A story tells of a fisherman living and toiling on the banks of a muddy river. As he drudged home one evening, his eyes half-closed with exhaustion, he dreamed of how different his lot would be if only he were rich… “God above,” he cried out with sudden passion. “Make me wealthy, please!” Disappointed by the seeming futility of his dream, he retreated to his heavy steps, almost missing the leather pouch filled with small stones on the path. Absently picking up the pouch, he began to toss the stones one by one into the river. “When I am rich, I will have servants waiting on me hand and foot…”
It was not until he brought the last stone from the pouch that he noticed how it glittered in his hand. His heart sank as he realized too late that he had been throwing gems into the river’s swirling waters, tossing away real riches even as he remained lost in his dream of unrealized riches.
Just as that fisherman tossed away real wealth while lost in a fantasy of the ephemeral riches his heart desired, so too do we throw away that which is valuable in our real lives while stumbling along in a dream world of our fantasy life; we fail to see the beauty of reality even as we fantasize about beauty!
Our lives are spent straddling this divide – the real and the fantasy. Too often, we fail to balance the two; never letting the dream enlarge the reality or the reality buffer the fantasy. Just as our thoughts and desire are weighted by these two opposing dynamics, so too each of us is composed of the natural and the unnatural, the real and the artificial, the obtainable and the unrealizable.
We all live with chalomos – illusions – that we believe are so close as to be nearly within our grasp. We believe we can become all that the world holds out as the ideal – wealthy, successful and celebrated. At the same time, we doubt our capabilities to become that which is genuinely within our grasp – to become truly pious, compassionate and sincere Jews.
Like the fabled fisherman, we live our lives grasping for contrived and imaginary wealth beyond the boundaries of our lives, all the while throwing away the most precious riches and gifts already in our possession.
We are taught that on Rosh Hashanah, during Temple times, the shofar in the Temple was blown differently than in all other communities. “In the Temple the shofar’s mouthpiece was overlaid with gold, and there were two trumpets at the sides; the shofar sounded a long note, and the trumpets a short note, for the unique feature of Rosh Hashanah is the blowing of the shofar.” Rava explains the intent of this verse, “And with trumpets and the sound of the shofar shall you rejoice before the Lord your God” (bachatzotzrot vekol shofar ariu lifnei hamelech Hashem) is to inform us that only before the Lord your God, namely in the Temple, do you need both the trumpets and the shofar. But in the alma – in the world, in the natural communities of the Jews – the shofar alone suffices.
That is, the ideal is fundamentally different than the real – yet both must inform our lives. The distinction between the Temple and the communities outside the Temple mirrors the struggle between natural and artificial man, between the beauty of our lives and the fantasized beauty we believe would make us “happier” and more fulfilled.
The artificial man is in constant inner strife, always rationalizing, forever unwilling to recognize his true inner strengths and capacity – making himself incapable to integrate within himself the standards and expectation of both Temple and alma, the world.
Even as artificial man struggles, tormented by his inner strife, natural man finds himself caught up in his own angst. Plodding along in the concrete world of the everyday, he is afraid and unwilling to overcome the hazards, tests and nisyonot of the artificial world. The two aspects of man are divided by a seemingly insurmountable gulf. As a result, we too often find ourselves confronted not with a fully-realized Jew but rather with one of two extremes – a Jew who denies himself the fervor and flavor of a genuinely meaningful Torah life or, on the other hand, a Jew who remains closed and cloistered in a purely zealous religious framework – those who hold that the divine and religious tone of the shofar can only be embellished with trumpets and gold in the Temple. Their claim that sounding the shofar’s religious note and message is irrelevant in a big, bustling, hyper-pressured and secular world.
That life is somehow fundamentally not meaningful outside of that context.
So it is that natural man continues to wrestle with the artificialities of the life within him, forgetting or unwilling to remember that God created us as both a physical body – afar min ha’adamah – and a soul – neshama – and that the two were designed to function in balance and harmony. As Jews, we find our greatest meaning and our greatest insight into God’s purpose by recognizing the need to find balance between these two disparate aspects of our nature, both of which exist fully within and beyond our grasp.
How do we find a balance between our “artificial selves” and our “natural selves”?
Those of us who seek to be wise as well as observant know that the answer to this question is both obvious and maddeningly elusive – I am natural man because I am not artificial man and I am artificial man because I am not natural man.
That is, I am this because I am not that.
Self-definition is almost exclusively the function of negation. In other words, I am who I am only in the context of who I am not. I am natural man only to the extent that I am not artificial man. I am artificial man only insomuch as I am not natural man.
“God formed man out of the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils a breath of life.” Rashi teaches us that man is a duality; he is a product min hatachtonim, of earthly matter, but also min hael’yonim, of heavenly matter. “He is a natural being, living in the animal kingdom,” with his artificial and temporal body, “and in a material world, min ha’adamah. Even so, he partakes of the spiritual. He is compelled to something greater than mere physical existence.
Man’s moral sense and intellect presents him with a choice – to simply exist in a temporal, physical world, or to climb to transcendent heights. Free will. We have been given the choice whether to cast away the gems of life, or to cling dearly to them. To balance the two dynamics of our natures.
In enumerating the reasons for sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, Saadiah Gaon among other renowned Jewish thinkers cites the Akedah, the sacrifice of Isaac and the ultimate substitution of the ram, as the primary reason.
