Gaming the System: Thoughts on ‘Beingness’
I don’t know if it’s just me, but it’s all-too-often difficult to resist the temptation to do a cost-benefit analysis when asked to do something. I think we’re all tempted to ask whether the rewards of any action will be worth the effort (as well as worth the possible benefits of doing something else that might seem more attractive). As we get older and, hopefully, mature a little, we begin to be able to understand that our actions will have effects on others around us, and those effects might or might not be consistent with their effects on us. Something that is mightily gratifying might come at great expense to everyone else and oftentimes self-sacrifice can bring great benefits to others.
The Kedushat Levi (Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (1740-1809) begins his famous studies of the weekly parshiot by teaching that God’s first creation was the very category of existence itself! בראשית (Bereishit), In the beginning, is transformed into ברא יש (bara yesh), He created yesh, beingness. In contrast to anything we can conceive of creating, because everything needs its elements/ingredients which we then transform into something else, only God is able to create יש מאין (yesh m’ayin), something out of nothing, or ex nihilo as philosophers use the Latin phrase. Ayin is the realm that lies beyond our abilities to perceive, know or even sense/intuit. It might very well be filled with many entities, but they are entirely closed-off to us and, thus, non-existent as far as we’re concerned. This is the realm of the אין סוף (ayn sof) and the אין תכלית (ayn tachlit), without beginning or end, i.e. with no boundaries to enclose anything at all, necessary requirements for “thing”– or “being”- ness.
Human understanding can, often with great effort, comprehend the yesh, but we have absolutely no insight into the ayin (with the exception of the wisdom that enters our realm from that one through revelation (i.e. that one-time event of matan Torah (the giving of Torah) and נבואה Nevuah (Prophecy (which has little or nothing to do with predicting the future, but rather indicates knowledge graced to a tiny number of individuals because of their hard-earned דבקות deveykut, “attachment” to The Creator)). Thus, the realm of yesh is where we can experience and evaluate the effect that מצוות mitzvot and משפטים mishpatim, commandments and laws, have on ourselves and others. Although we have many hints that all of our actions, especially our performance of mitzvot and mishpatim in the “real world,” have even greater effects in the “Upper Worlds,” the realms of ayin, we are completely blocked from knowing what they are. A large segment of our emunah, “belief,” is that just as phenomena and their consequences are necessarily limited in our finite, bounded world, they are unlimited and unbounded in that infinite realm of ayin.
So, when we attempt to “game the system,” to determine whether or not it’s worth our effort or cost in terms of what we might expect to consciously feel and experience, we’re necessarily working with a mere infinitesimal slice of the total picture, the effect in the realm of ayin and how that might, in the “feedback system” we call hashgacha pratit (individual providence), later affect us. Essentially, we attempt to elevate ourselves to a position at least equal to, and often in our hearts and minds, above that of God.
While this, in the end, is a paragon of arrogance, it might not start out that way. The attempt to tweak the mitzvot to make them “relevant,” to make them attractive and “rewarding,” is not only tempting, but at times necessary to motivate participation in the mitzvot “system” at all. But when the emphasis goes from the mitzvot to our feelings or our perceived benefits, be they physical, emotional or “spiritual” (which is often just a subset of emotional….), it becomes “All About Me,” all about the yesh, our own very limited perceptions and concerns, rather than about the ayin, the unseen but infinitely greater than our narcissism.
Mishpatim is chock-full of laws and rules and regulations (none of which can be understood relying on the פשת (p’shat), simple literalist level, but this is another issue), commandments and decrees. Some (with explanation), such as those which form the basis of civil law, make sense in terms of creating a civil society. Others, the prohibition of milk and meat (also not explained at all in the p’shat, literalist, reading), elude our understanding, since they function entirely in the ayin realm. But even those rules which “make sense” to us reveal only the tiniest hint of their real significance which takes place beyond our understanding.
It’s easy, too easy as each of us experiences in our life’s adventures, to be seduced by the obvious. The art, however, is to have faith in the ayin, in that realm which is only God’s.
Harry Zeitlin is a non-congregational orthodox rabbi. He is also a guitarist and visual artist. Currently living in Seattle, he is looking forward to relocating to Israel.