Tag Archives: Asceticism

The Mystery and Mysticism of the Essenes

This Sunday night we celebrate Shavuot, staying up all night learning Torah and showing our devotion to God’s Word. Previously, we traced the origins of this custom to the Kabbalists of Tzfat in the 16th century, based on the teachings of the Zohar that date back to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the 2nd century CE. However, there is actually one more historical mention for a tikkun leil Shavuot, of sorts, that predates Tzfat, the Zohar, and even Rashbi. The first-century Jewish sage and philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE – 50 CE), describes a ritual where certain Jews would stay up all night on Shavuot:

And after the feast they celebrate the sacred festival during the whole night; and this nocturnal festival is celebrated in the following manner: they all stand up together, and in the middle of the entertainment two choruses are formed at first, the one of men and the other of women, and for each chorus there is a leader and chief selected, who is the most honourable and most excellent of the band. Then they sing hymns which have been composed in honour of God in many metres and tunes, at one time all singing together, and at another moving their hands and dancing in corresponding harmony and, uttering in an inspired manner, songs of thanksgiving…

The ideas were beautiful, the expressions beautiful, and the chorus-singers were beautiful; and the end of ideas, and expressions, and chorus-singers was piety; therefore, being intoxicated all night till the morning with this beautiful intoxication, without feeling their heads heavy or closing their eyes for sleep, but being even more awake than when they came to the feast, as to their eyes and their whole bodies, and standing there till morning, when they saw the sun rising they raised their hands to heaven, imploring tranquillity and truth, and acuteness of understanding. (On the Contemplative Life, XI, 83-89)

Philo calls this sect of Jews the Essenes, or the Therapeutae, the “Healers”. They have become more well-known in recent decades because of their association with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Who were the Essenes? What did they believe? Why did they stay up all night on Shavuot? And how did they come to influence Kabbalah and other mystical movements? Continue reading

How to Define (and Attain) True Success

In this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, the Torah describes Joseph three times as being matzliach, “successful”. The word appears just four times in the entire Tanakh—and Joseph got three of them! (The fourth was Eliezer, on his mission to find a wife for Isaac.) Joseph was, by far, the most successful Biblical figure. What, exactly, is success? How do we measure if a person is truly “successful” or not? A careful analysis reveals that there are four major markers of success, neatly paralleling the four instances of “success” in the Tanakh.

Health and Wealth

In our modern capitalist society, it is no surprise that the most common marker of success (and sometimes the only marker) is wealth. Society deems a person “successful” if they are materially wealthy. Billionaires are portrayed as the paragons of success, role models for everyone else to aspire to. While wealth is indeed an indicator of success, it is only the first and lowest level. We use it so regularly because it is the easiest to measure and track. It is something we can put a concrete number on: net worth, credit score, investments, bank accounts.

To determine what is a higher marker of success, we need to ask: what is more important than wealth? In other words, what would a person give up all of their wealth for? The first thing that comes to mind is health. A person who is ill will spend whatever they have to get better. Tragically, we probably all know people who were diagnosed with cancer or some other life-threatening condition and spent countless sums for treatments, sometimes selling nearly all of their assets to do so. The same is not true the other way; a person would never willingly accept a life-threatening cancer in exchange for any sum of money! If this is the case, the health status of a person should be a greater indicator of success than their material wealth.

It reminds me of a story my father-in-law likes to tell: Shortly after they had made aliyah from the USSR, and were still living in relative poverty, the extended family gathered for a barbecue at a park. Some time later, a fancy car pulled up and a gentleman was brought to the park by his chauffeur. The man took a seat on a bench and simply watched my wife’s family. My father-in-law put together a plate of barbecue and plov, and walked over to give it to him (with a little l’chayim, too). The gentleman thanked him, but refused. He told my father-in-law that while he was tremendously wealthy and had more money than he could ever use, he could not enjoy any of it, for he was also tremendously ill. He could not drink or eat anything outside his carefully-constructed diet, and could hardly move on his own. He hoped that it was okay he was watching the family, for this way he might draw a little bit of second-hand joy from them. The man concluded with a message: don’t sacrifice your health in pursuit of wealth!

Love and Success

Continuing on the next level, the same test can be applied: what would a person give up their health for? Certainly, one would (and does) sacrifice their health for their family. In other words, for those that a person loves. While a person would, say, never accept a cancer in exchange for money, most people would probably accept a cancer in exchange for relieving their child of the same cancer. Any parent is ready at an instant to take upon themselves the pain of their young child. This brings to mind another powerful story:

An aunt of mine was diagnosed with a difficult cancer while still in her twenties, and with little children of her own. My grandmother was so distraught that she fell on her knees and prayed to Hashem to spare her daughter-in-law (my aunt), and to transfer the cancer to herself instead. My grandmother passed away within a few months—from cancer. Meanwhile, my aunt’s cancer went away and she lived for another three decades. (As an aside, the night before my grandmother passed away, she made my mother promise to have one more child. That child would be me!)

