My mother was neither a Bible reader nor a particularly devout woman. Questions of ethics, aesthetics, and social justice often came up in our home; Judaism, or for that matter the notion of the existence of God, did not. The music-box menorah that played “Rock of Ages” on Chanukah was more a sentimental cultural artifact than a religious symbol – not all that different, or so it seemed, from the kitschily decorated evergreen that occasionally showed up in our living room around the same time of year. However she loved the twenty-third Psalm. Whether she experienced it as literature or prophecy or consolation or nostalgia, I have no way of knowing, but my acutely selective memory still echoes with her incantation: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want...” By the time Psalms became meaningful to me she was long gone.
In a private audience in 1973, the Lubavitcher Rebbe suggested that I say a chapter of Psalms early each morning as an aid to concentration in daily practice. I naturally gravitated to Psalm 23, musical versions of which already figured prominently in the repertoire of my fellow seekers of Chassidic wisdom. It’s also one of the shorter ones, and therefore easily memorized in the original Hebrew. The connection to my mother was icing on the cake. I couldn’t even begin to count how many thousands of times I must have said or sung or muttered those six verses over the years since then. Some of that has been, inevitably, rote recitation – one of the pitfalls of regular ritual. Nonetheless the Psalm has continued to be a deepening, resonant source of inspiration and an effective medium for the cultivation of mindfulness.
Imagine my delight, therefore, upon discovering a ma’amar the Rebbe delivered some 44 years ago based on the opening verses of Psalm 23 – a discourse whose core teaching addresses one of my lifelong concerns: financial security. Overcoming an inbred sense of scarcity and an expectation of poverty (not to mention the ennobling of poverty) has been a major challenge for me, as it has for so many other lower-middle-class red-diaper baby boomers. Developing trust and optimism and a sense of abundance has loomed large on my personal self-improvement agenda. Every opportunity to offer a charitable donation (such opportunities arise about every eighteen minutes in the Jewish community) triggers a confrontation between the generosity to which I aspire and the anxieties embedded in my nervous system from formative years. As the Rebbe explains it, this Psalm turns out to be David’s self-help bestseller, a quick course in miracles for the chronically impecunious. It applies directly to that most down-to-earth of preoccupations, the earning of a livelihood.
“The Lord is my shepherd…” A shepherd, of course, protects and feeds his flock faithfully and unfailingly. Therefore I shall not want – I’m safe, assured of sustenance no matter what. A midrashic gloss on this verse envisions God’s non-stop, unmitigated benevolence, flowing forth from the most sublime dimension of the universe, bestowing parnassah – material abundance – upon all “creatures.” The choice of that term indicates even those with no merit other than the fact that they’ve been created. He is an infinite source of blessing, a magnanimous force that no bear market or economic downturn can deny.
OF WAR AND PEACE
The cynic in me resists. The Rebbe gets that; he acknowledges that this easy abundance might seem counterintuitive to some, and goes on to say that there are actually two modes of pursuing one’s purpose in this world. One is the way of war, of struggle. We hack our way with machetes through thorny underbrush; we grapple with competitors, cross deserts, slay dragons, dodge bullets, sail seas, do battle against all odds to bring home those scattered scraps we need to survive, perchance to thrive.
The other is the way of peace, tranquility.
David insists that we have a choice, and that the latter is the preferred m.o. He lays me down in green pastures; he guides me beside the still waters. Take it easy. Trust Me. Chill. Still waters: mei menuchot, in Hebrew. What exactly is menuchah? Rest? Peace? Serenity? Satisfaction? Deep relaxation? All of the above, and more. The Rebbe extrapolates from various Scriptural occurrences of the word and concludes that menuchah is a quality associated with the indwelling of the Shechinah, the Divine presence in the world. Specifically, in a once golden age, this was manifest in the Beis HaMikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, where the Divine presence rested between the staves of the Ark in the Holy of Holies. The Ark was the vortex, the serene energy center of a turbulent universe, and it was therefore the galvanic attractor of all the wealth in the world. Spiritual wealth, to be sure; but also, by extension, material wealth. They are, after all is said and done, one. (No wonder the fictional Indiana Jones went to such lengths to retrieve the Ark from the clutches of the other side.)
Before the Ark was lost, before Jerusalem fell, while King Solomon reigned and the Temple he built was the major theme-park attraction of the then-civilized world, wealth flowed easily to Israel. The Queen of Sheba herself came to pay lavish tribute, as did emissaries of all the nations, attracted to the vortex like swirling sparks around a blazing bonfire. The esoteric truth behind this historical phenomenon explains how the manifest presence of omnipotent Divinity trumps both the limiting laws of nature and the necessity of struggle. More simply put, we learn from this that back in that glorious moment in the arc of our story, we did not want for anything. Menuchah ruled. The all-powerful shepherd had us covered – and not just collectively, but each individual according to his needs and abilities. Or disabilities, as the case may be. A truly faithful shepherd (as epitomized by Moshe, the Midrash says) knows which of his sheep need to graze in the tender grass, and which can handle the rougher terrain.
