With a Samach-Vav Twist
-- Samach-Vav Part 17 --
Wednesday June 21, 8:30AM
– Riding the Number 4 train to Borough Hall, to fulfill my jury duty.
Hundreds of people are
filing into the NY State Supreme Courthouse on Adams St. to do their part
in “upholding the justice system,” as we are reminded by the indoctrination
video welcoming us as we enter the vast hall called Room 216, where I and
my compatriots will spend the day.
I come well prepared.
With my Samach-Vav
[the series of discourses delivered by the Rebbe Rashab a century ago] in
hand and other papers to review, I have my day planned. I will study this
week’s discourse in Samach-Vav, make a few telephone calls and twiddle my
thumbs in between.
My first hurdle was to
smuggle my cell phone into the courtroom. The jury instructions clearly stated
that “cell phone cameras will be confiscated for the day.” but how can I –
and so many of my vulnerable colleagues – survive a day without a cell phone?!
What are they thinking?! Do they understand the consequences of cell-phone
deprivation? (and why don’t they allow taking photos in courtrooms anyway?)
It didn’t end up being
that difficult. I wasn’t the only one with the dilemma. Every one — and I
mean everyone — arriving had a cell phone with them, and we were all
allowed in unscathed.
The day is filled with
many humorous moments, but perhaps the funniest is when the clerk announces:
“Any one that does not have basic knowledge of English, please line up to
my right.” I thought to myself: “How is someone who doesn’t have a basic understanding
of English supposed to understand that announcement…” But before I finish
my thought the same announcement is made in Spanish, Chinese and Russian.
And here is the funny
part: Immediately following the announcement (in English) around a quarter
of the crowd arises and begins making their way to the line on the right.
Until the clerk continues: “If you’ve lived in the United States for over
20 years the likelihood is that you have a basic knowledge of English.” Some
of the people sit back down.
I guess “basic knowledge
of English” can means many things; and the desperation of jury duty has a
way of making people feel that “basic” is professor level English. Any
thing to get outta this place.
The clerk continues: “Not
having a basic knowledge of English does not mean that you can go home. It
simply means that you will be interviewed.” More people return to their seats.
Clearly, jury duty is
meant to keep as many people hostage for at least a full day. But then again,
who will sit on juries if we are all allowed loopholes of escape? Doesn’t
that sound sweet…
I turn around on my bench
to watch the large crowd. People of all backgrounds, colors and creeds fill
the room. A true cross section of NY has gathered here today, as they do every
day, in room 261, awaiting instructions and their name to be called.
Time to travel elsewhere.
I pull out my Samach-Vav.
What sustains negative
and evil forces in life? Since they don’t have any power of their own, what
keeps them going? Explains the Rebbe Rashab, they are sustained by a force
that is called “makif” in mystical language. “Makif” (lit. surrounding) is
a transcendent, hovering form of energy that is somewhat removed from the
internal details and therefore can tolerate and give off energy even to the
“other side.” When you are detached you often allow room for harmful forces.
For this reason, even
good deeds need strong protection in this world. Since every good deed we
do manifests in the material world, which is a hybrid combination of good
and bad, selfish and selfless, there is always a potential that good actions
will “feed” negative forces in the process.
Good people with good
intentions need protection in a hostile universe. The protection comes from
a force that is above and beyond us, an even higher level of makif,
called the “distant makif,” a place that is beyond any form of negative influence,
which cuts off the flow of energy (from the lower makif) to any unacceptable
place. We access this higher makif through the negative mitzvoth (and
through Torah). As discussed in a previous
segment, the positive mitzvah generates a defined form of Divine energy,
one that can be contained in the particular act of each respective good deed.
The negative mitzvah manifests the Essence – the Divine energy than is beyond
any form of expression, expressed only in the sheer effort of withstanding
temptation to do something wrong. By avoiding destructive behavior we fortify
our lives, building defenses and drawing down the Essential energy that surrounds
us in its embrace and shields us from all harm.
Someone taps me on my
shoulder. “We need your form.” Startled, I lift my eyes from Samach-Vav and
remember that I am sitting in courtroom waiting to serve on a jury. Will I
be arrested for learning Samach-Vav?
I give them my filled
out form, and go right back to my thoughts.
This week’s Torah chapter
and the following one discuss two opposite philosophies in dealing with the
challenge of materialism.
