Friday, July 25, 2008

Question & Answer With Rabbi Tanchum Burton - Friendly Barriers

(Picture by K. Swanson)

A Simple Jew asks:

Reb Nosson of Breslov wrote:

The barriers in this world do not only come from the wicked, who try to thwart us with temptations, mockery, and opposition. Obstacles and demoralization can come even from one's closest friends and from people who are genuinely honest. It is not possible to explain this fully in writing, but a sensible person will be able to work it out for himself.

Could you elaborate a bit further on this idea of people close to us unintentionally inhibiting our spiritual growth? Why do you think Reb Nosson did not want to explain it more fully in writing? Have you personally encountered this phenomenon in your life?

Rabbi Tanchum Burton answers:

I think this idea is similar to the previous one. The spiritual makeup of the universe can be divided into two opposing forces, one which causes Hashem's "light" to be manifest, and one which causes it to be obscured. The sides operate in perfect congruity, like a matching pair. Again, the idea of zeh l'eumas zeh asah Elokim, "part and counterpart has G-d made". We refer to these two sides as the Side of Holiness and the Other Side, respectively. The Other Side is not an independent entity that has the ability to go against the Will of Hashem, like a "devil", as other religions believe, but is simply a necessary element to be included in the DNA of the universe in order to provide a context for free will and the observance of G-d's commandments through choice. We do, however, encounter it as evil.

Due to the fact that the Other Side must oppose the Side of Holiness, and because it is a perfect counterpart to the Side of Holiness, it generally manifests itself in perfect congruity to the Side of Holiness. That is to say, there is a "good" and "evil" version of everything in the universe. However, if we look at a given side in terms of its hierarchy of spiritual levels, the higher up you go on one side, the higher up the other side its counterpart will be. Therefore, the more spiritually progressed a person is, the more subtle, or cunning his or her yetzer hara will be. But, no matter where a person finds him or herself in terms of his or her spiritual development, the Other Side manifests itself in the most effective manner possible to fit the circumstance. If it means a forbidden temptation of some variety, then so be it. If it means seemingly well-intentioned advice from family members or even rabbonim, then so be it. It is often so difficult to know when the "vibe" coming at you comes from the Side of Holiness or from the Sitra Achra, that one must constantly pray for the clarity to know the difference. And one must take counsel with one who is wiser.

Now, the problem is, armed with this information, a person can err and develop a type of mystical paranoia and see the people and circumstances around him or her as personifications of the Sitra Achra. If one is not a prophet or prophetess, he or she has no right to play this type of spiritual connect-the-dots, and doing so can be very destructive to one's relationships and sense of reality. One must remain sensible as Reb Noson z"l states. I think the reason he chose not to commit a lengthier description of this process to writing is because everyone's situation is different and bears consideration in its own right.


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