ראיה מביאה לידי זכירה ,זכירה מביאה לידי עשיה
Looking upon leads to awareness. Awareness leads to action.
-Talmud, Menachot 43b

Friday, May 13, 2011

Always Becoming; Parashat Behar 5/13/11

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has a beautiful teaching on this week's Torah portion that I believe has an important application to mindfulness practice. Sacks writes:

What is the difference between philosophy and the political vision at the heart of Tenakh? The answer lies in their different understandings of time.

The sedra of Behar sets out a revolutionary template for a society of justice, freedom and human dignity. At its core is the idea of the Jubilee, whose words (“Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof”) are engraved on one of the great symbols of freedom, the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. One of its provisions is the release of slaves:

If your brother becomes impoverished and is sold to you, do not work him like a slave. He shall be with you like an employee or a resident. He shall serve you only until the jubilee year and then he and his children shall be free to leave you and return to their family and to the hereditary land of their ancestors. For they are My servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. Do not subjugate them through hard labour – you shall fear your G-d . . . For the children of Israel are servants to Me: they are My servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt – I am the Lord your G-d.

The terms of the passage are clear. Slavery is wrong. It is an assault on the human condition. To be “in the image of G-d” is to be summoned to a life of freedom....

Yet the Torah does not abolish slavery. That is the paradox at the heart of Behar. To be sure it was limited and humanized. Every seventh day, slaves were granted rest and a taste of freedom. In the seventh year Israelite slaves were set free. If they chose otherwise they were released in the Jubilee year. During their years of service they were to be treated like employees. They were not to be subjected to back-breaking or spirit-crushing labour. Everything dehumanizing about slavery was forbidden. Yet slavery itself was not banned. Why not? If it was wrong, it should have been annulled. Why did the Torah allow a fundamentally flawed institution to continue?

It was Moses Maimonides in The Guide for the Perplexed who explained the need for time in social transformation. All processes in nature, he argued, are gradual. The foetus develops slowly in the womb. Stage by stage a child becomes mature. And what applies to individuals applies to nations and civilizations:

It is impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other. It is therefore, according to the nature of man, impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed.

....The challenge to which Torah legislation was an answer is: how can one create a social structure in which, of their own accord, people will eventually come to see slavery as wrong and freely choose to abandon it?

The answer lay in a single deft stroke: to change slavery from an ontological condition (“what am I?”) to a temporary circumstance. No Israelite was allowed to be or see himself as a slave. He or she might be reduced to slavery for a period of time, but this was a passing plight, not an identity. Compare the account given by Aristotle:

By analogy, [the difference between animals and human beings] must necessarily apply to mankind as a whole. Therefore all men who differ from one another by as much as the soul differs from the body or man from a wild beast . . . these people are slaves by nature, and it is better for them to be subject to this kind of control, as it is better for the other creatures I have mentioned [i.e. domesticated animals]. For a man who is able to belong to another person is by nature a slave . . . (Politics 1.5)

For Aristotle, slavery is an ontological condition, a fact of birth. Some are born to rule, others to be ruled. This is precisely the worldview to which Torah is opposed. The entire complex of biblical legislation is designed to ensure that neither the slave nor his owner should ever see slavery as a permanent condition. A slave should be treated “like an employee or a resident,” in other words, with the respect due to a free human being. In this way the Torah ensured that, although slavery could not be abolished overnight, it would eventually be. And so it happened.

There are profound differences between philosophy and Judaism, and one lies in their respective understandings of time. For Plato and his heirs, philosophy is about the truth that is timeless (or for Hegel and Marx, about “historical inevitability”). Judaism is about truths (like human freedom) that are realised in and through time.....

What Sacks is illuminating is the tendency, that I believe each of us has, to resign ourselves to a belief that "I am who I am." Thankfully, we do not find ourselves in the bondage of slavery, but we may be imprisoned to ideas about ourselves that we have come to accept as a fait accompli We think, "I am not good at this", or, "I am an anxious person", or, "I am not someone who really feels at home in my body or life." Or, "I can control my world", "people always love me", or "I am better than him." The Jewish conception of time is that we are always becoming. Until our last breath, we are developing as human beings. Perhaps this is why at the burning bush, even God does not say to Moses, "I am who I am" but rather, "I will be who I will be."

Part of this practice of Jewish mindfulness is about liberation. Through bringing our awareness to the contours and textures of our moment-to-moment experience we become more aware of the ways in which we are locked into particular ways of being and relating to the world. Perhaps we want to stay that way-- perhaps we don't. We will never know until we really look closely and illuminate our assumptions about who we are and who we might become. Through our practice, we might find that we do not need to be limited by what has previously limited us.


This truth of practice is held in a creative tension with another essential orientation of mindfulness: acceptance. If we are never content with this moment, with who we are and where we are in life, then we may never truly experience happiness. In this practice, in addition to this future leaning orientation discussed above, we are cultivating a real capacity for feeling at home in the moment. Three times a day we are invited to recite, "אשרי יושבי ביתך", "Happy are those who dwell in Your House"(Ps. 84)-- could I experience this room that I am sitting in, as imperfect as it is, as the Divine House? What would it feel like to walk around--or drive around--this world operating under the assumption that I am in the Divine House? How would I speak to my neighbor, my partner, or child?

We are always becoming. We were not born into a particular caste or a fixed identity. There is such important work to do as we develop over time in this process of becoming. And yet, we are also home already. We can rest in the timelessness of this moment. Both truths illuminate the potential dangers of the other. By bringing them together breath after breath we walk the shvil hazahav, the Golden Path.

Shabbat shalom,
**looking forward to seeing you on Tuesday night at Flourish!