30 October 2009

One Beyond the Self

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, a disciple of Rabbi Israel Salanter and one of the great sages of the Mussar Movement, shares some powerful Torah with regard to Abraham emerging on the scene in this week's Torah portion, Lech Lecha. More on the Mussar Movement HERE.

With Abraham comes the unique covenantal aspect of the nature of the relationship between God and the Jewish people--an intellectual idea that some feel is outmoded or chauvinistic but nonetheless, impossible to ignore in the text itself and therefore worthy of our attention. God has relationships with Adam and Eve, with Cain and Abel, and with Noah and his family; but with Abraham and Sarah, the particular aspects of the Torah narrative--the Jewish people and their ongoing encounter with the invisible God of the Law--is born.

Elevated status is accorded to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as the Patriarchs of the Tradition and for R'Dessler, this is due to the elevated status of their character.

Relying on classic Mussar methodology, R'Dessler claims that three basic forces exist in each of us, and through these forces we can attain our spiritual goals: Lovingkindness, Fear of God, and Truth. In one of his sermons, he talks about how each of the Patriarchs exemplified one of these strengths over and against the other. Abraham's greatest strength was Lovingkindness; Isaac's, Fear of God; and Jacob's, Truth. And their particular achievement--which we can only "strive for," is that they were able to channel their one greatest power in order to develop the others that were deficient.

A sign of spiritual advancement is demonstrated by the ability to first know which is one's dominant character trait. As an exercise, I recommend trying it. It's not as easy as you think. What primarily motivates you? What is the essence of your character? And then, in theory, once you know that, the challenge becomes employing your greatest strength for the benefit of developing your other traits.

Watching athletes get injured on occasion, I think back on my Little League baseball coach, Bruce Cohen, who used to make us do calisthenics for what felt like an eternity before we could ever touch a bat or ball before each practice. At the time, I found it at first perplexing and even annoying, until I noticed that we were consistently winning more games than other teams and staying focused and disciplined later into the season. We did stretches and exercises with arms, hands, legs, feet, back and stomach--all in an effort to utilize all of our bodies toward the obvious task of hitting and catching balls. Didn't the Yankees fire their strength coach last year or the year before? Maybe the Mets should consider that, too.

But the point is clear: a whole approach to living requires attention paid to the many aspects of our lives, not just the greatest and most obvious strength.

With the introduction of Abraham and Sarah, Torah--from now until next Sukkot--moves into the realm of the personal. It truly become our book, our manual for the soul.

Like Abraham and Sarah, may we practice well what is our true essence, while using that quality to shine light on the unattended areas of our being and gain new strengths in those pursuits.

Kindness, Faith, Truth in balance is a lifetime pursuit. It requires constant vigilance, a willingness to err and start again, and a clear-eyed determination to live with a mind and heart united, pulling in the same direction: service to One Beyond the Self.


Hineni said...

Abraham's greatest strength was Lovingkindness; Isaac's, Fear of God; and Jacob's, Truth.

Oy veh. Lovingkindness, like kicking out one son and putting the other on the altar. Truth, like masquerading as one's brother for material gain. I have no quarrel with Isaac's Fear of God, although I'm not sure it was as strong as his fear of Rebecca.

Andy Bachman said...

Hineni is what Abraham said when God called him, too. So interesting choice of names!

If you suspend your insistence on the ideas that these stories actually happened and plowed into the ways that the Rabbis themselves often found the Patriarchs actions moderately to terribly troubling, we can get beyond the Biblical layer to a more metaphoric conversation worthy of discussion.

Reality is that life is often brutal (as is, sadly, family life.) The tradition is deeply aware of this and that's why the commentaries are filled with ethical re-readings of Torah that challenge us to re-write them upon each reading so that they are in dialogue with our ongoing moral development.

Hineni said...

Coming back to your response after a week, I am able to read the "you" in your second paragraph as generic and not as personal. I have never read Torah as history, and I understand our avot and imahot as very real people whether or not they ever lived.

Nonetheless, I find irony in the attachment to Abraham and Jacob of attributes totally at odds with their behavior at pivotal moments in their lives.

Knowing Rabbi Dessler only through what you have just written about him, I would ask him, or you as his surrogate, given the three qualities for which he would have us strive, whether those cited are truly the ones in which each of the avot excelled, or are they the ones for which it was most important for each to strive?