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Me and My Body: a Dialogue

Me and My Body: a Dialogue

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For generations, the body was looked upon as the evil perpertrator and seductress. The only way to deal with it was with a big stick, hurting it and starving it with the hope that it would eventually surrender to the soul. Then along came the Baal Shem Tov and taught that we can work with the body rather than against it.

"When you will see the donkey of your enemy crouching under its load..." (Exodus 23:5).

You thought that's talking about a beast of burden, teaching us a lesson in compassion for animals. Well it is. But the Baal Shem Tov saw it as also speaking of another kind of animal, one even closer to home: Your body.

Your body is crouching under its load, because it doesn't get this whole spirituality trip. The soul loaded it up with its own soulful baggage and told it to move, but it doesn't feel particularly cut out for the job. The soul wants wisdom, the body wants potato chips. The soul is drawn to be absorbed within the Infinite Light, the body is drawn to be absorbed into its pillow.

And so, the body becomes your enemy's donkey--collaborating with the dark side to foil, subterfuge, frustrate and exasperate every gambit of the soul for spiritual freedom.

You want to fast and beat it up. "Stop crouching!" you want to scream. "Get up and carry that load!" That's what spiritual seekers used to do. Before the Baal Shem Tov.

But the Baal Shem Tov pointed out that's not what the rest of the verse says to do: "When you will see the donkey of your enemy crouching under its load, and you want to abandon it there, don't abandon it. Help it out."

"Get it on your side," the Baal Shem Tov taught. "Make it a partner in your spiritual quest."

What changed?

Really the Baal Shem Tov had to say this. The Baal Shem Tov was a man so obsessed with G-dliness, he saw it everywhere he looked. “G-dliness is everything and everything is G-dliness,” he declared. “G-d supervises each event,” the Baal Shem Tov taught, “because He is found within each event. Because without Him there, nothing exists. The truth of all things is nothing more than His breath and His light.”

Because he was an extremist about G-dliness, the Baal Shem Tov had to be tolerant with the body. Since the ultimate truth is that there is nothing else--no entity or event outside of the Infinite Light--that has to include the meat patty you're living inside called a body. So if your journey leaves the body behind, then it's not G-dliness you're traveling towards. If the body's needs and demands contradict your spiritual path, then that path is not taking you to the ultimate truth.

If so, why is the body forever getting in the way of every advance of the soul upward? My personal explanation is that the body simply has a problem with its self-esteem.

Let's say we would ask the body. What would it answer? You turn to your crouching donkey and you say:

Soul: "Donkey! You're crouching again! Get up! I need to meditate and pray so I can achieve mystic union with the Infinite Light."

Body: "Don't wanna get up."

S: So what do you want?

B: Want potato chips. Salt & Vinegar kind. With salsa dip.

S: Is that all?

B: No. Is there a Jacuzzi somewhere around here?

S: I'm talking about the ultimate ecstasy of bonding with the Infinite, and all you can think of is eating chips in a hot tub? I think what you need is another good cleansing fast!"

B: Don't even think of trying.

S: Oh yeah? Why not?

B: Cuz what happened last time?

S: Uh, I got a headache and couldn't meditate, so I quit.

B: You try that again and I'll give you a whopper headache this time like you never had before.

S: You are nasty! So I'm gonna stay up tonight learning Zohar until dawn, then I'll pray with the sunrise, then...

B: Then you'll catch a lousy virus and be stuck in bed for a week. Great place for your spiritual quest there, right?

S: Okay, a little Zohar every night.

B: Not interested.

S: Twice a week?

B: You wanna do that, I'm gonna put some heavy demands on you.

S: Like what.

B: Hey, buddy, chips and Jacuzzis are child's play. You wanna play with the big boys--we're on!

S: No! Please! Why are you doing this to me? Why are you imprisoning me like this?

B: Because you are the enemy.

S: Enemy? Don't I feed you daily? Find you a nice bed at night, lead you safely through the dark valleys of life...

B: Sure. But you don't give me what I really want.

S: What do you really want? Steak every night?

B: Naaah. Can do without.

S: Unlimited TV time?

B: Dull. Nothing there these days.

S: A lifetime supply of potato chips?

B: You kidding? All that sodium could kill a human body.

S: SO IF YOU DON'T NEED THESE THINGS, WHY DO YOU KEEP DEMANDING THEM FROM ME EVERY TIME I WANT TO GO HIGHER!!??

B: BECAUSE YOU KEEP IGNORING ME LIKE I DON'T EXIST!!!

