Saturday, November 24, 2018

Parashat VaYishlah: Nothingness

Thoughts on VaYishlah 2018
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Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)[1]

Yaakov felt helpless as he cried to God in preparation for his encounter with Esav:
God who has said to me, “Return to your land and your birthplace, and I will deal well with you.” I am unworthy of all the kindness that you have steadfastly done for your servant. For with my staff I crossed this Jordan and now I have become two camps… (Bereshit 32:10-11)
Painfully describing his state of instability, wedged between the homes of Lavan and his parents, Yaakov understood that this was the time for prayer. He shouted out to God: “Save me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esav!” (12)

The Hakhamim pointed to a most unusual context for the first biblical reference to prayer:
On the day Hashem Elokim made earth and heavens, no shrub of the field being yet on the earth and no plant of the field yet sprouted, for Hashem Elokim had not caused rain to fall on the earth and there was no human [“ve-adam ayin”] to fill the soil…
Although God had already commanded the ground to bring forth vegetation on the third day of creation, he didn’t send rain for its growth until the sixth. Why not? Rashi answered:
Because “There was no man” [adam ayin] to till the soil, and so there was no one to realize the goodness of the rains. But when man arrived and realized that they are a necessity for the world, he prayed for them, and they fell, and the trees and vegetation grew.[2]
Vegetation wouldn’t grow without man’s recognition of its absence and subsequent prayer. In the kabbalists’ transformative reading of these verses, it is man’s ability to recognize the “nothingness” – the ayin – that fuels the prayer which steers existence.[3]

Describing this Kabbalistic concept of ayin, Arthur Green wrote: “There is an ungraspable instant in the midst of all transformation when that which is about to be transformed is no longer what it had been until that moment, but has not yet emerged as its transformed self.” That fleeting period of transition is the moment of ayin. And in a world of constant change and transformation, we are in contact with ayin at all times.[4] Indeed, the great medieval kabbalist R. Azriel of Gerona long ago noted the paradoxical belief that the source of all “being” is “nothingness,” when he stated: “Being is in nothingness in the mode of nothingness, and nothingness is in being in the mode of being.”[5]

By separating the “upper” and “lower” waters on the second day of creation, God concurrently brought forth the space in between – the ayin. Man’s paradigmatic prayers fill that space of “nothingness” by bringing forth water from the “upper” realms and merging it with those below. Genuine prayer emerges from understanding our role within the ayin of existence.

Considering his past journey from Lavan’s home (“with my staff I crossed this Jordan”), Yaakov longed for return to his parents’ home (his “land and birthplace”), and was overwhelmed by the unstable realm between the two – the ayin – which he was then experiencing. “I am unworthy of all the kindness that you have steadfastly done for your servant,” Yaakov then declared. He pondered the deeper meaning of ayin, and realized that his own self (אני) was merely a vexing reconfiguration of nothingness (אין).[6]  And just as he was engulfed by the vulnerable and self-effacing state of ayin, Yaakov tapped into its essence – prayer. He cried out in prayer to God and demanded: “Save me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esav!”

[1] “Nature,” in Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York, NY, 1965), pg. 184.
[2] Commentary of Rashi to Bereshit 2:5, s.v. ki.
[3] See, e.g., Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s The Beginning of Desire (New York, NY, 1995), pg. 312.
[4] Arthur Green and Barry W. Holtz, Your Word is Fire: The Hasidic Masters on Contemplative Prayer (Nashville, TE, 2017), pg. 8.
[5] R. Azriel of Gerona, Derekh HaEmunah VeDerekh HaKefirah. Cited by Daniel C. Matt, in The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism (New York, NY, 1983), pg. 68.
[6] See, e.g., R. Aryeh Kaplan’s Jewish Meditation (New York, NY, 1985), pg. 87, and Moshe Hallamish’s An Introduction to the Kabbalah (New York, NY, 1999), pg. 255.