After breaking bread, one should recite the following prayer:
“For the sake of the union of the Holy One Blessed be He and His Shekhinah [the feminine Divine Presence], I am not eating for the pleasure of my body but only so that my body will be strong and healthy to serve God, and may no sin, transgression, wrong thought, or physical enjoyment [during my eating] prevent the union of the Holy One, Blessed be He, with the holy sparks that are in this food and beverage.”
Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk
Reb Yaibe, one of the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, teaches that there are two types of spiritual seekers. One type eats so that he can have strength to serve God and does not pay much attention to the manner of his eating. The other eats in order to raise up the sparks in the food and therefore puts enormous care and concern into the way that he eats.
These two approaches to eating are, in fact, two ways of approaching the spiritual life. One approach sees the physical things of this world as assets given to us to serve God. The other approach sees everything as a vessel that contains a spark of holiness.
The first approach holds the attitude that it is the service itself that counts not the vessel. The second approach sees no distinction between the vessel and the service; everything is significant. Every word, thought and action is a vehicle that enables us to experience the underlying Divine reality that is the essence of all of existence.
Adopting either of these two perspectives will affect the way in which we approach all aspects of our life. According to the first perspective, food is viewed as energy. Eating, then, is a means of “filling up the tank” so that we can do the work that we have to do. Our food, therefore, should be plain but nourishing.
Similarly, our house is only a shelter. It is a space where we can gather people together. It is a vehicle to fulfill the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim (the commandment of hospitality). Therefore a simple dwelling is sufficient for us with a modest décor and furnishings.
According to the second perspective, a house is a temple and food is a sacrament – an offering on the altar of the Temple. The task before us is to convert our home into a sacred space where God dwells, a place where every person who enters will feel God’s presence. Each meal is an opportunity to uplift the world. Every time that we eat with holiness, we are transforming an animal creature into a Divine being.
Marriage will also be treated in strikingly different fashions by each of these two outlooks. From the point of view of the first perspective, we get married in order to start a family. The Talmud (Yomah 2A) tells us that a man’s wife is like his house. In this approach, we look for a wife that will be the foundation of our household. We search for someone who will take charge of the running of the family and the physical space that is our home.
From the standpoint of the second perspective, marriage is the culmination of a spiritual quest. Our wife or husband is a spiritual companion, the single individual that can complete our soul and help us to fulfill our task in this life. Our marriage is about building a spiritual center-point that will be a force for holiness and service.
This difference in outlook even enters into the realm of learning. For one point of view, learning is a vehicle for action. We learn in order to do the mitzvot better, and to have words of Torah to share with other people.
For the other angle of vision, learning is about raising our consciousness. It is a vehicle for knowing our true Self. It is a pathway into the Universal Mind of God.
These two ways of perceiving life lead to different conceptions about how we should utilize the various resources that God has given to us. From the standpoint of the first perspective, we need to maximize everything; no object should be wasted – no moment should be lost. We need to constantly battle against the passage of time; fight against the days, months and years that are swiftly seeping away. We can allow ourselves only a few hours sleep. Our life will be one of non-stop activity, from early morning until late at night. Only thus can we feel that we are fulfilling the life that God has given to us.
For those that follow the second outlook on life, being active at every moment is not the answer; the key issue is how we spend our time. We try to be present in every moment, to be aware of ourselves and of those around us. We strive to experience each moment to the fullest. We strive to see God in everyone and everything.
Where objects are concerned, the central issue is not whether we are wasting resources but whether we are using them properly. Do we treat our possessions with care? Do we keep them in good working order and condition? Is our home clean, and our food fresh? Is there harmony and balance in our environment?
These two ways of perceiving life will influence the way in which we treat other human beings. Since, from the perspective of the first outlook every moment must be used to the maximum, life centers on setting our priorities and then deciding where to put our energies. Every single person is not important to our work in this life. Some encounters are more crucial for us than others. Therefore, we must put our energy into the important ones and not waste it on trivial meetings.
For the point of view of the second perspective, each encounter is a spiritual event. We can never really know which encounters are the most important. In every meeting, even the most inconsequential, there will be spiritual repercussions. Therefore, we must treat each individual with full attention and full respect. If we follow this approach, then there is no such thing as wasted time.
Both of these points of view are valid perspectives in the spiritual life. Both create paths that will enable us to achieve a great deal of good in the world. Both build paths that will acquire merit for us in the world to come. The one great difference between these two points of view is the effect that they will have on us as individuals.
If we live by the outlook which says that we must maximize every moment, then emphasis will be placed on the action and not on the vessel, on the result and not the means. In such a case, a great deal of good may get done but there is no guarantee that we will be transformed as human beings. There is no certainty that we will evolve in our self-awareness or state of consciousness. A great dichotomy can arise between the work achieved and the qualities of the individual who has achieved it.
In the second path, less outward activity may take place but there is a process of inner transformation going on all the time. Each aspect of our life will be worked on. Everything that we do, say or think will become imbued with a higher consciousness and a sense of meaning and purpose. The manner in which we view reality will be constantly changing until everything is alive with God’s presence.
Yet we cannot do works of Divine service and spiritual practices all the time without it having some effect on us as human beings. Eventually a time will come when those of us who have focused solely on the work will begin to notice that our vessel is actually cracked and faulty. We will realize that we have been spending a lot of time and effort taking care of the messes that have resulted from its “spills” and “leaks”. Even if our motivation is merely for the work to become more effective, we will be forced to acknowledge that the work of self-awareness and self-transformation is an escapable process that we cannot avoid.
Despite this truth, the model that arises out of this first perspective remains the ideal for many seekers. It is hard for us to let go of the life that it embodies. We fear to waste time. We feel obliged to be busy doing things. We aspire to be effective and important.
We want to be movers and shakers. We seek concrete results and facts on the ground. We have not learned how to look inward instead of outward. We have not made the shift from doing to being.
It is this shift in consciousness which is the crucial difference between these two points of view. The first point of view focuses on doing, the second on being. If we integrate the consciousness of being into our awareness, as Rebbe Elimelech does in the prayer that begins this teaching, then the external differences between these two outlooks will be of little concern.
There is a story about a simple villager in England who had the gift of healing. In fact, miraculous cures surrounded him everywhere he went. When one reporter sat down with him to try and discover the source of his healing powers, he asked the villager if he practiced any special spiritual disciplines. In response, the villager turned to him and said, “I go to church and I sit and look at the Lord, and the Lord He looks back at me.”
The villager probably did not consider his home to be a temple, and he probably did not try to infuse every action he did with holiness. But he lived his life from the place of simply being himself, and this was enough for him to become the instrument for God’s miracles.
Learning to rest in God is the goal to which we are all striving. Once we have attained this level of being, it will no longer matter whether we eat to raise up the sparks in the food or to provide ourselves with fuel. Nor will it make any difference whether we live in a beautiful, harmonious space or in a purely functional dwelling. For God’s living presence will infuse every moment of our lives.
copyright © 2012, by Yoel Glick
first published 31/10/2008