I. Change the World Today!

“Reality does not exist on its own, in and for itself, but only in an historical relationship with the men who modify it.” Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks

“‘See, I have given over to you’- …the righteous with their words create new heavens and new earths, as the verse suggests: See, what I have done- I have given over to you that creating aspect of myself so that with your teachings you can create new realities of heaven and earth. Understand this.” Degel Mahane Ephraim, Perashat Re’eh

II.

This week’s text begins with a resounding cry (Devarim 11:26):

“See! I am presenting before you all today, a blessing and a curse! A blessing such that you shall keep my commandments…and a curse should you not hearken unto my commands and veer from the way set before you today…”

The commentators dissect virtually every word in this passage. The repetition of the word “today” is of note, but this connotation of immediacy is somewhat odd since the actual “blessing and curse” event was meant to occur at a much later date, after entering the land and reaching the mountains of Gerizim and Eval.

The Kedushat Levi assumes therefore that this set of verses is thus meant to be read atemporally; the blessing referred to here is not the one to be shouted out loud at Mt. Gerizim, but rather the verse is implying that any time the commandments are heard and kept, the relationship with God established as a result of hearing God’s voice through the commandments, is its own blessing.

Can we read the today of the verse with a reference to a time in a way that would be relevant to our lives ? Let us start backwards. The Meor V’Shemesh points this verse back towards the beginning of time, to the mystical moment when the universe was created. He explains that the first letters of the verse, Reeh Anochi Noten Lifnechem Hayom, add up to 288, which correspond to the 288 sparks God wove into creation, according to the Lurianic Kabbala, for humanity to recover and redeem. So living properly in the present literally gives meaning to existence, in that it redeems spiritual quanta at the core of being.

How about a reading where “today” might actually mean today? The Sefat Emet is very explicit in his reading of the verse that “today” literally means at this very moment. One might think that at the present one’s life is shackled by one’s past. Sins I’ve committed in the past, accumulated karma, all these should hinder my capacity for total self-reconstruction and transformation. Mistakes of my past must block my ability to hear God’s voice in the present, and thus I resign myself to remaining cut off from a chance at spiritual renewal. This verse responds: Hear! Today! Enter into the relationship today, despite the errors of yesterday.

The voice can be fully heard and actualized because this opportunity for relationship is available at every moment. Unlike Benjamin’s Angelus Novus, we are not blown into the future against our will, face contorted and towards the past, rather, the Sefat Emet’s time would be more like Benjamin’s view on Jewish time which “establishes a conception of the present as the ‘time of the now’ which is shot through with chips of Messianic time”.

The reading which shoots the now most utterly with Messianic time and whose reading most interestingly also predates another Frankfurt School thinker in this context, is that of the Or Penei Moshe (to my mind one of the most original and radical Hasidic thinkers. I don’t know why his work is not more widely circulated). His reading stresses this pivotal “today” repeated twice in our passage. This “today” is doubly articulated as is the double articulation in the divine voice- which articulates as both blessing and curse.

But first, a sidetrack through the thought of Ernst Bloch, who most articulates this double articulation within critical theory; he refers to criticism as being “Janus faced”. Bloch differed from the other Frankfurt School theoreticians in that he felt that the Marxist derived social criticism of thinkers like Adorno, who emphasized the roles of hegemony, reification, and exploitation in culture, only represent the negative half of the story, a “half-enlightenment”.

A proper critical approach to society would also recognize the positive ideology reflected in culture, the strivings toward a better world as represented in dreams, literature, art, even advertising and marketing. By recognizing what humanity conceives of as the “better life”, one is already a step closer to the positive “real-objective possibility” which could then be actualized in such a society.

We can list Bloch along with Benjamin in the category of “messianic Marxists”, as opposed to the hammer wielding “litvaks” like Althusser and Adorno. Relevant to our discussion of “today” is this summation statement in The Principle of Hope:

Possibility no longer resides in a ready-made ontology of being as that-which-has-been-up-to-now, but in an ontology which is to be forever refounded on the being-of-that-which-is-not-yet, an ontology which discovers the future even in the past in the totality of nature…The category of real possibility is the category of that space which opens up before the movement of matter as a dialectical process: it is the specific property of that dimension of reality which is situated in front of its unfolding.

