Avraham ben Yaakov
Jewish Pathways of Spiritual Growth
Under the Table
Order vs. Meaninglessness * The Paradox of Creation * A World of Choice * The Torah * Faith * Turkey Consciousness * The Soul in This World * The Nefesh * The Battle of Wills * Clothing of the Soul * Communication * Badges of the King * Crumbs and Bones * Truth and Madness * "The Prince felt compelled..." * "He thought he was a Turkey" * The Story of the Tainted Grain
The Prince felt compelled to sit under the table without any clothes on, pulling at bits of bread and bones like a turkey.
"Woe to the children who are in exile from their Father's table."
The Prince is sitting there naked under the table. His clothes are strewn all around. If he doesn't put them on, he won't be able to sit up at the table together with his father. But the Prince doesn't move. As far as he knows, he isn't a Prince at all. He's a
A humorous story? Strange? Tragic? Absurd? What does it mean? Why a
Order vs. Meaninglessness
There is more to sitting up at the table than the physical act of eating. There is a whole culture: the way the table is set, the order of serving the courses, the manners and conversation. Eating at the table is symbolic of order. Especially at court, when the king banquets ceremonially with his intimates, officers and distinguished guests, "everything says `Glory!' " (Psalms 29:9) -- the august banquet hall with its brilliant chandeliers, emblazoned chairs and sumptuously spread tables; the courtiers clothed in their appropriate robes and badges, each seated in his proper place in strict order of precedence; etiquette, decorum, and a flurry of palace servants.
At the very center of everything sits the king, with the royal table before him. And there is the Prince, crouched down underneath it, pulling at the crumbs and bones.
The Prince sees nothing of the order and splendor around him. All he sees is a world without order, a
From his present vantage point, nothing except the crumbs and bones has any meaning at all. But, being convinced that he is a
Given the apparently random way his crumbs and bones drop down, what would make him think that anyone in his lonely world cares about him? How could he know that his father, the king, is beside himself with worry, hanging on his every move for even the faintest sign of improvement? Yet the king has surely given all the butlers special instructions to surreptitiously slip down a steady supply of nutritious lumps so that the poor boy shouldn't starve. After all, the royal guests are normally more polite than to drop half their food on the floor.
But as far as the Prince is concerned, he's a
The little world under the table is really inside the king's palace. The boards of the table that constitute its sky, the carved table legs holding them up, the tablecloth marking its boundaries, the courtiers' feet that close in all around, the floor on which everything is standing, and even the scraps of food the Prince is living off -- all are integral parts of the royal court. Yet to the Prince it doesn't seem like the inside of a great palace at all. In his eyes, the world around him is a separate, independent realm. It is outside, a
The Paradox of Creation
Inside seems like outside. Yet outside is really inside. The situation of the Turkey-Prince under the table is a metaphor for our situation in This World -- the world we live in for our hundred and twenty years, the world we can see, feel, hear, smell and taste all around us, with the entire array of mineral, vegetable, animal and human forms it contains: the skies, the planets, the stars and heavenly bodies, and outer space stretching to who knows where.
From our perspective, the material, sensible world may seem like an independent, self-existing realm. It is impossible to see indisputable evidence of a higher power controlling or influencing events. The universe appears to run according to its own rules -- the laws of nature, probability, etc. We ourselves may be aware that our behavior is to a large extent determined by circumstances beyond our control: our physical nature, our upbringing and environment etc. At the same time, over wide areas, we have the freedom to act as we wish. When we want to lift up a hand, we just do. We feel like independent, autonomous beings.
Yet in telling us that, "In the beginning God created..." (Genesis 1:1) the Torah is teaching us that this world is not independent and self-existing. The material world we experience through our five senses is far from being the sum total of what exists. In reality it is a created world, the lowest of an entire system of interconnected worlds-upon-worlds, which together make up the creation. They are the
In Hebrew, the totality of the creation is called yesh. The word yesh signifies something that exists in itself. The first Hebrew word of the Torah -- translated as "In the beginning"-- is Bereishit. If the Hebrew consonants of the word BeREiSHiYT are rearranged, they spell out the phrase BaRATa YeSH -- "You created yesh."Even what appears to exist independently is in fact the creation of God.
BeREiSHiYT BaRA -- "In the beginning [He] created." The first word of the Torah, BeREiSHiYT, contains the three consonants making up the second word, BaRA. Even before BaRA appears as an independent concept, it is implicit in the concept of BeREiSHiYT. BaRA has the connotation of "outside"(in the Aramaic language, a close relative of Hebrew, BaRA means "outside"). BaRA -- the seemingly independent, outside creation, is in fact contained within BeREiSHiYT.
If the consonants of BeREiSHiYT are rearranged differently, they make up the words ROSH BaYiT. RoSH is a head. BaYiT is a house. RoSH BaYiT is the Head of the House. What seems like BaRA, independent existence, is in fact inside BeREiSHiYT -- inside a "house". And the "house" has a Head: God. God is the Head of the House, Creator of all the worlds. The worlds may seem separate from God, but in reality they are all inside the palace. Everything is in the palace of the King. Everything is under His rule.
The paradox of creation is that nothing exists without God, yet God willed into being a realm that appears to exist independently. Why?
A World of Choice
Our Sages explain that God is intrinsically good. The essence of goodness is to do good to others. Accordingly, God's purpose in the creation was to bring forth creatures who would be the recipients of His goodness.
Since God Himself is the only true good, His purpose would only be accomplished through bestowing His own perfect goodness upon His creatures. He therefore arranged the creation in a way that would give created beings the opportunity to attach themselves to God Himself, the ultimate good, as fully as possible. Although created beings are unable to attain God's own perfection, they can share in it through attachment to Him on every level of their being. The creature that was created to be the receiver of this goodness is man.
God could have granted man His goodness as an outright gift. However, in order to have complete enjoyment of the good, the recipient must be its master. In other words, he must have worked to earn perfection for himself, rather than receiving it as a complimentary gift. The creation of man therefore entailed the creation of a system whereby man could earn his connection with God of his own free will and through his own efforts.
This was accomplished by constructing a realm that contains abundant opportunities to pursue Godly perfection, side by side with other opportunities that detract from that pursuit. Man is placed in this realm for a specific period of time to work. By struggling to embrace Godliness and striving toward perfection, while avoiding everything that might lure him away from them, man earns his closeness to God through his own efforts. He can then enjoy the pleasure of God's goodness in an ensuing period of reward.
Godliness is intrinsically good. Anything which pulls one away from Godliness is evil, and therefore undesirable. However, if this were perfectly evident to man during his period of work and effort, there would be no challenge. It would be obvious that Godliness is the only goal worth pursuing. In order to provide the challenge, it was necessary that God's true goodness should be somewhat concealed from man during this period of work, while evil should possess an attraction of its own, making it a plausible choice. God is all-powerful, and therefore able to create evil and even make it appear attractive.
