Prioritising the Voluntary – Parshat Teruma

We read this week about the instructions to build a mishkan, the temporary sanctuary which the Jews took with them throughout their wilderness wanderings.

It is safe to say that there is nothing which makes sense about the miskhan.

In the second commandment we are told not to make any carved images of anything resembling anything on heaven and earth, yet in the miskhan we have the ark being appointed with cherubim, two angelic figures resembling young children.

In the immediate aftermath of the Ten Commandments we are again warned about making sacred objects of gold or silver, and are instructed instead to build an altar out of earth, or perhaps out of stone.  This is a very far cry from the opulent abundance of the mishkan, wherein every sort of fine material and precious substance is collected and shaped into a house of worship.

There is something discontinuous about the narrative, something doesn’t seem to flow, the mishkan does not seem to have been part of the original plan.

The Ramban goes to great lengths to emphasise how the mishkan was the natural continuation of the revelation at Sinai, after the exalted otherworldly nature of that moment, there was a need for something solid and concrete on earth, something to offer the people a lasting and stable reminder of God’s presence on earth.

The lengths he goes to suggest that he is not entirely convinced, we may start to suspect that the lady doth protest too much.

If it wasn’t part of the original plan, then we are faced with the puzzling question – what brought about the change in plan?

The obvious answer leaps out at us just a few chapters later, when we encounter the episode of the Golden Calf, the Chet Ha’Egel.

The parallels between the episodes are striking:  the communal donations of gold, the offerings of sacrifices, the celebrations to dedicate the new form of worship.  Looking more closely, we see that the lead designer is to be Bezalel, the grandson of Chur, who the midrash suggests was killed due to his resistance to the building of the Egel.

It makes good sense to suggest that the mishkan is a response to the building of the egel, a concession to the need for a more festive and physicalised form of religious worship.  This was after all a people who had been surrounded by the various paganisms present in Egyptian society and who were perhaps not quite ready for the severe and august monotheism that Moses was trying to foist upon them.

But we are left with the troubling point?  Why does the Torah tell us about the mishkan before the egel.  And, also troubling, how did both God and Moses get the Israelites so wrong, how did they not see such a disaster coming?

Rashi offers a simple solution – ein mukdam u’meuchar batorah – the Torah does not always tell us things in chronological order, and in this instance it decided to tell us about the mishkan first.  But, we might still ask, why should it do that?  If it has left enough clues for us to figure it out, then why should it try to disguise the reality, and leave us with such a perplexing narrative.

The answer I think lies in the essential principle which underpins the mishkan.  Rambam sees the mishkan as a concession to physical worship of sacrifices, and we might also think it is simply to do with having a sensory location for the sacred presence, both of which seem reasonable.

But I believe the more important principle is mentioned in the opening verses of our parsha.  Moses is to take a teruma, a donation, ‘me’et kol ish asher yidvenu libo’, from every individual according to the voluntary spirit of their heart.  The mishkan is to be founded in the passion of the individual, it is to be rooted in the harnessing of their animal spirits, of their powerful preconscious drives, and is to channel them into a form of worship that will contain and symbolise these energies.

The original 10 commandments did not leave any room for this spirit, they were a deep and total prohibition of mankind’s most basic impulses.  God adopts the same language he did with Adam in Genesis 2, where the harshness of the command made the ensuing sin almost inevitable.  The Ten Commandments are about what we must not do, what we must stifle and suppress in ourselves – do not murder, steal or indulge your carnal appetites.  Do not behave falsely and, while you’re at it, banish all traces of jealousy and envy.

When the people told Moses they couldn’t bear the word of God, it was not just the power and volume of the experience that repelled them, it was the absolute and unforgiving attitude to their nature.  The commandments seemed to be cutting them off at their roots, leaving them no breathing space whatsoever, and this atmosphere of privation was too much for them to bear.

The people needed an outlet for their passion, for their visceral drives and aggressive impulses.  The Golden Calf gave them such an outlet, but in spite of Aharon’s best efforts it was not an acceptable form of worship, it was too close to the Egyptian cults they had left behind.

