Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Transformation Through Intimacy

Sefirat Ha'omer, Part VI

By Shimona Tzukernik
Stereotypically, men are often described as physical beings detached from heart and soul. Maybe that's born of the fact that while they certainly have intense feelings and emotions, when it comes to intimacy, men seem to be able to separate their bodily desires from their minds and hearts. And yet, contrary to popular belief, men have an intense connection between body, brain and spirit. So intense, actually, that they cannot be separated.
To understand how this is so, we need to explore the two polarities of the body: head and sacrum, specifically examining what the brain and seminal fluid have in common.
They're not unique in that they have a connection. All organs of the body contain aspects of each other. That's where the art of healing known as iridology comes from. The same applies to phrenology, blood letting, reflexology and the like. The body is like a hologram in that each part contains aspects of the other. Whichever angle you come at it from, you see the whole.
The brain is unique though with regard to its manner of connection to the body. Contrast it with the heart for example.
The first difference is that the heart has an on-off mode in the way it links to the body. The pulse starts and stops. One moment the heart reaches out, engaging with the body, and the next it withdraws. The brain on the other hand is continuously linked to the body through the nervous system. Here there is no stop-start dynamic, only continuous influence.
A second difference between them has to do with not just blood or neuro-impulses but with the organs themselves. Blood from the heart does move through every organ and cell. But then it moves on. In other words, it's not the heart itself that is bound with the body. Furthermore, even the blood that makes the link keeps on moving. The brain on the other hand is at all times bound up with every cell in the body. That's not just because of the way the nervous system works but rather as a result of the fact that the brain actually contains the body within it. The left heel, the right eye, the liver, spleen and so on exist within the brain itself.
That's why people can feel a limb that's been amputated. The source of that very limb within the brain becomes stimulated by some other adjacent brain activity and the individual is left with the physical sensation of having felt the limb. In reality, he's feeling the limb-within-the-brain. Similarly, deep stimulation of the brain with electrodes can elicit memory, joy and laughter, or can slow down speech for example. In a sense, the totality of who we are – our hearts, memories, mouths, feet etcetera – is located within the brain.
No other organ in the body is like that. Except for semen that is. As the nucleus for procreation, it is encoded with all the bytes of info that allow for it to manifest as any part of the body from bone marrow to lashy brows.
So the top and bottom of the body are intimately connected. The brain atop the spine is the center of consciousness, of our ability to know G‑d and the seat of our spirituality. The base of the spine is the seat of the reproductive organs and human sexuality. Now whereas we might think that just as they are two opposite ends of the body so too are they diametrically opposed, we'd be wrong. They're not. The base of the spine is called the sacrum – from the word sacred. It is a reservoir of spirituality. And conversely, the most fundamental organ in the body is the brain because if you're shut down there, the rest of you will shut down too. That's why our sages say that a child is conceived from the brain. Sacrum and brain form one continuum.
What can we learn about how to live life from all this? How is our spiritual identity and life's mission reflected in our physiology? What can we learn about the inner workings of sexuality from the way we're made?
The sixth of the emotional powers of the soul is called Yesod in Hebrew. Literally it means "foundation" and is often translated as bonding. It's your ability to connect with others and the world. Just as the foundation of a building is an extension of the edifice plunging deep into the earth and enabling the building to stand, so too your faculty of bonding enables you to connect deeply with others. Sometimes you facilitate a connection by being like the metal underpinning going deep down into the ground. At others you're like the earth itself, making space for another. Either way, you're activating your soul's ability to connect.1
Each of us is born with the faculty of Bonding intact. Each of us then is driven by a need for connection. We deeply want to engage with others, allow them to become part of our lives, and enter into their world in a boundaried way that enriches us all.
Bonding in and of itself is a powerful drive. However of all the relationships we pursue, probably the most powerful drive for connection is manifest in male-female relationships and human sexuality. Its power leaves other longings in the dust. What drives the desire for finding a mate and physical connection? And how does that connect back to our discussion about the physical makeup of the human being as reflecting something of our spiritual quest and purpose?
One theory of what drives us to find a partner and enter a love relationship is that the need for marriage, love, romance is all a façade. It goes something like this: Procreation lies at the heart of the survival of a species. That makes it a really powerful drive.
As humans became more sophisticated, they felt a little awkward being compelled by such strong urges. And so they invented romance, state the theoreticians! Humans came up with all the emotional connotations of "being in a relationship" – the flowers and dinners, walks in the park and gazing lovingly into one another's eyes to maintain a sense of dignity in the face of their desire. Saying, "My passion is an outgrowth of my love," feels more comfortable to our sophisticated notions of who we think we are. Much better than say, "My love is a by-product of lust!"
The sages would beg to differ. The compelling desire to find a partner, marry, love and be loved, bear children and build a life together, they say, is rooted in the yearning to rediscover our original Divine image. They explain that Adam and Eve were, in the primordial garden, one being with two faces back to back. They were then split into two. The split created a spiritual and psychic longing for wholeness. Ever since, male and female seek each other out physically, emotionally and spiritually in an attempt to re-attain their original unity.
Once we come together though, it is of an even higher order than the singular person with two faces that was the original Adam and Eve. Genesis gives us a hint as to the profound outcome of marriage in the verse, "Therefore a man must leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife. They shall become one flesh." One opinion as to the meaning of the verse is that the "one flesh" refers to the child who derives from both parents.
A more mystical interpretation states that the "one flesh" is the couple united at the time of intimacy. It is precisely at that moment that we get to see what a human being looks like. Anything else, a man or woman talking over coffee at the breakfast table, say, is merely half a person.
