“This world is like a corridor before the World to Come.” – The Ethics of the Fathers 4:16
“Better one hour of bliss in the World to Come than the whole of life in this world.” – The Ethics of the Fathers 4:17
To emphasize the life of the spirit is not to denigrate our life on this physical plane of existence, but to see it as it truly is. These bodies are amazing creations, but they also have profound limitations. Living with disease, illness, physical decay and death is not a blessing; nor is going through earthquakes, tsunamis, famines and other natural disasters. They are part of the natural cycle of life, and we accept them as such, but they create an enormous amount of pain and suffering.
This world is a world of struggle. It contains a less evolved form of life and consciousness. Humanity was not meant to be on this physical plane of existence. We were created to live in a more subtle realm.
“These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that Adonai Elohim made the earth and the heavens.” (Genesis 2:4)[It is comparable to] a king that had empty goblets. The king said [to himself]: If I put hot [liquid] into them they will crack – cold [liquid], they will collapse. What did the king do? He mixed together hot and cold and put them [into the goblets] and they endured.
In a similar manner, the Holy One Blessed be He, said [to Himself]: If I create the world with the attribute of compassion [rachamim], there will be too many sinners; [if I create it] with the attribute of judgment [din], how will the world endure? Therefore, I will create it with the attribute of judgment and the attribute of compassion and hopefully it will endure. Bereshit Rabbah
Neither a world of pure rachamim [compassion], nor a world of pure din [judgment] will survive. The world needs din because limitation is inherent in creation. Limiting the infinite is where the process of creation begins. The world needs rachamim, because din creates only an empty vessel. The attribute of rachamim is necessary to fill the vessel with Divine light. Our bodies provide us with a vessel or vehicle in which to function, but that vessel is useless without the spark of living Spirit that dwells within. We need both din and rachamim – both body and Spirit, but it is Spirit that forms the essence of who we really are.
The same principle applies to all of Judaism. The physical act of a mitzvah is important. It provides the vessel for the light. But without the empowering energy of kavanah, the intention of the heart, that vessel will remain empty. It is the power of Spirit which draws forth God’s light.
In fact, the Hasidic Master Menachem Mendel of Kotzk teaches that when we worship the form and forget the spirit of a mitzvah, we are committing an act of avodah zara – idol worship. For what is idol worship but confusing the outer form for the essence – thinking that a mere piece of wood or stone is God.
Contrary to what many people think, the major battle of the Rabbis with the Romans was not about the spiritual ideals of Plato, but about the culture of the gymnasium – the worship of the body, of form – the glorification of physicality and sensual pleasures.
There is a midrash that tells of an encounter that took place between Rabbi Akiva and a Roman general named Tornosrophos. In this encounter, Tornosrophos challenges the Jewish practice of circumcision as an act that mars the beauty of a Divine creation. In response, Rabbi Akiva brings Tornosrophos first a sheave of wheat in one hand and some freshly baked cakes in another, and then a handful of flax together with a beautiful linen garment.
With these acts, Rabbi Akiva is emphatically telling us that we are here to accomplish more than to simply live and enjoy life. We are here to fix the world – to uplift our animal existence which is ruled by the law of the jungle. Compassion, generosity and love are not natural values in the animal kingdom. They are spiritual values, the basis of our true humanity.
Judaism is not about glorifying physicality but about sanctifying it. It is about turning each act into a moment of communion with That which is infinite and eternal. It is about constantly reminding ourselves that we can be more than we are – that we can transform ourselves into a true reflection or image of the divine source from which we have come.
The same is true with our holydays. Shabbat and the Chagim are not merely opportunities for physical enjoyment and socializing with family and friends. They are a reminder that the world can be a different place than it is right now. Shabbat is a taste of the next world. It is a window into a different type of existence – a glimpse of another level of reality. This is the reason for the link between Shabbat and creation. Shabbat is about creating a new reality, a better world. This is the reason for its historical link to the Exodus – a testament that men and women were not created to be slaves, to work all of the time, to be submerged in the daily rut of physical existence. We are meant to rise above physical consciousness. We are meant to be free!
This world is a corridor to the next world. We are here to evolve onto another level of existence. We are here to transcend the limitations of our material form.
At the same time, we are not here just for ourselves. Our lives are part of a larger cosmic process. We are here to fulfill a Divine purpose, to transform this physical world into a paradise – to turn the sealed corridor into a connecting passageway. We are here to build a bridge between heaven and earth.
We can only accomplish this Divine mission by tapping into the power of Spirit. In order to do that, we need to first accept that we are more than just the body. Then we can find the spark of God within ourselves.
We are told in the Talmud (Eruvin 13B) that the Rabbis debated for almost three years about whether it was better that man should have been created or not. In the end, they decided that it would have been better if he had not been created, but since he already has been created, let him examine his past errors and try to mend them, and let him reflect carefully before engaging in future actions.
Maybe it would have been better if we had not incarnated in this world. But we are here and we need to do whatever we can to give our life meaning and purpose. We need to reflect on our actions and strive for perfection. We need to work to become better instruments of God in the world.
When we emphasize the glories of the body and the physical pleasures, then we become mere animals in a human form that are bound by our physical limitations. But when we live the life of the Spirit and express Divine virtues, then the power of the Infinite pours through us – then we can accomplish almost anything.
Copyright © 2013, by Yoel Glick