S: [silent]

S: [still silent]

B: Look, I'm sorry I yelled, but you have to understand. Life with you makes me feel so darned worthless. Next to you, I'm really nothing.

S: You really feel that way?

B: How could anybody not feel totally worthless being married to a G-dly being whose only interest is complete re-absorption within higher and yet higher planes of light--while I sit here like a millstone around your neck, just reminding you once in a while that we have to go to the washroom?

S: Well, I never really looked at it that way.

B: You don't look at it that way. About everything else and everyone else you're so altruistic. You're ready to sacrifice your very being for the sake of G-d's perfect oneness. But when it comes to me, to your own body, you just have no clue.

S: I had no clue...

B: Listen, you think I'm a dumb hamburger with eyeballs, right? You think I'm filled with self-serving, egoistic, narcissistic stuffings, a real me-bag. But the truth is, I know the truth better than you do. I know I'm absolutely nothing, of no worth, not even of any substance before the reality of the Infinite Light you relate to so well.

S: So if you know the truth, why do you fight against it?

B: And just be nothing?

S: Yeah!

B: Cuz I don't want to be nothing! I want to be something! A real something--not just cuz some idiot in the yoga class says hey that's some real flex you got there, or some dork at the ashram is so impressed at how long I can sit in full lotus without wetting my khakis...that's just more stupid nothin games and I know it!

S: So what kind of something do you want to be?

B: The only real something I know how to be.

S: Which is?

B: Which is when you realize that i am a force to be reckoned with!

S: Why me?

B: Cuz I know that you are the one thing in this world that is for real, and if you have to reckon with me, hey that makes me real too! Right?

S: [silent]

B: [also silent]

S: Hey, body, I have to tell you something.

B: Not interested.

S: It's a story. A personal story.

B: Then it needs potato chips. And violence and romance.

S: It has all of that. You see, before I came here, I was in the highest place in the universe. It's called The Garden of Eden, and it goes higher and higher, and I was like at level 3100 and moving up. There, you don't have TV. You got way better. You get to bask in rays of light from the Shechinah, in perfect bliss and ecstasy, as that light constantly increases its intensity as you increase your capacity to absorb.

B: What's to eat?

S: Eat? Heck, souls stand in line for years to get to these places. There's no restaurant, entertainment or amusement park anywhere close to this in the galaxy. Returning souls are willing to suffer the fires of gehenna for years just to get a back seat to the show. I'm telling you, a lifetime of every pleasure this world has to offer doesn't come close to one moment of the delight of that world.

B: So how on earth did you end up down here then?

S: That's where the violence comes in.

B: I'm listening.

S: I was violently ripped away from my true place above in that Divine Light--and thrown down here below to be imprisoned within...

B: ...yours truly. Thanks allot. Listen, if you didn't want to be here, you didn't have to consent.

S: I was forced. Against my will.

B: But admit it, you were interested, right? Otherwise...

S: Sure I was interested...

B: For the chips, right?

S: You mean the gambling chips?

B: That too.

S: Sure.

B: Sure...

S: No really. I knew it was a gamble, but I figured, hey maybe there's a chance.

B: A chance of what?

S: A chance to get even higher. So I took the gamble.

B: Gamble on what?

S: Gamble on you.

B: Me? What kind of a dumb investment is that?

S: The ultimate investment! Look, there I was going higher...

B: ...and higher without end. Yeah we got that part already. Been there...

S: ...done that. So I said, I gotta get beyond this. I gotta get to the Source. The Source where all this light is coming from. The Real Essence.

B: Wuzzat?

S: He Himself. Not just Garden of Eden. Not just light. Not even the Infinite Light. The Absolute.

B: Kewel. So how d'ya get it?

S: Well, I figured I can't get it on my own, because, you see, I'm a being of light. Wherever I go, wherever I look, there's just light. No real being-ness. No real sense of "hey, I am here." To get to the Absolute, the core and essence, I need to invest in something that has that drive, that need to be something, that sense of "I"--cuz, how can you experience the ultimate true I, if you don't have an I yourself?

B: So where do you get that?

S: In you.

B: In who?

S: I said you.

B: You said me?

S: Right.

B: [silent]

B: Oh my... You mean I am the key to your ultimate experience?

S: Well actually...

B: Actually, my ultimate experience too.

S: Perhaps yours even more than mine. The way it works is that if I can turn you for a moment away from the TV and the chips and all that big boy stuff too and just once get you really involved in a down-to-earth, shiny and beautiful mitzvah...

B: Then you get...