Marital intimacy then brings us together in a manner that is even deeper than the primordial Adam and Eve. No longer one being with two heads back-to-back, nor two lonely people, at the moment of marital union we are two distinct beings come together as one. This is how Genesis takes the theorists to task. It lays out the underpinnings of romance, marriage, love beckoning us to embrace the spiritual and psychic implications of intimacy.
Our sages teach us that our desire to attain wholeness with a partner is part of a much larger desire to become one with our Creator and to re-attain our original Divine image. That's why it's so strong. Forget the creation of "relationship" as a means to uphold our dignity in the face of uncontrollable urges! This yearning we're taught lies at the heart of existence. We're here to bring male and female back together again – at every level of creation, from one man and one woman to our connection between us and our Creator, which is also seen as a masculine and feminine dynamic.
With this in mind, we can understand why people are so lonely in love. We can grasp why the world is so out of balance when it comes to sexuality. What we're all really looking for is intimacy. We want bonding in the deepest way and a discovery of our truest self through unity with another. What we're giving and getting are physical hookups, slick motions, quick fixes but nothing close to the psychological and spiritual underpinnings of our desires.
Contemporary culture is hooked on sexuality but knows almost nothing of intimacy. The former has to do with the body, the act alone. The latter is personal and also spiritual. Of course it's physical and passionate too but the passion and pleasure are even more gratifying because they fit within the broader, deeper dimension of soul. The latter kind of love bears testimony to why we're here at all. It speaks of our yearning for bonding, intimacy and a revelation of the true nature of things.
When two people are truly intimate, the rest of their relationship reflects that. And vice versa. If the act is just physical, focused on bodily gratification, the pleasure is short-lived. It doesn't penetrate where we want to be touched. Furthermore, if there is alienation of spirit at night, it will be present in the morning. Conversely, a deep and loving connection feeds the soul. It also resonates throughout the following day, generating a different and deep intimacy with it.
This idea that what happens in the bedroom is reflected in the remainder of our daily life is to be found in the teachings of our sages.
The most intimate space in the Temple was the Holy of Holies. It housed an ark that in turn housed the tablets given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Atop the ark were golden cherubs in the shape of two angels with large wings. One was male, the other female.
The relationship between these two cherubs precisely reflected what was happening between G‑d and the Jewish people at any given moment. When things were good between us, they faced each other reaching out to one another in a winged embrace. If things weren't so hunky-dory then the two would be back-to-back. What we see is that whatever was happening on the Temple Mount, in the backstreets of Jerusalem, in a field of Jericho, a courtroom in Akko, a Jew's heart or anywhere in between, was reflected in the innermost sanctum of the Temple. If a Jew lied under oath, another cheated on her friend, a husband and wife argued over dinner, a teen felt hurt and misunderstood – whatever the circumstance of back-to-back relating was – then our connection with G‑d was compromised. In turn, the angels over the ark turned away from each other.
Conversely, when there was love and connection, bonding and intimacy, the angels turned to each other in face-to-face embrace. Loving intimacy, acts of charity, doing a favor to another – all these generated unity amongst individuals, within groups, and ultimately between us and G‑d.
To come back to our topic at hand, this same dynamic is reflected in our personal temple, the home. What happens during the day will affect the way husband and wife connect at night. And the way they bond at night will have a bearing on what's going on, or more importantly how it's going on, the next day. When there is merely a sexual act and the other's soul and heart are not met, the morning-after will reflect that. Where there is true intimacy, real bonding will happen by day. And when that kind of holy, healthy interaction is routine by day, intimacy is possible by night.
Counter-intuitively, intimacy is not merely "tolerated" in Jewish thought. Quite the contrary, it's mandated and encouraged. That's because intimacy according to Torah is never an end in itself. It must always be part of a larger whole. That bigger picture is about people becoming whole. It's about G‑d's unity becoming manifest. Our sexuality is bound up with the deepest underpinnings of existence. It's connected with our yearning for G‑d and G‑d's desire for unity.
We see this reflected in our physiological makeup. Although brain and sacrum seem so far apart, spirituality and sexuality are deeply intertwined. I think that's why there's so much sexual abuse in cults. There spirituality is present but it's not holy. It's out of control. That affects everything and the sexual abuse follows as a natural consequence. It also explains why the ill of pornography abounds. Today, people are out of touch with healthy spirituality. It's not like a cult situation where the soul dimension of life is misdirected and impure; rather, here's a situation where there's no attention to soul at all! The consequence is a cutting off of the natural healthy flow between soul and sex, brain and sacrum.
The fact that both the brain and serum contain every organ in the body, and the fact that they are the only two aspects of the body to do so, bears testimony to the profound connection between our highest and lowest dimensions. We serve G‑d with all of who we are. Both our brains – our consciousness and Torah learning, and our intimate lives – our passion and bonding, must bring out into the world the awareness that G‑d is the only True Existence. Everything we are and are about is encapsulated in those two arenas of our lives. Just as they contain within themselves the rest of the body, so too do the mind and sacrum encapsulate the why's and what's and how's of the rest of our lives. They point out that our purpose is to rise above the limits of creation and reveal the oneness of G‑d in all the world.
1. Bonding is on the same line of the mystical Tree of Life as Knowledge and Harmony. We said in an earlier article that in the sphere of Knowledge we become one with an idea. In Harmony, we're doing in the heart what Knowledge does in the mind. Now with Bonding, we duplicate that dynamic of connecting but this time in the interpersonal arena.
In these connections, we're looking for intimacy of some sort. As we have discussed in previous articles in this series, that requires vulnerability, a putting aside of the ego: To know something intimately means to let go of your own way of knowing the world and look at it from every angle. You want to understand the thing as it is – not as you will it to be. To love intimately means the same thing. If you don't get your ego out of the way, someone else is not going to risk opening their heart to you. They don't trust you because the ego makes playthings of other's most intimate lives. Similarly with Bonding, in order to be really intimate you can have no agenda. A vision for something? Yes. Agenda? No!
This article was originally posted on