Thus God brought This World into being -- a world offering us abundant possibilities either to draw ourselves into a closer connection with God, or to embrace evil and become separate from Him. We are given complete freedom of choice. Although in fact God is everywhere, this world is designed in such a way as to conceal Godliness. On the surface, the attractions of evil may seem as great as those of good. Our mission in this world is to uncover the Godly possibilities that are present by learning to distinguish between true good and evil: we must reject the evil and embrace the good, so as to incorporate Godliness into our very souls. The labor itself gives us a taste of God, and then, after our allotted time in this world, we go on to enjoy the fruits of our efforts in the World to Come.
In the parable of the Turkey-Prince, This World is represented by the shadowy realm in which the Prince is sitting, down there under the table. Although his little world is an integral part of the court, to the Prince it seems completely independent and separate. This is because his view of the court is almost completely blocked by the tablecloth. Even the legs and feet and other shapes that are visible from his unusual perspective are so bizarre-looking as to be incomprehensible. In the same way, the entire creation is God's kingdom. This World is an integral part of it, and Godliness is everywhere. But here in This World our view is distorted. This is because in order to bring it into being, God concealed Himself with veil after veil, screening off the light so as to create the conditions of man's test.
The Prince's clothes are strewn all around. If he would only put them on, he could be part of the court and enjoy all the privileges and pleasures that are his due. In the same way, This World is full of opportunities to lift ourselves into a closer connection with God -- if we would only recognize and embrace them. But just as the Turkey-Prince finds the crumbs and bones far more relevant and satisfying, so we are apt to be much more interested and involved in the great multitude of highly attractive alternatives all around us.
Godliness is called light -- but what kind of light is it? When we come into this world and open our eyes, it seems bright enough. We find color, activity and excitement all around us. What is this world? What is this life? What does it mean?
As presented to us through secular education and the mass media, this world is a chance agglomeration of matter in the middle of nowhere, bustling with billions of people of all races, cultures and creeds, organized in a spectacular array of social, political and economic structures. The first priority for most of the world is to earn a basic living, and then to enjoy themselves in any number of different ways before they die and turn to dust. Many go for the simple physical pleasures: food, drink, sex and material comfort. Others prefer more refined delights: wealth, power, status, knowledge, literature, music, art, sports, and many, many others.
Especially in the most developed parts of the world, there is a dazzling multitude of opportunities in every direction: media and information sources of every kind, any number of belief systems and ideologies, career avenues in every field, entertainment and leisure-time activities to suit all tastes, shops and services of every description, catering to every conceivable need or whim. What should one go for?
Most of the world would say "Happiness." "The main thing is to enjoy!" This may well be true, but what is genuine happiness? Even little children soon learn how short-lived most kinds of happiness are: they turn out to have been illusions. Many of the struggles of later life are bound up with trying to find something that will hopefully turn out to be more enduring. But how enduring? Most of the world evidently believes that this life is all there is. In that case, the road to happiness would seem to be to pack in as much enjoyment as possible before illness, debility, death and oblivion strike.
Godly light means insight, wisdom and understanding that penetrate beneath and beyond the surface appearances of this world to the ultimate truth. Delicious-looking berries may actually be poisonous. Without deeper knowledge, surface appearances will tell us nothing about the long-term effects of eating them. The same applies to all the different options that confront us in this world. With a bit of research and intelligence, we can often ascertain the possible short- and long-term effects of our choices on our well-being in this life. But what about their effect on our eternal souls?
God's light shines to us through the Torah. The Torah reveals the wisdom of God, and is thus the key to the entire order of creation, which was itself brought about through that wisdom. The Hebrew word Torah is a noun from the verb hora, which means to teach or guide. The Torah derives from God's true vantage point beyond this world -- "above the table," as it were. It was sent down into our world to guide us as to its true meaning and its place in the total order, and to teach us how to steer a pathway for ourselves through its multitude of options in order to fulfill our destiny.
The Torah code thus teaches us how to evaluate the various phenomena we encounter in terms of how they relate to our eternal mission, showing us how to respond in virtually every conceivable situation in life. The path of the Torah consists of numerous mitzvot -- "commandments."(Mitzvot is the plural form of the Hebrew word mitzvah, from the root tzivah, meaning to give an order.) The various mitzvot apply to every sphere of human activity -- from eating, drinking, dressing, making a living and building a house to relationships with parents, children, spouse, work associates, members of the wider community, the environment, space and time. The mitzvot apply on every level of behavior -- thought, emotion, speech and action.
Each mitzvah is a detailed pathway of practical action relating to a particular facet of life in this world and leading to its own unique form of connection with God. The word mitzvah is thus also related to the Hebrew root tzavat, which means "connect." One might think that since God is everywhere, it should be possible to find God through embracing anything and everything. However, this is not so. God created our world as an arena of challenge. Side by side with Godly opportunities are pathways and options that can take us away from God. Our task is twofold: to search for and embrace the Godliness in ourselves and the world around us, and to reject anything that may pull us away from it.
Accordingly, there are two kinds of mitzvot: the positive mitzvot, teaching us what to do in order to connect with God, and the negative mitzvot, the Torah prohibitions, teaching us what not to do, so that we may avoid becoming entangled in the evil of the world and alienated from God. Altogether the Torah consists of two hundred and forty-eight positive mitzvot and three hundred and sixty-five prohibitions, making a total of six hundred and thirteen.
The light of the Torah is itself covered with many veils in this world. Often, its wisdom is cast in the form of opaque stories and proverbs, replete with mysterious symbols. At times its teachings are very recondite, seeming to bear little relationship to the everyday world as we know it.
While some of the mitzvot appear to be understandable in terms of earthly commonsense -- love your neighbor, pursue justice, and the like -- others are completely incomprehensible. For instance, it seems to make no difference whatsoever to physical health whether the food people eat is kosher or not. Why is it permissible to shift heavy furniture about inside the house on Shabbat but forbidden to flick on an electric-switch? Not the least of the veils which hide the light of the Torah are the many doubts and questions people have about it. Is it valid? Is it relevant? Is it true? Can it be proved?
Under the table, the Prince cannot see that the world around him is anything but a
There is no way to come to know the truth of the Torah except through first accepting and practicing it on trust. The Torah is the key to the entire order of creation, but this order is so overwhelmingly grand that from our lowly vantage-point in this darkened world, we can barely catch the merest glimpse of it. Given that this world was made to be misleading, we cannot find irrefutable proof of the higher order from the way things appear here. On the contrary, the various belief-systems claiming that there is no higher order, and that man is merely a complex animal, may at times appear highly plausible. As long as we are in this world, our grasp of the order of creation cannot be through clear knowledge of the truth. Our connection with the truth can only be established through Emunah -- faith.
Emunah means more than mere intellectual belief that God exists. It is first and foremost an admission of our own limitations within a universe confronting us with mysteries that we simply cannot fathom. Emunah is founded on our deepest intuitive sense that there is something grand and wondrous about life. Emunah is an acceptance of the superior wisdom of the Torah without asking for proofs. It is an affirmation of God and a willingness to reach out to Him on every level of our being: in our thoughts, feelings, words and actions.
Those seated at the table see the king in all his radiance, they converse with him and participate in the life of the court and the kingdom. Sitting at the royal table is symbolic of intimate connection with God. The ultimate connection with God comes in the time of reward in the World to Come. But Emunah turns the Torah path into one of ever-deepening connection and partnership with God even in This World. With Emunah, even This World becomes the royal table.
