It seems like every post in this second book of the Pirkei Avot has begun with an introduction. Sometimes I don’t see a point in it, but so quickly it has become a trend, simply for my own amusement, I’m going to see how long I can keep it going. It also adds a layer of uniformity to all these posts (which contrasts the pattern of the first book, in which all the posts began with the teaching itself), and that isn’t a bad thing, is it?
Today’s introduction is going to be sweet, simple, and straightforward, because today’s–or yesterday’s–teaching is actually one I’m happily eager to write about–at long last, it would seem. Of course, specifying “yesterday’s” is the perfect segue to this sweet, simple, and straightforward introduction, which is simply this:
I got stuck going to the laundromat last night, so I didn’t have the time at home to write this then.
So with no further ado, why don’t we begin?
2.4 This was a favorite teaching of his:
Do His will as though it were yours, so that He will do your will as though it were His. Nullify your will for His, that He may nullify the will of others for yours.
There’s a tradition at my synagogue, that I believe is customary of most Jewish communities, that one chapter of the Pirkei Avot is read every week from Pesach to Rosh HaShanah, coinciding with the time from mid-spring to the end of the summer.
For some time, I figured the tradition was merely a way to encourage people to attend services in the otherwise preoccupied nature of the summer. But I digress.
At my synagogue in particular, these chapters are read during the afternoon services on Shabbat following the reading of the Torah (which is only three short aliyot rather than the whole portion during Shabbat morning services). One of my first exposures to the study of the Pirkei Avot happened to be at one such service on one such Saturday afternoon a few years back.
It happened to be my Bar Mitzvah portion, so I was reading it probably for the fourth or fifth time at the time, and certainly, I hadn’t realized reading the Pirkei Avot was going to be part of the service. But it was, and it happened to have been this exact teaching. We all contributed to the discussion, and I had a wonderful time participating, and now I will share with you the exact words (if perhaps not verbatim) that I shared with all of them:
“It’s like saying you should keep kosher because you want to keep kosher, not because you don’t like eating shrimp.”
The analogy is basic, but profound: Instead of keeping kosher on account of the fact we don’t like to eat what’s not kosher, we keep kosher because we’re supposed to. Maybe sometimes we miss the taste of a cheeseburger or the crispiness of bacon, but we still refrain from indulging because we’re not supposed to. It’s like respecting what your parents ask of you: Maybe you don’t want to do it, but because you love them (and because they love you), you still do it.
It’s awfully simple, but I often think in simplicity is the most amazing lessons. Look at a tree: How it starts with a single trunk, how it rises just a bit before bifurcating, how each limb rises a little further before bifurcating again, how each limb repeats this process again and again, how at the end of each is a single leaf–but together all these leaves make shade and homes and aesthetically pleasing landscapes. Not to mention, the process itself is exceedingly fractal, which is one of the most profound areas of mathematics still being discovered.
In Jewel’s words, “What’s simple is true.”
Of course, we mustn’t forget: This is only one-fourth of the teaching. So we know why we should uphold his will as ours, but what does it mean that he will uphold ours as if it’s his?
I think we can understand this on a splattering of layers. Spiritually we could speak of habits, that if we commit ourselves to doing his will, it will itself become ours–a blending and blurring of what is US and what is GOD, a coming together of ultimate oneness and purpose. On a more metaphysical playing field, intent shapes the world. If we shape ourselves like God, then God’s shape becomes like ours–and at some point, we stop leaving the creation of the world up to God and start taking an active part in it ourselves. Once again, we ultimately reach a sense of oneness and unity that otherwise we would not have obtained.
There’s also the hopeful approach, that if we act in God’s favor, he will favor us and act in ours. Blessings, rewards, what have you–will all fall into our grasp because we put ourselves wholly into his. Then again we could speak physically and emotionally: If we honor God and his decrees, by avidly fulfilling them, we are in turn fulfilling ourselves, bringing upon us a sense of serenity that comes from knowing we are fulfilling his cosmic plan for us that in itself leads to a happier and healthier lifestyle.
And what of those last two lines, about nullifying our wills so that he will nullify those of others for us? Why, it’s merely the negative of these positives.
If we refrain from what we desire to strive for what he desires for us, we are opening ourselves to a higher power, to a new sense of direction above ours, inspiration and revelation and all these other intensely spiritual but immensely fulfilling emotions.
Lastly, if we open ourselves to doing his will, he will open that path for us to continue to do his will. Those who would stop us, he will bend and sway, all the while lending us the strength to resist them and to keep going on. Those who would harm us, their hands he will hold back, and those who would help us, he will encourage to act. Not not only have we attained that oneness with God, but he has helped build that same oneness with us with others, drawing into our lives the good of mankind while simultaneously deterring the rest.
It’s a beautiful cosmic orgy in the most enlightening sense–all the physical lusts turned solely to the high-strung strings of love that don’t merely bind relationships, but bind entire lifetimes.
What could be better than that?
Of course, this bending of our will is much harder than that–as it should be, for such tremendous rewards. It must be done in steps, slowly and with timely intent. It cannot happen all at once, but must be an inner evolution.
One such evolution I’ve been upon for quite some time is becoming more observant of the Sabbath. There’s no logical reason why I feel compelled to do so, other than that I like the feeling of relaxation and of inner peace it brings me. Years ago I gave no thought to keeping Shabbat (as years ago I gave no thought to keeping kosher, but do so spiritedly now), so changing my habits is at once exciting and a struggle.
One friend I made while I was in Israel said to take small steps, to make small changes, and ever since, I have been. I stopped cutting my nails and shaving (both of which you’re not supposed to do on Shabbat), and I’ve begun reading the Pirkei Avot during the summer when I don’t have to worry so much about studying for my classes, and it’s all good and wonderful, but these habits have become so natural that now keeping them no longer takes any effort. It goes back to what I said at the beginning: We should do because we’re supposed to, not because we want to. When I keep these habits, I’ve since forgotten why I’m keeping them, because they’ve only become habits to me–and their meaning more than that is gone.
For the past few weeks I’ve been trying to eliminate playing video games on Shabbat. I think it took being able to say how thankful I am to have them to realize they make a wonderful next step (because ultimately all electronics should not be used on Shabbat). I’ve remembered to keep my DS on “off,” but I’ve failed to remember when I turn on my Wii or when I click that shortcut on my desktop to open Civilization that those, too, are video games.
It’s a work in progress, and it’ll take some time. I’m alright with that. After all, with every step I take, I’m working slowly toward that ideal, returning ever slowly to that state of the universe wherein things are as they always were and not as they have all become. It’s a process, like everything in life, but as they have said, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.