“The only ones afraid of guns are those who have many gods and one world. Those who have one G-d and many worlds are not afraid.” This was the response of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, when a prison guard tried to stop him from praying.
As I find myself aging, I feel my grip on life literally loosening. I have to hold on tighter to objects so I won’t drop them. I move slower and have to consciously lift my feet up so they won’t drag. And of course I tire more quickly. Also, my mind has to reach harder and more deviously to dredge up names and memories. All this is not to mention the time consuming necessity of taking various supplements, and eye drops, nose drops, throat sprays etc. It’s easy to get discouraged, especially compared to my younger self.
At this stage, it is reasonable to be preoccupied with the question of which part of me is not subject to change. We are approaching the end of the book of Exodus, whose actual Hebrew name is called Shemot, meaning names! The most recent Parasha is Tetzaveh in which for the first time in this book, Moshe’s name is not mentioned even once; rather he is just addressed by G-d as ‘You’. Similarly in the Scroll of Esther which we read on Purim, G-d’s name is not mentioned even once, though the sages say when the word Melech, King, is mentioned alone, it refers to G-d. What do we make of this anonymity?
On one hand Hebrew names are considered as related to the essence of the person, but on the other hand the essence itself is beyond name. Even Esther’s name itself means hidden. In fact the rabbis source this name in a Biblical reference to G-d, in a verse from Deuteronomy: “And I will indeed hide my face on that day”. The sages say that this refers to a time of divine concealment in the world, perhaps like the Holocaust, or perhaps even in our times. The message of consolation is that even in such times, G-d is present in the absence.
In this context, I remember long ago being fascinated by an old movie which I recently re-watched- “The Incredible Shrinking Man.” The main star, Scott Carey, was exposed to some radioactive pesticides, and as a result, slowly starts shrinking. As you might expect, coping with this situation takes up most of the film. From his wife’s shock and concern, to the doctors’ futile attempts at treatment, all watch helplessly as the shrinking steadily progresses, and attempts at dealing with everyday life become more and more difficult. Toward the very end Scott gets so small, he is hardly visible. He uses his last ounce of strength and will to fight off a spider to reach a piece of stale cheese. His last words, to me, capture the essence of what the Torah implies about the significance of going beyond even one’s essential name.
The awareness of this concept is conveyed throughout the movie, especially in the epiphany of the final scene. Here are his last words:
“This was the prize I had won. I approached it in an ecstasy of elation. I had conquered. I lived. But even as I touched the dry, flaking crumbs of nourishment, it was as if my body had ceased to exist. There was no hunger. No longer the terrible fear of shrinking. ..I was continuing to shrink, to become…What? The infinitesimal?…So close, the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly I knew they were two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast, eventually meet like the closing of a gigantic circle…and in that moment I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man’s own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature…I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away and in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something too. To G-d, there is no zero.”
I remember how, some fifty years ago, those lines took my breath away.
One need not wait to contemplate mortality till old age. There is value in recognizing the eternity of the soul beyond the body at any stage of life. Our relationships not only with G-d but also with other people depend on this awareness. There is a classic teaching from Tanya that the way to love of one’s fellow, is through treating the body as compliant to the soul. This does not mean dismissing the body and its needs, but rather more like refining the physical of its independent will. The result will be amplifying the voice of the soul so that the desires of the body reflect one’s more spiritual pulls. When this happens, one realizes that it is only the body that separates people, and that from the soul’s essence, we are all connected to each other and to the divine.
The sages bring a parable of a man teaching his son how to count. At one point, the boy asks, “what is the value of a zero?’ When the father says, “nothing,” the boy wonders what the zero is doing among the other numbers. The father responds, “When you have a whole string of zeros, they don’t mean anything, but as soon as you place a ‘ONE’ in front of the zeros, they can take on added value. The stuff of life is the zeros but the purpose of life is the relation to the ONE.”
In our battles at this time of year especially, against the Hamans of the world and Amalek, both externally and internally, may we overcome the divisive and self-centered materialist in us. May we remember that being created in the image of G-d means that we can chose to act, speak, and even think in a manner that expresses our soul connection to all of life. May we indeed ‘shrink to infinity.’