.

Gratitude is the anti-inflammatory of the ego, it helps it find the right size again, it restores it to a healthy level of operation.

“Blessed are You, God”.  In this formulation, there is a radical definition of God.  God is simply ‘you’, something other than ‘me’.

We often speak of experiencing the Divine presence, of being touched or filled by something elusive and otherly.  Maintaining a spirit of gratitude, of grace, is the sine qua non for this experience.  Being grateful keeps us open, only in that condition may we be entered by something greater than ourselves.

The Gemara hints at some of this in its alternative phrasing of the logic of berakhot:

Our Rabbis have taught: It is forbidden to a man to enjoy anything of this world without a berakha, and if one enjoys anything of this world without a berakha, he commits sacrilege. 

What is his remedy? He should consult a wise man.

What will the wise man do for him? He has already committed the offence! — Said Raba: What it means is that he should consult a wise man beforehand, so that he should teach him berakhot and he should not commit sacrilege.

Why does it require a wise man to teach berakhot, nowadays there are simple books designed to teach berakhot to children?

No, berakhot are not for children, they are for adults.  They are a brief philosophical interlude in our day, an overture to any enjoyable experience.  And it requires a wise man, or woman, to help us really see and appreciate this, to untangle the web of ego-belief that we all too often find ourselves in.

Berakhot are the hallmark of wisdom, not a remnant of the superstitious mind.

In further discussion we encounter the following verse:

Anyone who steals from his father and mother, declaring ‘It is not a sin’, he is the accomplice to a man of destruction. (Proverbs 28:24)

I think this is brilliantly insightful, and aboundingly relevant.  Ingratitude begins in the attitude towards one’s parents, towards everything they give a person in life.  If a person takes and takes from their parents, without appreciating the generosity and love that lie behind the parental giving, then they are doomed to a life of destruction.  They will never embody gratitude, they will never taste the satisfaction and fulfilment it engenders.

A spoiled child is a ruined child.  If parents fail to help their children find gratitude, if they placate them too easily and thoughtlessly, they are condemning their child to a life of disappointment and dissatisfaction, to a gnawing emptiness of depressing persistence.

Perhaps we come to appreciate our parents much later in life, perhaps when we become parents ourselves.  The important thing is that we should get there, that we do not remain petulant children, forever feeling that we deserve and should have more.

The Gemara then meanders into other topics, which I believe are still connected to the theme of gratitude.

In one debate, we hear opposing voices regarding the optimal balance between Torah study and earning a livelihood.  Abaye concludes it with the following:

Many have followed the advice of Rabbi Yishmael, [who advocates a healthy balance,] and it has worked well; others have followed Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai [who prioritises Torah exclusively]and it has not been successful.

Might it be that not being engaged in work, in the gathering of the harvest, in the production of value, severely restricts a person’s capacity for gratitude, their awareness that nothing comes easily.  And if so, might this upset the balance needed for proper Torah study, for finding the spirit that sheds light on the tradition?

(I note that this doesn’t sit well with  my explanation of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on 28a.  We’ll have to keep an eye on him!)

As a final point, we are told that, of late, people have been engaged in the avoidance of their taxes, of their ‘tithe obligations’.

This too is the fallout from a prevailing mood of ingratitude; when Atlas believes exclusively in his own powers, it is no surprise that he shrugs at the fate of others.

If what I have is well and truly mine, then charity makes no sense, it becomes a completely voluntary act; indeed my philanthropy then only enhances my own sense of merit, and I actually deserve what I have all the more.

If I am fortunate and blessed, then it makes sense for me not to hold on to my possessions too tightly, to give naturally wherever and however possible.

Gratitude is both the engine and the achievement of religious life.  When we engage with berakhot we try to keep its spirit alive.

May we be blessed to make meaningful berakhot, for it is us, not Him, who are deeply in need of them.

Is Prayer Sacrifice? Berakhot 26

We begin chapter four today, leaving behind the Shema and starting to focus on the Amida, the silent prayer at the core of our service.  The Talmud is trying to understand the framework for saying the Amida, and it leads into a reflection on the fundamental roots of prayer:

It has been stated: R. Jose son of R. Hanina said: The Tefillot (the Amida) were instituted by the Patriarchs. R. Joshua b. Levi says: The Tefillot were instituted  to replace the daily sacrifices.

Ultimately we arrive at a compromise: there is some sense in which they were instituted by Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov, but the Rabbis used the framework of the Temple sacrifices to flesh out their structure and timing.