The life of a
Actually, they're just fattening him up to eat him. But so what! He has his five years of fun, and just hopes he won't feel it when the end comes and they slit his throat, feather him, pull out his guts, salt him, roast him, slice him, chew, swallow and digest him. No tombstone to cover his bones, nor the faintest memory of his vain little life. But who cares? If tomorrow we die, then today we should eat, drink and be merry!
To be honest, even the glamour of the five fat years is more of a dream than a reality for regular, run-of-the-mill turkeys -- i.e. the majority. Scratching in the soil all day is hard work, extremely repetitive, and, as often as not, unproductive. The hungry intervals between one worm and the next are gray, uncertain, and tinged with despair. Is it any wonder turkeys are so irritable? It could also explain their compulsive search for love. With only the slaughterer's knife to look forward to, what else offers some sense of meaning and comfort in the bleak, lonely interval between egghood and roasting?
If you're a
For the Prince under the table, it is not only the lack of light that makes it hard for him to understand the true nature of his world. If he could remember who he was and where he came from, he would not be deceived by the strange appearance of things down under the table. His knowledge of the truth would enable him to compensate for his present strange perspective. However, the Prince has lost this knowledge. He thinks he is a
Similarly, the power of This World to confuse us does not only derive from its physical nature. The material attractions of the world are indeed a veil throwing the spiritual opportunities it offers into deep shadow. The temptations of the crumbs and bones of life can be so overwhelming that some people spend most, if not all, of their days racing after them, without even a pause to reflect on their higher purpose. Nevertheless, these material distractions would be powerless to entice us if we retained clear spiritual vision. It would be perfectly clear how pale they are compared to the supreme joy of attachment to God.
However, our spiritual vision is itself dimmed in this world. The real essence of man is not, as most of the world is inclined to think, his physical body, but his soul. The soul is the Prince: it comes from the highest realms -- the "court of the King"-- and is ultimately destined to rise and return to its proper place, enjoying the true goodness of closeness to God. If we came into this world with all our higher soul-powers intact, we would always recall the spiritual worlds from which the soul originates. Seeing this world in its true perspective, we would understand its material dimension for what it is -- a limitation that has to be mastered and transcended in order to acquire the spiritual goodness that is our destiny.
What creates the test of the soul is that "the Prince thinks he is a
The Soul in This World
"The soul of man is a lamp of God searching all the chambers of the womb."
What is the soul? The intrinsic nature of the soul in its disembodied state is beyond our comprehension as long as we are in this world. The soul originates beyond this world, whereas we are currently in it and have this-worldly minds and patterns of understanding. Since the soul's powers are dimmed upon its entry into this world, we cannot learn about its intrinsic nature from the way it appears to us here. While the soul is often spoken of as being "eternal," "pure spirit," etc. it is impossible for us to have more than the vaguest notion of what these terms really mean.
"The soul of man is a lamp of God searching all the chambers of the womb." As we have seen, Godliness is metaphorically called light. The soul is called a "lamp" because it is a small spark of God's light, "a part of God above" (Job 31:2). In its intrinsic essence, the soul is a part of God: it is ultimately rooted in God's perfect unity. Yet it is God's will to give the soul a separate, independent existence in order to test it and enable it to return to Him and be merged in His unity on an even higher level. This is the ultimate destiny of the soul. Just as a candle leaps up to merge with a great fire, so the soul yearns to return to its Source.
This darkened world into which the soul is sent for its test is a "womb," a place of development and growth in preparation for the eventual "birth" of the soul into the higher spiritual realm to which it ascends after the death of the body. In order to provide the necessary conditions for the challenge, this world had to be created as a very different environment from the eternal spiritual realm. Since this world is physical and temporary, the soul can only enter it in a temporary physical body, with its own needs and desires. This is what creates the conditions for the challenge of the soul.
The soul needs the body as a vehicle through which to operate in and upon the finite, physical world in order to accomplish its spiritual work. The body is superbly fashioned to carry out an endless array of activities. Using the body as a medium, the soul is able to form structures in the physical world that reveal the Godliness concealed beneath the surface. (Thus, many of the practical mitzvot involve the use of physical objects, such as the parchment and leather of the Torah scroll, Tefilin and Mezuzah, or vegetation, as in the case of the Lulav and Etrog, etc. to manifest God's sovereignty over the world.) These activities bring Godliness into the soul itself, benefitting it when it eventually leaves this world and returns to the higher spiritual realms. In order to achieve its spiritual mission in this world, the soul should master the body, using it for Godly purposes.
However, the body is of this world and has various material needs of its own just to be able to survive. It is possible to satisfy all the body's real needs in a pure and holy manner, and the purpose of the soul is in fact to do this as a means of manifesting God's sovereignty. Yet even satisfying our most basic physical needs -- food, clothing, shelter, procreation, etc. -- involves many complex, time-consuming activities and relationships that can easily distract us from our spiritual objectives.
To further intensify the challenge to the soul, the body is the source of an array of material drives and desires that go beyond what is necessary for survival. These not only hamper the soul in fulfilling its mission; they may even divert it completely.
Which foods and in what quantities are necessary for sound nutrition? When does the desire to eat become excessive? How much do we need to sleep and how much do we like to be lazy? To what extent is work a quest for a decent livelihood and genuine security, and when does it turn into an obsessive race after phantoms? How much sexual desire is natural and desirable, and when does it become a mind-consuming, life-destroying passion? To what extent should a person stand his ground, and at what point does pursuit of one's own interests and legitimate self-defense turn into hunger for power and aggression? And so on, and so on.
In every area of material life, the borderline between what is necessary and what is excessive is vague. The nature of the body is to be drawn further and further beyond the limit. The material temptations in the surrounding environment, and our inner urges to go after them, darken the "womb"-- this world -- cluttering its intricate chambers with every kind of pitfall, obstacle, and blind ally. The task of the soul -- the "candle of God"-- is to shine Godly light and wisdom into these chambers in order to distinguish between what is good, necessary and beneficial, and what is excessive, damaging and evil.
Our Sages teach that the soul consists of three main parts: the neshamah, the ru'ach and the nefesh. Of these, the neshamah is the most exalted: it is the ultimate source of all our soul-powers as they appear in this world, but the neshamah itself is not directly manifested in this world at all. It remains bound up with God on a plane of pure spirit. It is the nefesh that comes into this world, residing in and animating the body. The nefesh is connected to the neshamah via the ru'ach, which is a kind of spiritual "channel" through which Godly vitality -- potential -- flows from the neshamah down into the nefesh.
Each one of us is a separate, independent, thinking, sentient being. We are not objects but subjects, experiencing and responding to the world around us and a rich inner domain of thoughts, feelings, emotions, instincts, impulses, wants and desires. The subject experiencing all these stimuli and acting in response -- I, the ego -- is the nefesh.
The nefesh manifests itself to us as a plurality of all the different mental and physical faculties we are given for our sojourn in this world, from the most spiritual and other-worldly to the most material and this-worldly. It is the nefesh that gives us our sense of existence as independent beings with various levels of consciousness and our awareness of ourselves, our bodies and our environment. The nefesh is the source of our faculties of language, reason, feeling, memory, imagination and creativity, and our ability to conceive goals, formulate plans and execute them. It is also through the nefesh that our bodily needs and wants enter our consciousness in the form of instincts and desires.
