Rabbi Mordecai Finley
Knowledge, Will and Blessings - Comments on Torah Portion Naso
Knowledge, Will and Blessings Thoughts on Torah Portion Naso 2020 (adapted from 2019)
I often meet with a person who is looking to change their life and it comes down to “the moment when.” People want to give up anger or resentment, find courage or lose weight. All the pieces are in place, the skills are known, and the launch button awaits. When is the moment?
This is one of the mysteries of the will – that energy that seems to form somewhere deep in the unconscious. Oddly, we often can’t just will up the will. If I am resistant to doing something, I can sit and affirm all day long that “I have the will” and those affirmations might just tire me out. The will that forms in the unconscious is much more complex than affirmations. Affirmations have to register somewhere very deep, way below language.
I think the mystery of the will resides in some kind of knowledge. We know things in the mind, but then we know things in the area of the soul – another kind of knowledge altogether. When the soul knows something, it also knows its own calculus: the inner life cost of doing something and the cost of not doing something else. The soul is the realm of our deepest values, our maxims, our starting places, our belief systems. We can subject our inner life beliefs to rational scrutiny, but those deep beliefs don’t start in the rational dimension.
For example, a young adult may have a belief, “Never makes my parents feel bad.” Then someone makes a rational case that they “have to start living for themselves.” The child has to weigh the suffering that letting the parents down will incur against the benefit of “living for herself.” An outsider might say, “You are not being rational.” The soul says, for better or worse, “my parents come first.”
Forcing yourself to do something before the soul is ready either produces nothing but frustration, or what it does produce comes at a great cost, a cost we pay later in guilt, for example.
I have seen well-intentioned friends persuading feuding people to “just talk to each other”, and I have also known of the ensuing reluctant encounters going very badly. They weren’t ready.
Hard battles go on deep within. Battles of working through fear, grief, anger and resentment, getting sober (staying sober), facing others and facing oneself. Fierce battles rage in the realm of the unconscious. In the “hero’s journey” this is the fight through the thicket. The hero knows the quest, has found the tools, has been given the map, but there is always the fight through the thicket.
For us, on the hero’s journey in our lives, there is always the temptation to take the inner war into the interpersonal space. Blame someone else or something else for our suffering. Ultimately, you can only fix the outside world, even the system, so much. Ultimately, you have to repair the self.
If you have already read some story of the hero’s journey, you know whether the hero makes it through it or not. But in the story, the hero does not know the outcome. The soul does not know of inevitable victory. Sometimes people say to each other, “It will all work out,” but that is a statement of faith, not fact – and maybe a false belief.
Once the hero’s journey truly begins, the soul only knows one thing – no willful turning back. If I am to suffer defeat, it is because there were just too many pterodactyls. The hero deserves to live, to succeed. This deserving of victory makes little difference to the forces of destruction.
When that moment of realization - that one can do no other - occurs in the soul, it shudders through the body. It is a singular knowledge, a heart firming and an opening into the vastness of a life of meaning. We all know, however, that the firm heart can weaken and the opening into the mystery of being can close up again.
A second kind of will is needed. The first will is the decision to move. The second will is to keep moving. The first one is related to courage, the second to resilience. Doubt has been overcome. Now one must accept the pain.
Where does prayer fit in? What do prayers and blessings do? Perhaps they awaken unseen, supernatural forces to some good purpose. But perhaps a prayer or a blessing awakens the soul to a knowledge, a decision, a resilience - all circling in the realm of the will.
When our inner work has taken us down to a core question or insight, we see what has to be done. For example, a person once asked me for a prayer for prosperity. I asked him exactly what he wanted God to do. Several things came up: that his investors should overcome fear and suspicion. That his partners would be efficient. That, in general, good fortune would reign. “Prayers should be specific,” I advised. He ended up praying for his own good judgment, with some good fortune added.
Even if we appeal to the divine, however, with some laser point focus, it seems that the mere bringing of the laser light of the soul to bear on some question can have a transformative effect. It seems that once we bring the light of the soul to shine on some problem, we no longer need divine intervention, or the divine intervention has already just occurred.
It can be the same with the words of others. Sometimes another person can see into us with such precision that they can discern what the obstacle is, and then offer words that break through some obstacle. The words of others might not be phrased as a blessing, but that is their effect.
Prayers and blessings, at their finest, are the culmination of intensive introspective or empathetic effort. We can’t always determine what happens next, but whatever else we do, we are filling the world with will, insight and love. Those ripples never cease. Everything matters.
From our Torah portion:
May the Divine bless you and stand guard over you.
May the Divine bring illumination to you and be gracious to you.
May the Divine presence be borne toward you and grant you wholeness of being.