S: Then, at that point in time, we both get The Essence. The Ultimate. He Himself. And then it's all worth it. Way worth it.

B: Kewel. I'm in.

S: It's a deal.

B: So where do I get these mitzvah thingies?

S: Well we can start by putting you on a kosher diet.

B: I can do a diet, as long as...

S: Sure, we got kosher potato chips. Then there's Shabbat, when you have to enjoy all the foods you really like. Then...

B: I love you, soul.

S: I told you there would be romance.


"In the Time To Come," wrote the Rebbe Maharash (Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, 1834-1882), "the soul will be nurtured by the body. Because in truth, the body comes from a place immeasurably higher than the soul."

Now go for Part II: Sin (Not the Perfume)

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription.
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Discussion (27)
August 27, 2014
As one who loves holiness and lives it by the loving grace of our loving Maker with joy and ease now, I say press through. When I was first getting used to having to deal with the temptations I was surprised at them even existing. But I have found that going by faith instead of feelings helped me to say no day by day to those temptations. It soon became easier and easier to say no and now sin is so loathed by me, that it is not even a temptation, but that also was an anwer to prayer.
Staying right with our loving Maker so He will hear and answer our prayers is not an option and neither is holiness, whether our body likes it at first or not.
It is worth pressing trough. It gets easier. My confidence has only increased with my holiness and my faith and love for our loving Maker. Glory to Him for it all, as He as always deserves it.
Cheryl Dawn
Canada
August 14, 2014
part 2- editors pls combine w/ part 1 (or edit as u see fit). thanks!
for spirituality some people go on, trying any activity recommended by any person that promises to satiate their hunger. ashrams and gurus sound inherently spiritual and many people invest a ton of energy, time and money in these before they finally (hopefully) admit that theyre still spiritually starving. Body & soul can & should work together to reach the greatest spiritual heights possible but its important to be sure that there working on something that is bona fide spiritual. How do you verify spiritual potential? Ah, that is the challenge of life, and thank G-d were blessed with the Torah, which is a great reference point. Hope this helps & good luck!
miriam
August 14, 2014
part 1- editors pls combine w/ part 2 (or edit as u see fit). thanks!
For Brett in Taiwan: I'm not the rabbi nor am i as smart as him (i would love to be smart enough just to understand his writings!), & your question is a few years old but ill try my best to answer. you ask, "why be so negative in our language when describing our physical abilities? Words like "dork," "idiot," and "wetting my khakis" don't reflect how divine physical activity can be." youre 100% right & i think thats what this article, and indeed all of chasidus, is about. physical abilities and utilizing the body for divine service is doable and ideal; meditation can be a powerful, very spiritual activity. i think here the rabbi is addressing (w/ language that is a bit derogatory, but mostly just following the overall tone of the dialogue) the relentless search
miriam
October 9, 2013
Re: Missing Something
I think the bodies got smarter. Really. They had lofty souls, but the bodies weren't so refined yet. But after centuries of physical persecution, our bodies became more refined, smarter to the strategies of the soul, and at the same time friendlier to more amicable means.
Tzvi Freeman
October 9, 2013
Missing something
I don't understand how in the times prior to the Baal Shem Tov the spiritual seekers would beat their bodies and expect to achieve greater spiritual heights. Would not the pain and affliction to the body inhibit their service?
Like the body and soul conversation - the body inflicts the soul with headaches after a cleanse fast.
What is gained?
Lev
September 17, 2013
Me and My Body
Rabbi Freeman,
Your writing reminded me of Victor Borge's shtick - playing classical musical with a comedic flair. His goal was to impart the love of classical music to people who would have never listened to it.

You have taught a very important lesson under the guise of humor; I laughed harder than I would have over a joke. There are many who would not read a heavy duty concept from Tanya, but will read this ... and the lesson will be absorbed painlessly.
Karin Kruger
Oklahoma City, OK/USA
January 13, 2010
Very deep!
Thank-you Rabbi Freeman!!
Learning Torah
July 15, 2009
Beautiful Work!
Beautifully written and shared. Thank you!!!
Nachum Footnick
Kingwood, TX
April 23, 2009
To Leah Shaindel
"I" is what we call a epiphenomena--the artifact of a soul and body entangled as one.
Tzvi Freeman
Thornhill, Ontario
April 20, 2009
this is INCREDIBLE. that said... so who am "I"? I feel like you are saying the "I" is the soul. but then it really does sound like the body is an "I" also... then again what is an "I" anyways...whatever the case, this makes me feel a little schitzo
Leah Shaindel
bronx, ny
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