To summarize, the third marker of success is love, or more broadly, the quantity and quality of a person’s relationships. A millionaire is successful, yes; a person in excellent health and living into a good old age is more successful in the grand scheme; and one that is surrounded by doting loved ones even more so. In fact, we see that attaining a higher measure of success often ensures that a person also has the lower levels. A person in good health is more likely to be wealthier. A person with warm, loving relationships is more likely to be healthier, and also more likely to be financially successful! And this is confirmed scientifically:

In one of the most fascinating studies ever conducted, Harvard University researchers tracked people for over 75 years. Among the conclusions of this well-known “Study of Adult Development” is that the most important marker of overall success and happiness was having loving relationships. The researchers found that those who had good relationships earned, on average, $141,000 more than those that didn’t. (Interestingly, IQ didn’t have much of an effect on having a high income.) They also found that those who had good marriages were healthier and tended to live longer, as did those that had good relationships with their parents.

It seems, then, that there shouldn’t be any higher indicator of success than love. Even the Mishnah apparently echoes this sentiment, stating that “One with whom people are pleased, God is pleased with. But one with whom people are displeased, God is displeased with.” (Avot 3:10) What could be higher than love? Let’s apply the same question once more: what would a person give up their loved ones for?

The Soul

The final and highest level of success can be summarized with one word: soul. A person would not give up their loved ones for money, or health, but many would do so when it comes to preserving their very soul and conscience. Would a person take another’s innocent life to save a loved one’s? Probably not. Would a person commit rape or incest (God forbid) when threatened with their life? Unlikely. Halakhically speaking, they would be forbidden from doing so, for these would fall under the three “cardinal sins” of Judaism. In Jewish law, one must give up his or her life to avoid transgressions under the three broad categories of murder, sexual sin, and idolatry. While these examples are certainly extreme, they serve to illustrate the broader lesson that the soul is the most valuable thing a person possesses. As such, developing the soul to its highest degree would be the greatest measure of success.

Following the same argument as above, a person with spiritual success should also be successful in all the lower levels beneath it. We would expect such a person to also be wealthy, healthy, and surrounded by loving relationships. Indeed, this is what we see in most cases. We find all of our Patriarchs were exceedingly wealthy and lived long, healthy lives. The same is true for most of the Biblical prophets, and the Talmud states a general rule that prophets were all wealthy (Nedarim 38a).

The Talmudic Sages themselves demonstrate this principle well. Rabbi Akiva and Hillel, for example, started out impoverished and spiritually unrefined, but went on to become among the greatest rabbis of all time—and very wealthy and influential, too. There were, of course, Sages that were very poor, but we find that typically they were poor by choice. They wanted to live a simpler, more ascetic lifestyle. The most famous such story is that of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, whose wife was so tired of their poverty that she asked him to pray for wealth (Ta’anit 25a). The Heavens answered with a huge chunk of gold. The rabbanit then had a dream at night where she saw that chunk of gold was given to them from their reward in the Afterlife. She told her husband to give it back!

In short, spiritual refinement is the highest level of success, and includes all the other levels within it. The perfect model for this is Joseph, the man most often described in the Torah as “successful”. Joseph was on the highest level of spirituality, so much so that the Torah tells us “the spirit of God was within him” (Genesis 41:38). He ended up being immensely wealthy and powerful, and we also see he had a loving, monogamous marriage, and good children. His sons were so good, in fact, that until this day we bless our sons every Shabbat evening to be “like Ephraim and like Menashe”! Joseph was the complete package.

If that’s the case, why does the Torah mention him as being “successful” three times, and not four?

Letters of Success

‘Joseph Makes Himself Known to His Brethren’ by Gustav Doré

The one drawback that we find in Joseph is that he died relatively young, at “only” 110 years. From our perspective, this is a long life, but back then it was shorter than any of the Patriarchs. Moreover, our Sages state that Joseph was first of all the sons of Jacob to pass away (even though he was the second-last child, and should have outlived most of them). The reason is that Joseph had a bit of an ego when confronting his brothers. For this he was punished, and his life, though healthy, was cut short (see, for instance, Yalkut Shimoni, Beresheet 151). This might explain why Joseph is not described as successful all four times.

Finally, we find in the very letters of “success” (מצליח) a way to remember its four categories. The first letter mem represents mammon, “wealth”. The mem literally means “water”, and its shape represents flow. Appropriately, money is described as being “liquid”, having a “currency”, flowing through the economy. In the Talmud, too, money is called zuz, which literally means “move”. The next letter tzadi is read as tzadik, meaning “righteous”. It represents that highest level of success, spiritual refinement. The lamed, the longest letter in the alphabet, represents longevity and health. Finally, our Sages teach that the chet stands for, and is in the shape of, a chuppah, standing for love and marriage. In this way, the letters of matzliach spell out what it means to be successful.

Chag sameach!

What is Happiness?

The Torah describes the holiday of Sukkot as being especially happy, and commands us to be akh sameach, “only happy” (Deuteronomy 16:15). When we look across Judaism, we find that there are actually three more holidays that are described similarly. Purim is the next one, of which the Talmud famously states that one must “increase in happiness” during the month in which Purim takes place (Ta’anit 29a). This is based on Scripture, where we read “And to the Jews was light, happiness, joy and prestige” (Esther 8:16). The last two specially-happy days are Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur, of which the Talmud states “there were never in Israel greater days of joy than the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur” (Ta’anit 26b).

Why are these four holidays happier than the others? What is their connection to happiness? To answer that, we must first explore a bigger question: what exactly is happiness? Of course, we have all experienced happiness and innately know what it is. The real question is: what is the proper path to attaining true and lasting happiness? If we take a brief trip through centuries of philosophical thought, we will find that there are four major answers to this question. While every philosopher and school of philosophy had their own slight variation, we can group all of their answers into four categories:

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