25. Holding the Branch
Constant choices between perfection and imperfection.
1:2:3 (Part 1)
Section 1: Fundamentals of Existence
Chapter 2: Purpose of Creation
When this creature earns perfection, it [becomes drawn] close to its Creator by virtue of resembling Him. Besides this, however, through its very earning of perfection, it becomes drawn to Him continually – until, ultimately, its earning of perfection and its bonding in closeness to Him are all one condition.
The reason for this is that G-d's essence is true perfection. All perfection must therefore be associated with Him, as a branch is attached to its root. Therefore, even though the Root of perfection cannot be attained, all true perfection is ultimately derived and transmitted from this Root.
The Ramchal is clarifying what we mean by "choosing perfection." This idea is a bit deep and abstract. Let's look at the second paragraph first:
All perfection must therefore be associated with Him, as a branch is attached to its root.
In our last lesson, we saw that the world is essentially an arena where free will choices take place. Its whole purpose is to provide man with the ability to choose elements of perfection by his own free will, thereby making him more G-d-like and giving him the pleasure of a closer relationship with G-d.
This conclusion forces us to look at physical reality from a new perspective. Instead of seeing things for what they are on a purely physical level, the physical manifestation is really just an outer guise. Everything has an inner essence of either "perfection" or "deficiency," or some combination thereof.
The way we relate to anything in the world depends on our relationship, experiences and understanding of them. For example, if you and I were sitting together on a park bench and your dog walked, we would have very different reactions. We're both seeing the exact same animal, but you'll have some instant emotional reaction, and for me it's "just another dog."
Similarly, we could both be walking down the street and begin to feel rain. For you, it's depressing because you were going to have a family picnic this afternoon (with the dog, of course), while I'm excited because I've been worried lately about my tomato crops drying out.
In other words, as much as there is an objective reality, what's meaningful to us is how we personally relate to that reality. The Ramchal is telling us that the underlying essence of things is that they are a tool to either help me perfect myself and build a relationship with G-d, or a means of accomplishing the opposite.
When we get an appeal in the mail for a charity cause, and we know it's legitimate and that we can afford to give, we should understand that we're not just holding an ordinary piece of paper. We're literally holding a piece of perfection. ("Giving" is a paramount example of perfection because it's G-d's most readily-apparent trait.) Like the Ramchal says, we're not holding the actual root, i.e. we don't have G-d in the palm of our hands, but we are holding a "branch," a physical manifestation of G-d's perfection in this world.1 That's really what this piece of paper is.
The opposite unfortunately holds true as well. Imagine you hear a nasty rumor about someone you dislike. Sure, it's probably untrue, or at least exaggerated. But you have a strong desire to share it with others. What is that drive? It's not just human psychology, or a bunch of synaptic connections in your brain tissue that are creating an emotion. The drive is the essence of deficiency itself! Destructively gossiping about someone is harmful to them, and to you (and to the listener) in a way that actually affects our very being. It's not just saying words. It's making a choice to grab onto an element of deficiency, of lack, and incorporate it into ourselves and make ourselves less G-d-like.
Now we can examine the idea mentioned in the first paragraph above:
...through its very earning of perfection it becomes drawn to Him continually – until, ultimately, it's earning of perfection and its bonding in closeness to Him are all one condition.
How do we normally understand the idea of doing a righteous act, or a mitzvah? For example, you make a donation to a charitable cause, or recite a blessing over food. We would think that in some heavenly place, that mitzvah goes on a score card, and when we meet our Maker, He tallies up the score and gives us our reward.
Based on what we've learned, however, we have a new model: When we choose an act of perfection, we actually undergo a direct change and become more G-d-like.
Given what the Ramchal is mentioning now, we can take it even a step further: When we choose an act of perfection (e.g. writing a check to charity), we are at that moment holding onto "the branch," and on a spiritual level actually experiencing the closeness with our Creator that we've just created.
As an analogy:
1) Simple Level: Understanding a mitzvah
"I work hard all month, and at the end of the month I get my paycheck."
"I spend my life doing acts of spirituality/perfection/goodness, and at the end (afterlife) I get my reward."
2) Deeper Level: Choosing Perfection
"I learn Hebrew so that when I move to Israel I'll feel comfortable and be able to take care of myself."
"I invest my time in becoming more G-d-like and spiritual so that when I connect to G-d, it's a deeper experience."
3) Deepest Level: Root and Branches
"I enjoy cold strawberry ice cream on a hot summer day."
"I feel connected to G-d with every free will choice that I make."
This is what the Ramchal means when he says that the "earning of perfection and its bonding in closeness to him are all one condition."
It requires a huge paradigm shift to now look at the underlying reality of everything in our lives – our relationships, our moral choices, our needs and the needs of those around us, our responsibilities, the state of the world... All of it has to be seen as representing a deeper reality – constant choices between perfection and imperfection.
- What do we mean by, "When you're holding an appeal to charity in your hands, you're holding an element of perfection"?
- How is that different than saying, "You're holding a piece of paper that can earn you an element of perfection"?
- Give an example of how a mitzvah like making a blessing can operate on the three levels: simple, choosing perfection, and grabbing the branch.
- The Ramchal will say this explicitly in the last paragraph of 1.1.3 – see next installment.