Pinny Arnon

Positivity, Tragedy, and the Torah Wisdom of Paradox

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

I have a confession to make:

It has been challenging, throughout the past two and half months, to remain as serene and optimistic as I try to be on a daily basis. Judaism is a practice that trains us to master our nature and to live with peace and joy even in the midst of adversity and tumult. Yet in the face of the type of tragedy and sustained calamity that we are experiencing since October 7th, it becomes more difficult to maintain equanimity and positivity. How do we reconcile God’s Oneness and kindness with the bitter conflict and cruelty that we are witnessing? How do we maintain our faith in the goodness and Godliness at the core of all things when we are exposed to so much savage brutality and wanton evil?

First, it is important to know that it is okay to have questions and even doubts. God challenges us and does not expect perfection. But He does provide us with wisdom that can help us to not only cope with the darkness, but to grow from it.

Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream grants us such insight. In Pharaoh’s dream, seven healthy cows ascended from the Nile. As they pastured in the marshland, seven lean, sickly cows came from the river and stood beside them. Then the lean cows devoured the healthy cows, and Pharaoh awoke. He related his dream to all of his wise men, but none of them could interpret it satisfactorily. Joseph was summoned from prison because he had been known to interpret dreams previously. He provided Pharaoh the dream’s prophetic meaning, and he was elevated to the position of viceroy in order to save Egypt from the coming famine.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that there was one detail of the dream that completely confounded Pharaoh’s wise men. There were those who suggested, as Joseph did, that the fat cows may represent 7 years of plenty and the sickly cows may represent 7 years of subsequent famine. But what they could not comprehend was what it meant that the two groups of cows “taamodna/stood beside” one another on the riverbank before the lean cows consumed the fat cows. Famine could follow years of plenty and “consume” them so that nothing remained, that they understood. But how could famine and plenty stand beside one another and exist simultaneously. Only Joseph, the Rebbe taught, could elucidate this important detail.

Joseph explained that in the midst of the years of plenty, it was essential that they simultaneously “experience” the coming years of famine by keeping them in their consciousness. This would enable them to prepare for the lean years properly. And then, when the lean years came, they would be able to “experience” the fat years even in the midst of famine. Joseph recognized that the healthy and sickly cows stood concurrently in Pharaoh’s dream in order to reveal the necessary strategy for Egypt’s survival.

Joseph’s wisdom is applicable far beyond the famine in Egypt, and it is emblematic of one of the Torah’s deepest and most unique contributions. Torah teaches us that in order to negotiate the inevitable challenges of life, we must learn to tolerate paradox. Just as the fat cows and lean cows – representing both feast and famine – can exist simultaneously on the riverbank, so too we must recognize that opposites can and do coexist in this befuddling reality. This world is not the “olam ha’emes/world of truth” that we will eventually experience, but it is an “alma d’shikra/world of falsehood” that we were sent here to correct and perfect. Within this context, we face constant conflict and multiplicity, but through our daily learning and meditation we remind ourselves that our ultimate and underlying reality is one of absolute consonance and unity. We are frequently compelled to defend ourselves and battle the forces of darkness, even as we know that in truth the darkness is only the temporary concealment of God’s infinite light.

Through Torah’s wisdom, we understand that the ultimate Truth (with a capital ’T’) does not negate the temporal truths of our current reality. And conversely, the many challenges that we face daily do not negate the Reality (with a capital ‘R’) of God’s Oneness. Torah teaches us to dwell in the paradox, to be in the world and beyond it simultaneously. While there are those traditions that divide the world into segments – good and evil, holy and profane, heaven and earth – and demand that one must choose to live in one state or the other, Torah trains us to fuse and unify the creation. The “holy” person does not leave the world behind to go dwell in abstinence on a mountaintop, rather s/he is to make a dwelling place for God within the lowest depths. Life, as Joseph instructs us, is not feast or famine. It is a constant interplay of blessing and challenge, rising and descending, all of which is designed to help us see and manifest the unity that underlies every aspect of existence.

It is a difficult moment in the world. War rages and tragedies abound. Such times naturally dampen our spirits, disrupt our focus, and shake our foundations. But they also challenge us to dig deeper into the Torah’s timeless wisdom and to strengthen our faith. Our existence is not one of conflict OR peace, but we must learn to reconcile concurrent conflict AND peace. As war rages externally, we must vigorously wage peace internally. From within us this peace WILL emanate and permeate those around us. It is only in this way that we will be able to not only tolerate life’s constant paradox, but to finally reconcile it, and to thereby transform this world of discord into the realm of unity that it is intended and destined to be.

Derived from Pnei Hashem, an introduction to the deepest depths of the human experience based on the esoteric teachings of Torah.

About the Author
Pinny Arnon is an award-winning writer in the secular world who was introduced to the wellsprings of Torah as a young adult. After decades of study and frequent interaction with some of the most renowned Rabbis of the generation, Arnon has been encouraged to focus his clear and incisive writing style on the explication of the inner depths of Torah.
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