The mishkan exists to give such an opportunity, and to ensure that the people have ample means of expression, are able to search their own spirits and find new and original ways of contributing to and shaping Divine Worship.

And this is perhaps the difference between religion and mere ethics.  Ethics simply tells us what to do, or what we can’t do, religion takes a more sympathetic view of the human condition and gives structure and the possibility of redemption to the totality of the personality, to even the darkest forces that lurk in our soul.

After the flood God sees that man will always have evil lurking in his soul, and he realises that he needs Avraham to develop a religion capable of wrestling with that and transforming it.

If all of this is true, then it makes sense that we must be told of the mishkan before the chet ha’egel.  If the narrative made it obvious that the mishkan was a correction for the chet then the lesson of the importance of the voluntary would ring very false, it would be hollow and unconvincing.  A concession can never be convincing as an invitation to volunteer, the balance of power has been lost.

By putting the mishkan first, the Torah is subtly conceding that God got it wrong, but is suggesting that the corrective was close to hand, and that there somewhere existed the wisdom which knew that the Jews could not subsist on prohibition alone.  The power and passion of the human being needed to be given expression through religious structure, and the mishkan gave them that opportunity in their time.

The idea that the mishkan is about our inner life, rather than about physical space is poetically expressed in the late 16th century by Rav Elazar Azkiri with his idea of ‘bilvavi mishkan evneh’.  The aspiration is to build an internal mishkan in the midst of our heart, thereby giving structure and form to the necessary sacrifices we must make in the pursuit of a balanced and compassionate society.  Through the pain and majesty of our relinquishing of egotistical drives the Glory of God becomes revealed in the world, and a sacred space of authentic beauty might come into being.

May we be blessed with strength in the face of these challenges, and may our building of the mishkan sanctify and redeem the totality of our unique personalities.

 

Elie is teaching this term on Faith after Freud at LSJS, and courses on Talmudic Narrative and God for Grown Ups at JW3.

What is Wealth? Shabbat 22-27

A theme of financial concern runs through these pages of the Talmud, made particularly explicit in the following question on 25b:

Who is rich?

We are given a variety of Rabbinic responses, and I’d like to reflect on them, and to link them to some of the surrounding passages.

First up we have Rabbi Meir’s answer:

Whoever finds peace of spirit in his wealth. 

At a first glance, this sounds very similar to Ben Zoma’s idea from Avot 4:1, that the rich person is one who rejoices in his lot.  And they are clearly coming from a similar place, they are both responding with the counter-intuitive notion that wealth is measured by one’s attitude, not by one’s possessions; by the spirit rather than the material.

That said, I think Rabbi Meir is perhaps less optimistic than Ben Zoma, perhaps slightly more conscious of the difficulty in always rejoicing in one’s lot.  He talks of one who is happy, who finds peace, Ben Zoma talks of an active imperative, of making an effort to attain happiness, that it is something which can be worked at.  Rabbi Meir is perhaps suggesting that one does need a certain level of sustenance, of financial security to be at peace in the world.  But the important thing is to remember that peace is the end point, that the wealth is a means to achieving that.

He may be suggesting that one needs to be especially conscious of the different emotions that accompany one’s differing material conditions, and to ensure that one is able to find a level of comfort wherein one’s worries actually abate and an internal sense of wellbeing comes to the fore.

When one does not achieve this, something has gone wrong, something has been missed.  There are many ways this can happen.

In some cases the anxiety which spurred one to generate the wealth, which was perhaps helpful in fuelling the work ethic, might still persist once financial success has been achieved.  It may in fact even get stronger; the challenge to attain a certain level of security might have been helpful in containing a person’s anxiety, it might have acted as a vessel for it, given it an outlet.  Without that yolk to harness it, without such an apparently urgent task to absorb one’s energies, one may find oneself quite lost, overrun with anxiety, eaten up by a mysterious restlessness, by a sense of unease and disquiet which don’t seem to have any intelligible source.

The anxiety must be worked on; one must find the level of peace to enable genuine enjoyment of one’s bounty.

