Rabbi Mordecai Finley
Seekers of Truth Among the Ruins - Comments on the Shabbat Before the 9th of Av
Seekers of Truth Among the Ruins
Thoughts on the Sabbath Before the 9th of Av (Parshat Devarim)
Well-being is within your reach. We’ve all had moments of joy, connectedness, and purpose, where life felt as it was supposed to feel. We long to recreate those moments, to make them last. This is the good news.
For some of us, however, for some period of our lives, well-being seems unattainable. For some period of our lives we might feel unfulfilled, unnourished, lost, alone, confused.
In my Wednesday night Wisdom Work classes I have a list of 21 major and common disruptions of the ego-self, ego-states within that cause us pain and misery, or ego-states that have us try to inflict misery and pain on others. A relative newcomer asked, “Why 21? Some magical number?” I answered, “It began at 10. The more I teach and counsel, the list just keeps agglutinating.” Since last Wednesday night, the list has grown to 25.
The misery, or the need in inflict misery, is inevitable. Sometimes misery comes from tragedy – despite the good will of people, things unravel badly. We are shaped by our genetic inheritance, our early childhoods, everything since, and our history of decisions, conscious and unconscious. Our ego selves have developed unconscious habits of problem solving. Some of those habits are just terrible. Even when we think we are choosing, the ego-self’s habits do most of the choosing for us. This is the bad news.
The good news is that if you are reading this, you are alive and conscious today. If you decide to, you can learn a teaching, and make use of it.
Here is the teaching for this period of time in the Jewish calendar. Let me start with an image. You are sitting among ruins, wind whistling through burnt out buildings. Or you are in a forest of trees blackened by a raging fire. You decide to put one brick on top of another. Or you go searching for a surviving sprout and start to nurture it.
Or you have lost your way, your ego-self having insisted on the always unique but well-travelled road to perdition. However, it’s today – you can take the road less traveled, the high road. How far? It does not matter. You are no longer on the road back to Egypt. You are heading elsewhere.
We are in the time in our calendar, between the 17th Day of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, when we study two narratives, out of their regular place in our yearly cycle of Torah readings. For reasons I can explain Shabbat morning, we study the Sin of the Molten Calf and the Sin of the Spies.
“Sin” not just meaning a moral transgression, though it includes that. “Sin,” more existentially, means acting against our authentic nature – our authentic goodness as human beings. The Sin of the Calf can be understood as the rejection of a divine teaching that would commit us to transform ourselves – actualizing the well-being that is within our reach. The Calf is the fixed place that justifies where we are now – that what we think, feel and say is true just because we think so. The Calf, as an ego-state, refuses any external criteria for truth. When we worship the calf, we can’t be wrong. We argue; we don’t process. The Calf is an act of ego-self worship.
The Spies, as a concept, is the refusal to accept a reality, moral or otherwise, that does not match our feelings. The Sin the Spies goes even further – they create a new reality. Conquering Canaan is a fearsome task, so it can’t be done. Any claim to the contrary is greeted with hysteria. Egypt was redefined (in a follow-up rebellion to the Sin of the Spies) as a land “flowing with milk and honey” (Numbers 16:13). The Israelites had pleaded with God to bring them out of Egypt; then they say that God brought them into the wilderness to kill them (also Numbers 16:13).
The Sin of the Calf is the rejecting of a teaching of truth so that we can worship our ego-self. The Sin of Spies is the sin of creating a new reality, a false history, to justify our current emotional state. It is gratifying in the moment to reject the truth and replace it with a reality of our contrivance, but those contrivances all eventually lead to misery.
So, what is the truth? This is actually the right question. True - our inner lives are subjective; we experience the world through our own subjective lenses. It is also true that there actually is an objective world; there are other people and there are facts. We assemble the truth through our engagement with other subjective human beings. We try to figure things out. Truth is assembled as a project, o
ften with people with whom we disagree. Deep well-being is connected to living a life of truth. Misery is lies – those we tell ourselves, or those that other people are foisting on us. (This is why I try to begin all relationship counseling with a “police report” - just the facts - to help people disconnect from the narratives that blind our vision.)
The official meaning of the Fast of the 9th of Av (this coming Thursday night and Friday) is the commemoration of the destruction of the First and Second Temples. The ancient rabbis, however, connected this time in our calendar to the Sin of the Calf and the Sin of the Spies (for reasons that I will explain on Shabbat morning).
The city of ruins, the blackened forest, the journey to perdition are all the result of rejecting truth - the laborious, lifetime and humbling project of assembling truth with other Seekers of Truth.
During this week, we contemplate the ruins or the possibility of ruins – and we commit ourselves to our yearly, lifetime, humbling, laborious project of building and planting truth, as we journey towards the Days of Awe, toward deep and sustained well-being.