The infinite in the finite

Some more thoughts came to me after writing yesterday’s post. Instead of rewriting it I thought to write an alternative version. Perhaps one day I will merge the two pieces.

Two blessings in the Jewish prayer book have been a source of controversy over the years. One blessing, recited only by women, expresses in positive language gratitude for having been made in accordance with God’s will. The other blessing, recited only by men, expresses in negative language gratitude for not having been made a woman.

What is the difference between a positive and a negative expression of gratitude? The protestations against the man’s blessing stem from the standpoint that this is a put-down against women. I don’t see it that way. If I see someone who is blind or wheelchair-bound or has any kind of challenge that I am grateful that I don’t have to bear, I have a silent prayer in my heart that says, thank you God, for not challenging me with that. I am not in any way feeling negative feelings about that person. In fact I admire the courage of people who rise to their challenges and it inspires me to rise to my own.

When I see a person whose challenge is not the same as mine it serves as a reminder to be grateful for what I do have. This is the way we are built. Sometimes it’s just easier to be grateful when we see what could have been our lot, and we always prefer our own challenges to those of others.

In order to understand the unique challenges of men and women as well as their unique gifts we have to understand the meaning of natural morality, the meaning of mitzvot and the interrelationship between these concepts.

What is a mitzvah? A mitzvah act is an explicit obligation vis-à-vis our relationship with God (and by extension with people, since all that we do in life is relating to an “other” with a small “o” or an other with a capital “O”). It is the means by which we can express our love and our reverence for God, our feeling of connection and distance. They are the tasks God has given us by which we are capable of having a relationship with God.

Natural morality is an obligation vis-à-vis our relationships with God and people that is not at all explicit and for which we have to make choices. We have to see the potential for fulfilling values in concrete reality and we have to be able to see that reality as something that is addressing us personally. We then have to interpret that reality and respond appropriately. This is what Frankl calls conscience.

Natural morality is both the foundation and the goal of mitzvot. It is what Rebbe Nachman calls the ikar ha’avoda, the main work of building a relationship. Men and women apparently have different natures and of necessity have different types of obligations in the relationship.

Men have a more natural affinity towards and thus are more involved with the explicit details that bond the relationship. Women have a greater affinity towards and are thus more involved in the discernment of the meaning of the situation. But since both of these aspects are part of one harmonious way of relating, both men and women have to do both. There is just a difference in emphasis.

It is easy to compare oneself to the other and say, “Why wasn’t I given that too?”

Instead, the blessing comes to negate the tendency human beings have for envy and to bring to consciousness the gratitude we need to feel for the way we’ve been created. This is because envy is always destructive and gratitude is always healing. And these two blessings are the best way to express this gratitude for how we’ve been created.

The men say, “I’m so grateful I wasn’t created a woman because then I wouldn’t have as many clear and explicit instructions giving me tasks to do by which I can get closer to God.”

The women say, “I’m so grateful I was created just as God’s will is for the world because then I can bring God into the world, bring the infinite into the finite, and I don’t even need express this in the negative because this is the purpose of the mitzvot as well.”

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