Monday, May 16, 2011

Transformation Through Non-Being

Sefirat Ha'omer, Part V
By Shimona Tzukernik

I'm So 'Umble

Do you remember Uriah Heep? He's the arrogant creep in David Copperfield who consistently proclaims, "I'm so 'umble!" He captures our imagination because the struggle to rid ourselves of ego and self-consciousness is fraught with challenge and contradiction. You don't simply slam-dunk the ego through a bottomless basket, out-of-site, out-of-mind so to speak. And if by some miracle you do, you're likely to be beat in the game by a more refined ego that just can't get over how successful you are.

The struggle is as old as the first Friday of the world's existence. Adam and Eve ate from the tree and the world was forever changed. Innocence and absence of awareness of self were abruptly exchanged for ego-driven living where we watch ourselves and others, watch them watch us, and on and on in an ever deepening whirlpool of angst. In the post Tree of Knowledge reality, our ego leaves us feeling isolated from the Oneness of existence and from others, often scheming, and always yearning to regain that state of simply being.

But we can't shy away from the challenge because being "'umble" encapsulates the purpose of existence. We are asked to pierce through the curtain of cosmic amnesia and reveal – first and foremost to ourselves – that ego is a delusion. The raison d'être of creation is that we discard the false and acquired consciousness we imbibed with that first bite, thereby regaining access to reality as it truly is – entirely one with G‑d.

The fifth of the emotional abilities of the soul is called Hod, or "glory," and it's all about humility. It's about experiencing the glory of the other; being one with the Source; ridding ourselves of false notions of the way things are.

The name is etymologically related to three other Hebrew words. The first is modeh, and means "admission." The second is todah which connotes "gratitude," and the third hoda'ah, or "praise." As we will see, each of these is deeply connected to the notion of selflessness embodied by Hod.

The Power of Non-Being

Contrary to Uriah Heep's bloating himself up with proclamations of humility, it is really the ability to be small that truly makes us great. Our base self believes we have power when we are ego-present. The more solid our ego, the more likely we are to push ahead and succeed in the world! However, true power comes from what the mystics call ayin, "nothingness." It is at the moment that we get our ego out of the way that we can begin to plummet the depths of who we really are.

This nothingness is not the "absence of all else." Rather it is the existence of an idea or entity as it stands in its source in a state of no-thing. At that place, deep in the source, everything that is yet to manifest from it is non-recognizable. It doesn't yet exist in an individuated way.

Take for example the flames that rise from coals. I sit by the fireside and watch them emerge and sway. They are flames, not coals, albeit that they come from within the coals. Yet if I were to cut a coal open, I'd find glowing carbon. I can actually see the heat that generates the flame energy but there, within the actual coal, there is no flame. The flame exists independently once it emerges but not so within its source.

A deeper analogy of this notion of something losing identity when it unites with its source is that of the sweetness in an apple. I bite into one. I taste its sweetness. Yet when I cut it, I find no evidence for what my taste-buds experience. Even if you were to say to me, "Well of course! Taste is aural and sight visual!" I'd challenge you to try identifying where exactly in that apple the sweetness originates. In the sugars? Where in the sugar?! In which molecules? You've got C6H12O6.. Is it in the carbon? The hydrogen? Oxygen? You get what I'm saying. We can't point to where it originates not because we can't see it but because at that point, the sweetness exists in such an essential kind of way that it loses its individual identity.

Take this one layer down. Think for a moment of a flintstone. I'd contend that they've rivaled diamonds in their usefulness to humankind. These lumpy looking rocks have the appearance of greased glass when cut open, and prior to the invention of the match had been used to start fires around the world and across time. Tinder boxes were the match boxes of their day, generating sparks and fires from rock. So much for the similarity. But a flintstone is a far cry from a coal. In the latter, there's at least some visual evidence of the flame that emerges. Entirely not so in the stone. It's cold and grey. Yet embedded within is a hot and red spark. That spark is the very opposite of the rock. It exists there but so hidden in the source that there's not way to identify it.
Each of the three analogies illustrates the notion that the more something is united with its source, the more it disappears. Each affords us a mental glimpse of the subtlety and layers of the disappearance act.
The same thing applies at all levels of reality. Matter emerges from spirit but you'd be hard-pressed to find it there.
Similarly within our own souls. A simple definition of the ten powers of the soul is that they are a progressive and ever more individuated manifestation of its core beingness. Our ability to conceptualize1 is the most refined of the conscious dimensions of the soul. Its movement into our capacity to analyze2, and then subsequently into the talent to internalize information3 is at each stage a process of "materialization."

