Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Prayer-Book Meditation 2: Human Worth (∞ and Zip) [16 Sept. 2013]

            According to my prayer book for the Jewish High Holidays, the Hassidim of the 18th century taught, "Keep two truths in your pocket, and take them out according to the need of the moment. Let one be: 'For my sake was the world created.' And the other: 'I am dust and ashes.'"

            I liked this teaching and intended to write on it, but my rabbi liked it more: she had cards printed up suitable for literally keeping in one's pocket.

            Realistically speaking — which for me means viewed in terms of post-Enlightenment science — realistically speaking, neither assertion is correct, but the "dust and ashes" one is closer to reality. We humans are the product of evolution and mostly water and microorganisms with unique DNA defining us as a species. Eventually we will all become like dust and ashes, but first we'll compost and become food for worms and putrefactive bacteria and such; meanwhile, though, it's more scientifically accurate to say something like, "I am a living variation on the theme of the primate, a larger but weaker chimp, with language and some other talents."

            The Enlightenment, however, is part of what the 18th-c. Hassidic movement was in reaction against, and even on what Medieval Christian theologians would call "the Literal Level," the assertions are figurative: hyperbole with metaphor. Plus, when one talks of Creation and the purpose of Creation, one is in the world of mythos, not logos: stories of the sacred, not of logic.

            Most of all, though, the Hassidic teaching is of practical use, psychologically. That "need of the moment" for most of us, much of the time, is to be brought down several pegs — a point I'll return to — but for most of us also, some of the time, we need reassurance that we're somehow of worth.

            If you are Hassid, one of the pious ones, you can believe, fairly often, that the Creator of the universe loves not only the world and humankind but also you, personally, individually: "For my sake," in the wording of the card, "the world was created." Now such a belief is probably delusional, but to recycle an idea and a half from T. S. Eliot and Henrik Ibsen, "human kind / Cannot bear very much reality," and pretty much all of us need a "vital lie," starting with that idea that we and our lives are somehow significant.

            At least now and then, "the need of the moment" is reassurance.

            More often we need our gratuitous lies undermined: our cockiness, our arrogance, our inevitable but dangerous Illusion of Central Position; then, "the need of the moment" is to remind oneself "I am dust and ashes": in Modern terms, I am one of seven billion human beings living on a pretty but minor planet on the edge of a pretty but unexceptional galaxy in a universe doomed to the Big Crunch of final collapse or — if the currently less fashionable theory proves right — the Big Fizzle of the final entropic winding down. Or, if there are an infinite number of universes — then I'm worth even less, like approaching zero-value as a limit and pretty much arriving at zero.

            And with such thoughts in our hearts as well as our minds, take out the card and read, "For my sake the world was created."

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