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Be like a bottle that has no opening to let air in.
Learn to accept suffering.
Forgive those who insult you. [1]

We think of ourselves as living in “anxious times;” in “The Age of Anxiety,” to use W.H. Auden’s phrase.

In the past year, the political upheaval, the growing incidents of racism and anti-semitism in the U.S., not to mention the growth of ISIS and the general political hostility in the world, cause us to live with daily uncertainty. Our climate and the ecology of our world are in danger. Our ability to maintain ourselves financially seems to be at best insecure: Even if we are comfortable in the present, we have no guarantee about the future. Our leaders, who should be most concerned about this, seem to be almost antagonistic to it.

But are worries unique to the modern world?

No.

Insecurity has always been present in most people’s lives.

Parshah “Va’y’chi” says:
“…[Yisachar/Issachar] saw a resting-place [מנוחה] that was good, and land that was pleasant, and he bowed his shoulder to bear, and became a servant…” [2]

On this, Rabbi Isaac of Warka (1779-1848) [3] quoted an anonymous Hasidic Polish or Russian villager as saying:

“How can one attain true peace and rest? By bowing his shoulder to bear;  i.e. by freely submitting to all that one is given [by God] to bear. Once one has acquired patience, he/she has also attained true peace.” [4]

Further: 

“Said the Sages: ‘If you do not want to suffer, then bear willingly whatever suffering you are given and you will not suffer. Accept and bear your sufferings, for if you will not, you will only suffer more’.” [5]

Why does Rabbi Isaac of Warka — a leading 19th century Hasidic rebbe — quote a villager?

He seems to be saying that he learned the lesson not from a source that had deduced it by mere logic or academic learning, but from someone who had to live with insecurity daily and who had learned by personal experience how best to remain calm.

Two thousand years earlier, Rabbi Nathan had taught the same lesson. He began by saying, “Be like a bottle that doesn’t let the air in.” Some interpret that to mean: Be like a bottle that floats on the water, but is sealed and allows no water to enter which would then cause it to sink and be lost. Rabbi Nathan would then be saying: Do not let “outside events” into your mind unduly, causing disturbance. Notice them only to the least necessary extent.

He then says: “Learn to ‘accept’ [K-B-L] trouble,” which can also be translated as “Learn to ‘receive’ trouble.” “Learn” because for most of us, it’s a gradual process of self-training. “K-B-L” because troubles are inevitable; we best deal with them by avoiding the tendency to judge whether they should happen or not. We “receive” them by “accepting” them.

His third direction is to forgive insults. In the present context, he means: Don’t disturb your own peace of mind by thinking unnecessarily about insults given to you.

As Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, who is also a psychotherapist, wrote:

“…Some people let others hurt them for hours when they could have kept the unpleasantness down to only a minute or two. Keep your mind on other matters and the pain of the insult will subside.” [6]

Much of psychotherapy is about teaching a client to distinguish between the troubling details of an incident, and the extended emotional tumult we create by our own reactions.

Not only psychotherapy, either. Why are so many people drawn to Yogic or Buddhistic practices? Because they are seeking personal peace. The “American Dream” — which equated wealth and material comfort with happiness and security — was shown to provide neither, in reality. Religion — which talks about peace and provides pathways to it — had largely become mere rote practices and intellectual debate. It seemed to promise a goal without giving us the directions to get there (somewhat less true now than it was 30 and 40 years ago).

Torah nevertheless has things to teach us about personal peace, as Rabbi Nathan exemplifies.

All three of his prescriptions — “‘Be like a bottle with no opening…;’ ‘Learn to receive…;’ ‘Forgive…'” are all about calmly accepting whatever happens; maintaining or reinstituting peace in our minds and hearts. 

Patanjali Hebrew[7] How similar this is to Patanjali’s statement: “Yoga is the restraint of the modifications of the ‘mindstuff’.” [8] He means: Yoga is learning to maintain a peaceful mind.

We don’t suppress worry or anxiety. We re-orient our reaction to outward circumstances in such a way that we respond calmly.

This, says Rabbi Isaac (quoting an anonymous Polish or Russian villager), is how we can minimize our suffering, whatever its “trigger.” 

On a personal note, I’d add that when dealing with something that seems to upset me, it has often been helpful for me to read or re-read teachings like these. Even if they’re already in my memory, “hearing” them again from their source re-activates them and their soothing effects, well beyond what remembering them alone can do.

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[1] Talmud; Avot d’Rabbi Natan 41:11
Avot d’Rabbi Natan/The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan” is a rabbinic commentary on “Pirkei Avot/Chapters of the Fathers
illustration © 2017 by Rabbi Eli Mallon
[2] Bereishith/Gen. 49:15
[3] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/warka.html
[4] Friedman, Alexander Zusia, ed.; Wellsprings of Torah; © 1969 by The Judaica Press; vol. I, p. 99
[5] ibid; the “Sages” are not identified, nor is the source of the quotation. But it greatly resembles the teaching in Avot d’Rabbi Nathan and elsewhere in the Talmud.
[6] Pliskin, Rabbi Zelig; Gateway to Happiness; © 1983 by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, p. 298
[7] Hebrew translation of Patanjali; Yoga Sutras (1:2) by Orit Sen-Gupta
[8] Patanjali; Yoga Sutras 1:2