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The Unbearable Heaviness of Being

The Unbearable Heaviness of Being


Perhaps the most radical statement by Judaism is to be found in Deuteronomy 4:35. "G‑d is," says Moses to the assembled people of Israel. "There is nothing else."

Some would be quick to point out that a number of eastern religions and philosophies also make the inexistence of the universe a central component of their world-view. Life is a dream, reality an illusion, in truth all is nothingness. But that's not what Judaism says. Judaism says that there is a world — the first sentence of the Torah states that G‑d created one, and the rest of the Torah instructs what should be done with it. Those who seek to escape reality are called "sinners". And yet, at the very same time, G‑d is the only existence — "There is nothing else."

Hundreds of discourses and thousands of pages of Chassidic teaching are devoted to discussing this paradox, which touches on the very crux of Judaism. You'll find samplings of these discussions here and here. But in this article, I'd like to ask a very un-philosophical question: So what?

So I don't exist. Or I don't exist and do exist at the same time. So what? I still have to get up in the morning, I still have to deal with my landlord, my credit card balance, my mother-in-law, my co-workers and this guy whose elbow is crushing my ribs on this crowded subway car. It might make interesting reading, but in the final analysis, what difference does it make?

The problem is, "so what?" happens to be Chassidim's favorite question. Which means that there are at least as many pages discussing the practical implications and applications of the existence/non-existence paradox as those discussing the paradox itself. This is not going to help us make this discussion any shorter.

So let me just leave you with one thought. Think back to the last time you argued with a friend, or the last time you lashed out in anger at a loved one or a stranger. Now ask yourself: what if you took yourself just a little bit less seriously? What if you were just a tiny bit less certain that you actually exist?

By Yanki Tauber; based on the teachings of the Rebbe.
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Michael Diamond Maryland August 11, 2016

Possible misunderstanding of 'Eastern religion' Dear Reb Tauber. I always read your essays with interest and appreciation. That's why I felt it important, in the interest of the gathering of strangers which is this shmittah year, we should get the other folks' stuff right. The Buddhist idea, sunyata, is not actually about nothingness and illusion. It is the insubstantial stuff we call hevel, as Koheleth speaks of. So I think they actually agree with us, but are even more reluctant to name a deity than we are, perhaps lacking access....... Reply

jake July 24, 2007

Beautiful. This was a great thing to read to start my day! Reply

doug hippchen ventura, CA/USA June 30, 2005

heaviness of being What a unique concept... I feel much lighter from simply reading this, since the weight of my thoughts turn my body to dust. Reply

Dilli November 27, 2004

Great article! Lots of times I make issues out of tissues. My sister tells me, so what you have a problem? big deal, you could handle it! Reply