Lurking within is the Holy Urge

Parshat Toldot

1 F WE COULD X-RAY OUR HEARTS — NOT THE fist-sized muscle, but the pulsating center from which our dreams and desires emerge — what would we learn? What melody would we hear if we could eavesdrop on our.own souls?


Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. the mystic and poet who was also chief rabbi of the Land of Israel in Mandatory times, described what he calls "the constant prayer of the soul" in the introduction to his commentary on the prayer book. "Prayer cannot properly emerge except through the thought that, in truth, the soul is always praying. Does she not fly towards and embrace her beloved ceaselessly? It is only that during the time of actual prayer, the constant prayer of the soul reveals itself . . . like a rose opening her lovely petals to the dew".


In this passage, we hear the influence of one of the most original hasidic schools of thought, that of lzhbitz-Radzin. The second Izhbitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Ya'akov Lainer, explains in his commentary on the prayer for dew, recited on Pesah, that there are two types of prayer — conscious and subconscious. Conscious prayer is what brings rain, symbolizing, for Lainer, the clearly visible intervention of God, which comes as a reward for conscious human action or devotion. Dew comes "secretly, without the knowledge or recognition of created beings . "Dew comes because of the prayers and devotions that are to be found in the depths of Israel's hearts, for their hearts pray all the time, day and night, even though man is not aware of it all."


Hidden prayer, the secret in the depths of the heart — of all human hearts, I'd add — are as invisible as God's answers, as the dew. Lainer, writing in the mid-19th century, posited a very different subconscious than that described by Freud a few decades later. Stripped of our outer veneer, Freud said, we are a collection of selfish, aggressive, even murderous desires. Lainer, and Kook, describe the hidden inner life of our psyche as governed by an attraction to God, which finds form in "prayers and devotions."


While Freud's insights certainly have validity — they echo Genesis 8:21, "the inclination of man is evil from his youth" — the idea of a deep, subconscious drive towards holiness is crucial as a counterbalance to the dark view of man. Our notion of what we are below or beyond the level of conscious thought is a critical component of our self-conception. At no time in history has despair in the natural goodness and worthiness of man been so prevalent today. Franz Kafka, who had an almost prophetic in-sight into modern man's sense of self, once wrote: "Yes, there is hope, infinite hope. But not for us." This is perhaps one reason that ideas aimed at creating a society based on something loftier than the harnessing of greed have lost their credibility. For if our core motivations — those motivations that feed our inner self— lack integrity and merit, we are indeed condemned to live out our lives in a jungle that has, at best, been covered over with a thin sheen of civilization.


Jacob and Esau, whose story begins in Toldot, can be seen as archetypes of the two possibilities of self: the violent, hungry, hairy Esau, "a hunter, a man of the fields," and Jacob. "an innocent man, a dweller of tents." Yet Jacob and Esau are twins, and their identities become entwined. Jacob impersonates Esau in order to receive his father's blessing, and then must live haunted by the impersonation. Rachel, his soulmate, is switched for her sister Leah on the night of Jacob's nuptials, in the first of many incidents of identity deception in Jacob's life. He is thereby continually confronted with the question of his own identity, which was opened up the moment he disguised himself as his twin. Eventually, he must wrestle with the angel of his twin, alone, in the darkness.


We, too, are engaged in a battle, between twin, opposing conceptions of what lies beneath the surface of man. Like the hasidic rebbe who used to keep two scraps of paper in his pock-et, one that read "I am dust and ashes" and one that read "For me the world was created," we must take into account the harsh truths of Freud as well as the affirmations of our spiritual tradition. But ultimately, it is these affirmations that hold out the only possibility of redemption. and it is only this possibility that will enable us to wrestle the angel of despair.

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