Monday, December 31, 2012

Between Man and Angels

The gemara (Shabbos 88b-89a) relates a fascinating event that happened when Moshe ascended to heaven to receive the Torah.

The angels protested the giving of this valuable treasure that had been hidden for nearly 1000 generations prior to Creation to a flesh and blood man, "born of woman". God instructs Moshe himself to address their claim, at which point he grasps the Throne of Glory and proceeds to respond to their criticism. Using the Ten Commandments as his template, Moshe proceeds to demonstrate that the Torah is specifically designed for humans who are capable of exercising free will and must contend with all the challenges of being human. At this point the angels are mollified, and not only do they ally themselves with him, but they also provide Moshe with gifts; the Angel of Death himself shares the secret of the incense and its life-restoring qualities.

In Nefesh HaChaim, Reb Chaim of Volozhin examines the difference between humans and angels. It's not so much that humans are greater than angels - on the contrary, in all respects but one, angels are far superior to humans in terms of inherent holiness, purity, and the like. However, the angel is limited in one aspect that the human is not: the potential to affect other realms with his actions, and have an impact beyond the immediate surroundings.

The angel is described as stationary; its appearance gives off the impression of a single leg, i.e. the inability to move. However, man is described as a composite, a microcosm of all the different worlds beyond that of our  physical plane of existence; he is termed a mehalech - a walker (related to the reason why the corpus of Jewish law is called halacha). Everything he does has an effect that endures forever, and has far reaching ramifications. As we see in this week's parsha, Moshe "[T]urned this way and that and saw that there was no man..." (Ex. 2:12); this is explained as Moshe utilizing ruach haKodesh to determine that no future converts would come from this Egyptian before killing him.

This singularly human ability accords us with a tremendous amount of responsibility. The realization that our decisions and actions have enduring repercussions that stems from our development as creatures of action and flux may no doubt create a certain amount of existential angst. But that is no reason to shy away from our duties while we are here on Earth. There is no way to avoid it; even our inaction has serious causal effect on future generations (sometimes by cutting off the continued growth of our descendants, God forbid).

Of late, there has been a movement toward a more positively-oriented perspective in psychology, built around a pursuit of happiness. Many philosophically minded psychologists have attempted to define what happiness is and how it is attained. Concurrently, they have devised many practical interventions toward this end of cultivating happiness - many of which have tremendous benefits for those who take the time and care to implement them properly. This is a very good step in the right direction; after all, the Ba'al Shem Tov and others stressed the importance of serving HaShem with joy, a concept that should be a basic tenet of Judaism but somehow gets lost in translation sometimes (in fact, it is biblical in nature - "...tachat asher lo avadeta et HaShem b'simcha").

But many of these scholars lose sight of the main goal, seeing happiness as an end in itself. Happiness is a subjective concept that can prove elusive when placed as a desired achievement. A corollary of this attitude is the mistaken notion that pain or discomfort is unhelpful, unwanted, unnecessary; conflict is something that should be avoided as much as possible. This is not the case. The existential struggles and tests that we must go through are what galvanize us to continue, to grow, to keep moving and improving. They give us a sense of responsibility to others as well as ourselves. Frankl called this a "will to meaning"; the Torah itself asserts that "man is born to toil". Only through hard work and dedication is it possible to truly achieve anything in life - and when we feel that we are working for something important, the satisfaction and self assurance is more valuable than any other type of happiness.


Micha Berger said...

Arguably, the phrase "the pursuit of happiness" is empty. Happiness may be defined as the emotion generated by the target of a pursuit. Which is why we can invest so much resources getting something, just to quickly lose interest once we have it.

The only happy person is someone who has a meaning (whether or not we agree it's a good one) to pursue. I think the Baal haTanya says as much (in different language) in a piece about ratzon and taanug, but I can't remember where.

Also, notice how the only things that give us prolonged happiness are things like marriage and parenthood, maybe a good career, which require constant work and can continually progress.

Shmuel said...

True. A side point: several philosophers have asserted that at most, one can only truly hope for some form of mild contentment as an end; true happiness is unattainable.

Another point concerning your last statement: notice how at least two of the three things you listed involved other people beyond the self. Marriage and parenting are concerned with interaction with an other, ideally raising the individual out of an egocentric point of view into one that is more altruistic or considerate...

Micha Berger said...

Nice thought, but... The fact that happiness is in the pursuit is sufficient to explain why my examples involve other people. You can obtain a ring. But because people are inherently perpetually in progress, a relationship is an endless pursuit. (Well, it does have an end, but only achar mei'ah ve'esrim.)