Tension vs. Tranquility in the Worship of God

  • Harav Yehuda Amital




Over the last generation, various doctrines originating in the Far East have penetrated the Western world. Modern Western man lives his life in great tension. Under the influence of Eastern teachings, many have begun to advocate a life of tranquility and meditation. Some have seen in this the ideal of human redemption – the ability to reach internal tranquility.


I harbor fundamental reservations regarding such approaches. There are certainly people who at times live their lives in excessive tension; they need help to reduce their tension levels. But turning tranquility into a way of life is misguided on several counts. First of all, such an approach is liable to hinder a person who strives for advancement and development in his life. There is a certain contradiction between aspiring for tranquility and positive ambition, the force that drives man to advance and develop himself. Second, directing one's life towards internal tranquility involves egotism, for this is often accompanied by disregard for the problems and needs of society.


I especially dissociate myself from such an approach when it comes to the worship of God. The Gemara in Kiddushin (31a) states:


Greater is one who is commanded and performs [the mitzvot] than one who is not commanded and yet performs [the mitzvot].


Tosafot (ad loc., s.v., gadol) explain:


It seems that the reason that one who is commanded and performs [a mitzva] is better is that he worries more and grieves more that he will violate [the mitzva] than one who is not commanded, [the latter] having his bread in his basket, for if he wishes, he can abandon [the mitzva].


            According to Tosafot, one who is obligated to fulfill a mitzva is preferable because of his heightened concern about proper performance. One who is not obligated in a mitzva, but wishes to perform it nevertheless, does not experience the same tension regarding his performance. This indicates the value of religious life being accompanied by a positive tension.


            Elsewhere, the Gemara states (Berakhot 60a):


"Happy is the man who fears always" (Mishlei 28:14) – this refers to matters of Torah [study].


One who engages in Torah study lives in constant fear that perhaps his learning is inadequate. Rashi explains that he is afraid "that he might forget [what he has learned], and therefore he constantly reviews [the material he has studied]." This verse, however, relates not only to Torah study; it serves as a guide for life in general. The Gemara in Gittin (55b) opens its account of the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza with the same verse. There Rashi writes: "'Fears' – [I am] concerned about thinking through consequences, so that no mishap should occur if I do this." That is to say, a person must always weigh his actions, not only according to his feelings at a particular moment, but also in consideration of foreseeable events.


            Based on this principle, Rabbi Moshe Chayyim Luzzatto writes in his Mesillat Yesharim (chap. 9):


A person must understand, however, that he was not placed in this world for ease, but rather for toil and exertion.  He must conduct himself in the manner of laborers who work for their employers… and in the manner of soldiers in a military campaign, who eat in haste, sleep irregularly, and are always ready for the moment of battle. Scripture said in this regard: "For man is born to toil" (Iyyov 5:7)."


            A Jew is expected to work hard all his life; rest and tranquility contribute nothing to the realization of his spiritual goals. Thus, the Gemara states (Berakhot 64a):


Torah scholars have no rest, neither in this world nor in the World-to-Come. As it is stated (Tehillim 84:8): "They go from strength to strength; every one of them appears before God in Zion."


            Basing himself on a midrash, Rashi writes in his commentary to the Torah (Bereishit 37:2):


Yaakov wished to live at ease, but the trouble with Yosef suddenly came upon him. When the righteous wish to live at ease, the Holy One, blessed be He, says to them: "Are not the righteous satisfied with what is stored up for them in the World-to-Come, that they wish to live at ease in this world [as well]?"


The Sefat Emet explains (Vayeshev, 5636):


Yaakov certainly did not wish to live at ease before attaining total perfection... But God desires of a Jew that he should continually exert himself to add to his Divine service, for such additions have no limit.


Aspiring for tranquility is appropriate only in the World-to-Come, or for one who has already reached total perfection as did Yaakov Avinu. In this world, however, tranquility and the worship of God are irreconcilable.


The verse in Tehillim (73:12) states:


Behold, these are the wicked, and those always at ease increase in riches.


Those who are "always at ease" are grouped together with "the wicked," precisely because they live at ease, experiencing no tension whatsoever. A Jew must always aspire to advance and develop, and one who lacks such aspirations is called wicked. This is the meaning of the Gemara in Berakhot (55b): "If a man goes seven days without a dream, he is called evil."  A dream represents man's aspirations to develop. Someone who allows seven days to pass without having such aspirations is called evil.




In his discussion regarding the verse, "And it shall come to pass on that day, that a great shofar shall be blown, and they shall come who were lost in the land of Ashur, and the outcasts in the land of Egypt, and shall worship the Lord in the holy mountain of Jerusalem" (Yeshayahu 27:13), Rabbi Zaddok Ha-Kohen of Lublin (Resisei Laila, no. 35) distinguishes between those who are lost in the land of Ashur and the outcasts in the land of Egypt:


[This verse] refers to two ways for a person to become engrossed in the power of imagination [and not reason].