At each level, a more refined existence descends into a more material realm. Each lower soul power can be identified once it separates from its source yet if you'd "cut open" the higher soul power, you'd not find the lower one there. It's not that it doesn't exist in the source. It does. However there it exists in a way of non-being.

What's It Got To Do With Me?

So much for the philosophy! What does this have to do with our lives?

Getting in to the space of Hod will change it dramatically. In our source, we can be anything we desire. Because our essence contains all of who we are, when we touch it, we have the ability to manifest as whatever we choose, at any given moment. We're not locked in to one way of being. We no longer have to think of ourselves with any specific label or identity.

In our essence we are both daughter, friend, CEO, comedienne, philosopher. We are all ways of knowing, and all feelings – love, awe, compassion. We are sitting stillness and dynamic action. There where we are no-thing we are everything. Precisely in the place of non-attachment we become infinite.

If you live your life from the place of who you are at a revealed level, you'll find yourself on a rollercoaster. You never truly touch who you are or satisfy your deepest urges. Whatever soul or psycho or physical fix you feed your revealed self, at some point you'll need to move on to the next ism or sweet tasting delicacy. That's because the individuated manifestations of who we are, are limited entities. They themselves come and go, how much more so their objects of desire. Deeper, feeding ourselves at that level can't provide eternal solutions because it never really gets to our core. So the core essential self keeps on looking for what it needs as it rollercoasts along.

If you're in touch with your essence however, you don't "outgrow" the blessings life brings. When you come from non-being, which in truth is all-being, anything you encounter is informed by eternity. It expands by virtue of where you're coming at it from. In turn, you're more receptive to the world. Your experiences can now feed back in to your innermost point and nourish the soul.

Certainly we're not meant to remain in our source. The fire within the flintstone must be brought to revelation. Conversely though, we have to be able to retrace who we are to our personal ground-zero. We must have access to our inner essence.

Take for example our love for G‑d. It cannot remain in the heart. At the same time, it cannot be limited to externals. Love that is dependent on anything will die. True love is not because it doesn't take on any form connected to the revealed self. When you love G‑d in this way, you can bring that love in to any form you choose. You can love your parent, spouse, child; you can love the sound of the shofar, the taste of matzah. You can even love mangos and jazz. You're infinite and free.

And when you need to, you can feel the opposite feeling. You can respect, condemn something, push forward or pull back, whatever's called for in the moment. Your whole existence becomes a manifestation of the oneness that you are at your core.

Stepping It

How are we to access this place inside of us? How do we risk becoming a no-thing?!

Between the false sense of "I-am" and true awareness that "I am no-thing other than a part of G‑d," lies the danger of falling apart. It's not for naught that we're taught that of four sages who entered the orchard of the Torah, including its highest and most mystical dimensions, only Rabbi Akiva emerged whole and in peace. As we let go of delusion, we are fragile.

It's a Catch Twenty-two. At some level, you can't let go of falseness until you're connected to the essence. But you can't access the essence until you relinquish your false beliefs and the idol of ego.

The problem itself though speaks of the solution. In order to really want to break through and strip the ego of its delusions, you have to have already had contact with your core. It's only because of the fact that deep within you already have all you need in your essential self that you can step out and tackle the task at hand. The first step is to acknowledge that. Do that both to yourself and to G‑d. Then be quiet, try to eliminate the mental static that keeps you out of touch with your true self. The acknowledgement and silence carry you inside.

It's also vital to recognize that the answer lies not only within but also without. The "without" I'm talking of is the Torah. Our sages describe the Torah as G‑d's mind and desire, His wisdom and will. And whereas, as we have been talking, we are distinct from our thoughts or feelings, G‑d by contrast is One. Consequently, His essence permeates the entirety of the Torah. When we learn and understand something of the Torah, we are taking hold of our Creator!

The practical implication is that even if you're having a really down day, stuck in the bits and pieces of existence with no access to your core, all is not lost. You can still re-enter your Divine space through the doorway of the Torah. Although the Torah "descends" through every level of reality seemingly moving away from G‑d's "essence" and "core," it is forever bound with the Creator and thereby an infinite Tree of Life.

Whether you're a sophisticated Uriah Heep who's whole reality is based on falseness and delusion, or whether you've never contemplated playing the 'umility game, all is not lost. You do have the ability to allow the idol of selfhood and independence to die because you already have the truth within. Couple that with the access you have to carry existence beyond through the study of Torah and you're well on your way to living from the inside out.

Bringing it Home

How though does all we have said apply to the concepts of admission, gratitude and praise we mentioned at the outset?

Admission is owning up to the truth. It's walking away from a lie. Admitting to G‑d by way of example means this: G‑d says, "I am the only True Existence." We by contrast say, "There is nothing other than ME. I and nothing else exists!" To admit to G‑d means I walk away from the lie of ego.

How can you admit to G‑d that you don't exist? Only when you're in touch with the very deepest level of who you are. Only when you access the part of you that is itself a part of G‑d, and is therefore not dependent on anything, can you make that kind of admission. You can destroy your whole consciousness with that understanding. That's not to say recklessly but in a holy way – you deconstruct the lie about how you've lived and admit to G‑d you don't exist. Then just as oil permeates all it comes in contact with, you essence will permeate all your existence.

At the interpersonal level it means you have no problem to say, "You're right."

Take a marriage for example. You ask your spouse a hundred times to close the seltzer bottle – to no avail. The hurt that follows is primarily an interpretation of what that means. Even more central to the argument though is your sense of what your spouse should be doing. Real admission means you no longer impose your perspective on someone else. You admit that maybe you're wrong, maybe there's another way to do things (seltzer bottles aside.)

