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Are You a Square or a Circle?
by Simon Jacobson

Years ago I taught an introductory course on Jewish mysticism (also known as Chassidus or Kabbalah) to a class of high school seniors. In one of the written tests I asked them to describe in their own few words the difference between various entities: the difference between body and soul; between the animal force and Divine force; between material and transcendental needs; between the secular and the sacred; between heaven and earth; between selfishness and selflessness.

I was struck by the large number of answers that distinguished between all these categories simply with the words “evil” and “good.” The body is bad and the soul is good. The material is bad, and the transcendent is good. 20 out of 30 questions were answered with the one word “good” or “bad.”

Children think in terms of black and white: Good and bad; sweet and sour; light and dark. Young, undeveloped minds don’t yet appreciate the nuances of life; the gray areas; the ambiguous and the ambivalent.

There is purity in the innocence of simplicity. And many adults would do well to not lose that enchantment. But life is complex as well.

Western thought is often criticized for being linear, especially relative to Eastern thought. Linear defines a very structured and organized way of looking at things. Relentless cause and effect is the heartbeat of phenomena. In Eastern thought reality is seen in an amorphous state; things do not have stark definitions. Linear, logical thinking is limited, and paradox is the closest reflection on the true nature of existence.

In truth, to truly appreciate life in its entirety we need to embrace both dimensions into one integrated whole.

In modern day physics, for instance, we now know that on the macroscopic level (the world that we perceive and experience with our five senses) grand order and design drives the machine of the universe. Newtonian physics – defining phenomena in terms of the “billiard ball” cause and effect – stands as the dominant way of looking at the world. However, on a microscopic level it has been clearly demonstrated that reality functions very much in an amorphous “state of probability.” In the inner world things are not quite defined in the same structured way as in the outer world.

Indeed, in Kabbalistic thought there is the cosmic distinction between “circles” (iggulim) and “lines” (yosher). A line is made up of defined points, structured in a clear order of higher and lower. By contrast a circle is one continuous flow, with no top or bottom. All of existence is made up of both lines and circles: The outer world is driven by order and organization – the linear structure, that evolves in an orderly sequence. But beneath the surface, in the “engine room” of the universe, the driving force is “circular” energy.

In Kabbala there is even a metaphor of the “square within the circle” and the “circle within the square,” because the linear and the circular of existence is intertwined into one seamless whole.

Thus we live in a world that is both orderly and paradoxical.

As children we may perceive life in black and white terms. As we mature we learn that life is far more nuanced and complex.

When asked the question: “How is your life?” a child usually answers “good” or “bad” based on his/her emotions of the moment. An adult (not just a chronological one) would answer: “Some thing are great; some not so great; some so-so; and the bulk is in between, and can go either way.” In other words, life is complex. There is no such thing as good without bad, and vice versa.

The challenge is to appreciate the flow and ride the waves.

The holiday of Passover celebrates the paradox of life – the structure and the unstructured; the defined and the undefined. We don’t just remember the exodus but also the exile. We don’t just recreate the joy, but also the pain. We drink wine, but also taste bitter herbs. We respect the process – the entire process – from the lowest points to the highest, and we recognize how it replays itself in our lives today.

The Passover Seder orbits around the three matzos and the four cups of wine. Matzo is the “food of the impoverished;” wine is the drink of royalty. Eating matzo is symbolic of our humility; wine demonstrates our proud sense of freedom.

Are we kings or paupers on Passover night?

The answer is both.

True humility brings one to true greatness.

That is the ultimate truth of life.



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