From our point of view, they have two sets of ancient roots, one in our forefathers, the founders of our nation, the other in the history of our ritual, in the primordial structure where our religious impulse first found its expression.

Sacrifice is a tricky concept, without even touching on the ethics of animal offerings.  (We’ll get there, I’m sure.)  In at least two posts recently, I’ve highlighted the sense in which religion is not just about sacrifice, on dapim 14 and 23.  And yet, the key word here is ‘just’.  Religion is not solely about sacrifice, it is not a competition to see who can punish themselves more, who can endure more suffering.  But it would be wrong to suggest that sacrifice has no role to play at all.

Perhaps we can soften the idea of sacrifice by connecting it with the word ‘commitment’.  To commit to something is ultimately to sacrifice something else, whether it is a clearly defined alternative or simply the possibility of some unexplored freedom.

I think the concept of ‘commitment’ carries reasonably positive associations nowadays; it is taken as a given that commitment is indispensable if one wishes to be in a relationship, to build a community or to excel in one’s vocation.  It is less clear why one would commit to religious practices which stretch back thousands of years.

In response to this challenge, people sometimes cite the ideals of ‘discipline’ or ‘routine’, but to the free spirited being who is feeling a little penned in and restrained by the vast web of halakha, these values only beg the question.  How can discipline be a value in itself?  Isn’t ‘routine’ simply a word grown ups use to plaster over the monotony of their lives?

There is some truth in these counter-claims – I retain the right to be suspicious of people who assume those terms to constitute a decisive argument in favour of commitment.  If we are to make sense of commitment, we need to think about what we are committing to, and of what we might gain from that commitment.

As we touched on in discussing freedom and the self, it is less than clear cut exactly how we come to have a personality, how we develop character and exhibit freedom.  Experimental psychological research has shown recently that our will power under difficult conditions is actually a lot weaker than we would imagine.  David Brooks talks about this in his book The Social Animal, and he concludes that one of the biggest factors in our decision making is the way we perceive the challenge, the manner in which we frame our dilemma.  To change our behaviour requires changing our perception.  He says:

This learning-to-see model emphasizes that it is not once crucial moment that shapes a character.  Character emerges gradually out of the mysterious interplay of a million little good influences.  This model emphasizes the power of community to shape character…It also empahsizes the power of small and repetitive action to rewire the fundamental mechanisms of the brain.  Small habits and proper etiquette reinforce certain positive ways of seeing the world.  Good behaviour strengthens certain networks.  Aristotle was right when he observed, ‘We acquire virtues by first having put them into action’. (p128)

Aristotle was indeed wise to see that we are in the business of trying to acquire virtues.  It is often  in those very moments where we see that we wish to live a certain kind of life, a life which exemplifies our most cherished values, that we are paralysed by the failings of our personality as it is.  We sense that there is something missing, but it is deeply unfashionable to suggest that must set to out to fix it.

There is, however, no easy path.  The only way to get to the personality we desire is to work at it, to commit to it.  If we wish to embody a certain sort of Divine light in the world, then we must build a temple which might house and contain it.  And, as our tradition teaches, the core of that temple must be sacrifice, a voluntary spirit which curbs the excesses of the ego.

To commit to regular prayer is to make a sacrifice.  But, it is not only to make a sacrifice.  It would not be enough, whatever Yeshayahu Leibowitz may contend, to recite the phone book.  We make a sacrifice, but in that moment, in those minutes of the day when we relinquish our other projects and deisres, we focus on our highest values, on our deepest needs, on the ways in which we might be genuinely true to ourselves.  We connect to various streams within our tradition, and we try to draw strength from those roots.

We make a sacrifice in establishing a routine, we commit to a discipline, but we do so because we desperately desire the ends that they promise.  We want to experience our better selves more of the time, we want our being to be graceful and light, we want to feel the joy and cheer in the most everyday situations, in the places we too often miss them.

These are the benefits of a developed personality. There may be a contemporary myth which suggests that some people simply live their whole lives in a state of easy happiness, of effortless harmony.  And perhaps it is true of the odd person here and there.  But for most of us, it doesn’t come easily, the labours and responsibilities of life drain our spirits and dampen our enthusiasm.

We opt for routine over freedom, not because we fundamentally value routine, but because we believe that the routine may give us a sort of freedom that we would never have if we embraced a life without structure, if we abandoned our personality to its whims.  Beauty is often built out of the most painstaking detail, and that is nowhere more true than in the human soul.