Our liturgy calls us to supplication as we recall Isaac’s sacrifice. And yet… and yet something in the Torah text leaves us wanting. “Abraham awoke early in the morning and saddled his donkey. He took his two men with him, along with his son Isaac. He cut wood for the offering and set out, heading for the place that God had designated. On the third day, Abraham looked up, and saw the place from afar.” Not a word to describe Abraham’s state of mind. Nothing of his emotions. His fear. His anxiety. Nothing to suggest a single conversation between father and son along the way. No. Just suddenly, “on the third day.”
The Midrash Tanchuma seeks to fill in some of these “blanks.”
“And Abraham awoke and went” – Satan accosted him and appeared to him in the guise of an old man. The latter asked him: “Where are you going?” Abraham replied: “To pray.” Said Satan: “If a man going to pray, why the fire and the knife in his hand and the wood on his shoulder?” Abraham answered: “Perhaps we shall tarry a day or two, slaughter, cook, and eat.” Said he: “Old man! Was I not there when the Holy One, blessed be He, did say to you, ‘Take your son . . . ?’ Notwithstanding, an old man the likes of you will go and put away a son vouchsafed him at the age of a hundred! Thou ‘rt out of thy mind! Gone to slaughter the son given to you at a hundred years!” Abraham replied: “Just for this.” “And if He tries you more than this, can you withstand it?” Said he: “And more.”
Satan retorted: “Tomorrow He will tell you, ‘A shedder of blood you are for shedding his blood!’” Abraham replied: “Just for this.”
As soon as he saw that Abraham was not to be moved, he went and assumed the form of a large river. Forthwith Abraham plunged into the waters which reached as far as his knees. He said to his young men, “Follow me.” They plunged in after him. As soon as they reached midway, the waters came up to his neck. At that moment, Abraham cast his eyes heavenward and said before Him: “Lord of the Universe, You did choose me, and revealed Yourself to me and said to me: ‘I am one and you are one. Through you shall My name become known in My world, so offer up Isaac your son before Me for a burnt-offering.’ I did not hold back, and behold, I am engaged in Your command, but now the waters are endangering life itself. If Isaac or myself drown who will fulfill Your word? Who will proclaim the unity of Your name?” Said the Holy One, blessed be He: “By your life! Through you shall the unity of My name be proclaimed in the world”” The Holy One, blessed be He, forthwith rebuked the spring, and the river dried up, and they stood upon dry ground.
In this “dialogue” between Abraham and Satan rests the classic struggle between natural and artificial man. Artificial man invites every conceivable stumbling block, rationalization, and fear to put a stop to the endeavors of natural man; to keep him from achieving what he is capable of achieving.
Artificial man appears in many guises. He entices and threatens. He presents ideas, fads, philosophies, notions and dreams – anything to keep natural man from living up to the gifts God bestowed upon him.
We hear the voice of the tempter as an old man, whispering, shouting, conniving. Regardless, as we learn, the voice of the tempter is, in reality, none other than the promptings of Abraham’s own heart during those three momentous days. One by one, the doubts and challenges assail him. Satan seeks to sway man in so many different ways.
First he appeals to Abraham’s paternal instinct. “The son given at a hundred years.” Then the voice of conscience. “Tomorrow He will say, ‘A shedder of blood you are.’”
Satan is even aware of how a Jew prays. “If a man is going to pray, why the fire and knife in his hand?” He is asking, Does prayer involve human sacrifice? – knowing full well the answer. As soon as artificial, earthly man realizes that moral, ethical, religious, and emotional rationalizations and excuses are not enough, he resorts to physical obstacles – in this case, the form of a large river.
This river represents the “objective” obstacles blocking natural man’s path. “I want to do it,” he claims, “but I am prevented by circumstances beyond my control.”
These excuses resonate in our minds even today. “I want to keep Shabbat, but they can’t do without me in the store.”
“I want to send the kids to a day school, but it costs too much.”
“I want to come to shiur Monday night, but I am so tired when I get home from my work day.”
“I want to give the shul a major contribution, but we just bought a new color TV and finances are so difficult…”
What was Abraham’s response to these obstacles? “Just for this!”
He who truly desires to fulfill his duty cannot be deterred, will not be deterred. “Just for this!” Abraham cries as he plunges into the river, even as far as his neck.
When is the last time you or I were committed Jewishly up to our neck?!
And herein is the message of Rosh Hashanah – we are called to remold our natural selves, to recognize all of our abilities, physical and spiritual, to integrate our artificial and natural qualities. In short, we are called to allow our souls to function at least as well as our bodies. Each of us is called on Rosh Hashanah to blow not only the shofar but the trumpet. Each one of us can work our way up to the standards of the Mikdash – the Temple. If it is daunting to do so it is only because we are too accustomed to the trivialities of alma – the world. We are much more comfortable in alma.
We need only stop casting away our gifts and our gems!
Michelangelo came into the studio of Raphael one day and looked at one of Raphael’s early drawings. Then he took a piece of chalk and wrote across the drawing: Amplius, which means “greater,” or “expand.”
He found Raphael’s layout too cramped, too narrow.
God looks down on our plans and our patterns of living, and knowing what man is really capable of, writes over the plan “amplius! Greater! Larger! Expand!
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Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is OU Kosher’s Vice President of Communications & Marketing.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.