Sunday, February 26, 2012

Tips for receptivity ii: Reduce yourself

“Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak; and may the earth hear the words of my mouth.”

In this verse G-d addresses both heaven and earth, requiring them to listen while He speaks. There is a significant difference, however, in the words for listening and speaking used in reference to the heavens as compared to those used in reference to the earth.

The word describing the manner in which heaven hears is‘Haazinu’, related to the Hebrew word for ear – ‘ozen’. It represents a shallow form of listening, one that involves neither heart nor mind, but merely the ear- the external sense organ. The term for G-d’s speech when addressing heaven is‘v’adabero’, from the word ‘dibbur’ which connotes powerful and harsh speech.

In reference to the earth, however, the expression for listen is ‘tishmah’ from the word ‘shemiah’ which signifies a deep form of listening involving the heart; as in the verse “halev shomeah – the heart hears”. The word for G-d’s speech when addressing the earth is “amira” which connotes a subtle, poetic form of speech.

Based on this analysis the verse seems contradictory: If G-d speaks powerfully toward heaven, why does it listen superficially? And if G-d speaks with subtlety toward the earth, why is it deeply affected? Seemingly, it should be the reverse. Heaven alludes to the arrogant person who holds himself high. When speaking to such a person, even if you speak powerfully, from the depth of your heart, he listens only with his ears. Indeed, why expect the arrogant person listen? He is so critical of others that he feels they have nothing to offer him. Furthermore he may think he already knows everything or is flawless, or more commonly, he is so certain about the correctness of his own opinion that he blocks out everyone else’s.
The earth, in contrast, alludes to the humble person who is aware of his shortcomings and is open to influence; even if spoken to gently, he listens with his heart and is deeply affected.

The central text of Kabbalah, the Zohar, makes reference to how arrogance diminishes receptivity to spirituality when it states, “Wood that cannot catch fire must be splintered; a body that cannot catch the fire of the soul, too must be crushed.” As a coarse piece of wood cannot catch fire unless it is broken down into smaller pieces, a heart which is harsh and egotistical, unaffected by contemplations of the divine or insensitive to the feelings of others must be brought to contrition and humility.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi explains the nature of the spiritual axe needed to splinter a coarse heart: One contemplates the number of times one has served as a medium for negative energy to enter the world; how one cannot sustain noble feelings for prolonged periods of time; how inferior one is to various people in wisdom, stability, noble traits, and altruistic acts; and how in behaving indulgently one degrades himself lower than an animal which, unlike him, has no choice to act in a nobler and more spiritual manner. Such harsh self criticism softens the ego, making the heart more receptive to the soul, as well as to other people.

This is similar to one reason people are encouraged to occasionally visit cemeteries and homes of mourners. They serve as vivid reminders of the inevitable fate of the body, the fragility of physical life, and the transience of this world. Furthermore, one confronts the mystery of where the spirits of those buried in the cemetery are wandering; bringing the heart to touch the gates of heaven which bar all but whose bodies deteriorate in the earth. It is remarkable how sensitive and receptive people attending a funeral become; how the death of one brings many others to life.

The etrog – Citron, a fruit used to perform a mitzvah during the festival of Sukkot is identified with the ability to receive influence. The unique quality of the etrog is its ability to grow during any season, to use all the diverse climatic conditions to facilitate its growth. It receives from them all. This is the character of true receptivity, for as long as one is limited to drawing influence selectively, he is not fully open to receive.

This is the level of receptivity people are encouraged to attain, the ability to learn and spiritually grow from everyone –and everything - that one encounters. For instance, Rabbi Zushia of Anapoli famously learnt avoidance of attention, persistence, and the patience to wait for the right moments from a thief. Similarly, when Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch observed the front wagon of a steam train depart leaving the passenger carriages behind, he remarked: ‘when the mind embarks in the study of Torah but does not draw with it a corresponding change in his behavior – it leaves the ‘passengers’behind.

But what quality underlies such receptivity? Our sages point out that the letters of the word Etrog are an acronym for a verse in Psalms: ‘Al T’vueni Regel Gahva – Do not bring me to arrogance’. This implies that receptivity is an outcome of humility; sensing that one has yet an inestimable amount to learn and improve.     

 On the verse commanding Noah “Come into the ark (Teiva)”, the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, taught that the word teiva has a dual meaning. It can mean both ‘ark’ and ‘word’. The connection, he explained, is that those that entered the ark with Noah were saved from a flood of water, while those that enter the wordsof Torah find refuge from the flood of immorality.

After one Chassidic

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