In a similar manner, one may have been spurred on by envy or competition, which again might have served a certain purpose.  But if they are left untended once that purpose is served, once one has in some sense made enough, or made it onto the path towards enough, then they will again torment and undo a person.

Envy is a powerful toxin to the mind, a destructive hatred which can only bring misery and keep happiness at bay.

And being competitive, whilst less incorrigibly ruinous, and whilst more easily harnessed to constructive ends, can also be a major thorn in one’s side if it is left unchecked, if it comes to exist as an absolute force in one’s life.  If one is perpetually setting oneself up in opposition to others, if one’s sense of self is only secured through triumph and conquest, through perceived supremacy, then it is not really a sense of self at all.  It is a sense of not-other, of better-than-other, and perhaps a misplaced sense at that .

It is the mark of a being that is fleeing, searching, forever looking outwards for affirmation.  It suggest one is either unable or lacking the courage to look for that affirmation within, to learn to be intimate and comfortable with oneself.

There is another danger to prosperity, another block to it providing one with the contentment that it seems to promise.  This is the inability to have a sense of ‘enough’, to sense that one has reached a level whereby having more might be more trouble than it is worth.  ‘More’ can become a compulsion, something insatiable, something which unsettles the mind and makes peace an ever more distant prospect.

This consciousness seems to animate an earlier discussion on 22a:

Rav Yehuda said that Rav Asi said that Rav said:  It is forbidden to count money opposite the Channuka lights.

When I said this to Shmuel, he said to me:  And do the Channuka lights have such intrinsic sanctity? 

Shmuel seems to be assuming that if the Channuka lights did have sanctity, kedusha, that it would be understandable that their light would be incompatible with such a use.  Kedusha seems to be at odds with counting money, with the anxious weighing and measuring of one’s wealth.  Again, it is not the having of money that is the problem, it is the obsessing over it, it is the possibility that it does not bring one peace – nachat ruach – that it continues to torment one long after the battle is won.

The Divine Presence cannot come to rest with a person when they are forever concerned with how much they have, with how they stack up against their neighbours.  There is simply not room in such a mind, one is distracted and out of sync with peace.

The Gemara rejects Shmuel’s idea about Kedusha, and instead offers a different reasoning for the ruling:

That the mitzvot should not be disgraced in his eyes, shameful.

I think this is a more profound idea, that if one is using the mitzvah of Channuka to count his wealth, making the light of the miracle subordinate to one’s material hunger, then one has lost perspective on the meaning of the ritual, on the subtle sense of faith it embodies.

The light is the symbol of a spiritual uprising, of a battle for sanctity in the war of cultures.  It stands for our rejection of a culture which –as Nietzsche suggests – had become decadent and decayed through its wealth and success, which had thoroughly lost touch with its earliest lofty ideals.

The light is designed to bring peace to a household, to one’s soul; and if it fails to achieve that, if it becomes an instrument towards further anxiety and unease, then one has truly disgraced and shamed the mitzvah.  It has been defiled, corrupted.

So, that’s the first take on the meaning of wealth, Rabbi Meir’s view.

Rabbi Tarfon has a much more conventional take on things, one which requires considerably less thought and imagination:

Who is wealthy? – One who has a hundred vineyards and a hundred fields, and a hundred slaves to work in them.

Rabbi Tarfon was a wealthy man, but perhaps his comment is not as superficial as it might seem, perhaps he is trying to give an answer to that elusive question:  ‘Just how much is enough?’.

He is perhaps saying that there is an objective scale in play, and that one should know that at a certain point one may be overstepping a certain line and over reaching.  He might be trying to objectify greed, to give gluttony a measure.

Either way, we are probably tempted to take with a pinch of salt his famous injunction on 24b:

Rabbi Tarfon said:  One may only light with olive oil.

That’s nice if you can afford it.

I don’t want to get heavily into it, but it’s interesting that his views on wealth come shortly after a discussion on 23b about Pe’ah, the injunction to leave the corner of one’s field for the poor.  The concern there is to ensure that this remarkably progressive biblical idea is executed in a spirit of fairness, and that both landowner and pauper maintain their dignity through its enactment.

