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The Soul Never Repeats

We Jews have a funny relationship to counting and numbering ourselves. If you have ever been to a daily minyan, or any service, and it’s not clear if there are ten Jews present (the minimum number of Jews to have a communal service), some people count by NOT counting: they’ll go around the room and number people as ‘not one, not two, not three.’ Why this strange “un-counting?” It seems that we Jews have a kind of superstition about numbering our people. We believe that it will bring on bad consequences for the Jewish people if we directly number ourselves. And this belief is not without good justification: in the book of 1 Chronicles (Chapter 20), we read the story of how King David ordered his troops numbered with a census, and this incurred Divine wrath, and God punished the Israelites for this brazen counting. There are all kinds of theories as to why God was angry that we counted, but the fact remains: counting our people is something that we deem to be highly problematic and dangerous. Is it pretty silly that we’re still afraid to count? Is it just a bunch of superstition?

Not entirely. There’ s a powerful message in our reluctance to count and number our Jewish people. There is, indeed, something horrifying, dehumanizing, about reducing a human being to a number in any way, at any time. We need only remember the tattooed numbers on the arms of the Auschwitz inmates to remember the painful truth in this. And yet, with all of this insight and history, there is a notable exception to the no-counting rule, and that’s in this week’s Parashah, Bamidbar. It’s no accident that the English name of this book, the book of Numbers, takes its name from an official census, a counting of the Jews, ordered by none other than God! Here in this reading, we have the exception that proves the rule: Jews can’t count each other, but God can order us to count--but only in a specific way. We are to number each Jewish male by clans of ancestral houses, listing each one’s names, “Kol zachar l’gulgelotam,” every male head by head (Numbers 1:2). The Hebrew ‘gulgelotam’ literally means ‘by their skulls.’ The commentary Sfat Emet notices this interesting choice of word to connote every Israelite male—by head, by skull. He immediately likens this word to a famous line from Psalm 140: “Litvunato ain mispar,” “There is no enumerating/counting God’s wisdom.” (Psalm 140:7) In other words, the very act of numbering each Israelite male skull by skull—that literal (and disturbing!)image of skulls provides a visceral reminder that there are things about life and humanity, divine things, that defy ever numbering at all.

Every human being, every skull itself, is breathtakingly unique in infinite ways. The Mishnah in Sanhedrin famously teaches, “Kulam nitb’u b’chotmo shel Adam haRishon,” “Each human being is stamped with the visage of Adam, the original human being, “v’ain partzufeihen domin zeh lazeh,” “and yet, no two faces are alike in the world.”(Sanhedren 4:5) And Reb Pinchas of Korzec picks up on this idea in explaining an ancient Midrash: “Just as there are no two faces alike in the world, so too, there are no two minds alike in the world, and each human being functions in his own unique way, and this what the Psalm means when it says, ‘litvunato ain mispar’—there is no enumerating/counting God’s wisdom.”(Bimidbar Rabbah 21:2). God ordered us to count ourselves skull by skull to remind us, for all time to come, that what makes us ultimately human is something that goes beyond our skull, beyond the uniqueness of our face, to the depths of our very minds, hearts, and souls. Indeed, such profound uniqueness is what makes us so completely human, and also, paradoxically, so very much the image of God, beyond all concepts and numbers.

The Baal Shem Tov taught us something very interesting: when we begin our prayers in the ‘Amidah, we start with a recognition that God is “Elohei Avraham, Elohei Yitzhak, v’Elohei Yaakov,” The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. It could have easily just said that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob without being so repetitious, but we are careful to connect each Patriarch individually with God. Why? Because, says the Baal Shem Tov, “Isaac and Jacob did not base their work on the searching and service of Abraham; they themselves searched for the unity of their Maker and His service.”[i]Each of our ancestors, and each of us, are on an utterly unique journey, a totally distinct experience of life and the Divine that no one else can fully know or grasp. It is this unique relationship to God that is our very individual humanity. Our journey with God is, in the end, the only thing that truly makes us ourselves as distinct from any other in this world.

