Abstinence

Last week we studied cleavage, those great things that would befit us all to cling to more wholly in our lives, and this week we’ll proceed with a study of abstinence, those things we would be best to avoid.

2.14 Rabbi Yoḥanan continued:

Look about you and tell me, which is the way in life that one should avoid?

Rabbi Eliezer said: a begrudging eye;
Rabbi Yehoshua said: an evil colleague;
Rabbi Yose said: an evil neighbor;
Rabbi Shimon said: one who borrows and does not repay [for borrowing from a person is like borrowing from God, as it is said, “The wicked borrows and does not repay, but the righteous one deals graciously and gives” (Psalm 37:21)];
Rabbi Elazar said: a begrudging heart.

Said he to them:

I prefer the answer of Elazar ben Arakh, for his view includes all of yours.

What interests me here is the perfect parallel these teachings make with what we were taught last week: If you simply invert the answers they had given before, you have the answers they have given now. Is this merely as it seems, that today we shall think of the negatives of last week’s positives? At first it appears so, but I won’t settle for a simple matter of opposites. There must be something deeper. Quite frankly, there always is.

Last week, when Rabbi Eliezer said we should cleave to a path of generous eyes, I understood what he said to be in the manner of how we perceive what we see, or rather that we do not blind ourselves to that which we see right before us. Is a bad eye the same as a blind eye? Of course not. This is not about anatomy, but about perception. “You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14), so I believe a sage such as he would not craft an admonition that would hinder the pursuit of righteousness for those without sight. No, this is not about simple seeing; it is about something much more profound.

There’s a phenomenon called inattentional blindness wherein if we do not attend to actively seeing something right before us, we are rendered functionally blind to whatever our inattention touches. I believe this is a begrudging eye, one that is so inattentionally blind to the good in life that it only focuses upon the bad. A smile is forgotten in the presence of a frown; a sunlit day is darkened by a single cloud; and all the joy in the world is shadowed by the smallest suffering, all of which usurps pleasantness and leaves only a withered husk of despair begrudged upon anyone. Just as it is best to see those times when we can make a difference, it is dangerous to see too much or too little of those times when we can change nothing.

This may seem paradoxical, but it isn’t. When one is happy, we would not wish to change it, and when there is darkness we cannot bring to light, we should not ignore it. But if we forget one in favor of seeing only the other, we are hindered. We are only half-aware. We lose the potential to be whole in understanding.

Rabbi Yehoshua’s and Rabbi Yose’s warnings against evil colleagues (friends) and neighbors are ones that almost need no explanation. All we need do is think of how we’ve felt when put in the presence of such people and we can imagine why we would be warned to act otherwise, to instead cleave ourselves to being the good friends and neighbors we would want others to be for us. For, just as much as we can be good people, we can still find ourselves falling into manners that we would associate with the bad.

I recently have fallen prey to this, in one matter becoming quite impatient and nagging, and it never occurred to me how dreadful I was becoming about it. I didn’t feel like I was being overtly impatient, I felt I was simply trying to get things done, but when I looked back on the moment, in trying to do well in one area I had done poorly in another. Just as we must strive to be the best we can be, we must still be aware not to be the worst we can be. Only in unison, with an eye for exemplifying the good and nullifying the bad, can we truly reach our highest potential.

The one clear difference in this list of parallels is Rabbi Shimon’s response. Last week he spoke of foresight–by which I felt he meant understanding the consequences of what we do, both the good and the bad, so as to stop such occurrences as the impatience I mentioned. Had I considered, even briefly, what asking about it once more would have resulted in, perhaps I would have seen how impatient I was becoming before the damage was done. Foresight, in this sense, is then an apt eye like I had mentioned, a tool by which we can observe ourselves and bend our path in the direction of perpetual betterment.

Today, however, Rabbi Shimon warns us of something different, from borrowing without repayment. Now, my Hebrew fails me here to know word-for-word what is said, but I understand this to mean borrowing without returning what was borrowed or, if not returned, ensuring some equal repayment is made. This naturally can be said to encompass being both a good friend and a good neighbor and generally a good person, but what stood out to me is his reasoning: That borrowing from another is like borrowing from God.

This interests me on account of the questions it raises: How do we borrow from God? Does not everything belong to God anyways? It’s a fascinating point of discussion, and I feel it could perhaps even warrant an essay all its own, but here I shall speak of it briefly.

I think that all things possess of measure of holiness, that in each tangible object and living being, there is a spark of God residing therein. When we take something or another into our possession, we have taken that bit of God into our care. If we mistreat what we have borrowed, we cannot repair this damage or make amends, for what can we do to repair what only God could create? However, if we safeguard those sparks in all that we encounter, we can uplift them to greater flames, and thereby what we have borrowed from God we have safely and wholly returned to him when, at moment’s end, these things that have passed from us.

It’s a touch poetic, and only an inkling of the chaotic contradictions and coercions that constantly rupture my mind in spasms of philosophical insight and earth-bound logic. But that, too, is a topic for another day.

So at last, not to be outdone by those before him, Rabbi Elazar once more finds a sufficient summary-and-then-some of all the things his contemporaries said we should avoid, and that, he tells us, is a begrudging heart. I think it goes without saying why this is so, and if it does not, it certainly goes without tremendous thought as to why, so I shall leave this proof up to the reader, as any skilled math teacher ever would.

My point to all of this is the seeming coin flip it induces in us. For every heads (we should follow) there is a tails (we should not). With every action and thought and instant in existence, we are each a coin flipped through the aether with no place to land. At times we exemplify the paths we strive to follow, and at times the only course of approachable action seems tangled in those side streets that deter us from our proper destination.

However, just as we never land, we are never in a position from which we cannot return. We can stare down those tangled paths to ensure we keep our course straight, and we can follow this fate-bound road with enthusiasm to ensure our safe passage. We can change our ways and make amends, we can recreate ourselves anew if we have for too long been astray.

From the very minutest of the elements of our universe, those undeniably infinitesimal and sometimes massless particles that have taught us volumes about matter and antimatter, to the largest units in existence, those black holes and mysteries still unseen, there is always two paths we must travel between. Like a tunnel whose walls we cannot touch, if we keep sight of all of them, we will always be lead safely to the light at its end.

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One thought on “Abstinence

  1. “I think that all things possess _a_ measure of holiness.”

    Another excellent analysis, and one that deserves more attention than my destitute skimming exerts. Never fear, I will return once the rest of my planned activities are completed!

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