One may have a hundred fields, but with that comes greater responsibility, a greater need to be mindful of those less fortunate.

Following the opinion of Rabbi Tarfon, we hear from Rabbi Akiva:

The rich man is one who has a wife who embodies beauty in her actions.

Rabbi Akiva was more conscious than most of his dependence upon his wife, upon the faith, ambition and forbearance with which she supported him.  He sensed that all the money in the world was worthless if one didn’t have a house filled with warmth and peace, if one’s partner in life was dominated by envy and all too keen to turn against the other when things became tough.

The woman, for Rabbi Akiva, creates everything that is of value: the home, the family, the friendships and the fabric of community.  And she is also the source of specifically female wisdom and insight, of a maternal concern somewhat alien to men.

To be blessed is to live in the shadow of this, to be subsumed under its wings.

Last, and most prosaically, is the view of Rabbi Yosei:

Who is rich? – The person who has a toilet close to his table. 

Some suggest that he suffered from intestine trouble, and was expressing his needs directly.  Another view might be that he is defining wealth by utility alone, and emphasising this by reducing it to its most basic functionality.  Wealth in his eyes, is about being able to service one’s bodily needs when necessary, to conflate it into something more than that, into a measure of one’s worth or success in life, is to ask for trouble.  That path is an easy one to begin on, but it is a hard one to leave, a difficult illusion to outrun.  Better not to be seduced by it, to keep one’s eyes firmly on the toilet.

Four men, four visions of the possibilities and dangers of wealth.  In our affluent society, we might be particularly sensitive to these questions, and we might find ourselves particularly grateful for their encouragement to think about them.

Hidden and Revealed: The True Gift of Shabbat Shabbat 9,10

Finally.  After nine and a half pages (yes, pages, not weeks) of halakhic discussion which I have sometimes experienced as tortuous and torturous, we are at long last thrown a bone.  Someone has something nice to say about Shabbat:

God said to Moses:  I have a fine gift in my secret treasure chamber, and her name is Shabbat.  I want to give her to Israel, go and tell them. 

I like this, it really is how it feels, it’s a gift.  And it is a gift that is good, that is fine.  It is also something that is mysterious and elusive, its origins are shrouded in secrecy and hiddenness.

It is a relief to hear this, to be reminded that in grappling with Shabbat we are grappling with the construction of a detailed and elaborate sacred space.  It could become easy to forget this, to focus on the laws purely for their own sake, to presume that the laws are the essence, to forget that they are signposts guiding us towards something more profound.

And it goes both ways.  One could read the poetry and liturgy of Shabbat and think that one has a feel for it, that one has grasped its essence.  And perhaps it is true that one may be able to relate to it from the outside, to connect it with other similar experiences of peace, of rest, of silence.  But for most of us, it is the laws, the detail, which create the mood and atmosphere of the day.

To experience Shabbat is to live it, to pay attention to it, to inhabit it like a complex piece of music or literature.

The Talmud develops these themes further, in qualifying the type of secret involved in Shabbat:

The experience of its reward is not something that it is possible to reveal. 

It takes work to get inside Shabbat, perhaps what I said just now is not quite right, the laws and restrictions are not enough on their own to generate the feeling and spirit of Shabbat.  They can create an important space, they can present us with an opportunity.   But we must then do something with that space, we must go out to greet Shabbat – come, my beloved – we must welcome it into our hearts and our homes.

Shabbat, paradoxically, can be quite exhausting.  We must engage our spirit with the day, we must pour something of ourselves into it, only then can we taste the deep rejuvenation and re-orientation that it bequeaths us.

Our bodies may be left tired in the aftermath of this spiritual exertion, but they can recover, they are good at taking care of themselves.  The spirit is not so clever, we must consciously and intentionally tend to it, mindfully provide it with the nourishment and homeliness it needs to re-root.

