Sunday, February 26, 2012

PATHWAY TWO. Balance: the choice quality

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the forefathers of Israel, were exceptionally saintly people; G-d rested upon them all. Yet, G-d refers to Jacob as the ‘choice of the forefathers’.Why is Jacob granted this additional accolade; what makes him greater than his saintly forebears?

Each of the forefathers personified a particular divine quality: Abraham personified Chessed-Kindness, Isaac, Gevurah – Self containment, and Jacob, Tiferet – Balance. Abraham’s connection to Chessed is evident in his establishing an inn in the wilderness to cater to the physical and spiritual needs of travelers, and his pleading with G-d to be compassionate toward the depraved citizens of Sodom. 

Isaac’s identification with Gevurah, the opposite quality to Abraham, is poignantly seen in the way Isaac allowed himself to be slaughtered and burnt as a sacrifice to G-d, containing his instinct to live. Furthermore, unlike Abraham who travelled teaching the word of G-d, Isaac contained himself to the Holy land of Israel.    

Jacob, manifest extraordinary balance when his brother, Esau, was pursuing him with ill intent. Jacob sent him extravagant gifts in an attempt to mollify him, an act of Chessed, while also preparing for battle, an act of Gevurah, in case Esau’s hostility was not tempered by the gifts. Jacob also demonstrated balance when he received the firstborn blessings from his father Isaac. Though Jacob engaged in deceit, tricking his father into believing that he was Esau, he did so without a trace of selfish intent, and was morally unscathed by the act.

It was his identification with balance that distinguished Jacob from his predecessors. But why is balance so special that it rises above the noble traits of kindness and self-containment?

We can answer, simply, that since balance contains the other two qualities - for one balances Chessed and Gevurah - it is greater than each individual one. This, however, implies a mere quantitative advantage of two against one, is there a qualitative advantage as well?

Balance is not only the ability to switch between one quality and its opposite as required, but the accurate blending of opposing elements in an unlimited variety of ways. The product of such blending, as Gestalt psychologists elegantly put it, “is greater than the sum total of its parts.” For example, producing a pattern out of two colors is more aesthetically pleasing, not only than each color on its own, but even the merging of the two colors. But this too needs explanation, why is the whole greater than the sum of its parts?

When two colors are combined in a meaningful way, the sense is that a third force transcending both colors unites them together. For instance, in artwork, it is the artist’s imagination and purpose that harmonizes the colors, becoming the ‘soul’ of the artwork, the unifying force.  It is this third unifying element which makes the “whole greater than the sum total of its parts.”

Similarly, the harmonization of Chessed and Gevurah requires a person tapping into a level of his being which is deeper than those two qualities; a level that can appreciate both qualities and perceive ways of combining them. This deeper aspect is conscious awareness which must be present for any behavior to be precise. Balance is thus superior to kindness and self-containment much like the soul is superior to the body.

However, there is another advantage to balance. Any quality, expressed in excess, can degenerate into a negative form. For instance, in excess, kindness results in permissiveness and indulgence, while self-containment results in anger and violence. Balance, however, which involves expressing the right amount of any quality, is immune to such corruption.

 This principle too, is reflected in the Torah narrative concerning the forefathers. The potential for permissiveness to extend from Chessed is alluded to in Abraham fathering Yishmael. Yishmael was an adulterer, and generally lacked moral boundaries, as the verse describes him, “His hand was on everything, and everyone’s hand was upon him.” Yishmael was of similar energy to Abraham, love and kindness, but a distorted, corrupted form.

Similarly, Isaac fathered Esau, a cruel murderer who even attempted to kill his own brother. Esau was of the same substance as Isaac but in an ugly degenerate form. Isaac used harsh self-containment toward disciplining himself in the service of G-d; Esau used it to inflict pain upon others.                                      

Regarding Jacob, however, the Torah attests, “His bed [progeny] was sound.” All twelve of his sons were righteous, reflecting the principle that balance is not prone to negative offshoots.

In summary, balance is superior to Chessed and Gevurah for three reasons: a) balance contains the other two qualities within it; b) the ability to balance opposing qualities requires the involvement of a deeper, overarching level of the psyche which can meaningfully combine the two together; c) whereas the other two qualities are vulnerable to excess and thus negative offshoots,  nothing negative extends from balance.

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