The nefesh is not a fixed entity feeding us specific, pre-programmed impulses and responses. Our faculties are not fully developed at birth and do not remain static throughout our lives. Perhaps it would be better to characterize the nefesh as potential -- potential that we may actualize to a greater or lesser extent and in a variety of different directions as we go through life. The specific way in which we actualize ourselves depends on many different factors, including the physical body and innate powers with which we are endowed, the material, family, social and cultural environments in which we are raised and live, the various influences we are exposed to, our life experiences, and all the different choices we make throughout our lives.
Therefore our most important faculty is the ability to conceive goals and pursue them with appropriate action. This is the way we actualize our potential. The world around us presents all kinds of options, possibilities, suggestions and imperatives -- to which we respond in our own individual way, developing our own goals and ambitions, from the most simple and immediate to the most grandiose and far-reaching. Much of the life of the mind is made up of a succession of thoughts, pictures, projects, plans, hopes and dreams of things we might like to achieve, ranging from the possible and practicable to the wildly fantastic.
Every goal begins as an idea that may be either clear or vague. To realize a particular goal, the idea behind it has to be developed and acted upon. The moving force that brings about the transition from potential to actual is will. Through willpower, we take command of the necessary faculties of reason, emotion, physical execution, etc. in order to pursue what we want. What is our goal, and how motivated are we to achieve it? How much do we want what we want? Do we want it enough to actually do it? Will is the very essence of the nefesh.
If we were completely single-minded, achievements would come easily, without inner struggle. But we aren't. One wants to be fit and healthy, but one likes to eat all the wrong foods. One wants to study, but one is tired and wants to rest, or read the papers or a novel. One would like to save money for something important, but can't resist an attractive bargain here, a little luxury there. One wants to be kind and charitable, but ends up angry and selfish. And so on.
The challenge facing us in this world emanates from our lack of single-mindedness. The more we develop the spiritual side of the nefesh, the more we receive from the neshamah, enabling us to rise to increasingly higher levels of Godliness. But every step of the way we are tempted by material distractions. Sometimes the things we want conflict with one another, and we find ourselves pulled in different directions.
Although we may experience all these contradictory wants and desires as coming from inside ourselves -- all of them may seem equally "ours"-- it is important to understand that they stem from two fundamentally opposing poles of the nefesh. Despite the fact that most people normally think of themselves as being one entity -- I -- the nefesh is in fact dual in nature. The nefesh is the interface of the two opposing planes of our being.
Through the nefesh the higher soul strives to pursue spiritual opportunities in the world around us by practicing the mitzvot. The neshamah seeks to take command of the various faculties of the nefesh -- intellectual, emotional and physical -- in order to accomplish its mission. On the other hand, the material attractions of the surrounding world arouse the lower self, which strives to commandeer these same faculties in the pursuit and gratification of its desires.
Thus there are two separate sources of will in the one nefesh: a source drawn to spiritual goals and aspirations, deriving from the neshamah, and a source craving material satisfaction and pleasure, rooted in the body. In Torah literature, each of these poles is sometimes referred to as a nefesh or soul in itself -- respectively, the Godly Soul and the Animal Soul. More often they are called the Yetzer HaTov and the Yetzer HaRa -- the Good and Evil Inclination. In our story they are symbolized by the royal Prince and the bloated
The word Yetzer is from the Hebrew root yatzar, meaning to form or construct. The formation in question is that of the actualized self -- the person one becomes through the actions one chooses. Formation begins with conception, thought and motivation. The Yetzer is the source of thoughts, feelings and impulses oriented in a particular direction. The Yetzer HaTov is the source of those oriented toward Good in the absolute sense of the term, that which is truly Godly and in accord with our ultimate purpose. The Yetzer HaRa is the source of all our urges for the things that draw us away from our ultimate purpose, from the crudest physical lusts to the most sophisticated social and cultural delights.
Although at root the two Yetzers are opposites, as long as the soul is attached to the body these two poles of the nefesh are wedded together in a seamless unity. They both talk inside us as "I." We may experience the flow of consciousness as a single, continuous tapestry, but in fact all our thoughts, feelings, impulses and responses derive from one or other of these separate sides of the nefesh as they develop in the course of our lives. They are the well-springs of the self and the source of our multiplicity of conflicting thoughts, feelings, impulses and aspirations -- all of them "ours." The Godly and Animal Souls both talk within us in our own inner voices, dialoguing, arguing, struggling... "I think this..." "but I feel that. " "I ought to do this..." "but I want to do that..." etc.
The two Yetzers are our potential selves, the higher and the lower. Which self we actually become depends upon how we respond to the different promptings of the Yetzers. An idea, feeling or impulse comes into mind: do we dwell on it, let it develop and take hold of us, until we act on it? Or do we ignore it, let it pass, dismiss it or even forcibly suppress it? Every decision we make has an effect on the balance between the two Yetzers and the future course of the struggle between them. And the person we become is a composite of all the choices we make throughout our lives.
Clothing of the Soul
The Prince's clothes are strewn all around, but the Prince is not in the least interested. As far as he knows, he is a
A king informs his loved ones that he wishes to give them the most amazing precious gifts on such and such a date. Since they obviously won't be able to come to his banquet and receive their gifts if they are not presentable, he gives them advance notice. This will give them plenty of opportunity to prepare themselves. They must clothe themselves in lovely garments, perfume themselves with delicate fragrances, and adorn themselves with beautiful ornaments. Then they will be fit to enter the royal palace, mingle with the king's ministers and servants, and receive his gifts.
In his great compassion, the king first provides them with all the different things they will need to prepare their clothes and ornaments and perfumes. He sends emissaries to teach them how to prepare each item. And he tells them to be sure to take full advantage of the advance notice in order to get themselves ready. Above all, the king warns them to keep away from anything that might possibly make them dirty.
If they do slip up by mistake, he tells them how they can clean themselves. He provides special fountains which have the power to cleanse and purify even those who have become extremely dirty. When everyone is ready, they will be able to come and receive the free gifts the king has prepared for them Likutey Halachot, Choshen Mishpat, Hilchot Matanot 4).
The hero of our parable is sitting under the table without any clothes on whatsoever, reveling in the crumbs and bones. He has done the very opposite of what the king in Rabbi Nathan's parable (who is, of course, the same King as in the tale of the Turkey-Prince) has asked. Far from carefully guarding his royal clothes, the Prince has stripped them all off.
The royal banquet in Rabbi Nathan's parable, at which the king's beloved subjects will receive the wonderful gifts, represents the World to Come. This is where the souls attain the ultimate good -- closeness to God. The king's invitation is the Torah, which teaches us the true meaning of our life in This World, and how to achieve our ultimate destiny. Naturally, you cannot just show up at the banquet. You have to prepare in advance. The king's emissaries are the saints and sages who have taught the Torah in each generation. They explain how we should act in the time we have in This World -- how to prepare our "clothes ."The clothes symbolize the mitzvot of the Torah: these are the garments worn by the soul in the World to Come.
