To be or to do? That is the question

It was 1954, decades before hordes of Israelis would flood the Indian subcontinent, when Ezriel Carlebach, the legendary editor of Maariv, traveled to India. In a book about his experiences, India: Account of a Voyage, Carlebach sums up well the difference between the Western and Eastern mindsets. He quotes a conversation he had with the prime minister of India at the time, Jawaharlal Nehru, who described the cultural divide:

We mentioned the diplomatic complications, which seem difficult to overcome, and I remarked, “Well, the question is what to do.” He gazed at me for a while, and said, “You see? That is a typical question for a European.” “How so?” I asked. “Well,” he replied, “an Indian would have asked, ‘What to be?”[1]

The difference between “doing” and “being,” in this intercultural comparison, is the difference between wanting to change reality through action and the capacity to accept reality as is, between orientation toward the future and a recognition of the present. Existentially speaking, it is the difference between defining oneself in relation to the question “What do I do?” and the question “Who am I?”

Israel is at the crossroads of East and West, a geographical-historical fact that carries profound spiritual implications. Judaism contains ideas that are generally identified with Eastern religions, along with ideas that underpin Western thinking. As I argue in “Be,Become, Bless – Jewish Spirituality between East and West”, Judaism’s grand spiritual message is the synthesis of these disparate elements, an outlook that unifies “being” and “doing.”

Was the World Created Twice?

The distinction between “being” and “doing,” and their synthesis, is foreshadowed already in the Creation story. The Torah relates the creation of the world twice: chapter 1 of Genesis divides it into seven days, while the telling in chapter 2 focuses on Man in the Garden. Torah commentators have sought to explain the repetition and the differences between the stories (preeminent among them in recent generations were Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in his essay The Lonely Man of Faith, and Rabbi Mordechai Breuer in various writings). Some see the dual telling as an expression of the complexity and multifariousness of reality; others as an expression of varying attributes of God’s sovereignty over humanity and the world.

I wish to suggest an alternative reading that considers the difference between the stories as an expression of the gap between a life approach of “doing” and a life approach of “being.” The terms “being” and “doing” are not extraneous to the Torah – they appear in the text itself. The two principles are among the foundation stones of the creation story, and the interplay between them is a motif throughout the Torah.

In the first description of Creation, the Torah relates a story of action. Humanity is made in God’s image, and its purpose is to rule over the world: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth” (Gen. 1:28). In describing the purpose of Creation, the Torah uses the word “laasot,” meaning “to do” (2:3).

The second story, in contrast, describes an existential experience of “being”: humankind is portrayed as living in harmony with nature in the Garden of Eden, and the purpose of its creation is given as “It is not good that the man should be alone” (2:18). In the first description, the relationship between Adam and his wife is outward-facing – they are charged with changing reality by being fruitful and multiplying, enjoined to procreate so as to dominate the world. But in the second narrative, the relationship faces inward, and rather than multiply, the male and the female coalesce: “…and [he] shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh” (2:24). Together, a man and a woman are the answer to human solitude, and being in union is the pinnacle of their relationship.

Reflecting the twin narratives of Creation, expressions of “being” and “doing” pervade Judaism. The Jewish week is divided into six days of “doing” – “Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work” (Ex. 20:9) – and a day of rest: “But the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord thy God, in it thou shalt not do any manner of work” (20:10). The obvious question is whether “being” and “doing” are inherently contradictory, thus entailing the admission that life is fundamentally dualistic. Must we choose between a life of “being” and a life of “doing”? Are these two aspects of our lives irreconcilable?

The Torah casts these two principles in separate Creation stories in order to elucidate each on its own. Yet, ultimately, they are not separate, but rather two sides of the same coin. In our lives, too, there is need to separate the various principles, but the goal is nevertheless to lead a dynamic lifestyle that enables interplay between their expressions – a harmony of “being” and “doing.”

The Taste of the Fruit and the Taste of the Tree – Rav Kook and Tom Sawyer

The opportunity to examine God’s intention, His blueprint for the world, is fascinating. In chapter 1, God commands the earth to sprout “fruit-tree bearing fruit,” but instead it brings forth “tree bearing fruit” (Gen. 1:11–12). Rashi, based on a midrash in Genesis Rabba, writes, “Fruit trees: That the taste of the tree should be like the taste of the fruit. It [the earth] did not do so, however.” Midrashic literature refers to this act of disobedience as “the sin of the earth.” What is the import of this sin, and why is it so important that the tree have flavor? Rav Kook (Orot HaTeshuva 6:7) explains the relation between the tree and the fruit as an allegory for the relations between means and ends: the fruit is the end and the tree is the means. God intended for the tree itself, and not only its fruits, to have flavor. It follows that actions – beyond being means to an end – should have intrinsic value.

