Follow by Email

Monday, December 14, 2009

Which Organ Rules? / Sotah 8b - 9b

The Rabbis of the Mishnah articulate a general rule in Sotah 8b:
According to the measure by which one measures, they measure it out for him.
In other words: Heaven (“they”) exacts retribution for evil in a manner that both identifies and reflects the sin committed. The subsequent Mishnah, on daf 9b, spells this out with examples that reinforce the notion of measure-for-measure retribution. Here’s the mishnah on 9b:
Samson went after his eyes; therefore the Philistines put out his eyes, as it is said, The Philistines laid hold of him and put out his eyes (Judges 16:21). Absalom gloried in his hair; therefore he was hanged by his hair. And because he cohabited with the ten concubines of his father, he was stabbed with ten lances, as it is said, Ten young men that bore Yoav’s armor encompassed him (II Samuel 18:15). Because he stole three hearts – the heart of his father, the heart of the court of justice, and the heart of Israel, as it is said, So Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel (II Samuel 15:6) – therefore three darts were thrust through him, as it is said, He took three darts in his hand and thrust them through the heart of Absalom (II Samuel 18:14). [This principle] is the same in connection with the good. Miriam waited a short time for Moses, as it is said, And his sister stood afar off (Exodus 2:4); therefore Israel waited for her seven days in the wilderness, as it is said, The people did not journey onward until Miriam was brought in again (Numbers 12:15). Joseph earned merit by burying his father and there was none among his brothers greater than he, as it is said, Joseph went up to bury his father… and there went up with him both chariots and horsemen (Genesis 50:7-9). Who is greater than Joseph? No less than Moses, who occupied himself with [Joseph’s] burial. Moses earned merit through the bones of Joseph and there was none in Israel greater than he, as it is said, Moses took the bones of Joseph with him (Exodus 13:19). Who is greater than Moses? No less than the Omnipresent was occupied [with his burial], as it is said, He buried him in the valley (Deuteronomy 34:6). Not only concerning Moses did they said this, but concerning all the righteous, as it is said, Your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your reward (Isaiah 58:8).
The examples offered us on the negative side of the ledger are Samson (who went after his eyes) and Absalom (who gloried in his beautiful mane). On the positive side of the ledger stand Miriam (who patiently waited to see that her brother would be saved by the daughter of Pharaoh) and Joseph (who buried his father, Jacob). Evil is requited with evil; goodness is repaid with goodness.

All four examples affirm that our mind – our consciousness –is our dominant organ. Samson’s eyes may have led him astray, but his mind was in complete collusion. Absalom was enamored of his gorgeous locks because he indulged in vainglorious thinking. Miriam and Joseph kept their priorities clear – their minds were locked onto appropriate targets and hence their actions were meritorious.

The Rabbis speak often of the Yetzer Ra (inclination to do evil) and the Yetzer Tov (inclination to do good). No one would deny the power of our physical desires in our lives. The Rabbis seem to be suggesting, however, that our minds are both the mitigating factor and the final arbiter. We see, hear, smell, taste, and touch what is in the world, but it is our minds that construct a narrative that determines how we will respond. In other words, physical experiences are powerful, but the mind can overpower them and rule the roost – both for good and for evil.

While there are many strains of Buddhism today, all subscribe to the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (~563 – 483 B.C.E.), the Buddha who taught that the mind – human consciousness – is the most powerful organ of all, and that when our minds completely overpower our bodies we can access ultimate reality. For Buddhists, detachment from the physical world is an essential skill for achieving nirvana. Detachment means that physical experiences are denied the power to control our lives.

Judaism generally favors full engagement with the physical world and sees the capacity for physical sensation as a blessing from God, even if it can lead us in the wrong direction. The Rabbis even tell us that if we don’t enjoy the pleasures of life, we will be held to account in olam haba, the world-to-come, for foregoing God’s gifts. Moreover, Yoma 69b records that once the Rabbis captured the Yetzer Ra and imprisoned it in a barrel for three days. During that time, no one worked and even chickens stopped laying eggs. The Rabbis conclude that without the impetus of the Yetzer Ra, “no man would build a house or marry a wife” and no constructive work would be done.

Yet our minds are meant to be mediators and gatekeepers in control of our bodies’ responses to the physical world. When we need strength, we can draw on God through prayer, study, and meditation. But whence the God we draw on, but deep within ourselves, the divine spark burning in our souls, at the core of our minds?

For Buddhists, the goal is to detach from the physical universe and sever its control over us, to overcome desire and achieve release from the narrow confine of self-interest that torments us endlessly. For Jews, in contrast, the goal is to channel desire constructively and achieve righteousness in this physical world, whose value we affirm and whose beauty we celebrate. Samson and Absalom failed, but Miriam and Joseph succeeded gloriously.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

1 comment:

Zev said...

I struggle with this concept. Neurobiology has revealed some interesting things about the brain and its evolutionary development. From my limited understanding of the subject, it seems that our basic fears and desires are instinctual remnants of a distant past, from a time before we had cultivated the high-mindedness of rabbis and Buddhist monks. How do we channel such powerful self-interests and survival instincts for good? Aren't these the very urges that lead us into modern misery? As I mentioned, I struggle with this concept.