This is possible only if you have a point of no-thingness to draw from. There you are no longer limited to your nature, your temperament, your soul-structure. You are in essence, unlocked in to form, and capable of manifesting in any way. That means it's seamless for you to say, "I'm sorry. I was wrong."

Gratitude parallels this dynamic. To say, "Thank you," to really say it, requires that you relinquish your ego. The ego thinks, "If I say thank you, then I'm a nothing." Have you ever noticed that some people can't bring themselves to say the words? They'll say, "That was nice of you," or something similar. But not, "Thank you." Because saying so requires Hod. It's not even the same as, "Thanks." The former puts you in relation to the other in a position of vulnerability. The ego hates that!

If you're coming from the consciousness of non-being however, you can afford to receive from another person. You're no longer threatened, no-one can destroy you, another's success or generosity can never detract from you. Hod in this way allows for true abundance mentality. The humility frees you up to be happy for another person's ability to give. It allows you to truly say, "Thank you."

The same principle applies to praise. Just as with admission and gratitude, to truly praise someone requires nullification of the ego. This is evident in the underpinnings of praise. First off, it is from a state of humility that you are able to sense the other's greatness. You're not focused on yourself but on the other person. Deeper than that, a non-ego state of consciousness allows you to gain access to what's really beyond you because you're no longer in the way! From there you can begin to experience true wonder, and come to the highest form of praise.

In the old word order, the exile mentality, "big" used to matter. Now, as the world is becoming more refined and is able to climb back up the ladder of cosmic progression, we are able to be small again. Our smallness is a non-being state that empowers us to be infinite. Only when we can be small can we truly connect to others and admit when we are wrong, express our gratitude and offer praise. Which is why in the new world order, small is the new big.

This article was based on a conversation with my teacher, R' Y. Y. Kesselman.

1. Chochma, or "wisdom"

2. Bina, or "understanding"

3. Da'at, or "knowledge"

This article was originally posted on

Monday, May 9, 2011

Transformation Through Ambition

Sefirat Haomer, Part IV

By Shimona Tzukernik

Do you remember The Little Engine that Could? It's the story of an upbeat engine that saves the day when a long train needs to be pulled over a high mountain. Larger trains refuse the job for various reasons. The small engine is asked to take on the challenge and agrees. Chugging the phrase, "I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can," he eventually pulls that big train over the mountain.

The book has become a classic. It's a celebration of optimism, the power of positive thinking, drive and perseverance. In some sense, it's a metaphor for the American Dream. Just think the right thoughts; manifest your desire on a message board or repeat them to yourself at breakfast and bedtime and hey! – You'll get what you want.

The catch is, life's not always like that. In countless situations, despite all of the positive dreaming and thinking and talking and doing, things just don't turn out the way individuals want.

The question that presents itself is this: Certainly, attitude and ambition are key factors in moving life forward; but is "failure" primarily a result of having the wrong attitude, of not persevering with spunk? Or is it because G‑d gets a bigger picture than our dreams and desires, and nixes our manifestation boards, arrests our ambition and halts life-as-we-would-have-it before it gets off the ground? Is it possible that what we see as failure is not really that at all but rather a kneading of our ego and softening of our edges in accordance with what's truly best for us?

The interplay between our own ambitions and initiative on the one hand, and Divine influence on the other is complex. Maybe that's why contemporary culture has taken its fair share of swipes at The Little Engine that Could. One "Far Side" comic features a down-on-his-luck Little Engine sitting at the side of a building with a sign that reads "I thought I could, I thought I could." Shel Silverstein's poem "The Little Blue Engine" also refers to the story. However his version ends with the engine almost reaching the top of the hill only to slide back down and crash on the rocks below. His poem closes with the line "If the track is tough and the hill is rough, thinking you can just ain't enough!"

Whereas the poet's emphasis is a cynical undercutting of optimism and perseverance which my inner child strongly resists, part of me wholeheartedly endorses the notion that my resolve and steadfast adherence to a goal is no guarantee of making it up the mountain. If anything, relying solely on myself compromises the very foundation of my endeavors. Buying in to the fact that the course of my life is a product exclusively of my desire, my thought patterns and the determination to see them actualized is arrogant. It's also dangerous. Unmitigated ambition causes pain and damage.

The building of the Tower of Babel is a wonderful example of this ilk of go-getters. It tangibly demonstrates how climbing the corporate ladder can run amok. Fired by a vision, emboldened by ambition, each member of that generation said to the other, "Prepare yourselves! Let us mold bricks and fire them!...Prepare yourselves! Let us build ourselves a city with a tower whose top is in the skies! Let us make ourselves a name, so we do not become scattered upon the face of the entire earth."1

The ambition, entrepreneurship, innovation and perseverance of the generation are archetypical of all later effort. It's irrelevant what that endeavor is. Whether running the triathlon, starting a business, managing a home, composing music, or any other sincere effort to achieve something, we're each in some way building a tower driven by ambition. As individuals we reflect the personal drive that spurred them on to action. At the level of team work, we're modeling something of the great collaborative effort involved in building the tower that was to pierce the very skies.

As we all know though, the end of the story does not end well. In fact, it's one of the low points in the history of humanity. So fanatical were the people who built the tower that in their zeal to complete it, if a brick fell down and broke, all wept saying, "How difficult it will be to replace it!" But if a man fell down and died, no one even looked at him. Sound familiar? We all resonate with the teaching because we know it personally.

