Sunday, October 05, 2008

Transient Permanence: To Invest In Life

    One Shabbat afternoon Rabbi Meir was learning in the study hall. His two sons died [at home]. [Beruriah] took them to the attic and spread a sheet over them. When Rabbi Meir came home after Shabbat he asked “Where are my two sons?” “They went,” she replied. He made havdalah, then ate and blessed after the food. She said “I have one question for you. If someone came and lent me something, and then comes to get the deposit back, should I return it or not?” “One has to return the deposit,” he said. She then showed him his two dead sons. He started to cry. She said to him “Did you not tell me that we must return a deposit? Thus God has given, God has taken away, may God’s name be blessed.”

    ~Yalkut Shimoni on Proverbs 31:10 (source)


    Yet there is another aspect to prayer: prayer is an act of giving away. Prayer means sacrifice, unrestricted offering of the whole self, the returning to God of body and soul, everything one possesses and cherishes. There is an altar in heaven upon which the archangel Michael offers the souls of the righteous. Thrice daily we petition God to accept our prayers, as well as the fires- the self-sacrifices of Israel- on that altar (v’eishei yisrael u’tefilasam b’ahavah tikabel b’ratzon.) Prayer is rooted in the idea that man belongs, not to himself, but that God claims man, and that His claim to man is not partial but total. God, the Almighty, sometimes wills man to place himself, like Isaac of old, on the altar, to light the fire and to be consumed as a burn offering. Does not the story of the Akeidah tell us about the great, awesome drama of man giving himself away to God. Of course Judaism is vehemently opposed to human sacrifice. The Bible speaks with indignation and disdain of child sacrifice; physical human sacrifice was declared abominable. Yet the idea that man belongs to God, without qualification, and that God, from time to time, makes a demand upon man to return what is God’s to God is an important principle in Judaism. God claimed Moses’ life: He demanded the return of body and soul without permitting him to cross the Jordan. Moses complied, and willingly died the “Death by Kiss.” God claimed Isaac and Abraham gave Isaac away. What does prayer mean in the light of all this? The restoration of God’s ownership rights, which are absolute, over everything He owns. The call:

    “Take thy son, thy only son, whom you love so much..and bring him as a burnt offering” is addressed to all men. In response to this call, man engages in prayer, as sacrificial performance.

    A new equation emerges: prayer equals sacrifice. Initially, prayer helps man discover himself, through understanding and affirmation of his need-awareness. Once the task of self-discovery is fulfilled, man is summoned to ascend the altar and return everything he has just acquired to God. Man who was told to create himself, objectify himself, and gain independence and freedom for himself, must return everything he considers his own to God.

    ~Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah, pages 71-72 by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
Why is it, that in order to live truly, we must expose ourselves to the greatest vulnerability?

To truly live, to taste of the flavor and color that composes life, means that one must develop the capacity to give. One must be able to give and give and gift, like a font of water that never stops flowing, to invest one's time and energy into everyone and everything that crosses one's path. And then, cruelly, the very object of our passions and endeavors is taken from us or crumbles before us. In this darkness, we struggle to find meaning. Why did God find it necessary to take an object or person into whom we had invested so much, to whom we had given our very soul?

This is when we begin to realize that in truth, nothing is ours. My body is not my own, nor is my soul. How much the more so are the material possessions that come into my keeping, or the people who cross my path, not mine to keep! And so, while it is deeply painful to lose a person or object into whom we have invested the fire of our intellect, the passion of our youth and the kindness born of desire, we must learn to think, not of the loss, but of the great gift that we were granted while that person was yet with us.

I have a friend with whom I am very close, and it is very possible that I shall not see him for a very long time, as he is traveling elsewhere for a time. My friend has been a support to me and a pillar of strength; indeed, when I was lonely or lost, he was able to help me. In many ways I feel like a blind person who was given a taste of sight, and in his absence, shall go back to being blind. And at first I was very angry about this, and reasonably so, because it is very hard to give up something beautiful which one possesses. But after thinking it through, I realized the error was mine in thinking that I had possessed it at all. This person's presence in my life has been a gift, and the sight he offered me a taste of the elixir of life. Could I have done anything differently, or could he have, in refraining to partake of the joy and wonder of the friendship we formed? Would it have been better for the blind to remain blind?

At one point in time, this was the mentality of many. Mothers strove not to become close with their children, as they were afraid their children would fall prey to disease or plague, and if they loved them, they would sorrow and feel pain. But this deliberate alienation is not what God desires from us. God wants us to care. God wants us to be deeply involved in all aspects of His creation and His world. And thus, we live in a state of paradox. For on the one hand, everything which passes before us is transient, and is only here for a time- whether it be objects, land, material possessions or people. But we must treat all these things as though they had permanence. It is our job to invest ourselves in everything, to arise and conquer the land that has been given us, to exist as though all that is transient is actually permanent. But in the back of our minds, we must remember that all this belongs to God, even as we belong to God, and when He calls for it, we must give it back up to Him. At that point in time, we must acknowledge the transience of the object we had, until then, treated as permanent.

Isaac was Abraham's beloved son, the child of his old age, the promised one. And yet he was the sacrifice God demanded of Abraham, and he was the sacrifice Abraham would have offered. Sarah and Abraham had doubtless raised Isaac as though the child would be a permanent fixture in their lives and house, investing all their hopes, dreams, desires and aspirations into him. And yet, when God called, Abraham was willing to regard Isaac as what he truly was- a fleeting shadow, a breath of wind that took form simply through the will of God- and rejecting the permanence that he had formerly practiced, took his son and would have given him back to his owner.

In all things we must live with this paradox. We must care deeply, we must sing joyously, we must live intensely, throwing ourselves into all the opportunities this world affords us, with its many mitzvot. It is our job to treat this world as though it were a place of permanence, even though it is truly transient, and is illusion, the passageway to the true world. We are told that we must live through the mitzvot, live completely and utterly, caring, investing, daring to love, daring to desire, daring, in short, to live dangerously, and to run the risk of hurting when we lose something precious. But at the same time, if we keep in mind that everything is God's, that everything that is given to us is only a gift, that at some point we will be called upon to give this gift back, we are living in an unbelievable manner. Because we are withholding nothing, lavishing all our love and energy upon a being who is transient- who can be called back to God at any moment! And yet, the way we must live is to treat that being with the semblance of permanence, to care wholeheartedly about him, to open ourselves up to hurt and vulnerability. This is the sacrifice, and the paradoxical existence, that God demands of man.

And strangely, there is a kind of beauty in it- in being able to love so deeply, unabashedly and unashamedly, even though you are aware- though perhaps you dread it- that there will come a time when you must give back the gift you have received to God. You think you will die with the pain of it- for even though you know this possession is not yours, it feels like it is- and burning, consumed by pain, you will nevertheless offer it back to God. And you will begin the cycle again, investing just as wholeheartedly and deeply in the next person to cross your path, and again they will abandon you- or you will offer them back, as you have been bidden- but you must see in this a kind of pattern, or else you will go mad. Because you will suffer from having been broken so many times, and having so many "possessions" and people taken from you.

But if you realize that none of this is truly yours, but only a gift lent to you for a little while, ah! Then you understand what kindness God has shown in allowing this person to grace your life, even if it were only for a little while, and even if he must walk onward and beyond you- or you must let him go in order to do so. For we all exist in a state of transient permanence, and each one of us is called upon to sacrifice, at the proper time.

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