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Mah tovu

I just found the text I want to use in this Shabbat's Torah study: section two of The Gate of Sadness: Jewish and Buddhist teachings on the broken heart by Jay Michaelson.

"Sadness and joy are not opposites," Michaelson writes. "They exist as two notes of a sometimes dissonant, sometimes harmonious, chord of quiet awareness.  Learning to experience and accept one’s sadness as part of the unfolding perfection of Being is to make the darkness visible, and beautiful.  It is a gate into deeply knowing that all is God."

If you have ever wrestled with sadness -- and who among us hasn't? -- you might find this brief text worthwhile. The part I hope to teach is section two, which alludes to the prayer offered by Balaam in this week's Torah portion, now part of our regular liturgy:

In the parallel structure of Balaam's speech, we can see a microcosm of the mind states of gadlut (great mind, when we know we are filled with God) and katnut (small mind, when we do not think we are).  The "tents of Jacob" represent katnut – grasping mind; Ya'akov, whose first act was to grasp the ankle of his twin brother Esau; Jacob, who stole his brother's blessing and tried to live his life; mere tents.  The "dwelling places of Israel" are gadlut; Yisrael, he who wrestles with, embraces God; the person who has become transformed; dwelling places made into mishkenot for the shechinah.

Yet Balaam does not say that only Israel's mishkenot are tov (good).  He does not say how wonderful it is when (and only when) our finite tents are transformed into places for the Infinite.  He says that both sides are good.

I love the way Balaam's verse suggests the tension between katnut (small or grasping mind) and gadlut (great or expansive mind), and I love the idea that a shift in consciousness can transform our plain old tents (or houses, or synagogue buildings) into holy dwelling-places. (I offer that teaching many weeks at the start of our service when we're beginning with "Mah Tovu.")

But even more than that, I'm struck by the reminder that Balaam doesn't necessarily subscribe to binaries the way that we do. As this text reminds me, the prayer doesn't say that gadlut is great and katnut isn't. Balaam suggests that both are good: that even as we strive for expanded consciousness, our contracted consciousness is also okay. That the paradigm which insists on one replacing the other might be flawed.

There's merit, it seems to me, in learning how to lift ourselves out of binaries sometimes. Instead of getting caught in this/that, we can move up a level and see the bigger picture, the whole of which the binary system is a part. We can't live our lives in constant devekut (cleaving-to-God); mystics of every tradition agree (often regretfully) that we seem to need to return to ordinary bounded consciousness in order to live in the world. But we can learn to appreciate the beauty in the whole that contains both individual selfhood and boundless unity. Mah tovu indeed.

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