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Slave, rebel and humble infinity

  • ParshaRabbiWidmonte
“… two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand, Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command Tell that its sculptor well those passions read … And on the pedestal these words appear: ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ Nothing beside remains: round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
by RABBI RAMON WIDMONTE | Sep 06, 2018

With these lines, Percy Bysshe Shelley captured the virtual certainty that all human works perish, and that the greatest hubris is to imagine an eternal legacy for any human being, for are we not all “dust and ashes”?

But herein lies one of the most powerful generators of tension in the relationship between ourselves and G-d. Never content to roam even a Garden of Eden, we humans are both tempted and taunted by the serpent’s sibilant suggestion to usurp G-d’s place: “You shall not die, for G-d knows that on the day you eat of the [forbidden] fruit, you shall be as g-ds!” Struck by our mortality and finitude, we rebel – why should we be subservient, why can we not be as g-ds? Who is G-d, to be G-d? Why not me?

As Rav Abraham Isaac Kook explains, Adam and Eve, and most of us, fall prey to this terrifyingly false dichotomy.

Usually, in childhood, we are presented with the subconscious notion that G-d is some vast, threatening, punitive being, distant, transcendent and short-tempered with the frailty of humans. The best we can achieve is a cowering subservience which will hopefully avert the wrath of the “almighty smiter”. We then attempt to build an adult relationship with G-d which is founded on this essentially pagan, childish conception; or alternatively, in bitter disdain, we reject this “G-d” with distaste, even as we rile at the fate which has doomed us to frail evanescence.

Rav Kook writes trenchantly, “The greatest impediment to the human spirit on reaching maturity results from the fact that the conception of Hashem is crystallized among people in a particular form, going back to childish habit and imagination. This is an aspect of the offence of making an idol or a likeness of Hashem, against which we must always beware, particularly in an epoch of greater intellectual enlightenment…

“[Unfortunately,] Hashem’s being, as conceived by the multitude and even by individuals who should be their leaders, is that of a ruthless power from whom there is no escape, and to whom one must necessarily be subservient. No grandeur of Hashem is then manifest in the soul, but only the lowliness of wild imaginings, that conjure up a form of some deceptive, vague, angry g-d that is dissociated from reality. It confuses everyone who believes in it, depresses his spirit, blunts his feelings, inhibits the assertion of his sensibilities, and uproots the divine glory in his soul.”

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, this spectre is raised consciously and unconsciously.

Many of us are motivated by a significant fear of this menacing G-d judging us, deciding, “who will live, and who will die”. And in the same breath, the spirit of Adam and Eve rises in angry counterpoint, demanding, “I am also g-dly! Who is G-d to judge me?”

This unresolved tension is what Rav Kook saw as a fundamental growth point, which, if addressed correctly, could allow a person to develop a more mature relationship with G-d.

The truth is that there are not just two diametrically opposed options: slavish subservience or raw rebellion; there is a third option, a broader, more expansive view of each human being as an organic part of the infinite tree of life, which we call G-d. In this view, a person understands that she is a ray of light, emanating from an infinite star, energy-filled, and mission-driven through space and time. Although such a person is of course “only” a ray, she is brimming with infinity and with the capacity of the holiest Whole.

As Rav Kook describes it, “There is no anguish or depression in such [a perception of one’s role], but pleasure and pride, a sense of inner power adorned by every kind of beauty. When this perception of Hashem’s majesty develops in the soul, in all its dimensions, it reconciles life to its natural [status]. It fills life with peace to the extent that the individual recognises the greatness of the whole and the majesty of its source. As the soul diminishes itself before its creator, the phenomena of existence ascend in power and beauty and become permeated with the touch of universality. This natural diminishing engenders greatness and dignity, distilling in the soul endless delight in its very being, and in its ever-widening role, reaching out to the Infinite beyond.”

Herein lies the paradox of humility.

The benefit of both extreme views (the human as slave or as rebel) is that I have a clear sense of my selfhood – here I begin, and here I end, in a finite fashion. As a slave, I might be nothing, but I have a clear sense of who “I” am. Similarly, as a rebel, I am brimming with the energy of hubris and me-ness.

However, when one views oneself as a part of the greater and greatest Wholeness, one’s own sense of particular identity, place, and time, is diminished. I am part of Hashem, my soul is a sliver of G-dliness radiating into this world along with everyone else’s, participating in a quantum entanglement of destiny where sometimes I lose the “me” and submerge myself in the “We”. When we really experience ourselves in this way, we feel unthreatened by G-d’s greatness because we are a part of it. We don’t feel we can be either slaves or rebels, because how could one be a slave or rebel against one’s truest Self?

This is true humility – not believing that one is nothing. Rather, as the Maharal of Prague puts it, humility is believing that one is “no thing”, but far beyond the limits of the physical “things” in this world since one is part of Hashem’s eternal, all-embracing, unlimited being.

When one experiences life as part of Hashem’s unfolding oneness, one approaches the day of Rosh Hashanah with neither dread nor bitterness, but rather the joy of playing a part in the most powerful, warm, positive destiny. One celebrates the creation of life, and revels in being a simple, humble, infinite ray. In this way, we can truly celebrate the coronation of the true king of kings, since we are part of that kingship.

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