This idea can be taken in other directions and applied to the question of the relation between form and content. The original purpose of Creation, according to Rav Kook’s cosmology, was to construct a world in which the forms that life takes are perfect likenesses of their content: the body would describe the soul, the external would reflect the internal, and we would be capable of expressing ourselves externally just as we experience ourselves internally. And like us the trees, the animals – all of creation. But the earth sinned in separating form from content. Thus, the tree became a means to the fruit, its treeness utterly devoid of the flavor of the fruit. The earth, as Rav Kook puts it, “betrayed its essence.” Instead of daring to be itself, as the Lord had intended, it chose to actualize itself only partially. Thenceforth, all of our actions in the world have been mere stages en route to some future goal, bereft of inherent existential meaning.

Mark Twain’s classic novel Tom Sawyer can help elucidate Rav Kook’s idea. In one of the chapters, Tom’s Aunt Polly punishes him by ordering him to paint the fence in the yard. The aunt signifies a reality in which the tree does not taste like the fruit. In it, only the “fruit,” meaning the painted fence, has value, while the act of painting – the means – is punishment. But Tom – perhaps thanks to his tender age – gleans a competing intuition about the ideal life, and shares the secret with his friends: the path is not merely a curse, or even a means; it is a bountiful blessing. Tom’s friends are so enamored of his insight that by the end of the story they are handing Tom their treasures merely for the privilege of helping to paint the fence.

We can extract a profound secret about life from the midrash quoted by Rav Kook. An “awakening” is generally the goal of spiritual outlooks, the basic assumption being that people’s lives are passing them by while they sleep. The contrasting of “sleep” and “wakefulness” refers to one’s awareness and the manner in which people lead their life. Generally speaking, an absence of awareness of life stems from the mind wandering either backward to thoughts of past experiences, or forward, anticipating what is yet to come. Thus the individual is absent from the one place where life occurs: the present. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” A sleeping person is not present, while one who is “awakened” can concentrate and truly exist in the moment.

This ties into the question we raised earlier: whether the world of “doing” can be connected to the world of “being.” When action is entirely expedient, relating only to purpose, it is cut off from its nature. It is an expression of the “sin of the earth,” where the world of doing (assiya) exists separately, cut off from our inner essence. When, however, we succeed in experiencing action as a value, as an essence in itself, it becomes an actualization of our nature. We find that “doing” can become our “being.”

The Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life

Now we can better understand the sin for which humanity is expelled from the Garden of Eden. Eating from the Tree of Knowledge causes a fundamental shift in Adam and Eve’s consciousness.

Their eyes are opened to good and evil, so that everything in the reality of their lives becomes either positive or negative. It is not reality that changes; it is their consciousness, their relation to it. This opening of the eyes, which enables a more adult perspective on life, is also a punishment: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” (3:19), God says, dooming humankind to a life of struggle. At first glance, the statement indeed appears to describe the curse of Man. But is it perhaps possible to transform the curse – the immense effort we invest in surviving and living – into a blessing, a connection to the very essence and flavor of life? Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, in a refreshing reading (Likutei Moharan, Tanina 6), teaches that the Hebrew word for “sweat,” “ze’ah,” can be read in the acrostic of the verse “This (Zeh) is the day which the Lord (Hashem) hath made (asa); we will rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps. 118:24). In the very sweat with which man has been cursed, Rabbi Nahman finds a blessing, and happiness.

“The sweat of thy face” is only a curse if one sees it as such. As soon as one realizes, however, that the very same sweat can be a key to finding existential meaning, it turns into a blessing. The connection to the Tree of Life, denied us with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden, is attainable as an act of mind. Should we succeed in deconstructing the curse of “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” and translating it into the blessing of “This is the day which God hath made,” perhaps we can restore a modicum of wholeness to our splintered life experience, bringing it a step closer to a unified existential reality. The Jewish message is the sustainment of both forces – being and doing – within life itself.

[1] Ezriel Carlebach, India: Account of a Voyage [Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: Sifriyat Maariv, 1986), 266.

About the Author
Yakov Nagen is a Rabbi at the Yeshiva of Otniel, located near Hebron. His book "Be, Become, Bless - Jewish Spirituality between East and West" was recently published by Maggid.
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