Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Yearning as Constant Becoming: A Guest for Shabbat

A guest entered a house and asked the head of the house: "From what do you make a living?"
"I don't have a fixed livelihood at home," the host replied, "but the world provides me with what I need to live."The guest asked: "What do you study?"
The host answered, and they continued talking together until they spoke in real earnest, heart to heart. The host began to feel a tremendous yearning to know how to reach a certain level of holiness.
"I will study with you," said the guest. ...
The host escorted him outside. All of a sudden he seized him and started to fly with him.
Thus starts Reb Nachman of Breslov’s story, “The Guest”. I shared this story with our 2011 Bronfman Fellows this week at our closing seminar: Over three days in NYC, we explored with them “New Voices in American Judaism”, and revisited the lessons and defining moments they experienced during their summer in Israel. In some ways their involvement with the Bronfman Community is only beginning, but there was a palpable sense of parting in the air. It was a proper context in which to discuss yearning.
Yearning is the driver of this short story. The ability of the guest to turn a random encounter (“from what do you make a living?”) into a moment of “real earnest” and then of “tremendous yearning” is what allows the host to learn how to fly. It is a powerful reminder of the importance of hosting such guests in our life: the people and moments that take us out of our mundane interactions and awaken a desire for something beyond: yearning.
For Reb Nachman yearning is the most human and the most holy of emotions. When you peel away all the imperfect actions and the rambling thoughts, it is yearning that is left. And it is Shabbat which epitomizes the move from mundane existence to a sense of yearning.

Vayakhel-Pekudei, this week’s parsha, opens with a description of the Shabbat:

For six days is work to be made,
but on the seventh day there is to be holiness for you,
Shabbat, Shabbat-ceasing, for God;
Exodus 35:2
שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, תֵּעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה,
וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי יִהְיֶה לָכֶם קֹדֶשׁ
שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן, לַה'.
שמות לה:ב

Perhaps the most mystifying part of Shabbat is that transition from work week secularity to Shabbat holiness. It is a hard transition to create, so we use various rituals to guide us through it. Some light candles, others leave the house for a synagogue. My family drinks single malt whiskey.
The Talmud (Beitzah 16) describes the transition from “six days of work” to holiness as a moment when a person cracks open and cries out “Oy Vay! Where has my soul been all week?” [The Rabbis are playfully interpreting the Biblical verse שָׁבַת וַיִּנָּפַשׁ “Shabbat VaYinafash” (Exodus 31:17). They pun “Shabbat? Vay-Nefesh!”]. Shabbat becomes the moment when a person catches themselves and suddenly realizes: “Where have I been all week? How can I collect myself now and become present in my life?”

In his "Likkutei Moharan", Reb Nachman ties this moment to the idea of yearning, placing yearning as the most important act of the human psyche:

עִקַּר הִתְהַוּוּת הַנֶּפֶשׁ, הוּא עַל - יְדֵי הַהִשְׁתּוֹקְקוּת וְהַכִּסּוּפִין שֶׁל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל אַחַר הַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ. כָּל אֶחָד לְפִי מַדְרֵגָתוֹ שֶׁהוּא נִכְסָף וּמִשְׁתּוֹקֵק וּמִתְגַּעְגֵּעַ לְהַגִּיעַ אֶל מַדְרֵגָה לְמַעְלָה מִמֶּנָּה, עַל - יְדֵי הַכִּסּוּפִין אֵלּוּ נַעֲשֶׂה נֶפֶשׁ.
כְּמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב (תְּהִלִּים פ"ד): "נִכְסְפָה וְגַם כָּלְתָה נַפְשִׁי", הַיְנוּ מַה שֶּׁאֲנִי נִכְסָף וְכָלֶה אַחַר הַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ, מִזֶּה בְּעַצְמוֹ נַעֲשֶׂה נַפְשִׁי. וְזֶה שֶׁאָמְרוּ רַבּוֹתֵינוּ, זִכְרוֹנָם לִבְרָכָה (בֵּיצָה ט"ז.): "וַיִּנָּפַשׁ" 'כֵּיוָן שֶׁשָּׁבַת וַי אָבְדָה נֶפֶשׁ'. הַיְנוּ שֶׁבִּתְחִלַּת הַשַּׁבָּת שֶׁצָּרִיךְ לְקַבֵּל נֶפֶשׁ יְתֵרָה אָנוּ זוֹכְרִין מֵאֲבֵדַת הַנֶּפֶשׁ בְּחֹל, וְאוֹמְרִים:
"וַיִּנָּפַשׁ", וַי אָבְדָה נֶפֶשׁ, וּמַתְחִילִין לְהִתְגַּעְגֵּעַ אַחֲרֶיהָ. וְעַל - יְדֵי - זֶה בְּעַצְמוֹ שֶׁאָנוּ מִתְגַּעְגְּעִין אַחַר הַנֶּפֶשׁ, מִזֶּה בְּעַצְמוֹ נִתְהַוֶּה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַיְתֵרָה:

ליקוטי מוהר"ן קמא סימן לא

According to the degree to which one yearns, aches, or pines to achieve a higher self, through that yearning itself the self comes into being.
As it is written: My being longed, even languished for the courts of the Lord” (Psalm 84:2). In other words, in my act of longing and languishing for God, in that act itself the self is created.
Similarly, when Shabbat begins one is awakened to seek a sense of “added self”. At that moment we recall how we’ve lost our sense of self during the days of the week, and we say: Vay! I have lost my “self”!
At that exact moment, when we begin to long for our sense of self – the “added spirit” of Shabbat comes into being.

Likkutei Moharan I:39

Without longing, there is no sense of self. Without having some “otherness” to desire for, some alternative reality, the self cannot take hold (Shabbat, holiness, the idea of God, are all simply ideas that point in that direction). Constructed this way, a sense of self is not a barrier to holiness/meaningful-life. As Reb Nachman says elsewhere, a self based in the yearning to achieve a higher personhood (more moral, more compassionate, more holy) is in itself the “world to come”.
Back to our Bronfman fellows. As I gazed at our wide-eyed 17 year old fellows this week, I saw the yearning in their eyes – to achieve a higher personhood, to be the good people they want to be, to create the better world they yearn for. I also sensed a fear (in them, in myself?) of the speed with which that yearning can be lost. In a world of external achievement (academic, financial, social), compounded by the desire to “win” and the threat of cynicism towards self and society that seems to be an integral part of adulthood (at least mine) – the yearning is quickly set aside.
This is where the guests come in. Be they mentors, old friends, memories or “palaces in time”, we need those friends to come and redeem us from small talk to earnestness, form cynical sleep to heart-throbbing yearning, from being grounded in the game to taking flight.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Bronfman Fellowships | Vayakhel-Pekudey 2012 | Text and the City