On Freedom, Covenant and Inner Truth

A lesson by Rav Shagar | Translate by Miriam Feldmann Kaye

In a flyer sent to me by Bank Leumi, I noticed there was a summary of a lecture given by Apple CEO, Steve Jobbs. I took a look and something struck. I will read a few lines from the summary. There is a connection between his description and the Tikun HaKlali.

The first story in the summary is about unexpected consequences.

Steve Jobbs recounts his childhood in an adoptive family, until, at the age of 17, he left for college. Tuition was rather high and when Jobbs realized that all his parents' savings were being spent on his studies, he decided to drop out and continue learning informally for a year – taking only courses he found interesting. At a certain point, he decided to drop out altogether because didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, and he didn’t understand how this education would help him find the answer. Looking back, he says, it was the wisest decision he ever made.

What Jobbs is actually saying is that instead of thinking about the future vis-à-vis, the question of “where can I make a lot of money”, he did what interested him and what he wanted. We find much similarity between this and the words of Chovat Halevavot (“Duties of the Heart”) in regard to the 'attribute of confidence (in Hashem)': If, for example, a person is thinking about what to learn in college, and his indication is where he will earn the most money, he is already compromising the attribute of confidence. The reason is that profit is not dependent on what you learn, but on God. That is the quality of confidence in Hashem. And if you ask – eventually, you still have to learn something, how will you decide? The answer is: “Learn what interests you”.

Rabbenu Bechayai claims that if a person wants something it’s a sign that that is what God wants him to want. For example, a cat likes to eat mice – that’s the way it’s built physically – with nails, teeth, etc. Rabbenu Bechayai says that there is a correlation between a cat’s physiological build and the cat's will. With enough confidence and faith, a person eventually does what he really wants to do. His inner desire is the same as God’s will. The total devotion to God enables man to do that which he wants to do. If a person wants to learn art and his aunt says: there is no livelihood in it – if his is a utilitarian consideration, he will learn economics, but he won’t learn art. According to Rabbenu Bechayai, the attribute of confidence says: don’t listen to your aunt but go and learn art, since your livelihood does not depend on economics.

It was not easy for Steve: he actually did go to learn what he was interested in, however, he did not have a room in the dorms and would sleep on the floor of his friend’s room, ate with money earned from deposits he made on coke bottles and walked 7 miles to eat at the Hare Krishna temple[1] – but what he learned at that time was priceless.

Because he dropped out of school, he was able to learn a subject that interested him, at the best university in the field: an amazing calligraphy course, at a level that could not be attained by science. Of course, he had no chance of finding a position as a graduate of that course, but years later when he designed the first Macintosh computer, it was the first computer with beautiful typography. All that thanks to the calligraphy course…

Jobbs’ conclusion from this story is this “You can't connect the dots when planning forward; you can only connect them when you look back. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny. You have to believe that it will all come together in the future.” That, in secular language, is what faith is all about.

His second story has to do with love and loss.

Jobbs and his partner started Apple and ran it from his parents’ garage. Ten years later Apple had grown from a company of two to a $2 billion corporation with over 4000 employees. One year after he just released Apple's finest creation he was fired from work. How can you get fired from a company you started? In his story, Jobbs describes how, at first, the relationship with his partner was fine. At a certain point, their plans for the future began to diverge and the Board of Directors sided with his partner's vision. Steve was fired at the age of 30 and collapsed. For several months he felt like a failure and didn’t know what to do with himself. The only thing that kept him going, he relates, was his love for what he did – nothing could change that. So he decided to start all over again.

Looking back, Steve recounts, getting fired from the company was the best thing that ever happened to him. Instead of bearing the weight of success,[2] he entered one of the most creative periods of his life. Several years later, he started another company, fell in love with his future wife and built a wonderful family. Eventually, the company he built bought Apple.

Jobbs assumes that none of this would have happened had he not been fired from Apple. It was bitter medicine, but necessary. Through this story, Jobbs concludes that: “Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. The only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. If you don’t love what you do, don’t settle for it".

The third story has to do with death.

When Jobbs was 17, he read the sentence: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." Every day for the next 30 years he would ask himself in the mirror, if this is what he’d want to do on his last day. If the answer was "No", he’d know that it was time for a change. This is an idea which already appears in Chazal (the Sages) – “Repent one day before your death”.

“Remembering that I'll be dead soon was the motivation for most of the choices I made. Most of the considerations in life, such as pride and embarrassment just fall away in the face of death.” This way of looking at things creates a kind of natural selection.