Before we discuss in what sense the mitzvot are "clothes, "let us first consider our physical clothes. Man is the only creature in the world who makes himself clothes. One of the functions of clothing is obviously to give the body protection against possible harm from the physical environment, whether because of fluctuations in temperature, objects which could injure the skin, dirt and other health hazards, and so on.
In a certain sense, our physical clothes also give us protection against the body. Wearing clothes is one of the most important marks of our dignity as humans. We are more than mere physical beings, far more. We have the power to control and channel our material instincts. By covering up the body, which no animal does, we affirm the primacy of the soul. Indeed the first parts of the body we cover are those where our strongest physical desires are centered. On a simple level, the Prince's taking off his clothes is a stark symbol of the animalistic obsession with sensual pleasure in contemporary culture.
Wearing clothes is a sign that we are more than just physical creatures. Indeed, clothes do not simply cover the body. They express a message of their own about the inner essence of the people wearing them. Not only do we wear different kinds of clothes for different purposes -- work, dirty work, leisure, sports, parties, warfare, maternity, etc. We also wear clothes to communicate. Kings, sheikhs, chieftains, priests, policemen, business executives, bohemians and many others all have their own special costumes. Ordinary people use clothing styles in all kinds of subtle ways to make statements about who they are, or aspire to be. Clothes are a language of their own.
Not only are our clothes vehicles of expression in the literal sense. We also speak of "clothing" our thoughts and feelings in words, symbols, artifacts etc. Even to communicate to our own selves, we have to clothe our ideas in language. Sometimes an idea begins to form in our minds, but it remains inchoate and unformed until we develop our thoughts, even if only in our own private language. Certainly when we wish to communicate our thoughts and feelings to others, we are obliged to find the right garb in which to express them.
A brilliant visionary may grasp concepts that are beyond the understanding of most other people, but in order to bring his perceptions to their level, he has to find ways of "clothing" them in simple stories, parables and the like so that they can be understood. These are analogues, each detail of which corresponds to and expresses some facet of the original idea. Sometimes people act out what they want to say, because "actions speak louder than words. "The action is a garment for the thought.
One of the most powerful forms of communication is ritual. A ritual is an ordered sequence of prescribed actions encoding a message that would have a totally different effect if it were merely expressed in words. In a ritual, the message is not simply handed over from one party to another. Instead of being passive receivers of information, the participants act out the steps of the ritual for themselves, and through this they inwardly experience the intended message far more vividly.
God uses "clothes" of many different kinds to communicate with us. In Himself, God is infinitely great. It is impossible for any finite creature to experience God directly, for "no man can see Me and live" (Exodus 33:20). Yet God's whole purpose in the creation is to reveal something of Himself to us. God's revelation to His creatures is called "light," not in the sense of physical light, but metaphorically, to express, in terms familiar to us, something that would otherwise be completely incomprehensible. Physical light is the most subtle of all material phenomena, and therefore an appropriate symbol for Godly revelation.
We are unable to gaze at the sun without being blinded. However, if we take a piece of colored glass and hold it in front of our eyes, the glass blots out most of the light, allowing only certain wavelengths to pass through. In the full intensity of the white light of the sun it was impossible for our eyes to see this color, but now we can enjoy it in comfort. Different colors of glass will enable us to see other components of the white light of the sun.
It is impossible for any creature to perceive the Infinite Light of God. In order to make it possible for us to experience something of this light, the Sages tell us that God "veiled" it with cover after cover in order to reduce its intensity. The physical universe itself is a "garment" cloaking the higher levels of the Divine order and enabling them to shine through in a muted form.
"You have garbed Yourself with majesty and splendor, cloaking [Yourself] in light as with a garment, stretching out the heavens like a curtain" (Psalms 104:1-2). We look up at the heavens, the stars and celestial bodies and wonder at the marvels of this world -- mineral, vegetable, animal and human. Every detail we see in the world around us was created as an analogue of some higher level of Godliness that is not in itself accessible to our minds.
The Torah itself is a garb for God's Wisdom. It consists of books, chapters, paragraphs, sentences, words and letters, stories and concepts that are accessible to our understanding. It may be impossible for us to grasp the divine chessed, gevurah, and tiferet (kindness, power, and beauty) in their intrinsic essence, but even a child can relate to the Torah stories about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who are the embodiment of these qualities. The more the student matures and delves into the depths of the Torah the more he will begin to perceive its inner meaning.
A small child may have a vivid picture of hundreds of thousands of Israelites marching out of
Badges of the King
At court, it is not only the King who wears clothes of splendor but also the courtiers. The different ranks and officers have their own special robes and costumes expressing their individual status and power. Their court clothes are signs of royal favor. Through them the courtiers are associated with the King's splendor and majesty and have a share in them. They must wear their designated apparel to enjoy admission to the court and participate in affairs of state.
The mitzvot of the Torah are the "clothes" God has given us in order to enable us to connect with Him and experience His majesty. Each of the different mitzvot is a separate "garment" encoding and expressing a facet of Divine Wisdom. By practicing the mitzvot, we become more than passive recipients of the Divine message. We put on the garments ourselves. Like the participants in a ritual, we can then experience and internalize the message in the fullest possible way.
God is infinite, and totally beyond our grasp, but the mitzvot are finite, man-sized "garments" with which we can experience Godliness even in this world. The mitzvot are prescribed sequences of thoughts, feelings, words and actions relating to the things of this world. The various mitzvot apply to every sphere of human activity. Each one leads to its own particular form of connection with God.
The mitzvot provide "clothing" for the Godly Soul. The Princely higher self with which each of us is endowed is potential. It is up to us to make it actual. Thoughts, emotions, words and actions of any kind are the "clothing" through which we express and actualize the inner self. Different kinds of thoughts, words and actions will nurture the personality in different ways. As we have seen, the mitzvot are detailed patterns of divinely prescribed thoughts, words, feelings and actions oriented toward God and connecting us with Him. By carrying out the mitzvot and "putting on" these "garments", the Godly Soul is able to express and actualize itself.
For example: the whole creation is an overwhelming act of Divine charity. God had no need of the world for Himself. He created it for the benefit of His creatures. The sun and the stars shine down into the world, the winds blow and the rains fall... all out of charity: no one asks us to pay! To help us grasp the Divine quality of charity, the Torah teaches that we too should give charity, thereby clothing ourselves in a "coat of charity" (Isaiah 61:10).
Anyone can perform this Divine act with one of the most mundane items in our lives -- money. By taking from our own money and giving it to someone in need, we come to understand what it means to do something purely for the benefit of another. Thus we become inculcated with the quality of altruism. Prior to physically handing over the money, we may have had a charitable inclination -- rooted in the Godly Soul -- but still only in potential. By performing the mitzvah, we actualize it. The mitzvah changes us. Charity is now a part of us. Through the act of charity we participate in the charity and love through which God creates the world. At this moment, like God, we are the giver. We experience the Divine quality of charity internally. This is how we bring Godliness into ourselves.