We're familiar with it either because we've acted that way to others or been treated that way by others. Probably both. What first comes to mind for me is an article I recently read in Forbes magazine on developers in India shunting slum dwellers out of the slums because right now, the location is hot and the almost million inhabitants of Dharavi are inconveniently standing between Mister Make-It and Rupees galore. But I needn't go that far. The same dynamic – if not event – happens on my block when a landlord loads his building with dozens of cell towers catty-corner across the street from a school of over a thousand kids. You get the picture.

In response to the emotional and spiritual underpinnings of this flurry of activity, G‑d became indignant. He said, "They are one people, they all have one language, and this is what they have begun to do! Shouldn't they be stopped from everything they have planned to do? Prepare yourselves!," G‑d declared to the heavenly multitude. "Let us descend and confuse their language, so that they will not understand each other." New dialects and languages emerged. Soon, our sages relate, one asked for a brick and the other brought mortar. The fist attacked him and smashed his skull. The glorious collaboration, the Dubai of its day, came to an end amidst animosity, alienation and death (much like the Dubai of our day. Ahem.)

The seed of the great downfall of the Generation of the Dispersal was sown at the very outset of the project. The essential problem was that their desire for success and intense activity were born of egoistic intent. The Kli Yakar comments that, "Originally they were all unified…However they also wanted to 'make a name for themselves.' In looking out for their own reputation, they tried to outdo each other and became so self-involved that they created the opposite effect of their original intention: discord and controversy."2

Rabbi Dov Ber Schneerson is of the opinion that, "The people of that generation understood that G‑d's blessing flows into a place of peace and harmony. They figured that by keeping together, they would be able to bring down sufficient Divine blessing for physical prosperity without having to work too hard as individuals."3

Both opinions, albeit different, communicate that ego was the groundswell behind the business of building the tower. This inner core of selfishness became manifest in the violence that characterized their endeavor. Predicated on ulterior motives, their ambition and drive was not mitigated by a sense of others. It was not informed in the least by the awareness that our capacity for perseverance and other abilities come from G‑d.

What this all boils down to is that it's not the ambition itself that is negative but rather the point from which it springs. Ambition, like everything else in life, is both bad and good. It's bad if born of ego. The holy version though is essential for human survival. If not for drive, tenacity and perseverance, we wouldn't get much done. Perseverance empowers us in this moment to actualize our goals and visions for the future.

In Hebrew we would call this ability Netzach. More than being ambition or perseverance per se, Netzach is the underlying force that drives the ambition. That explains the correlation between the literal translation of Netzach as 'victory" and the notion of perseverance. We anticipate victory and therefore persevere, and by corollary, because we persevere we are victorious. This soul power taps in to our life mission, giving expression to our deepest desire to conquer exile and manifest the Oneness that pervades reality.

In the Kabbalistic model of the human soul mapped out in the tree of life, Netzach is the fourth of the emotional capacities of the soul. The very top of this tree is like a crown that sits above the head. This crown is the three-fold supra-conscious realm of knowing in a non-tangible way. Here we simultaneously touch and don't touch reality. We sense existence from afar akin to the way the openings in our skull hover above the actual brain, allowing for a sensing of reality that is in many ways higher than the intellectual mind.

Moving down the Tree, we come to the conscious mind. It too is comprised of three. They are the core ways the mind frames existence namely conceptualizing, analyzing and internalizing. Lower on the tree lie the three primary emotions. These are love, awe and empathy. Finally there's the last triad comprised of what we might call emotions-in-action. They are ambition or perseverance, humility and human connectivity. Each is born of emotion but the drive in this realm of our being begins to move more strongly outward, seeking tangible expression in the physical world, as opposed to the core emotions which are more connected to the heart itself.

As with each of the soul powers, there's no person who won't have each running through his or her emotional rainbow. The question is merely, "Will it be in a holy or unholy form." The story of the building of the Tower of Babel illustrates the arrogance, violence and destruction characteristic of unholy Netzach. That account finds stark contrast in another building project, one that displays the most holy form of the skill, namely the construction of the Temple of Solomon.

At the outset of the construction, King Solomon communicated to Hiram, Phoenician King of Tyre that, "You knew that my father David was not able to build a house for…G‑d because of the war that surrounded him…And now, G‑d my G‑d has granted rest on all sides – there is no adversary and no misfortune. Therefore I have decided to build a house for the Name of G‑d my G‑d…Command (your servants) that they cut down cedars for me from Lebanon. My servants will be with your servants and I will provide you with the wages of your servants according to whatever you say."

The two kings and two nations worked harmoniously together. Others participated in the project. In a profound Biblical underlining of the sense of peace that imbued the endeavor, we're taught that neither hammers, nor chisels, nor any iron utensils were heard in the Temple during its construction. This was because whereas iron implements are used to shorten men's lives, the Temple was constructed to prolong life. It's a bold thumbs up to life and peace.

Working with great vigor, Solomon managed to finish the Temple within seven years. From start to finish, the project bore testimony to a vision and drive tempered by love and humility. That's why at its completion, G‑d told Solomon that it was a place where the Divine Presence could rest. Rather than pose a counter challenge of "Prepare yourselves!" as He had done with the Babel builders, G‑d here promises that His presence will dwell in the House. And all this was accomplished with dedication and focused ambition within the course of only seven years!

