Due to a combination of my respiratory history and my age, before the rest of you were locked up, my wife and children had already put me on the endangered species list. Now, despite living in time-to-get-back-to-work Georgia, Im still stuck indefinitely at home.
They bring my grandchildren to peer at me through the screened windows, pointing and saying, Thats a grandpa. Dont come too close. Dont touch now.
Soon theyll start throwing peanuts.
And a little nudnik voice from some dim corner of my mind ruminates on, How long before I can hug one of those grandchildren again?
This might sound strange, but since being grounded by my kids, Ive been finding a lot of comfort in an 11th-century text originally composed in Arabic.
Bachya ibn Paquda of Saragosa, Al-Andalus (currently Spain)or Rabbeinu Bachaye (pronounced ba-CHAY-yeh by Ashkenazim) as he is knowncould be called both a rationalist and a mystic. He lived in what we call The Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, an era when philosophers regularly gathered in private orchards and gardens to discuss the meaning of all things. He was the dayan (judge) for Jewish matters in his city, but he was also concerned that the responsibilities of the human heart had been neglected. And so he wrote Duties of the Heart to fill that void.
While very little is known about Rabbeinu Bachaye himself, the popularity of his work has never waned. It has always been a prime book to illuminate the inner life of our heartswhat we love, what we fear, how we think of ourselveswhile showing how this must be expressed in our outer lifehow we speak to others, how we do business, how we eat and sleep. And how silly it is to fret and worry.
Chapter Two deals with the hearts need to trust and the serenity that trust buys you. To paraphrase, in small part:
When you are small, you learn to rely on your mothers breasts for milk. As you gain awareness, you realize there is an entire mother there to rely upon. You grow further to discover there is a father upon whom the mother relies. One day, you learn to rely upon yourself.
But eventually, you must discover that you are not in control. Neither is your father nor your mother. Neither is the most powerful person in your countryor even in the entire worldin control. None of them has the crucial combination of qualities and powers that allow you to place all your trust in this one person.
So who is there to rely upon? Only
1. Someone who loves you.
2. Someone who never ceases to watch over you.
3. Someone who has unlimited power and is undefeatable.
4. Someone who knows what is best for you, spiritually and materially.
5. Someone who has a stellar record of caring for all your needs from the day you were born to this day and will continue to do so.
6. Someone in whose hands you lie, all of you, sheltered and cared for without need of recourse to anyone elsebecause when you need to trust two people for something, you really dont trust either of them.
7. Someone who cares for you unconditionally, regardless of whether you are worthy or unworthy.
And you discover that only one being can fulfill all these requirements.
Bachya elucidates upon each of these at length, in the flowing language typical of classical Arabic prose, rich with metaphor. He demonstrates both rationally and from verses of Tanach how each of these prerequisites complements and magnifies the power of all the others, weaving a perfect net of serenity and confidenceSo I meditate on this list of seven at night. And I can sleep. to the intellectual as to the believerand how there is no being on earth or in heaven who can truly fit any of these descriptions, other than the single Creator and Director of all things.
So I meditate on this list of seven at night. Thendespite the news I have read that day, despite the precautions I must take to keep myself safe, despite the general frenzy in the air since a tiny little virus has attacked all of human civilization I can then sleep a good, healing sleep. Almost a thousand years later, Rabbeinu Bachayes formula still works.
Or does it?
Lets step back to prerequisite number five, in which Rabbeinu Bachaye invites us to ponder the story of our lives and find divine protection sewn throughout its fabric. Makes sense. Empirical evidence is always assuring.
So generations of Jews who suffered ill-health, persecution, poverty, extreme violence and war, high infant mortality rates, bitter cold homes in the winter and burning hot homes filled with bugs and stench in the summer, plagues that make our current virus concern look like the common cold, backbreaking labor and often days without bread, followed his advice and saw a divine hand carrying them through every event of their lives.
What did they say? Its right there in the prayer book. But they really meant it:
In famine You nourished us, and in plenty You sustained us. From sword You saved us; from plague You rescued us; and from severe and enduring diseases you spared us. Until now Your mercy has helped us, and Your kindness has not forsaken us. And You will never abandon us, Gd our Gd, forever
Thats them. Modern man, with more than twiceThey suffered and were grateful. Modern man looks back and kvetches. What changed? the longevity and a thousand times the wealth, looks back and only sees reason to kvetch. And to worry about the future.
Okay, its not as though there are no real concerns, especially considering the current situation. People have lost parents and loved ones. Our lives have been turned upside-down.
Then theres the economy26 million people in America alone lost their jobs and as many as 7.5 million small businesses are now at risk. That affects all of us. Yes, we are a resilient and resourceful nation. But we cant blame anyone for being worried.
