Updated: Mar 22, 2021
We may think, when we look at our life circumstances, that they seem fixed and unchangeable. For the Izhbitser, the events outside are intimately bound to the mind which observes them. When we think, the universe takes on the colour those thoughts.
One of the Izhbitsa Rebbe’s recurring themes is humanity’s interdependence with its environment (Mei Hashiloach Vol. I Bereshit). This idea emerges from the verse in Bereshit “let us make mankind in our image” (Genesis 1:26). The Arizal comments that “us” here refers to the rest of creation, both the angelic beings and the lower kingdoms of life (mineral, vegetable, animal) (cited in Beit Yaakov, Bereshit 39). Being a composite being of both heaven and earth, man has the ability to bind them both together, and the world around him expects him to do that, in fact that was their agreement in the beginning.
Let us make, explains the Izhbitser, was a recognition on the part of nature of a missing piece which alienated it from its creator. Let us make was nature’s prayer for an intermediary, a link to its Divine origin. And failure to do so leads to consequences in the real world, nature turns on man. The Sod Yesharim, the grandson of the Izhbitser, cites his grandfather here to explain the rationale for the plague of wild animals. In his commentary on the Torah, he says that when man fails in his duty of right action the order of nature is inverted, instead of wild animals remaining in the wild, they instead draw close to man’s habitation, which is what happened during the plague of wild animals. The Israelites who held steadfast to God’s will stayed the wild animals from drawing near, the Sod Yesharim explains, it was on account of their wisdom and equanimity in the service of God. The Israelites knew the power of restraint and self-control, and thus received the Divine blessing in a manner they could receive, the Egyptians on the other hand received the influx as a singular flow, greatly agitated, too great for a person to receive (a reference to the Arizal’s breaking of the vessels). In other places also the Ishbitser shows how our actions are reflected in our possessions, revealing our good deeds or our misdeeds, as with Hanina Ben Dosa’s goats who carried each a bear between its horns (Mei Hashiloach Vol. I Mishpatim, see also BT Taanit 25a).
The Arizal explains that the "us" in let us make man in our image, refers to all the creations prior to man: light, sky, land and sea, grass and trees, sun and moon, planets and stars, fish, birds and animals (cited in Beit Yaakov, Bereshit 39).
Learning for the Contemplative Life:
There is a scene in Men in Black II where agent K tells one of the protagonists that it is not that when it rains they are sad, it rains because they are sad (it’s to do with being an alien). We may think that when we look at our life circumstances that they seem fixed and unchangeable. That our perceptions of the world are accurate, that we experience the world objectively. But is this true? Based on the Izhbitser we may argue that it is not. For the Izhbitser, the events outside are intimately bound to the mind which observes them. It is not that the world does not exist in the idealistic sense of mind-only, but that the activities of the mind have material import outside of driving the body to act, and that conversely the physical world is a reflection of a mental state in as much as an objective reality.
When we think particular things, the universe takes on a colouration based on those thoughts. And when we see particular things in the world it is from a preoccupation or bias within our own minds to see such things. Therefore, when we are angry, we experience things in the world which justify that anger, and when we meet other people, we have our anger reflected back at us. When we are happy, we hear the birds, the sun shines, people are happy to see us and we are happy to see them. Negativity bias is the idea that we are in-built to see negativity in the world around us, we look for things to justify that negativity, instead of seeing the positive things in life. This bias helps keep us safe, but it means we are on the lookout for bad things and that means we suffer.
SO the Sod Yesharim tells us “be wise, have patience.” We feel attacked by “wild animals”, he explains, on account of our impatience, our intolerance and need for perfection from those around us and ourselves. Instead, we should cultivate gratitude and positivity even if at first it feels false and insincere, because it is only on account of our habitual, conditioned thinking that we mistake our perceptions as reality; and were we to cultivate and implant within us gratitude and joy they will soon become as natural as dissatisfaction and disaffection might seem today.
It is with wisdom and equanimity – clear-seeing and patience – that we overcome our conditioned responses to the environment and learn a better way of being with the circumstances of life.
And the universe helps us! This is the meaning of let us make. The Sod Yesharim references the Arizal’s idea of the breaking of the vessels. When the universe first began to emerge from the Infinite, light of the infinite entered the primordial vessels, but was too great for them to contain and they shattered. This shattering was the origin of all evil and suffering, but it was on account of the greatness of the light. The light was too blindingly bright and so appeared as darkness. The vessels shattered and fell, creating with them the lower universes and the realm of shells, the physical universe. Into the broken vessels the Infinite Being emanated sparks of light to sustain them in the realm of evil and retain their connection with the Divine. Let us make was the prayer of these fallen vessels and sparks, they needed humanity to elevate them back to their source.
The universe helps us by showing us where we are weak and where we can improve. This is one of the purposes, or at least uses of suffering, we can reflect on it with wisdom and equanimity: in what way am I be affected by this experience? And wisdom and equanimity are essential components of this exercise. We cannot face suffering without them. Wisdom means to see clearly what is there, to understand its causes and conditions. The Rabbis asked who is wise, and they answer the one who sees the nolad, “the moment of coming into being” (BT Tamid 32a). Equanimity means calm, settled and undisturbed, composed even in turmoil. So we should reflect as such with wisdom and equanimity, seeing clearly without getting taken up by the energies and emotions of the moment.
Perhaps this is the deeper meaning of the ten plagues, perhaps both the Israelites and the Egyptians experienced the same thing, only that what for the Israelites, with wisdom and equanimity, was salvation for the Egyptians was plague.
The Izhbitser ends “and if man should want for something, the created beings will come to his aid, for in his suffering is theirs also, and in his wellbeing is theirs.”
(Cover Image credit: Robson Hatsukami Morgan)