The bottom line is this: we can fail for lack of cultivating a vision and lack of trying. But by the same token, we can fail for trying too strongly, from ambition un-tempered by humility. It's essential to remember that G‑d does see the bigger picture and that if He "nixes my manifestation board" it's for a greater good. That focus helps take the cutting edge out of ambition and effort, rendering it potent but not destructive.

We all need people who inspire us to follow our dreams. Just as importantly, we need to be aroused to the awareness that it's not, "My strength and the power of my hand that has accomplished all this success." I may be a Little Engine with a powerful drive. But if not for the Master engineer, there's no story to tell at all! Shel Silverstein may just have the right end to the story. With apologies to the original, I'd venture to say,

I-pray-I-can-I-pray-I-can and remind myself…
If your ego's tough and your attitude rough;
Strutting your stuff just ain't enough!

1. Genesis 11

2. Kli Yakar, Genesis 11:1

3. Torat Chaim, Bereishit 63c ff

This article was origionally posted on

Monday, May 2, 2011

Transformation Through Balance

Sefirat Haomer, Part III

By Shimona Tzukernik

An editor once told me, "Great writing should read like a hot knife through butter." What an analogy! The author has to work the text so that the ideas flow seamlessly. The form and function must become one entity. Sure you can leave the reader intellectual or emotional work to do in processing the writing, but the actual text itself must unite with what it is coming to convey, allowing the reader to cut through it as a hot knife through butter.

Few things in life are seamless. We live in polarized worlds--some more than others--but opposed nonetheless. Each of us though has the possibility of finding balance. We can generate powers within our being that blend other diverse aspects of who we are in one smooth continuity. One of them is the emotional ability Kabbalah terms Tiferet, the translation of which includes balance, truth, harmony, beauty, compassion and empathy.

To call it seamless appears to be a misnomer. After all, truth and compassion, balance and empathy seem to be distinct from one another. More so, one could even say they contain opposite dimensions: compassion feels somewhat blurry and truth absolute, for example. What does beauty have to do with empathy other than that being empathic is considered a "nice" thing to do? When we look at the translations, we realize that Tiferet is way more complex than the literal translation of the word, "Beauty." What in actuality is it?

One entry point is the body. Tiferet is associated with the heart center. In fact each soul attribute is mapped onto the body. According to the same model, love is associated with the right shoulder-blade. The manifestation of love, the attribute of Chesed, is linked with the right arm. So too awe – or fear – is associated with the left shoulder. Its manifestation in the form of restraint, discipline and respect, is connected with the left arm. In this way, each of the mystical spheres on the Tree of Life is mapped onto the soul and in turn finds a visual representation in the form of the human body.

Clearly the heart center is a middle point in the body. It lies at the center of the spine which itself forms the center of the body, connecting the top of the skull with the coccyx. Mystically too the heart is a point of blending, a coming together of different attributes in a unique way. What's distinct about it is that whereas our heart-tiferet center brings together diverse feelings, the sum total of those feelings is no longer the individual points that form it but something entirely new, seamless in its dimensions. It is often described as a blending of love and awe, loving-kindness and respect. In truth it is much more.

Each of the abilities of the soul blends various components. Each covers a subtle range of differentiation. We don't just love or respect. Our ways of thinking and our feelings might shift from love to anger. More often, the very same feeling changes in delicate ways – at times from moment to moment. Take love for example. Sometimes the love is pure and manifest. At other times, we might need to draw from fear--even anger--to keep the love going.

In real life that looks like setting boundaries in a relationship; taking a stance against those things that oppose the ideals you love and subscribe to; or fearing being separated from the one you love and thus doing all you can to nurture the connection. That's what we'd call fear-in-love. You're fully in love mode. Everything is about bringing more of it into the world. It's just that you do it in diverse ways, some of which might even appear contrary to the central goal of generating love and connection.

Conversely, there's love-in-fear. What are the real-life scenarios that display this particular color on the emotional spectrum? Enticing someone with a reward to get them to tow the line, or supporting causes that rid the world of evil. Here you're fully in fear-or-awe-mode. All the shades of that restraint serve the ultimate goal of creating healthy boundaries and ultimately awe of Gd.1

Yet despite the fact that in both the above examples there's a merging of opposites, the love is still love, and the fear is fear. The variegation is there in a way that is subordinate to the primary attribute.

Tiferet is different. Here, in the heart, love and fear unite as one. The resulting ability is something new and distinct.

We can take an example from another soul power. Being a balance point, it also lies on the spine, only one center up from the heart. This is Da'at, our ability to know the world. It is the third of three intellectual faculties,2 the first of which is our ability to conceptualize3 and the second to analyze.4 Da'at is the aspect of knowledge where we internalize the information we've been processing.

This kind of knowing allows us to absorb ideas because we have explored them subtly and thereby have become intimate with the concepts. The word is the name of one of the trees in the Garden of Eden – the Tree of Knowledge. That knowledge was about the distinction between good and evil. Whereas we are asked not to judge others, Torah living means we will make distinctions between what is right and wrong.5 In that sense, the attribute of Knowledge is associated with the color grey, or silver. It's the place where our mind can sustain opposites. In fact, it is the point where all the parts of an idea fuse into one whole.