Rabbeinu Bachaye tells us to look at the record. The Author of this universe took care of us all this time. Why would He stop now?
We want to listen. We want those words to sooth our soul. But all some of us can remember is the disasters. So lots of people think apocalypse. For Jewish people especially, theres a noisy channel in the back of our minds playing Crusades, Spanish Expulsion, Cossack Revolt, Holocaust
The medicines not working. What went wrong?
It would be nice to blame it on the modern minds perspective of historicity. Or our scientific objectivity.
But intellectual integrity doesnt allow us. Jews were always historically orientedthe rest of the world got it from us. Even before an event had unfolded, Moses was already telling his people to remember this day. Over and over, we are told, Remember the days of eternity. Understand each generation
As for objectivity, our ancestors were far from delusional. They were hard-playing merchants in a tough world. Bachya himself was a rationalist who certainly knew that humanitys history was no Grimm Brothers storybook.
And, indeed, the phenomena is not exclusive to the modern mind. Go back yet another thousand years or so before Rabbeinu Bachaye and youll find the prophets of the Bible chiding the people for just the same syndrome: When youre needy, then you remember your need for your Creator. As soon as those needs are taken care of, you go looking for someone else to serve.
Like Moses put it, When Yeshurun (another code name for the Jewish people) gets fat, he gets sassy.
But the weird part of it all is thatas Bachya points outconfidence in the future is so dependent upon gratitude for the past. Feeling grateful to Someone Whos In Charge of Everything kills worry.
So lets call it the Yeshurun Complex. The more you get, the harder it gets to feel grateful. The less grateful you feel, the more you worry. The more you worry, the less likely you are to be happy. Which renders many financially comfortable people unhappy.
I believe it all has to do with a persons self-concept. What is your place in this universe? How powerful are you? How vulnerable are you?
If you see yourself as a frail creature that entered this world as a tiny baby, naked and utterly helpless on its own, you will feel very grateful that you survived more than an hour, that some wolf didnt come to eat you. But human nature is such that as soon as weve managed to pile a few blocks one on top of the other, we see ourselves as the vortex of all life, the crown of existence, deserving all things.
Moses again: And you say, My own power and the might of my own hand have won me all this success!
Thats when all the blocks come tumbling down. BecauseDeep down, we all know to rely on ourselves alone is like relying on a bubble in the air. deep down you know the truth, that youre not in control of anything. You know you cant trust yourself. Youre leaning on a bubble in the air.
Ironically, it comes out that the more power you attribute to yourself, the more vulnerable you render yourself. The more you realize just how fragile you really are, the more you will put yourself in divine hands, with gratitude and serene confidence and trust.
I find that answer very helpful. It provides me a turnkey solution to end worry and attain gratefulnessand thereby the serenity of trust promised by Rabbeinu Bachaye. I simply need to switch my default self-image to something more minimalistic.
For me, personally, thats the memory of my time trekking and hitchhiking across Canada, America, Israel, Europe and the UK as an adolescent in the early 70s. I carried only a sack with a cheap sleeping bag, often sleeping beneath theIts all a matter of whats your default status. stars. I was young, naive and easy prey to the wolves of human society. Without a doubt, thousands of miracles were needed to keep me alive through those years.
And how many more, then, to keep me to this day.
Now, as I lie in bed, I can say, I have a pillow under my head. A miracle! I have a bed upon which to lie. A miracle! There is a wooden floor beneath me, four walls and a roof that does not leak. How many miracles!
And I go on counting from therecounting miracles too innumerous to count, wonders too awesome to describe, divine gifts so unabatingly reliable that the kindness and compassion they demonstrate is beyond comprehension.
We sit nestled in the loving, caring hands of the One who spoke and the world snapped into existence. He has blessed us until now with His goodness.
How on earth could you be worried?
As with an individual, so too with a nation. King David advised his heir, Solomon, If Gd doesnt build a house, its builders are wasting their time. If Gd doesnt protect a city, security is laboring in vain.
As the Rebbe often said, America is blessedbecause it stamps on its money the words, In Gd we trust.
It's that trust that grants you the confidence in the future to go out into the world and stake out your living. Farmers know this well. The Talmud says thatPeople build a world because they have faith in the Life of the World. farming requires faith, that its only because the farmer has faith in the Life of the Worldmeaning the One from whom all life extendsthat he has the confidence to sow a field and expect a crop the next season.
Rebuilding an economy after a lockdown requires even greater faith.
America, trust in Gd, and go out and rebuild your country.
The same with every nation that knows its true place under the heavens. Trust in Gd and build.
Truthfully, theres another dimension that distinguishes us from our ancestors. We live in a much flatter, one-dimensional universe. More on this, in an upcoming sequel.
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