Another example: Shabbat. God makes the world, yet God is beyond the world. We too make our world: day after day, six days of the week, we labor to feed, clothe and shelter ourselves, etc. Then, on the seventh day we rest: we stop and take ourselves beyond the world. We too experience transcendence. The detailed laws of Shabbat ensure our complete detachment and rest from the world of work, making it possible for a spirit of transcendence to descend from God and "clothe" us in the "extra soul" of Shabbat, experienced in the joyous energy and enhanced spiritual insight of the day.
The body is made up of different limbs having their own distinctive clothes: hats for the head, scarves for the neck, gloves for the hands, etc. The soul also has limbs: a "head" (the intellect), a "heart" (feelings and emotions), a "mouth" (the faculty of speech), "arms" and "legs"(the ability to act in the world in different ways) etc. All the limbs of the soul have their own distinctive mitzvot. The two hundred and forty-eight positive mitzvot of the Torah clothe the two hundred and forty-eight "limbs" of the soul, which in turn correspond to the same number of limbs of the body.
Each of the different mitzvot brings out and develops different facets of the Godly Soul in particular ways. The mitzvot we observe each day (such as reciting Sh'ma and putting on Tefilin) or periodically (e.g. Shabbat and the festivals) provide rhythms for life through changes in the times, keeping our minds constantly focused on God's presence. The observances which depend on particular circumstances (such as circumcision when a baby boy is born, fixing mezuzot on the doorposts of our houses, paying employees on time, and many, many others) put a Divine stamp on our conduct when the relevant circumstances arise.
The various mitzvot bound up with the satisfaction of our basic material needs -- food (Kashrut, blessings, etc.), clothing (Tzitzit, Sha'atnez -- the prohibition of wool mixed with linen, modesty, etc.), shelter (Mezuzah, Ma'akeh -- the obligation to make a parapet for a roof, etc.) transform what would otherwise be animal functions into spiritual activities. By restraining the material ego, the Godly Soul is able to shine. The many different mitzvot governing relations between people -- parents and children, husbands and wives, friends and neighbors, borrowers and lenders, buyers and sellers, business partners, etc. -- inculcate respect and responsibility for others.
Most important are the mitzvot which apply constantly, such as faith, love and fear of God, and the love of one's fellow. These mitzvot profoundly shape not only the way we go about our lives, but our innermost being. "And you shall go in His ways" (Deuteronomy 28:9) -- just as God is loving, gracious, long-suffering and full of mercy, so we should clothe ourselves with these qualities and make ourselves true sons and daughters of the King. Through Torah study, we steep our minds and hearts in the Divine Wisdom, refining and elevating our intellect and emotions. Through prayer and meditation, we attach ourselves to the Divine Presence, opening ourselves to undreamed of levels of awareness, connection and illumination.
The full array of the six hundred and thirteen mitzvot provides scope for the complete development of all aspects of the personality, from the most other-worldly to the most mundane. Everyone has his own unique potential. Whether in the home, at work or at leisure, in friendship, marriage, parenting, education, business, administration, counseling, health-care, art, crafts, sport or any other sphere, there is a way of developing one's skills and elevating one's activities for the sake of God, deepening one's connection and spreading Godly revelation in the world. The more fully one steeps oneself in the life of the mitzvot, the more one's unique Godly Soul becomes actualized.
Because the Divine Wisdom is infinite, the mitzvot are far more than limited prescriptions for standardized, repetitive action. One may recite the same prayers every day, observe Shabbat every week, and perform the other mitzvot regularly, but the profound, indeed endless, inner dimensions they contain make it possible to fulfill them on deeper and deeper levels as one grows in understanding and experience.
The mitzvot are expressed in the language of this world and involve the way we relate to familiar objects and situations. But the message they encode goes way beyond this world, reaching to the most exalted spiritual worlds and to God. The message we internalize through practice of the mitzvot may go far beyond our conscious understanding. Certainly the entire system of the mitzvot was designed to be fulfilled by us in this world, within the parameters of our physical existence. They vitally affect this world, and the quality of our lives and experience in it. Still, their main purpose goes beyond this world -- to prepare the Godly Soul for the World to Come. By performing the mitzvot in this world, we are donning the garments worn by the soul at the King's banquet in the World to Come.
But the Prince in our story has taken off his clothes. Instead of sitting at the King's table, he is on the floor pulling at the crumbs and bones. What is the significance of the crumbs and bones?
Crumbs and Bones
The crumbs and bones have dropped down from the plates of the diners at the table, who discarded them as they ate their food. The crumbs and bones are the waste of the meal. They symbolize what our Sages call the Sitra Achra. This Aramaic term literally means the "other side." It refers to the unholy side of the Creation -- the secondary and inessential, the refuse, that which is rejected.
The primary purpose of the Creation was to bestow the gift of Godliness on man, but as we have seen, this could only be accomplished by putting him through a trial. This entailed the setting up of test conditions, in which man would be exposed to unGodliness and evil as well as Godliness and good, so as to be able to choose good of his own free will. God has no desire for evil in itself. Falsehood, corruption, wickedness, divisiveness, destruction and everything else that is evil are the very opposites of Godliness, whose stamp is truth, purity, goodness, harmony and life. God created evil for a limited purpose only, after which it is discarded and falls away.
The relationship of evil to good is compared to that between the shell of a nut and its kernel. The shell covers the fruit for as long as required for its growth and development, but the shell has no intrinsic worth of its own. It's the fruit hidden beneath it that we really want. In order to get to it, we have to break open the shell, then remove and discard it. This is what God wants man to do with evil: peel it off and throw it away, in order to enjoy the good. Thus the realm of evil is also referred to as the realm of the kelipot, the shells or husks. Just as there are many different levels and aspects of holiness, so there are many different levels and kinds of kelipot, each one covering and concealing a particular aspect of Godliness to a given extent.
A simple example of a kelipah would be a lie. Tom dislikes Dick and resents the fact that Harry is friendly with him. Tom artfully tells Harry a lie about Dick -- a lie sufficiently plausible that Harry believes it. The lie has no real basis in truth at all, but from now on, whenever Harry sees or thinks about Dick, the lie is in his mind. It affects his entire perception of Dick. It colors the way he interprets everything Dick does. The lie has no substance whatsoever, but it conceals the truth and brings a train of fantasy in its wake -- fantasy that may change the whole course of Harry's relationship with Dick and his behavior towards him.
The kelipot are distortions, fantasies and lies that cast shadows over the Godly possibilities in the world and within ourselves, drawing people along avenues that lead away from God. In the world around us we are surrounded by kelipot on all sides. The Rabbinic description of the great city as the "den" of the kelipot could be applied to our urbanized, technological world as a whole. Whether you go out into the street, or bring the world into your home, turning on the TV or radio or glancing at the newspapers and magazines, there is the ubiquitous, frenetic race for money and pleasure, there are the flashing lights and arrows, the blaring, glaring slogans, the fresh, beckoning smiles, the suggestive images, the explicit indecency, the lavish promises: "Come here... buy this... do this... and you'll be happy!! !"Where in the midst of all this do you find a single sign or advertisement to do a mitzvah for the sake of Heaven?