The first way, [represented by "the lost in the land of Ashur,"] is where a person immerses himself in constant striving in worldly matters, e.g., amassing wealth and [satisfying] other desires, pursuing positions of authority and honor, strife and jealousy, to the point that his heart is so anxious that he cannot possibly remember the Blessed One whatsoever. Such a person is called "lost," God forbid, when he has reached ultimate immersion [in these matters]. This is the idea of Ashur, whose leader Sancheriv confounded the entire world with intense efforts all his days, never sitting idle as if he were asleep.

While this is bad, to the point that he is considered as totally lost, [it can be turned to good,] since he is immersed in striving and worrying, and not in dreamy idleness… On that day which is the opposite of today, a great shofar will be blown that will arouse these people as well. And they will come first, for their immersion [in imaginary goods is of the sort characterized] by striving; when they are awakened and turn their strivings into striving in pursuit of God, they will, because of their [power of] pursuit, arrive first.


Though he faces the danger of losing his identity, one who pursues worldly gain is still at a higher level than one immersed in laziness:


Afterwards will come the "outcasts [in the land of Egypt]," those lazy people who are immersed in imagined emptiness, nothingness and vanity. This is the idea of Egypt, which is called "the nakedness of the land" (Bereishit 42:9). Land represents the power of striving, as is said with regard to working the land, "He who tills a field is a king" (Kohelet 5:8), for this is the primary work and toil of man in this world… "The nakedness of the land" refers to the gardens, i.e., land that does not require work, because the Nile rises and irrigates [of its own accord]. This is not the case in the Land of Israel, "the land which the Lord your God cares for" (Devarim 11:12), which "drinks water of the rain of heaven" (ibid., v. 11),  and which requires work and prayer and trust in God, and regarding which a person cannot immerse himself in such tranquility. This is the essence of the sanctity of the land, not to sink into imagined tranquility, but rather to know that effort is necessary and that man was born for toil.


The unique quality of the land of Egypt is sloth, which allows a person to live in idleness and support himself without exertion. This contrasts with the land of Israel, which by its very nature educates toward striving and exertion. A greater effort is required to redeem "the outcasts in the land of Egypt," precisely because they have become accustomed to a life of tranquility devoid of exertion.


3.         THE POWER OF ESAV


The Torah relates: "Yitzchak loved Esav, for game was in his mouth; but Rivka loved Ya'akov" (Bereishit 25:28). It stands to reason that Yitzchak's love for Esav stemmed from the fact that he recognized Esav's practical strength, the striking vigor of his actions, and he thought that such power was necessary to build the people of Israel. Rabbi Zaddok Ha-Kohen (Resisei Laila, no. 52; Or Zaru'a La-tzaddik, no. 5) cites the Ari's opinion that Yitzchak saw the power latent in Esav, that power which would give rise to Rabbi Meir (following the Gemara in Gittin 56a, that Rabbi Meir was a descendant of the Roman emperor Nero), one of the pillars of the Mishna and the Oral Law.


Indeed, Rabbi Meir was characterized by the ability to find the positive roots of all phenomena (Bereishit Rabba 9:5):


In Rabbi Meir's Torah, they found it written: "And behold, it was very (me'od) good" (Bereishit 1:31) -  and behold, death (mavet) is good.


Rabbi Meir saw even the positive elements in death. Another expression of this attitude is found a different midrash (Bereishit Rabba 20:12):


"For the man also and for his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins ['or' with the letter ayin], and clothed them" (Bereishit 3:21). In Rabbi Meir's Torah, they found written, "coats of light" ["or" with the letter aleph].


Skins represent external appearances, but Rabbi Meir saw the internal light. This is also the manner in which Rabbi Meir conducted himself in his studies. When he studied under Elisha ben Avuya, who became a heretic, it is reported (Chagiga 15b):


Rabbi Meir found a pomegranate, ate the inside, and threw away the rind.


Rabbi Meir's greatness expressed itself in his ability to find the positive point in all things. Similarly, Yitzchak Avinu knew how to find the positive point in Esav – his practical strength and activity – that led in the end to Rabbi Meir's playing a central role in the transmission of the Oral Law.




The importance of tension in life notwithstanding, a person must guard himself against excessive tension and anxiety in his worship of God.[1] Just as in every other realm of life, exaggeration is seen as abnormal, so too in the observance of mitzvot. This stands in contrast to the prevalent view that equates excessive meticulousness with fear of Heaven. Rambam, in his Shemona Perakim (chapter 4), notes that a person should strive to reach the level at which he can easily follow the golden mean in all his character traits, instead of constantly struggling with his baser inclinations. Excessive anxiety and suspicion are liable to lead to total paralysis. Here, too, a person must find the proper balance.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] Regarding the danger of extremism in the opposite direction, see the end of Chapter One.