Sunday, February 26, 2012

Pathway Eleven. Life: life as dual movement

Observing the functions that maintain a person’s life, we find that many of them are characterised by a dual movement of contraction and expansion. Take, for instance, the heart. It clearly functions in a rhythmic pattern of expansion and contraction. The inhalation and exhalation of the lungs also follows a similar rhythm of contraction and expansion.

But there are other functions as well, though not as obvious, that work in a similar way. The brain, for instance, is constantly sending out and receiving messages along the body’s two main types of neurons, the motor and the sensory; receiving messages via the sensory, and sending them out via the motor. The inward bound messages are associated with contraction, and the outward bound, expansion. The sleep wake cycle is also necessary for living and it too behaves according to the above nature. When asleep, an individual’s conscious is relatively free from the limitations of the physical body, the rigorous laws of logic, and even the boundaries of time and space. Sleep is thus associated with expansion. Wakefulness, in contrast, involves the clothing of the consciousness within the confines of time and space via the physical body. Wakefulness is thus associated with contraction.

 Life in divine service is dependent upon a similar dual movement termed ‘running and returning’. A method learnt from the angels termed “chayot – living” which Eziekiel the prophet describes as “Running and returning” in their service of G-d.

Running involves spending time attaching to G-d through highly transcendental activities such as prayer or the study of Torah mysticism. It is associated with contraction. Returning, in contrast, involves returning into daily life to work, to socialize, to eat, and to fulfil practical mitzvot. It is associated with expansion. Just as physical life cannot continue without the dual movement of the above mentioned functions, a spiritual life cannot be sustained without the process of running and returning.

If a person spends most of his time immersed in prayer or study, is he really alive in this world? For all intents and purposes he is in some higher spiritual reality contributing about as much to the world and society as one who sleeps all the time. Conversely, the person who spends his all his time involved in material affairs, socializing -  and fulfilling practical mitzvot - but without taking time to contemplate the divine or to connect to G-d emotionally through prayer, will be unable to sustain a high level of spirituality and connection to G-d, and will eventually become spiritually dry and lifeless.

Thus an alternation between the two is necessary. One spends time ‘running’ toward the divine through the study of Torah mysticism and prayer, and then ‘returns’ into daily life with fresh inspiration and engages in daily living in a meaningful way. Only then can a person sustain a spiritual life.

The Torah lifestyle clearly follows this pattern. On a daily basis there are three prayers, Shacharit- the morning prayer, Mincha – the afternoon prayer, and Ma’ariv – the evening prayer. Each prayer offers a ‘running’ experience, where one can withdraw from one’s affairs and connect to G-d in an intimate way. Though after each prayer one ‘returns’ into daily living, until the next prayer.

As part of the weekly cycle we have six working days and the Shabbat –Sabbath. Shabbat is a day of transcendence, where one withdraws from mundane affairs and focuses on prayer, Torah study, and spending time with the family; Shabbat is associated with ‘Running’. In contrast, the six working days are associated with ‘return’ for one re-enters the world by engaging in business, travelling, doing the shopping, etc.

The letter most connected with the idea of life is the Chet, for the very name means life. Furthermore, Chet is the first letter of the word Chaim. If we examine the shape of the letter Chet closely we find that it consists of three smaller parts: a letter Zayin on the right, a letter Vav on the left, and a line connecting the two letters at the very top. The Zayin has the numerical value seven, while the Vav, six. The Vav represents the ‘return’ characteristic of the six working days, while Zayin represents the ‘running’ of Shabbat. This alludes to the idea that Chet – life, is produced by harmonizing running and returning.         

 The principle of running and returning is also related to the male and female. The female is associated with the desire to receive and is thus identified with ‘running’ while the male is associated with a desire to give, which is characteristic of ‘returning’. We see this idea reflected in the Hebrew names for a bride and groom. A bride is a Kallah – which has the connotation of yearning,as in the expression “kalot hanefesh”, while the groom is a Chatan which connotes descent, as in the expression “N’chot darga”. The bride is associated with the yearning characteristic of ‘running’, while the groom is associated with the giving that characterises ‘returning’.    

During a Jewish wedding ceremony the bride and groom stand under a canopy called a Chupah. The word Chupah can be divided into two parts: Chet and Po (here) – ‘Chet is here.’ Based on the parallel between running and returning and the bride and groom, the significance of this word becomes apparent. The harmonization of a male and female is a concrete expression of the letter Chet. And, in this instance as well, the unity of running and returning generates life, in this case, children.

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