What he's saying here is that the consciousness of facing death is not something depressing which introduces a lack of meaning to your work, but rather, it makes everything you do decisive and fateful. The absence of meaning provides the definitive meaning. That is the greatest depth of humanity. Its significance is not in a promise or in having a foothold, but in that it bestows the tributes of kindness, honesty and love. It obtains its meaning precisely because in itself it's nothing. Here, the story of death is inverted. This is the true meaning of Bitul Hayesh ('nullification of being'), not negating or quashing being, but that is makes it infinite, It transforms it from heavy to light. Remembering that you are facing death is the best way to avoid thinking that you might lose something. It frees us and lets us be spontaneous. Thus, there is no reason not to follow your heart. These are the classic ethical claims. That is how Rabbenu Bechayai and others see it.

What we find fascinating about this letter is that it comes from a business manager we do not suspect of being motivated by religious tendencies, who claims that it was specifically in this way that he was able to make money from what he does.

And he goes on to tell another story:

“About a year ago I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I didn't even know what a pancreas was. The doctor told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than six months. He advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor's code for prepare to die. I lived with that diagnosis all day. Fortunately, the doctors discovered later that it was a type of cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and am fine now. This was the closest I've been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I'll be for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say the following: No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet, death is the destination we all share. Time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma. Everything and anything that does not come from your heart and intuition is secondary.”

In the depth of things, that is what Rabbi Nachman means when he says that Tikun Habrit ('erecting the covenant' – sexual purity) leads to a livelihood easily attained. That is the implication of his description in Ma’ase Mibitachon (“A Tale of Confidence”). There, he describes a person who does what he really wants to. Faith is not the infinite heaviness. Where is this leading us? The confident man, who is the image of the tzaddik – who is Rabbi Nachman himself – is the lightest of all, he will always manage. The tzaddik lives without worry because of this ability, and in the context of Tikun Habrit – once a person is in a Brit, a covenant, a liberating effect is created. That in itself gives one – superior abilities, resourcefulness and creativity. Rabbi Nachman says that of this one's livelihood is also easily obtained, if he invests his resourcefulness in the area of livelihood.

 

Tikun Habrit is man’s ability to be “at peace with..”: at peace with himself, at peace with his surroundings and, of course, at peace with his life. According to Rabbi Nachman, the Tikun stands in contrast to the lusts for adultery or money – desires that signify a feeling of wanting to be somewhere we are not. That is our inability to be at peace with ourselves. The point is to enjoy what you are doing, to take delight in what you are doing, “then you shall delight yourself in Hashem”. The delight exists in the state of internal cohesion. Existence that takes delight in its very existence, in the deeper sense of the word 'delight' – that is the ultimate Tikun. It is not an act that coerces, represses or confines a person. Sometimes, this understanding is so far removed from us that it is sometimes hard for us to even imagine it, but try to imagine what would happen at that point in time in which I’ll be at peace with what I am doing – it offers a very high breath of freedom and liberation from the pressures and distresses that are the result of our constant attempts to distance ourselves from ourselves. Rabbi Nachman has always been quoted as saying that a desire for things doesn't create greed but rather greed in itself is the origin of our different lusts.

Rav Dreifuss: We have to think about your context a little. You're saying these things out of deep conviction, but we must think of the voice that says that it is not exactly so: it’s too dramatic, if you really do what you love – you really won’t have a livelihood.

Rav Shagar: You’re worried that if people take me seriously, they'll all head off to India?…

Rav Dreifuss: If you disconnect it from the context of life, you are opening the way to an unbearable lightness. Your words will be understood only if they are predicated on the real heaviness of existence.

Rav Shagar: You’re right that this too can be misconstrued, especially in the context of a yeshiva. If one takes the idea of being really free and makes an ideal out of it – that already becomes a kind of prison. That's what usually happens with these statements about freedom.

I remember I participated in a symposium and there was a rabbi there from Merkaz Harav who spoke about freedom with such passion – I got scared, I said: “Everybody will take off to India”. Only afterwards did I realize that nobody took it seriously. The "freedom" he was talking about meant, of course, learning Talmud… that is, he is not ready to bring people to the true point and to see what happens there. And that comes from a basic lack of trust. And that is also the answer to Rav Dreifuss’ question. It is a gamble. You cannot both jump and put a safety net underneath. That's a contradiction in terms. You say that I am right but don’t tell it to 'the guys'. And really, you're right, one shouldn’t say what I am saying…

 


[1] This is an example of a temple’s function – and sometime these are the same reasons people come to Yeshiva…

[2] That is what often happens: success becomes a trap when it begins to imitate itself, like an author who imitates his own success. The problem is that the initial inspiration which made the work timeless gets lost.

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