Isaiah depicts this progression well, the path from restriction through engagement towards reward:

If you keep your feet from breaking Shabbat, from acting out your will on My holy day, and if you call Shabbat a delight, dedicated to enhancing God’s Holiness… 

If you honour it by avoiding your usual patterns, by giving up your restless searching, your endless empty chatter…  

Then you will experience profound joy in the Divine, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the earth.  I will feed you from the rich inheritance and traditions of Jacob your forefather, the Divine Word will have made its mark.  (58:13-14)

The motif of the gift continues, Rav Hisda was giving gifts to anyone who could share with him some of Rav’s profound teachings.  He gave one to Rava Bar Mehasseya, for sharing the secret of Shabbat with him:

To know that I, God, am the one who facilitates the sacred in your lives. (Exodus 31:13)

But he regrets not having more gifts, for he wishes to give him another one on hearing his follow up:

Fine wool is only precious to its wearer. 

The finer things in life are not obviously pleasurable at first, it takes time and patience to develop a taste for them.  Perhaps sometimes it takes abstinence to really appreciate them, the depth of my love for Shabbat is in part due to the vacuum I often experienced in the periods when I tried to live without it.  I don’t mean that I was depressed or unable to cope with life, simply that the absence of Shabbat was very potent and tangible.  I have a memory of walking through a shopping mall late on a Saturday afternoon and sensing something empty and bleak about it – was this supposed to compare to the exalted experience of people singing mizmor le’david or yedid nefesh at seuda shlishit?

It could not, it never really lasted; with my appreciation for Shabbat renewed, I would always find myself drawn to it once more.

The word abstinence is key here, I always suspected Shabbat couldn’t be bettered, that its richness couldn’t be matched.  But I felt compelled to test this hypothesis, to embrace the ascetic ideal of trying to live without it.

It is interesting to me that this poetic flourish is preceded by some reflection on the essence of the Divine.  We have just been talking about how God is sometimes named, simply, ‘Peace’.  Peace is Divine, to experience peace is to both respond to the Divine Will and to taste something of its essence.

He is also named ‘The Faithful God’, here it is his commitment and dedication to his creatures that we might learn from.

These two values, peace and faith, seem to find their embodiment in the Divine gift that is Shabbat.  It takes tremendous faith, and I mean something more akin to courage than to belief, to abstain on Shabbat from pursuing one’s material needs, from tending to one’s sometimes highly critical business matters.

But if we manage it, and if we make the further move of faith involved in really opening up emotionally to the poetry and imagery of Shabbat, to thoroughly engaging with its songs, prayers and traditions, then a deep and powerful peace will be our reward.  Our spirit might experience something that is genuinely called rest, our soul might actually manage to breathe and restore itself.

Going back further, right back to creation in fact, we are given insight into the spirit that lies at the core of existence:

Any judge who arbitrates one ruling in accordance with the highest standard of truth, even for just one hour, Scripture considers that he has become a partner with the Divine in the act of creation.

This is such a rich idea, but what I particularly like is the connection between judgment, truth and creation.

In the act of judging, truth is created.  God did not, could not, have accounted for all possible truths at the beginning of time.  Truth was left incomplete, in gestation, in potentiality.  And when a person takes upon himself the responsibility to seriously wrestle with truth and to eventually come to his most honest judgment of what is true, he has helped along the creative process with which Genesis begins.

Judaism is certainly a religion of Law.  But we sometimes seem to forget that there also needs to be judgment, to be a deeply considered questioning of the manner and spirit in which the Law is applied.  Truth can never be finalised in a text, or even in a tradition.  It must always be rooted in life, in the subjective domain of the responsible human, of the one who wishes to partner with God in creation.

On Shabbat we make the following request in our prayers:

Satisfy us with Your Goodness, and make us joyful in Your salvation.

And may you purify our hearts so that we may serve you in Truth.   

Shabbat is about rest and joy, about peace and rejuvenation, about re-rooting and re-orienting ourselves.  But it is also about truth, about cleansing the spirit so that it is capable of the courage and strength needed to do battle with the forces of untruth in the world.  It is perhaps about learning truth through peace, about the deeper and more honest truth that emerges from the spirit that is not ragged from the chase that sometimes constitutes life.

May we attain all of this through our day of rest, may Truth, Faith and Peace rest upon our being like fine wool, may the bounty of the Divine treasure chest be revealed to us all.

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.

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.