November 17, 2018

Rabbi Finley comments on Torah Portion Va-Etchanan

Loving the Beauty, Methodically.

Reflections on Torah Portion “Va-et’chanan” 2015

I have been reading a book by Richard Rorty called “Religion Without God.” Among other things, Rorty discusses the experience of beauty as something that differentiates some people from others, and even religious people from each other. For example, you might believe in the facts of your religion’s theology, but they remain just facts. For others, those facts suggest a “God beyond God” (to use Paul Tillich’s term) – a sublime mystery, something not reducible to theological facts.

There are physicists who encounter the numinous and shudder as they delve into the structure of reality; others are just doing complex math.

Rorty does not concern himself with the religion of theological facts or with physicists just doing really complex math; he is interested in the moment when one says, almost in tears, “it is all so beautiful.” Not pretty. Sometimes really not pretty. But beautiful, the kind of beauty a person contemplates as they die.

At the beginning of our portion, Va-etchanah, God tells Moses he is not going into the promised land, despite the pleas of Moses. In the light of God’s refusal, Moses does not cave in; he carries on. Promised, but not to him. ‘All right. Did not see that coming. Now what?’

Does Moses suddenly understand that it was never ultimately about the land, about his going into the land? That the land was a place where we could as a nation create a spiritual and moral path to God – but that Moses had been traversing that path since the day he left the palace on a journey into the unknown? The land is crucial, necessary, but not sufficient. You can walk the land and never encounter the mystery. Angels watch as we walk on by.

The discovery of the God beyond God, the encounter with pure being is a frightening one. Beyond the text, beyond prayer, beyond theological knots – a place where you just know what cannot be named and are silent and experience the unbearable lightness of being. If you stay there, you can’t come home, and if you have been there, you can’t come home anyway.

This experience never leaves the heart, and in some ways creates a hole in the heart that yearns to be filled. Some of us are born with that tear (a “kera” in Hebrew) in the heart; for others, life rips it open. It can only be filled with the overflow of pure being (the “shefa”, as the kabbalists call it). The overflowing, the “shefa”, has many vessels. Religion-this side-of-God can certainly be one of them. For many, however, religion out of a can is not a satisfying vessel, because much of religion-this-side-of-God refuses it to admit it is a finger pointing at the moon, but it is not the moon. And that the moon just reflects light from the sun. And the sun is a tiny piece of the energy matter continuum that burst from non-being, as are we, as well. The finger points at being, and its origin, non-being, at the same time. Most religions-this-side-of-God don’t want us to dwell on this very much. Spiritual vertigo may ensure. Sartre, who had encountered the absurdity of existence, went there and wrote a book called “Nausea”.

We try to suture that wound with many things, best exemplified by the addict. (We all try to suture the wound with manqué gods that cannot save, including religions). When addicts “turn it over to a higher power” they are really opening themselves to a higher power. “Letting go and letting God” really means “letting God in”. The idea of turning your life over to God or the universe repels me, because it seems to imply that instead of our thinking, morally evaluating, considering others, etc. we just abdicate all responsibility and let Something Else do the heavy lifting of facing existential choices. When you let God – the Overflow – in, you face the existential burden of knowing that you are choosing – but somehow a calm resilience, a strength and courage, settles in as well. (Perhaps this is what Moses really meant when he told Joshua, “be strong and of good courage” in this week’s Torah portion. Face choices without anxiety. Do what must be done.)

Even more repugnant than the idea that we turn over the burden of existential choice to Someone Else is the idea that the universe (or God) will take care of us. Here I always cite one of my favorite little poems, by Stephen Crane:

The Man Said to the Universe
The man said to the universe, “Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
a sense of obligation.”

I think what people mean when they “turn their lives over to God” or to “the universe” is that they are opened to the experience of pure being, even a conscious pure being, that does not protect us but that spiritually sustains us, even in the most utterly tragic and heart ripping unprotected moments of life. The outpouring of being into our souls does not mean that everything will work out. It does mean, however, that one can experience the overflow of love – eventually. The universe may not have a plan but it serves as a vehicle for Divine love and beauty, more beautiful than the light that fuels the sun and stars and reflects off the moon.

What does one do when one opens the self to the love of pure being? We love in response, generously, as we are able (with both the urge to the good and the urge to the bad, we are taught), when we are able (hidden moments abound), as much as we are able (more than you realize). We can’t come home from that experience because the road back is never the road you took there. The home we left is not the one to which we return.
Of course, the problem is we can forget all this. Just go back to sleep. We have to be methodical about staying awake to the beauty, to the light, to the love.

So here is a start: Remember to love this Beauty, when you wake up in the morning, and just before you go to sleep at night. More instructions to follow.