Transformation Through Non-Being

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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 Gd.

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 Gd. 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 Gd 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 Gd,” 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 Gd. 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 Gd’s mind and desire, His wisdom and will. And whereas, as we have been talking, we are distinct from our thoughts or feelings, Gd 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 Gd’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 Gd by way of example means this: Gd 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 Gd means I walk away from the lie of ego.

How can you admit to Gd 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 Gd, 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 Gd 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, Rabbi Y. Y. Kesselman.


1. Chochma, or “wisdom”

2. Bina, or “understanding”

3. Da’at, or “knowledge”

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Transformation Through Ambition

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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

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