When we can do that, we can take ideas in as part of ourselves because at that point we are no longer defensive or exploring an idea with an agenda. We are truly open to what it has to tell us.6 This is the reason our prayer services end with the words, "You must know it today and bind it to your hearts." There's a domino effect that happens with intimate, subtle knowledge. Once you get it, you automatically absorb the concept into your heart in a way that's user-friendly, allowing not only for emotional resonance with ideas but also for new action.

Tiferet enacts in the heart what Da'at enacts in the mind. It is the point where not ideas, but emotions unite to emerge as a powerful new force, full of subtlety, experienced empirically, and which open us to a much vaster world than the one we've lived in without it.

Think of it as two people with different personalities uniting in marriage to form a whole. Or better yet, imagine your own faculties of head and heart, thought and feeling. They are so different as to contradict each other: thought is cold and objective, feeling warm and subjective. You can live your life as a person who is detached from one or the other. Or you can live in a way where your mind acknowledges your heart and vice versa but where the two are in constant conflict with each other. Alternatively, you can marry the two, creating inner peace. What you generate within yourself is akin to the child that is an entirely new person born of the body of both mother and father.7

Tiferet then is a particular kind of balance in the heart. It is akin to Da'at in that there is no splitting; opposites disappear leaving only wholeness and unity.

In order to generate this kind of consciousness, whether in the mind or heart, a third attribute is needed. When two opposites meet, you need a higher entity to bring resolution. Or if for example you're in an argument, you need something or someone higher to effect healing and resolution. It doesn't matter whether that thing is a loftier internal consciousness or a person outside of you. What matters is that the healing insight is coming from a more transcendent place. As Einstein said, "No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it."

In Kabbalistic terms, the heart-point turns to the supra-conscious in order to fuse love and respect. Ultimately, all our soul abilities derive from this one indivisible point of our highest supra-conscious. By pulling from the source, where love and respect are one prior to individuating, the heart is able to create a new experience.

We call it Tiferet, "beauty," because as the individual elements of love and awe disappear, they are reborn in a more glorious whole.

One finds the same notion of beauty when it comes to the arts. An artist can be technically proficient, even excellent, but the work will lack life. Aesthetically it dies on the canvas. In such a work there is line, color, form. But each is present on the canvas in a way that calls attention to itself. By contrast, the great works of art display a merging of all the components in such a way that a new, living, compelling entity is born of them.

This beauty is not monochrome. Think of a Rothko. To the uninitiated, one may superficially dismiss these creations of genius as, "A color slapped on canvas! I could do it!" We've all heard some aesthetic peasant say the same. But if you take even just a moment, the beauty of the layers and subtlety shines through in a luminous, vibrating surface that speaks of all the subtlety, the myriad layers, of the universe.

Take even a work by Franz Klein. Seen in person, the edges of his lines shimmer with individuality, the white is not "white" and the black not "black." Even in his minimalist renditions, Klein captures the full range of life's subtlety.

Tiferet is spiritual artistry, spiritual beauty. It's the ability to marry two opposites and form a uniquely new dimension in the heart. That's why it's referred to by so many different names. The blending gives our heart center a full range from truth to empathy, beauty to compassion. The common point between them all is the idea of opposites merging. Truth is not one-sided. If I really want to know the truth, I have to look at it from all angles, my perspective and yours. In that sense it's like Beauty, Balance and Harmony.

At the psychological level of Compassion and Empathy, balance is also the guiding light. Here you are no longer driven by your personal pre-dispositions. In Tiferet, I can take myself out of myself. Maybe I'm a person who is naturally kind, or the opposite. When it comes to Balance and Compassion, my personal inclinations are no longer the driving force of my choices. Here it's all about Truth. What does the situation ask of me? I ask, "What is needed" rather than, "What would I want? What do I think is right?"

Mystically we said that love and respect die, or disappear, momentarily to be reborn as something new. At the humanistic level the same thing applies. To enter into compassion means my ego dies in the interaction. I can feel the other person as she feels herself.

Here, in the heart, we are soul-artists. We can compose a text that's as easy to cut through as a knife through hot butter. We can create jazz or symphonies by allowing for all of reality to fill our lives rather than live according to the rules we've gone by for the past x number of decades. We can create masterpieces as we access the vast world we've been missing out on without all that balance and beauty.


1. One must remember though that the ultimate purpose of the restraint and discipline is in order to generate more
love and connection. Fear in Kabbalistic terms is never solely for the purpose of fear itself.

2. The acronym of these is referred to as ChaBaD.

3. In Hebrew it is called Chochma, often translated as "wisdom."

4. In Hebrew it is called Bina, often translated as "understanding."

5. Unfortunately most of us spend much of life confessing the "sins" of others whilst resisting looking at our own
accountability. In really unhealthy and unholy states, this kind of "knowledge" splits the world into black and white, all-good and all-bad. But life's not like that. It's full of subtlety. Yes, holy Da'at is about making distinctions based on what Gd wants of us but most of life presents us with choices that are not black or white. It is only by exploring all the facets, being subtle, that we truly know about Gd, another, or the world.

6. Da'at is also the word used to convey the intimate union between Adam and Eve. It is when we hold the full spectrum of the other that we can begin to attain intimacy.

7. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson taught that Chassidut establishes a bridge between head and heart. When challenged that the two are worlds apart, he counted with the notion that at the very least, the study of this deepest, mystical dimension of the Torah sets up telephone wires between head and heart. The two can begin to talk to each other.

On another occasion, the Rebbe stated that the purpose of Chassidut is to teach the heart to think and the mind to feel.

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