By Aviva Bogart
Recently, I have dared to venture into the enigmatic and internal landscape of mindfulness meditation. During my first class, starting with a raisin in my hand, I was asked to describe the raisin.
I noticed its flaccidity, its translucency when held up to light, and the slight crinkling it made when I put it to my ear. Then I was asked to close my eyes and, as if in slow motion, raise it to my mouth. As it got closer, I was asked to notice the anticipation of how it might feel.
When I made the blessing and it touched my lips, I experienced an electric surge of emotion, a swelling inside. As it rolled around in my mouth and I finally took my first bite, I was astonished by how rich and sweet it tasted. One raisin and I was sold. Just talk to me and supply endless amounts of raisins (of which previously I wasn’t overly fond), and I will be as compliant as your star worker bee. Is it that accessible to conjure feelings of pleasure?
Gently leading my mind back to the raisin in my mouth, I was asked to notice the initial urge to swallow immediately, but not to give in to that urge till I felt ready. As I swallowed, I was aware of the raisin traveling down my throat, and I traveled with it.
As I opened my eyes and observed the rest of the group, I wondered if everyone had felt similar sensations of connection with a raisin, which got me thinking whether perhaps the extraordinary brilliance of Chassidut has finally rippled out and trickled down into my ordinary life.
Let me explain:
For too long, the Jewish ideal has been thought of as one that typically abstains from indulging in physical delights. Ironically, when the Tanya, the foundational work of chassidic philosophy, brings an example of a man who has never derived enjoyment from this world all his life, it mentions none other than Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi.
This is a man who, at the time of his demise, said that he had had no enjoyment of this world, even to the extent of his “small finger.” According to the Talmud(Avodah Zarah 10a–b), Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi was one of the most affluent men of his times, and was greatly revered in Rome. He had a close friendship with the emperor Antoninus Pius, who would consult Rabbi Yehudah on various worldly and spiritual matters. He was a key leader of the Jewish community ofJudea toward the end of the second century, and was the chief redactor and editor of the Mishnah.
The Tanya does not mention someone of standard income, or even someone less fortunate. The paramount embodiment of abstemiousness is a man to whose table there was brought food from every continent, in every season, without even a moment of financial stress, someone whose life was heavily accented by the opulence of the world.
We can interpret this on a simplistic level, as Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi was clearly a righteous person in his generation, and the physical joy of a righteous person not only pales in comparison to their spiritual joy, but rescinds it completely. We can also look deeper as to why the paradigm of Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi has been given to us.
To me, a woman who considers herself a connoisseur of the senses, this information came as a breath of fresh air. The more I learn chassidic philosophy, the more I appreciate this world for its abundance of raw materials begging for elevation. As G‑d is essentially beyond natural order, it follows that our ability to elevate materiality into spirituality is what enables us to become, as a wonderful teacher of mine so succinctly put it, G‑d’s “poster child.” Literally, we stand for the ability to go beyond ourselves.
In consonance with some of the most intriguing paradoxes, I find using physicality as the key component in going beyond ourselves, to be fascinating. It’s almost like G‑d telling us, “Here, I am giving you earthly delights like you have never experienced before. Please, please, smell, taste, touch, hear and feel. Really see what is before you. Dare to encounter the palate of life.” In compensation, He asks us one thing: to be conscious of where the flavors originate. Yet it seems the most unfeasible of tasks, to stop and be present, when life compels us to always have an errand at hand. If we don’t have our own plan, we will inevitably be thrown with abandon into another’s without a moment’s hesitation. Who wants to be part of someone else’s plan, someone else’s dream?
As a strong believer of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction meditation, I may have very divinely “stumbled” upon how to approach this material vs. ethereal struggle.
I think the solution to elevating life lies in a box of raisins. It lies in being fully present and noticing the tiny nuances that take place in every “bite” of our lives. Chassidic philosophy teaches that not even a blade of grass sways in the wind without G‑d’s knowledge and His will pronouncing that particular blade into being.
If I contemplate how every grain that makes it to my mouth exists in order for me to thank my Creator for it, how could I not slow down for that one moment before I do eat it? Something that is surely more satisfying than having my own plan, and that is unequivocally more satisfying than being part of someone else’s, is being part of His plan. Metaphorically speaking, by extending ourselves we become a pen for G‑d to write with, a vehicle for Him to harness and a cup for Him to fill. In surrendering ourselves, we actually achieve significance, as we say in prayer, “My L‑rd, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Your praise.” We are not praying, we are simply allowing our bodies to be a receptacle for prayer.
I feel so fortunate. I feel as if I have discovered the underpinnings of humanity. Is it that simple?
For now, I have made a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, red peppers, avocado, beets, sprouts and toasted walnuts, splashed it upon a canvas of green and purple lettuce, and dressed it with fresh lemon, herbs picked from my neighbor’s garden, and a spoonful of extra-virgin olive oil. I plan on losing myself in the variety of flavors. Pair this with the subtle undertones of G‑d’s intelligence, care and compassion, and you’ve got yourself a feast.