Rabbi Pinchas often cited these words: “A man’s soul will teach him,” and explained these words: “There is no man that is not being taught incessantly by his soul.” One of his disciples asked: “If this is so, why don’t men obey their souls?” “The soul teaches incessantly,” Rabbi Pinchas explained, “but it never repeats.” [ii] This is quite a profound teaching, and it needs some unpacking: each of us goes through life with an intuitive sense of our uniqueness in the world. That’s the part of us that can never be ‘counted.’ Think about it: we all have a sense of “I am,” that is ineffable, beyond anything that we could ever fully put into words. This felt sense of “I am” is our Neshamah, our very soul. Rabbi Pinchas wants us to understand that this Neshamah, this unique ‘I am’ goes very deep, deeper than we can fathom. Our Neshama is, in fact, nothing other than an extension of God itself! And, because it is a part of God, it is connected to Infinite Wisdom. In essence, Rabbi Pinchas is teaching us that God indeed talks to us, incessantly in fact—not in burning bushes, not from mountain-tops, but from within—from the place of Ultimate uniqueness that animates each and every one of us in every moment! In other words, there is an awesome Divinity revealing itself to you, unfolding through your very life, so pay attention—Shema Yisrael!—and don’t miss a moment! And furthermore, if you can recognize the Divinity in your own soul, it will express amazing wisdom to guide you in life. It will be a source of amazing wisdom that you, and only you, can give to the world!

Reb Yissachar Dov of Radoshitz traveled to see his rebbe, Reb Yaakov Yitzchak, the Chozeh of Lublin. Arriving at his rebbe’s study, he said “Show me one general way that all of us might serve God.” “One way?” the Seer said. “What makes you think there is one way? Are people all the same that a single practice would suit them all?” “Then how am I to teach people to find God?” Rebbe YIssachar Dov asked.

“It is impossible to tell people how they should serve. For one, the way is the way of study; for another the way is the way of prayer; for another, the way is the way of fasting or feasting ; for another, the way is the way of service to one’s neighbor.” “Then what shall I tell those who ask me for guidance in this area?”

“Tell him this,” the Chozeh said. “Carefully observe the way of your own heart, see what stirs your passion for God and godliness, and then do that with all your heart and all your strength.” [iii]

Like all Hasidic stories, this one is deceptively simple. On the surface, this is a story about following your heart and your passions. But it’s actually a radical undermining of expectations. Consider what you might predict about traditional Judaism: that it’s a system of laws, of Halakhah, with proscriptions for what to do and how to act from morning till night. Judaism appears to be a religion that provides the answers to life’s questions about proper behavior and about God. Reb Yissachor Dov wants the simple answers about how Judaism tells us to serve. But the Chozeh of Lublin gives him no such simple formula. The Chozeh tells him, and us all, if you really want to know what God is all about, you’ll have to go on a wild ride—on a spectacular journey inside. It’s only by going within, that you’re going to find not only the Presence of God in there, speaking incessantly to you in your soul, but you’ll also find the answers about what to do in your life! Yes, there’s Halakhah in Judaism, and lots of laws and rules—but these laws and rules, while critically important unto themselves, are also metaphors, collective behaviors that remind us that there is indeed a Voice within, speaking to us, telling us our path to follow in life. Implicit in the Chozeh of Lublin’s teaching is the radical message that you have everything, the whole message that Judaism gives to the world, already within your own heart and soul. All the Wisdom in the whole world lives ‘in here’ if you know how to go in and find it and listen for it. And what’s more: there’s a unique version of Wisdom and insight that only you can give to the world through your experience—and that’s the very thing you’re here in this world to give over and to do!

Commenting on this very idea, the Sfat Emet tells us that every human being has their own knowledge and special understanding of God’s greatness ”k’fum darga d’yaheiv leih yadei,” “according to the rung/the spiritual level that is given to him.” In other words, we’re each on our own uniquely important rung of knowledge and action. You don’t have to know the prayers thoroughly in Hebrew, or all the laws of Judaism to find God and to transform the world—you count more than anyone can imagine; you can do that from right here, right now, right as you are in this moment! If your heart of hearts leads you to study, then study! If it leads you to prayer, then pray! If it leads you to fasting, then fast! If to feasting, then feast! If you path is to become deeply observant, then by all means, become deeply observant. If your path is social justice, then by all means march! If you heart leads you to skepticism and scientific, purely rational paths, then by all means, give over your Neshamah through science and skepticism. Do you see how this works? If we can find the courage to live according to our deepest Truth, then we live out of our Divinity, our utter uniqueness—and this, indeed, is how we truly ‘count’ in the world, by expressing our version of Lit’vunato ain mispar—the Divine Wisdom that is our humanity that is beyond any numbering and counting. All of the wisdom you need to find God, to find happiness, to be a source of joy and service to God and to others, it’s all ‘in here,’ and it’s more than anyone can ever count in a lifetime. Just keep listening to your heart of hearts and soul of souls, and remember to listen carefully, because our soul, indeed, never repeats!

[i] Newman, L.I., and Spitz, S. (1944) The Hasidic Anthology. New York: Bloch. p. 152

[ii] Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters. New York. Schocken Books, 1947. p. 121.

[iii] Adapted from Rami Shapiro, Hasidic Tales. Woodstock, VT.Skylight Illuminations, 2004. p. 179.


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