"Everything is permitted" is one of the most insistent messages transmitted over wide areas of the educational system, in the mass media, by many of the most highly respected contemporary intellectuals, thinkers and writers, in psychology, literature, art, music, and in popular entertainment and culture. Traditional wisdom and values are the butt of every kind of skepticism and irreverence, while the utmost veneration is accorded to any pseudo-scientific, philosophical, ideological or cultish idea or theory that negates -- whether implicitly or explicitly -- Torah truth, the Divine origin of the Creation, and man's spiritual nature.
For the Animal Soul, all this is food, glorious food! Not only are the tempting aromas, the youthful faces and figures, the fancy clothes, and all the rest of the "false charm and vain beauty" of the world so attractive; we are also amply provided with the most excellent rationalizations for going after them.
Truth and Madness
"Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil" (Isaiah 5:20). The most important soul-power that helps us find our way through this shadowy world is that of judgment: the ability to stand back from the world and our very selves, to penetrate beneath surface appearances, and evaluate what we see in the light of truth. Even when our strongest instincts are aroused, we have the power to restrain ourselves and stop to consider whether following temptation is really in our own true best interests. The soul is thus the "lamp of God, searching all the chambers of the womb." The Torah is God's light, and the soul has the power to direct this light so as to illumine the most intricate recesses of the world around us and our inner world, to sift and discriminate between truth and falsehood, genuine and purported good, and choose the right path to our destiny.
If the Godly Soul shines with the light of truth, the kelipot fight against it with a weapon of deadly potency: deception. The kelipot posture as the truth. Nevertheless, all the false images and messages would be powerless to sway us but for the flaw that comes into the nefesh because of the wedding of the soul to the body. The result is that the clear spiritual vision of the Godly Soul becomes dimmed in this world, opening us to the artful persuasions of the Animal Soul. The whole power of the Animal Soul derives from its ability to blur the line between what is really good for us and what is not.
The satisfactions of spiritual life are not always felt immediately. Pursuing spiritual goals requires discipline over long periods of time. The "crumbs and bones" of this world offer far more immediate gratification. Instant, easy success and pleasure is the bribe held out by the Animal Soul to "blind the eyes of the wise" (Deuteronomy 16:19) -- distorting our judgment and inducing us to turn aside from our true purpose.
The Hebrew term for turning aside is SoTeh. This is related to the word for a madman, which is ShoTeh. Our Sages taught that "a person only transgresses because a spirit of madness gets into him" (Sotah 3a). The madness is that of the Animal Soul, the
The three hundred and sixty-five prohibitions of the Torah teach us how to avoid the kelipot that exist in the different spheres of creation, so as to be able to keep our eyes focused on the truth and find our way to God. The Torah's prohibitions apply to every area of human activity -- from what we eat, drink and wear, how we work the land, do business, relate with family, associates, friends and enemies, etc., to ritual life and the way we worship God. The function of the prohibitions of the Torah is to provide the guidelines we need in a deceptive world, so as to avoid straying beyond the bounds of holiness in any direction.
For example, foods of many kinds contain "Divine sparks" that can give us energy to study Torah, pray, fulfill the mitzvot and connect with God. On the other hand, the creation also contains certain foods that will only generate impure thoughts and feelings in the people who eat them, leading them to unholy actions. Their minds and hearts simply become foreclosed to Godly awareness. Regardless of the physical nutritional properties of these foods, the spiritual energies they contain are inherently bound up with God-concealing kelipot. The Hebrew term for "bound up" is assur (usually translated as "forbidden.") The Torah teaches us which foods are "bound up" in this way and must therefore be avoided -- such as the various impure species of animals, animal blood, meat cooked with milk, etc.
All the different things prohibited by the Torah are likewise bound up with kelipot of various kinds, each in a particular way, as laid down by the wisdom of the Creator. Any kind of involvement with something forbidden by the Torah necessarily unleashes impure energies which deepen the concealment of God. This applies not only to the most serious prohibitions -- those the majority of people know to be sinful, such as idolatry, murder and adultery, etc. -- but even to those many people hardly consider sinful at all -- a little angry outburst, a momentary swell of pride, a word or two of gossip, an innocent lie, an untoward glance, a cynical smirk, and many others.
We have seen that the two hundred and forty-eight positive mitzvot of the Torah are the "clothes" worn by the Godly Soul. Through "putting on the clothes"-- practicing the mitzvot -- it is possible to express and actualize the Godly Soul in this world, thus preparing ourselves for the "banquet"-- reunion with God -- in the World to Come. In his parable about the banquet, Rabbi Nathan also tells us that when the king issued his invitation to his beloved subjects, he warned them not to let themselves become soiled in any way. The king's warning symbolizes God's prohibitions in the Torah. Their purpose is to keep us clean of the "dirt"-- the kelipot.
"The Prince felt compelled..."
Transgressions bring kelipot into the inner world of the self. The Hebrew word for transgression is aveirah, literally "moving over." To the exact extent that a person transgresses on any level, whether in thought, feeling, speech or action, he is moving himself and his life-energy over from the side of the holy and investing it in the "other side," the realm of the kelipot. This gives the kelipot power over him.
Every mitzvah a person does -- whether great or small -- contributes to the actualization of the Godly Soul, becoming part of the fabric of the personality and influencing his states of consciousness, thoughts, feelings and subsequent actions. Conversely, every move one makes into the area of the kelipot also leaves its mark on the personality. The Godly Soul becomes stained in proportion to the transgression, while the Animal Soul becomes strengthened, driving the Godly Soul into further retreat.
The kelipot of the inner self range from the merest day dreams and fantasies that pass across the mind to the most deeply-entrenched structures of belief, outlook and personality. Different kinds of kelipot may obscure the spiritual awareness of the individual in different ways. The nagging thought or impulse that attacks us repeatedly, no matter how much we fight against it, is a kelipah that we may recognize for what it is. On the other hand, the bouts of nervous tension, fear, anxiety, negativity, depression and despair that people often experience for no readily apparent reason may be far less recognizable to them as kelipot. Among the most powerful kelipot of all are the compulsive passions and crazy involvements that drive so many people, consuming ever greater parts of their lives -- such as addiction to alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, food, sex, shopping, television or anything else.
The kelipot of the personality do not necessarily cause conscious pain or anguish. People may be under the sway of the most powerful destructive passions, or allow their entire lives to be governed by profound misconceptions about themselves, other people, and the world in general, yet go on for years without seeming to be overly troubled. The tragedy is that their potential for genuine spiritual growth and fulfillment simply remains stunted.
"He thought he was a
The Turkey-Prince is the extreme archetype of the kelipah-dominated personality. He is under a complete misconception about who he is, the meaning of the world, and what his purpose is in life. The illusion is total: he is convinced he just is a
In his blissful unawareness of the depth of his own tragedy, the Turkey-Prince is symbolic of the millions of people who are convinced that this world is nothing but a chance agglomeration of dust, that man is merely an animal, and life is a matter of making a living, doing whatever else one has to do, and spending the rest of the time as pleasantly as possible before passing into oblivion. Such people may even find spiritual values laudable and charming: love your neighbor, give a bit of charity from time to time, etc. But praying? studying? keeping mitzvot? growth? You must be kidding!
