An old Jewish parable: Once there was a dog who heard that there were two weddings going on, one nearby and one a couple miles away. Salivating at the thought of meat-strewn bones and discarded fat, the dog decided to bee-line it first to the distant reception and then later he would head for the one nearby. His logic was simple and sensible: If he were to gorge himself at the nearby party, by the time he would finish gnawing and head all the way out to the distant one, the distant wedding reception would be all done and there would be no leftovers remaining. So best to go first to the distant one.
Extremely proud of his decision, the dog ran first to the far-away wedding reception—but alas, it was so far away that by the time he got there, it was over and everything had been cleaned up. Hungry, he dashed back all the way to the “nearby” reception—but alas, by the time he arrived, it was all over and done and not a scrap remained. Bottom line, he benefited from neither the one nor the other and ended up with nothing (Sefer Ben Melech V’Ha’Nazir).
In hindsight, of course, had the dog simply focused on eating and settled for one of the wedding receptions rather than go for both, he would have had a feast—perhaps not everything that he wanted, or that was available, but definitely a mouthful. Like the ancient rabbis put it: “Grab a lot and you have nothing at all; grab but a little, and you will have something”
(Talmud, Yoma 80a).
So what do we do? What if I want to walk my existence with one foot in this temporary material realm and my other foot in the infinite spirit realm beyond? Can I? Well, the 14th-century Rabbi Bach’ya ibn Yussef Paquda says No. “That,” he writes, “would be akin to trying to fill a bucket with both fire and water!” (Cho’vo’t Hal’va’vo’t, Sha’ar Chesh’bo’n Ha’Nefesh, Ch. 25).
Aha. So what do I do? Must I choose one world over the other? Like the dog in the parable should have done? And if so, which world do I choose to focus my energies on? This one, or the other one? The revealed World of Unfolding, or the unknown World of Mystery?
What a dilemma. And probably a dilemma that lies at the core of everyday human conflict, whether between relationship partners or nations. How much of what we do—or OVERdo—stems from our well-meaning attempts to dance at both weddings simultaneously? Like my teacher of old, Rav Efrayim Zeitchik once wrote: “If you try to equally please both, your impulse for good and your impulse for bad, you will tear yourself in two and benefit neither from the pleasures of this world nor from the pleasures of the next world” (Sefer Torat HaNefesh, p. 173).
So do we choose one impulse over the other? Is that the key? I once asked him. No, he said. The key is to not be impulsive. To not act on impulse, not for good or for bad.
Indeed, the Torah is full of injunctions: do this, don’t do that, ad-infinitum. It is no wonder that many people see the Torah as a compendium of laws. In fact, it is often translated as “The Law,” when actually it means literally: Guidance. Guidance. Moses therefore implored our ancestors to desist from obsessing with the laws to the neglect of “what is right and what is good in the eyes of God” (Deuteronomy 6:18)—that there is a whole other dimension of our life walk that is devoid of religion, culture, injunctions, and laws. It’s simply called “halachah,” Hebrew for “The Walk.” And this Walk is about dealing with every situation, every moment, anew, unrelated to the situation or moment that preceded it. The law for your particular circumstance says such-and-such, but you must not act according to the dictates of the law from a place of impulse. You must rather weigh the law and the situation at hand against the backdrop of “what is good and what is right in the eyes of God”—or, as the 2nd-century Rabbi Akiva clarifies it: “what is good in the eyes of Heaven and what is right in the eyes of fellow humans” (Midrash Sif’ri on Deuteronomy 12:28).
So, walk in this world only, or in the next world only? Neither. Walk rather in the Nether, in the in-between realm, in the chasm betwixt both, in the Grey. “Veil your actions,” the ancient teachers advised, “and reveal your Walk” (Talmud, Derech Eretz Zuta, Ch. 7).
What does this mean? Well, I recently came across the following in the Jerusalem Talmud: “Rabbi Abba bar Kahana taught, ‘It is written “Two acts of evil did my people commit” (Jeremiah 2:13)—What two acts of evil were they? They bowed in worship to the sun and they bowed in worship to the Holy Sanctuary’” (Jerusalem Talmud, Sukah 1:1). On the surface, this teaching of Abba bar Kahana is puzzling. What was so bad about bowing in worship toward the Holy Sanctuary? But if you think about it, it all boils down to the same theme: If you are being fragmented by two differing forces tugging at you, walk in neither. Walk in between. Don’t try to compromise yourself and your principles for one over the other or for both. Go into neutral. Stay centered. The “evil” Jeremiah was referring to, Abba bar Kahana taught, is the wrongness of trying to make something that isn’t good appear to be good by blending it with its antithesis. Bowing to the sun is not more or less wrong than bowing to the Holy Sanctuary (Mishnah, Shekalim 6:3). What IS wrong is bowing to the sun as a primary focus and then appeasing the Holy Sanctuary by bowing in its direction as well. What IS wrong is justifying an action that is intended and preferred by linking it with an action that is neither intended nor preferred in that moment but which might lend credence to the intended action in the eyes of others. Bow to the sun all you want, but don’t use the act of bowing to the Holy Sanctuary to make bowing to the sun appear more “acceptable” to onlookers.
Remember to do “what is good in the eyes of Heaven and what is right in the eyes of fellow humans,” as Rabbi Akiva taught. Not solely what is good in the eyes of people alone, and not solely what is good in the eyes of God alone. The Walk, taught Abbaya, requires us to live in ways that are okay to both: “beloved Above and held precious below” (Talmud, Berachot 17a). One earlier master, Rav, refused to divulge Sacred Incantations to anyone who did not walk in ways “that are beloved Above and held precious below.” Moreover, taught Rav, such an individual belongs to both this world and the world to come; not walks with one foot in one world and the other foot in the other world, but actually belongs to both realms, has both feet in both worlds simultaneously! (Talmud, Kidushin 71a).
