Sunday, June 3, 2012

The opposite of loneliness / B'haalotcha

In an essay distributed at Yale University's 2012 commencement exercises, graduating senior Marina Keegan writes, We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life.” Struggling for the right term, she says, “It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community.” She’s right. I would suggest that the opposite of loneliness is connection -- deep and abiding connection.

Torah teaches us how to live so as to forge deep and abiding connections with family, community, and society. The term “loneliness” from “alone” suggests that the opposite is a sense of oneness, a merging. Merging too far, too much, is dangerous. Think of parents who live vicariously through their children, and co-dependent couples who have lost sight of the boundary between self and other.

What healthy soul doesn’t want to see him or herself as distinctive and unique? We treasure our individuality. John Stuart Mills correctly noted that despotism crushes human individuality. He warned: “But society has now fairly got the better of individuality; and the danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency of personal impulses and preferences.” (On Liberty, chapter 3)

Henry Ford noted:

All Fords are exactly alike, but no two men are just alike. Every new life is a new thing under the sun; there has never been anything just like it before, never will be again. A young man ought to get that idea about himself; he should look for the single spark of individuality that makes him different from other folks, and develop that for all he is worth. Society and schools may try to iron it out of him; their tendency is to put it all in the same mold, but I say don't let that spark be lost; it is your only real claim to importance.

Parshat B’haalotcha describes the maintenance of the menorah in the Tabernacle -- a symbol of individuality wrapped in a great unity.

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him, “When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.” Aaron did so; he mounted the lamps at the front of the lampstand, as the Lord had commanded Moses. Now this is how the lampstand was made: it was hammered work of gold, hammered from base to petal. According to the pattern that the Lord had shown Moses so was the lampstand made. (Numbers 8:1-4)

The seven-branched candelabrum in the Mishkan is the oldest, and most authentic Jewish symbol. It is described in detail in Exodus 25:31-40. Three curved branches extend on either side of the straight central shaft, each ending in a cup to hold oil and a wick. All seven receptacles are the same height.
It has been symbolically identified with the Creation and the burning bush. Historically, the menorah served as the symbol of the Hasmoneans, descendants of Aaron, the first High Priest, who reclaimed the Temple in the days of King Antiochus Epiphanes IV; the festival of Chanukah is the yearly celebration of their victory. Josephus reports that when the Romans destroyed the Temple, Titus bore the menorah to Rome. To this day, its depiction can be seen on the Arch of Titus on the Via Sacra. The Seal of the State of Israel prominently features the seven-branched menorah. From the victory of the Hasmoneans, to the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, to the establishment of the State of Israel, the menorah has accompanied the Jewish people throughout its historical travels. The menorah bespeaks Jewish distinctiveness.

Our Sages, too, laud individuality and distinctiveness. Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, explaining why only one human being was created initially, tells us:

… when a human being strikes many coins from one mold, they all resemble one another, but the supreme Ruler of rulers, the Holy One, blessed be God, fashioned every person in the stamp of the first man, and yet not one of them resembles another.

In the minds of the Kabbalists, however, the menorah imparts a different truth: our individuality, as important and necessary as it is, is superseded by an even greater truth: the unity of everything.

As early as the 15th century, the Kabbalists envisioned and graphically represented Psalm 67 as a menorah, its seven verses the seven branches of the candelabrum.
 Presented in this way, Psalm 67 is much like a mandala, a geometric pattern that serves as a metaphysical “map” of the cosmos. It is a tool to help us see what is beyond our visual range, understand what is beyond our normal cognitive ability, and envision what we can envision only when our minds are open and our souls are spiritually focused. The mandala takes us beyond ourselves -- beyond our distinctiveness and individuality -- to see what our egos cloud from view.

In depicting Psalm 67 as a menorah, the Kabbalists identified each verse with a sefirah  (an emanation from God, an attribute of divinity), corresponding to the content of the verses, as follows:

Psalm 67

For the leader; a psalm with instrumental music, a song.
1 (Chesed/loving kindness)                  May God be gracious to us and bless us;
                                                                  may He show us favor. Selah.
2 (Gevurah/might)                                 So that Your way become known on earth,
                                                                  Your deliverance among all nations.
3 (Tiferet/harmony)                              Peoples will praise you, O God;
                                                                  all peoples will praise You.
4 (Netzach/victory, endurance)            Nations will exult and shout for joy,
                                                                  for You rule the peoples with equity,
                                                                  You guide the nations of the earth. Selah.
5 (Hod/splendor)                                   The peoples will praise You, O God;
                                                                  all peoples will praise You.
6 (Yesod/foundation)                            May the earth yield its produce;
                                                                  may God, our God, bless us.
7 (Malkhut/sovereignty)                       May God bless us, and be revered
                                                                  to the ends of the earth.

What I say next may get a bit technical, but hang in there with me. In the Hebrew, the seven verses (in word length) form a chiasm: 7-6-6-11-6-6-7.  Verse 4 is both the central and longest verse, suggesting that its message is the one all others point to. The sefirah associated with verse 4 is Netzach, which means “victory” (or endurance, fortitude, and patience); these are the attributes needed for personal spiritual growth. The victory it exalts is that of the self over obstacles that keep us tethered to trivialities, vanities, and materialism -- all concerns of the ego that wants to see itself as distinct. Presenting Psalm 67 as a menorah suggests that many aspects of divinity radiate from the central core of Netzach: the oneness of God gives rise to multiplicity. This is as it ought to be: we cannot function and live our lives without a sense of individuality and distinctiveness.

From a Kabbalist perspective, however, there is a higher level of awareness, a greater overarching truth to be claimed. The menorah, Torah tells us, was made of one piece of hammered gold -- it was in itself a unity. So, too, when we see beyond our individuality, we are able to comprehend the unity of all -- us, the flora and fauna of this planet, mountains, forests, glaciers, and deserts that support life, the planets in our solar system, the cosmos altogether, all of it. There is unity in multiplicity.

For those who are neither mystics nor Kabbalists, and who are deeply grounded in science and rationalism, the message is pretty much the same, perhaps expressed with a different vocabulary: There is a unity to the universe, and a deep web of interconnection between our lives and everything in the cosmos, described by the laws of physics, and observable every day.

Most of us have no trouble identifying our distinctiveness, our uniqueness. But can we grasp unity? The view from unity -- when we can glimpse it -- provides a wholly different perspective on the issues in our lives, communities, and society, from how we treat those we come into contact with on a daily basis, to how we organize ourselves and run our institutions, to how we interact with the environment. It’s all there. When we truly comprehend that, wonderful things will happen. Perhaps the menorah can help point the way.

(Note: Marina Keegan wrote that she found meaningful connection at Yale. Tragically, she died in a car accident five days after her graduation. Zichrona livracha - may her memory be a blessing.)

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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