Being and Becoming

Texts and beliefs By Rabbi Joel Levy 24th May 2018

For years, my wife Susanna and I have struggled at classical concerts. She was a professional musician for many years, so a concert that I, with my untrained ear, can sit blissfully through, she might not experience as so relaxing. She might hear in real time that there is a tuning problem in the wind section, that the timing is ragged in the strings and that the horns are not listening to each other. In a concert hall, the same fine-tuned ear that served her well when she was preparing to give her own concerts can sometimes dull the pleasure of an evening’s concert together!

Then under other circumstances, a totally different Susanna is revealed. When working with musicians on performance anxiety she is focused on their subjective experiences. In her work as a music therapist she can be entranced by a child with disabilities playing piano with her elbows, and as a teacher she will listen joyfully to kids playing their instruments, not necessarily in tune, but going for it with gusto nonetheless. When we sing together as a family it is with joy and love, with no hint of awareness of any of our musical limitations. At these times her critical side is nowhere to be seen; she seems to be tuned into a different frequency of reality altogether.

Imagine that each of us possesses two pairs of glasses. (Actually I have rather more than two pairs, none of which seem to really do the trick!) One of them brings into sharp focus the imperfections of the world. When we are wearing these glasses we can see every wrinkle and flaw, every act of deception, every moral failure, every lack of effort, every out-of-tune note, every dot of pollution, every deed lacking in kindness, every act of lazy complacency. Wearing that pair of glasses is so damn painful that we quickly switch over and put on our second pair. What a relief! This one brings into sharp relief the unblemished beauty of our world, countless acts of lovingkindness and co-existence. With those glasses on, our hearts beat a little slower. Even litter on the street has its own intricate beauty. Absolutely everything is just as it should be! We can even wonder at discordant music and see the vibrant beauty in polluted skies.

It seems clear to me that for anyone to own only one pair of these glasses would be disastrous. It is dangerous to view the world as either wholly perfect or as wholly flawed. To see only perfection is to close our eyes and our hearts to suffering and the desperate need for change. Surely any search for improvement stems from an awareness of imperfection? Living easily with mediocrity or not even noticing it cannot be a wholly desirable quality. It is our capacity to hear the discord in the world that prompts us to try to tune it. On the other hand, to see only imperfection is to live in a world of appalling starkness and to fail to see the stunning beauty of what is. If every vista is ruined by
the slightest imperfection, then our lives will be impoverished and limited. If our gaze is constantly drawn to the illness and death that await us, then the good possibilities of our lives will pale into nothingness. If in every hedgerow we see only a place of brutally violent struggle for life, then we will see only brutality everywhere and not beauty.
Somehow, we each have to find a way to remain aware of both perfection and imperfection. We have to be able to tap into the strengths, and try to avoid the weaknesses, of both pairs of glasses. We need to be able to embrace both being and becoming; loving what is (being) and seeking to change it (becoming).

I would not describe this as a balancing act, finding the sweet spot between polar opposites. I would say that both capacities need to be worked on and developed, independently and then together. We can work on our capacities both to see beauty and to dare to respond to ugliness. Both muscles must be trained so that we can interact more deeply with ourselves and with those around us. Religion is one tool that humans have developed to work out and strengthen both of those muscles.

Exodus chapter 20, the Ten Commandments, tries to capture some of this tension:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shall you labour, and do all your work; but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your gates; For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and made it holy. 

A Midrash asks: how can the verse say that we should “do all our work” in six days? Surely the challenges of life are insurmountable; the flaws all too apparent, the task open ended and impossible! This is true, the Midrash answers, but Shabbat is a time to feel and act as if our work is done, to let ourselves off the hook for a fleeting moment, to view the world through the glasses of being rather than the scarier ones of becoming. The three regular prayers on Shabbat focus respectively on: the perceived perfection of creation on the seventh day (Ma’ariv), Moses’ joy at receiving the Shabbat covenant in the Torah (Shacharit) and Shabbat as creating a sense of abiding peace (Mincha). In the weekday prayers, the central section of the Amidah encourages us to articulate and address different aspects of the appallingly flawed nature of our world.

There is a time for acting, doing, changing and becoming; and a time for being, enjoying, loving and accepting. The disciplines of Shabbat that tend towards passivity, and the weekday emphasis on actively addressing the flaws of the world, are primary tools through which Judaism seeks to strengthen our capacities for both being and becoming.

Rabbi Joel Levy is the rabbi of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue, and Rosh Yeshiva at the Conservative Yeshiva, Jerusalem.

This article appeared in its original form in the ‘Being and Becoming’ edition of the Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue magazine. You can read it here.

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