What, however, is that missing ingredient, then, without which all of this starts getting confusing?
This is about the most fragile concept the human has been grappling with since the beginning of time. As the 4th-century Abbaya cautioned: “Do not say one thing and intend another in your heart” (Talmud, Baba Metzia 49a). In the ancient Hebrew scriptures, we find an additional concept added to doing what is “right and good in the eyes of God”—Truth: “And Y’Chiz’kiyahu did what was good and right AND TRUTH in the eyes of God” (2nd Chronicles 31:20).
Good impulse, or bad impulse? Neither. No impulse. Just a little dab of truth mixed with weighing our thoughts and actions on the scale of “What is good in the eyes of Heaven and right in the eyes of fellow humans.” That is the huge challenge facing each of us at all times. And all that is expected of us in this struggle is that we do the best that we can within the limitations of our circumstances (Talmud, Berachot 17a). Like the ancient rabbis quote God as saying to us: “Just try; and whatever it is you find you can do, is pleasing to me” (Talmud, B’choro’t 17b).
May we always be up to it. Or at least some of the time.
“Tiferet, God’s ‘beauty’, is his infinite unity in so far as it is revealed as the plenitude and blissful harmony of all his possibilities. Whereas in Keter these dwell within their supreme identity, in Tiferet they appear as so many particular archetypes, each of which connects with the others by essential fusion and qualitative interpenetration. This is why the Kabbalah says: ‘When the colours (or qualities of the principle) are intermingled, he is called Tiferet.’
The archetypes are at first pure and indistinct lights, which only receive their ‘colours’ or specific qualities in Din, the supreme ‘judgement’; and it is in Tiferet, beauty emanating from judgement, that these divine colours intermingle in perfect harmony. For Tiferet is above all others the mediatory Sefirah, God’s ‘heart’ or ‘compassion’ (Rachamim), which embraces and fuses everything which is ‘above’ and ‘below,’ ‘on the right’ or ‘on the left’ in the world of emanation. It is called the ‘sun’ or the supreme ‘wheel’, their antinomies in its one centre or ‘hub’…..
In…..God’s beauty all his causal possibilites appear as the perfected ‘models’ of created things and these, even under the most contradictory aspects; in it, God ‘carves his (eternal) sculptures’ to the last degree of precision and with a perfect art which brings all the contrasts together into a supreme concordance. In God’s beauty all his aspects are what they are, in all their relationships and in all their reciprocity; in God’s beauty each Sefirah opens up into its own whole fullness and magnificence, penetrating and penetrated by the other Sefirot. For this reason, Tiferet is called Da’at, divine ‘knowing’, the omniscience or total consciousness of God, of which it is written (Proverbs 24:4): ‘and by da’at the rooms (or spiritual “receptivities”) are filled with all precious and pleasant (Sefirotic) riches (which are “precious” in the cognitive aspect and “pleasant” in their harmony’.
Divine beauty is at the same time: more-than-luminous darkness; dazzling plenitude of being; boundless void, pure receptive power; immeasurable grace; the rigorous measure of all things; freedom; the disappearance of all boundaries in the infinite; the act of redemption; majesty. All these aspects, which are simply a description of the ten Sefirot, interpenetrate one another and form the unlimited expressions of the ‘small face’, revealing the mysteries and lights of the ‘great face’ enclosed within it. For Tiferet, by itself, is the whole of the ‘small face’; it is the ‘king’ or the ‘son’ which constitutes the synthesis of all the divine emanations, both of those from which it issues and of those which issue from it: all appear as its own aspects…..
The essential principle of divine beauty is the identity of the absolute (Ain) – which excludes all that is not itself – and of the infinite (Ain Sof) – which includes all that is real; it is the unity of the more than luminous darkness of non-being with the dazzling plenitude of pure being, the supreme and most mysterious of unities, which is revealed in the saying (Song of Songs 1:5): ‘I am black, but comely…..’ This essential principle of divine beauty, from which radiate both the pure truth of the only reality, eclipsing all that is not it, and at the same time unlimited bliss in which each thing swims as though in a shoreless ocean, is nothing other than Keter, which encloses all the polar aspects of God, eternally and without distinction. When Keter reveals itself, its infinite and unitive aspect is expressed by Chochmah and by Chesed, while its absolute or exclusive character is manifested by Binah and Din. These two kinds of antinomic emanations are indispensable in view of creation; we have seen how, in order to create, both rigorous truth and generous bliss are necessary; or, in other words, measure in all things, judgement of their qualities, universal law on the one hand and on the other the unlimitedness of grace, giving rise to all life, joy and freedom. And in order that these two opposites, in which are concentrated, in one way or another, all the divine aspects, may be able to produce the cosmos, there has to be, not only absolute identity ‘above’ between these two, but also their interpenetration and existential fusion ‘below’. This fusion or synthesis of all the revealed antinomies of God, which can be summed up in the two general terms ‘grace’ and ‘rigour’, takes place in Tiferet, ‘beauty’. In Tiferet, the eternal measure of things is as though dissolved in the incommensurability of his redemptive grace. When divine beauty is manifested, grace crystalizes mysteriously in the created ‘measures’ or forms and radiates through them, leaving the imprint of its author on the work of creation.”
– Leo Schaya (The Universal Meaning of the Kabbalah)