? (This ma’amar, by the way, was said during one of his rare trips out of New York City, on a visit upstate to a children’s summer camp nestled in mountain meadows.) Turns out there are two kinds of pastures, too. There are wilderness pastures that require a lot of work before they’re fit for grazing, and the green pastures which are ready-made for providing the good life. Kabbalistic sources associate the green pastures with the quality of tiferet – beauty and balance; a harmonious blend of all the qualities and all the colors of the spectrum of life; perfectly centered, and therefore channeling abundance from the uppermost, innermost source of Divine benevolence that is so powerful it can reach everyone, everywhere, yet so pure it cannot be usurped or stolen or misdirected toward selfish ends.
That ought to cover the bills.
Can this be made real? Are those green pastures and still waters accessible to the likes of us? What now, since the Temple is in ruins and the Divine presence is in exile here with us? Are we then doomed to struggle for our livelihood on hardscrabble landscapes amidst these turgid, polluted waters so far downstream? A glance at the news and the leading economic indicators (not to mention the value of our homes or portfolios or 401K’s – or unemployment benefits) would seem to indicate that’s the case.
Shlomo HaMelech, King Solomon, who knew a thing or two and who presided over that aforementioned golden age, tells us in Ecclesiastes (3:8) that there’s “a time for war, and a time for peace.” (Some of us heard it first from the Byrds.) In this ma’amar, the Rebbe does not dismiss the reality of struggle. In fact, less than two weeks later he said another ma’amar about the path of spiritual battle against internalized patterns of negativity – a.k.a. prayer. But here he emphasizes the way of peace. Clearly there is a degree to which we can make the Lord our shepherd, luxuriate in green pastures, and gratefully allow abundance to be delivered our doors. And we needn’t wait until all the world’s swords have been beaten into plowshares. We’ve got plowshares of our own.
The Rebbe gives both explicit instruction and clues, embedded in the discourse. In general, while the Zohar tells us prayer is war (in one sense, doing battle against our bad habits and erroneous perspectives) the study of Torah is the path of peace. In the trenches, good and evil vie for market share and we grope myopically through minefields of moral relativity. In the greener pastures of Torah there are fewer booby traps. In particular it is the inner dimension of Torah that offers a foretaste of the serpent-free, incorruptible Tree of Life. Those gardens are watered by a peaceful, pure, unstoppable stream that flows from Eden. Chassidus nourishes inner wisdom, and puts that wisdom to work.
The nature of that inner work is hinted at in an incisive section of the ma’amar where the Rebbe is discussing how it could be possible for infinite, utterly unbounded Divinity to dwell within the confines of space and time. There are two opinions (aren’t there always?) – two metaphors that attempt to describe how the Shechinah rests between the staves of the Ark in the Temple’s Holy of Holies. One says it’s like fingers writing down an idea. The fingers don’t really understand the idea; but they are uniquely suited (more than the toes, for example) for conveying the idea in written words. Applying the metaphor, this means that the Divine presence is sort of passing through the space in which it rests. The finite space doesn’t embody the infinite any more than the fingers understand the idea. According to another point of view, however, it’s more like an idea contained in a brain, and by extension in the heart. The brain and heart are more sophisticated than fingers; they are organs that can understand and feel. The ideas they embrace become one with the containers. In fact according to both the Kabbalistic literature and newly emerging evidence in the science of neuroplasticity, the physical organs are actually changed, materially transformed, by the activity and the effort of thinking deeply into an idea. The technical term Chassidus gives this deep internalization is hitlabshut – like wearing a perfectly fitted garment. (Other sources liken it to the relationship between the transcendent soul and the conscious mind.) Shifting again from the metaphor back to its analogue, from this perspective the non-physical Divine presence can, paradoxically, be unified with the physical place in which it is revealed.
There’s abundant food for thought in all this, but for the moment I’ll attempt to bumper-sticker it. When an insight or inspiration comes along, when we encounter a potentially life-transforming idea, are we “just passing through” – or do we make the effort to truly wear it well, to unify with it in mind and heart, in a meaningful and sustainable way?
If we’re told, for instance, that Psalm 23 is intended as a meditation to lift us up beyond the struggle for a livelihood and connect our consciousness with an all-powerful, faithful shepherd, what do we do with that information? Does it genuinely alter our attitudes and expectations? The mind tends to travel in well-worn ruts; the Zohar calls them r’hitei mocha – brain troughs. We think, feel, speak, and dance to the tune of obsolete memes, mind-habits we acquired unwittingly, which have probably outlived their usefulness if indeed they ever served us well. I’m not worthy. It’s too hard. Get real, get practical, don’t be a dreamer. Life’s a struggle and then it’s over.
Having internalized messages like that, it takes some rather rigorous work to learn how to lie down in green pastures and meander by the babbling brook of certainty, serenity, and security. We might as well get to it, though. Every disempowering thought can be replaced with a nourishing truth. We can take the time to remind ourselves on a daily basis that the Shepherd is alive and well, and He’s not just passing through.