The Or Penei Moshe reads the “today” in our verse as a teaching a way of living.  The technique is to live the day as though it was the only day given to live. This challenge actualizes the double articulation of blessing and curse. On the one hand, the righteous would, in such a frame of mind, not be distracted by any other matter than achieving the upmost in human perfection, would thus, by result of this mind experiment, succeed in actualizing and perfecting themselves and the world. On the other hand, the wicked, would be thrown into a nihilistic state of defeat because of fear combined with the potential termination of attainment of pleasure (In a sense, the Or Penei Moshe is presenting a version of Nietzche’s mind experiment regarding the eternal return with a not dissimilar intended psychological outcome).

What spoke to me in the OPM’s reading was the use of “hayom”, “today”, as the pivot and double facet. His defense of how one thought experiment could lead to two radically different outcomes is built on the possibilities in the word “today”. He cites BT Nedarim 8:, in which at the end of days Gd “unsheathes” the sun; the consequent light acts as a salve to the righteous and a punishment to the wicked at the same time. Once again, we have the blinding power of the good as symbolized by light, that illuminates for some and is paradoxically blinding for others.

Another aspect of the immediacy of  transformation implicit in the word “today” is found in BT Sanhedrin 98., where the messiah could come “today” if only we would hearken unto God’s word. So, according to the OPM, every day, if  lived fully,  contains within it the possibility of world transformation, today could lead to a totally new world.

The primacy of a “today” with its blinding light, versus a night of hiding in the errors/archetypes of the past, has an interesting parallel in Bloch (cited by Kellner):

The unconscious of psychoanalysis is therefore, as we can see, never a Not-Yet-Conscious, an element of progressions, it consists rather of regressions. Accordingly, even the process of making this unconscious conscious only clarifies What-Has-Been; i.e., there is nothing new in the Freudian unconscious. This became even clearer when C.G. Jung, the psychoanalytic fascist reduced the libido and its unconscious contents entirely to the primeval. According to him, exclusively phylogenetic primeval memories or primeval fantasies exist in the unconscious, falsely designated ‘archetypes’; and all wishful images also go back into this night (italics mine), only suggest prehistory. Jung even considers the night to be so colorful that consciousness pales beside it; as a spurner of light, he devalues consciousness…

To the analysts, especially the Jungians, all of our truth which is found in our unconscious, is all in the past, in the formative events of our unconscious, or to the Jungians, in ancient unchangeable archetypes, there is no progress or development possible for the psyche. In the OPM, however, living for “today’, brings us into the light of the new day, into a now moment, a moment lived intensely; a world capable of infinite possibilities at this very moment- this is possible to those who can hear, those who would stand in the divine light offered by participating in the relationship inherent in the commandments.

The Ohev Yisrael’s explains that the initial term Re’eh,  which means “see” or “look”, is a command, the command to devekut, to communion, for where one’s attention is directed, that is where one “is”. If one “looks” in this manner, then what follows is the state of “anochi” (the next word in the verse), literally “I”, but the Ohev Yisrael uses “anochi” for its numerical value, which equals the numerical value of kiseh, which means “chair.” As a result of one’s active spiritual attention, one becomes the “seat” of divine outflow. Much like Bloch, in his essay “Formative Education, Engineering Form, Ornament”, who explains how people and their environment are interrelated, how the person affects the world, and the world affects the person. His interesting example?:

…The very way in which a chair causes us to sit has- at least at times- an effect on our general posture… for example, the more approachable and gregarious personality is expressed in the abundance of seats offered in his rooms…

In summation, our verse teaches us to see, a vision in which every day presents a new opportunity for recreating the world in a more perfected state. One can transcend the errors of the past and see existence in a new light, imagine and thus create a new and better reality, born out a vision that the situation must change at this very moment, human suffering cannot be tolerated for yet another day, a recognition that the alternative to a state of blessing is world of suffering and pain, that one can too rapidly become the other. For proof, read today’s (any day’s) newspaper. Let us become the agents of change, today!

 


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