And we commit to that routine, because we know that we are more likely to be inspired regularly if we are committed to turning up, because we concede that we are rarely going to jump out of bed at 6.45 in the morning and spontaneously praise the source of our Life.

In prayer, the deepest commitment creates the highest and most inspired form of freedom, a place where our spirit can truly soar, an event which can change our entire day.  We must be careful with sacrifice, it must not become an idol worship of its own.  But we must not think that we can live without it, to do so would be to starve our soul of some essential nutrients.

What is the self? Berakhot 15

It is one of the founding principles of psychoanalysis that we are not transparent to ourselves.

The more one reflects upon this, the more surprising it becomes that we ever thought that we might be.

More than this, it becomes increasingly astonishing that most people generally still think that they know themselves, that they have unique access to the thing they call the ‘self’.

One of the insights I got from Wittgenstein, and which pushed me in the direction of psychoanalytic thinking, was that the concept of a ‘self’ is significantly more complex than it first appears.  There is not necessarily a single unifying factor manifest in our behaviour or thought, we seem, at times, to simply be a succession of unrelated actions, utterances and inner voices.

Listen to the series of thoughts that pop into your head – where are they coming from?  How consistent and uniform are they?  Is the source of those thoughts the thing we call the self?

To push it further, how would you describe the difference between the place that they come from and the person that hears them, the listening subject?  Aren’t there at least two ‘persons’ here, a mysterious narrator and a somewhat perplexed audience?

For the most part, there is a workable level of unity, of coherence, of integration, detectable in our behaviour.  And, though here it’s more private and murky, that’s probably true of our thoughts too.

In as much as there is meaning to the term sanity, one aspect of it is the extent to which we are able to see this unity in another person, to experience it in ourselves.  Schizophrenia, very roughly, is the case where that unity has been deeply fractured, where the person themselves no longer experiences their thoughts and behaviour as unified.  Bi-polar, another term I don’t especially like, is a way of describing behaviour and thought that seems to oscillate too wildly, that lacks a unifying centre, a coherent core.

So where does Judaism stand on this point?

I take it as fairly incontrovertible that it takes the personality to be deep, complex and multi layered.  That if there is unity there, it is something we must work towards, and, once achieved, requires steady maintenance.

For these reasons, Rabbinic culture offers its citizens a wide array of rituals, structures and ideas.  By making all of these part of one’s life, part of one’s personality, some profound and serious work is done on one’s unconscious, work one doesn’t need to be much aware of.  By simply swimming in the culture, one imbibes a certain type of character, and hopefully it is one that is unified and productive.

Put differently, it is often assumed that religion takes man to be strong, to be a creature of will.  It gives him challenges to test that will, and basically scores him depending on how well he does.

I take the opposing view.  Religion views man as deeply weak, and understands the ‘will’ as somewhat illusory.  It sees it as a wishful expression of how much self control we would like to have, not how much we really do have.

It meets man in his weakness, and tries, in a colourful variety of ways, to help him flourish nonetheless.

To the daf.  Today we have an extended discussion on whether a person needs to say the Shema aloud.  The alternative is that we simply recite it silently, or internally, and concentrate on it in that way.

It seems to me that the discussion may be centred around exactly the positions outlined above.  If one believes that the Shema can simply be recited internally, then one leans towards thinking that the personality is reasonably unified, and that its deeper recesses are quite easily accessible.

If one thinks we need to recite it aloud, to separate ourselves into physical performer and attentive listener, emphasising the need to hear it, then I think one is viewing the personality as more complex and fractured.  One is acknowledging that making contact with the unconscious is a mighty tricky business, and that giving parts of the personality different roles might be a very effective way to do this.  It strives to make the situation engage more energy, to seem more real.  It will also hopefully diminish some of the resistance and self consciousness that otherwise stands in the way of contact.

In the end, we follow the opinion who says we should say it aloud, the voice who tells us that we are deeply mysterious unto ourselves.

And, paradoxically, the message that we try to get across, as we saw on page 13, is unity.  We can now understand that this has psychological as well as theological implications, that the unity we strive for in ourselves is a reflection of the unity we seek out in life.

So the Shema, and prayer generally, are a profound piece of theatre, with the Rabbis are directing events from behind the scenes.

When the curtain rises we engage in soliloquy, and, in the next moment, we realise that there is an audience of one, and that that one is a different part of us.

Through deliberately splitting the personality, through opening it up like a surgeon, we hope to arrive at a more thorough and profound unity.

Listen, O Israel, for the Unity, and know that the Unity is Divine.