If life does indeed have a higher purpose, we may well wonder why so many people are so far from attaining it. If the mission of the soul in this world is to peel away the kelipot and choose Godliness, what chance do all those people have who have been sunk in Turkeyhood from birth, having had a secular upbringing and education, and having been totally immersed in the dominant materialistic culture? Granted: they, their parents, and their parents' parents may have been wide open to the onslaught of the kelipot as a result of having contravened the prohibitions of the Torah. But did they do so willfully? Is it just that they should suffer? Did they ever know of the Torah code or understand its importance?
Rebbe Nachman himself does not explain why the Turkey-Prince went crazy, or ask whether it was fair. These are topics that could be discussed at great length. Not only would we need to go more deeply into Chassidut and Kabbalah, psychology and sociology; we would have to consider the entire course of human history, and why the world is so far from the Torah. Yet all this would be beside the main point. Now that the Prince has gone out of his mind, how is he to be cured?
The situation may seem very bad, yet Rebbe Nachman always encourages us to look at the positive side of things. What could possibly be positive about the Prince's fall into madness?
What is positive is that falling down... is the first step towards getting up. This is one of the most important principles of spiritual life. Before someone can advance spiritually, he must first experience a fall. It's like a high-jumper taking a few steps back first in order to get a good run up. When things go too smoothly, people tend to become complacent. But when something goes wrong and they "fall down," it forces them to wake up and apply more effort. To find God, we have to search. There are many different ways we can fall, but they all force us to start searching harder. Being aware of this can help us take full advantage of our failures in life.
The story of the Turkey-Prince is a challenge to each one of us. How have we fallen? Where are we in our lives? Are we where we could be? What are the illusions and obsessions that hold us back from being the people we could be?
The key to transforming any fall into an advance is through honesty and truth. "No matter who you are," says Rebbe Nachman, "you can always get new life and strength through being truthful. The truth is God's own light -- and there is no darkness in the world that is too dark for God. There is no impurity or unholiness in the world without exits for escape. It is just that people don't see them because of the intense darkness all around them. Through the truth, however, God Himself will shine to them and help them see the openings of hope that exist even in their lowest depths. This is the way to escape the darkness and go into the light and constantly come closer to God" (Tsohar p.3).
The underlying truth of the creation is God Himself. However, this truth is beyond our reach: in Himself, God is totally unknowable. One's own personal situation, small, private, even prison-like, may seem like a barrier holding one back from God. Yet this specific situation was created by God down to the very last detail as part of His ultimate purpose, which is to reveal the truth on all levels. So when we honestly search for the truth of our actual situation -- when we grasp that things are exactly the way God has planned them -- the barrier itself turns into a pathway to God, because we realize that our situation was created in order to lead us to God. The situation itself is really our route to God, as long as we look at it with an eye to the truth.
The first lesson of the story of the Turkey-Prince is to be truthful about the problem and call it by the right name: madness. To live in the creation of the King, yet to be unaware of the King and our closeness to Him, is mad. The truth is that "You are the children of HaShem your God" (Deuteronomy 14:1). To leave aside our precious garments and run after the crumbs and bones of the world is to abandon the most valuable gift we have been given: eternal life. Most tragic of all is to believe that we are so enslaved to our own weaknesses that we will never be able to change.
Even if all this only makes us sigh, that is also good. "When a person is very low down and sees that he is on the bottom level and very far from God, this in itself should encourage him. This is God's way of drawing him near, because he now realizes that he is far from God. Before, he was so far away that he was not even aware of it. Now that he knows he is far away, this in itself is a sign of growing closeness. This should give him fresh life and hope and help him come back to God" (Likutey Moharan II:68).
"If you will learn to understand yourself," says Rebbe Nachman, "you can rid yourself of all your irrational fears and desires. You must only realize that something else within you is responsible for them. Understand this and you can overcome everything. You have free will. You can easily train your mind to avoid the thing inside you that is responsible for your irrational fears and desires" (Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #83).
Know your own power!!!
The Story of the Tainted Grain
There is a surviving fragment of another story of Rebbe Nachman, also on the theme of madness -- only this time a madness that had not yet struck. It was just about to. A king once told his prime minister, who was also his good friend, "I see in the stars that everyone who eats from this year's grain harvest is going to go mad. What do you think we should do?" The prime minister suggested they should put aside a stock of good grain so they would not have to eat from the tainted grain.
"But it will be impossible to set aside enough good grain for everyone," the king objected. "And if we put away a stock for just the two of us, we'll be the only ones who will be sane. Everyone else will be mad, and they'll look at us and think we are the mad ones. No. We too will have to eat from this year's grain. But we'll both put a sign on our heads. I'll look at your forehead, and you'll look at mine, and when we see the sign, at least we'll remember we've gone mad" (Rabbi Nachman's Stories p.481).
Mad can mean many things, from fairly foolish to utterly deranged. Anyone who has seen the suffering caused by clinical insanity knows what a serious matter it can be. People who are genuinely unbalanced may be unable to function appropriately in normal situations. But it does not follow that everyone who can function normally is sane. The story of the tainted grain suggests that even whole societies can go mad. When that happens, the norms themselves are crazy.
Looking at the world today, we are very likely to agree. Vast numbers of people seem to think the whole purpose of life is purely to gratify the material ego. The rich and comfortable dream up ever more lavish and sophisticated ways of spending money, while millions go hungry and waste away. Despairing of ever achieving what they want by lawful means, alienated youngsters turn into hardened gangsters and terrorists, parading lofty slogans as they strike at innocent civilians. Meanwhile the nations of the world eye each other jealously, lecture one another about peace, and pour money and manpower into armies and weaponry.
Most of us are way beyond being shocked. If we even pay attention to the newest outrages and absurdities, we just shrug, mutter "Crazy!" and carry on with our own business. In a way, we even welcome a peppering of madness in the world around us. Looking at how overboard most of the others are may help us feel that we ourselves are basically fairly sane. Oh, we're the first to admit we may be a bit mad at times. But do we really believe that our own pet follies may be more than a joke? Yet if they're preventing us from being our real selves, aren't we hurting ourselves?
In the story of the grain, the king did not take madness lightly. He understood its devastating power to deceive, and he knew this could be catastrophic. If the crazed people of his country were to decide that he and his prime minister were the mad ones, they would very likely kill them. The wise star-gazer surely did not relish the idea of willfully submitting to madness. But death would be too high a price to pay even for staying sane during the year of the tainted crops. It would be better to join the rest of the country in their madness and hope things would change after the following harvest.
What alternative was there? Even if the king and the prime minister were to keep a stock of good grain, was there any guarantee they would be able to retain their sanity when everyone else went mad? Evidently the king had enough humility to know that even the strongest people are not necessarily immune to madness. We are fools if we think that when we look at others and find them mad, it means we ourselves are sane.
The king had the courage to face up to his own frailty. At times we may not be able to help being mad, since we are only human. But the king and his prime minister would put signs on their heads so that they would constantly be reminded they were mad. That was the honest truth, and the wise king knew that truth is worth more than anything. The lesson of the story of the tainted grain is that it's better to know you are mad than to be mad but think you are sane. If we deceive ourselves in our madness and tell ourselves we are sane, we can lose everything. But understanding that there's a problem is the first step toward finding the solution. Truth is the gateway to redemption.
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