Escapism and immersion.
The scouts, in this week’s
chapter, are charged by Moses to check out the land of Israel in preparation
of its conquest. The scouts return with a terrible report: “We cannot go forward
against those people [living in Israel]. They are too strong for us.”
Hmm, the scouts were good
people with good intentions, but they lacked the necessary protection. The
scouts, the best men of their time, wanted to live spiritual lives, and felt
that the optimal protection from the strangling tentacles of materialism is
to avoid engagement at all cost. To remain in the insulated wilderness. The
land is too powerful, they argued, a “land that consumes its inhabitants.”
And in their insistence
to protect themselves from the material they ended up destroying their true
protection. Because after all is said and done, what protects us in this world
are not our own logical machinations, but a deep faith in the Divine, and
the power that the Divine endows us to face all the challenges of life. [Joshua
and Caleb, by contrast, did have extra protection: Moses prayed for Joshua’s
wellbeing, and Caleb prayed at the gravesite of the patriarchs and matriarchs
at the Machpela cave in Chevron].
You can run but you can’t
hide. The scouts wanted to run – to escape behind the clouds of glory, the
bread from heaven and the miracle water – to avoid the material land that
“consumes its inhabitants.” All good and fine, but it is G-d that created
the material land, and it is G-d who commanded the people, and blessed them,
to enter the Promised Land, thereby giving them all the power and protection
they need to not only survive but to thrive.
As Joshua and Caleb declared:
It “is a very, very good land. If G-d is satisfied with us…He can bring it
to us. If you don’t rebel against G-d you won’t need to be afraid of the people
in the land, because they are our ‘bread’ [i.e. we can transform them by elevating
their sparks], [G-d will] have taken away their protection [i.e. the sustenance
and power they receive from the makif, “shadow” (tzel)]. G-d
is with us so don’t be afraid.”
Korach on the other hand
(in next week’s portion) took the exact opposite approach: Since G-d created
and placed us into the material world and we have nothing to fear, let us
immerse ourselves entirely in materialism to elevate its powerful Divine sparks.
His mistake was that you cannot survive on the protective “makif” energy from
above alone. You need to build a life of virtue in this material world, through
In Samach-Vav terminology:
The scouts wanted the inner life (pnimi) without the protecting makif;
Korach wanted the makif without the pnimi.
Extreme insulation and
extreme immersion are not acceptable options.
To live a spiritual life
in a material world requires not only avoidance and insulation but the ability
to engage life and transform it.
Insulation and integration.
Back to earth, my name
is called. Off we march to Room 5 to be screened as prospective jurors. After
a judge instructs us as to the procedures, the attorneys representing the
plaintiff and the defendant interview us to see if we will, as they put it,
be fair and impartial. The case is about a door falling on a cleaning lady
who is suing the owner for pain, suffering and damages.
I won’t bore you with
the details. Bottom line is I am dismissed from this jury, and return to the
lounge to continue serving my sentence.
I make some casual conversation,
perhaps looking for the Divine providence of meeting someone I need to meet
on this Wednesday. A man shares with me his tragic life. His mentally disturbed
wife ran off with his son. He is so alone. Too many people are so alone. Life
is too sad for too many people…
I escape back to Samach-Vav.
Escape is not an option, the Rebbe Rashab tells me. Immerse, but stay above.
Engage – and transform. Influence, don’t be influenced. Enter the universe
and lift it.
No where to run. No where
1:00PM – Lunch time. At
12:45 an announcement sets off a scramble for the doors. Nothing like lunch
break. I remain behind to see if anyone has anything else to do but run for
lunch. No one remains. I guess no one wants to die of hunger. Or is it the
lunch ritual that has us all programmed?
Off I go roaming the streets
of downtown Brooklyn looking for a kosher meal. Not so simple. Finally a kosher
stand emerges. Sit down on the wide steps of another office building to eat
and observe. Are these steps that lead you somewhere or makeshift lunch seats
that just look like steps?
2PM – back to the courtroom.
Now what? We wait, and wait, and wait. Finally at 4:00PM I and many of my
co-potential-jurors are discharged.
So now you know: I am
a good American citizen, fulfilling my duty to the justice system. Ho-hum.
But I don’t know if I
could survive just on that.
Thank G-d for Samach-Vav…