The many and the One

The many and the One

Ha’azinu | Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52

The festival of Sukkot, which begins this Sunday evening, includes the ritual of “waving the lulav,” a cluster of palm, myrtle, and willow branches held alongside an etrog (citron).

It does not take an advanced degree in anthropology to recognize the fertility imagery that underlies this symbol and the ways in which it is used. In the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel, the season that follows Sukkot is the rainy season. Without seasonal precipitation, crops will not grow. While many traditional explanations for waving the lulav in six directions suggest “this shows that God is everywhere,” the underlying urgency of furthering fertility by symbolically “seeding” the sky and the earth and then inviting the requisite rain from all directions is transparent.

Midrashic explanations of the lulav cluster suggest that fragrance and taste stand in for “deeds and learning.” Each of the four species is different: one has both taste and smell, one has neither, and each of the other two has one but not the other. The analogy suggests four types of Jews who similarly display across a symbolic spectrum: some have deeds and learning, some neither, some one or the other but not both. 

Whether we reference God or humans, the common concept is that what we commonly divide by category, by time, by space, or by definition remains at its core “one” and not “many.” This can be understood through one hasidic reading of the declaration Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad that understands the Sh’ma to mean “Understand, people of Israel, there is nothing else but God.”

Contemporary spiritual seekers often frame this issue as “dualism and non-dualism,” by which is meant the profound question of the nature of reality itself. When we reside in the sukka, are we inside or outside? Are the binary ways in which we most often experience life — dark and light, solid and soft, gentle and harsh, old and young, female and male, sacred and secular — an accurate reflection of reality? Is the dualism of God-and-humans an appropriate reflection of our spiritual experience and seeking? 

Or are all of these experienced dualisms just that — the ways in which we humans most often experience reality, but not the way in which existence itself is constituted? Non-dualism affirms a fundamental unity underlying our human perceptions, within which God and humans simultaneously exist and are consequently connected in some profound, poetic, and perhaps only partially perceived way. Is this framing of our thinking about God a helpful support for our spiritual seeking? 

Put differently, if we manage to experience the occasional flash of insight, or intuitive experience, or emotional tremor, or timeless moment in which differences disappear and, even if but for a moment, an experience of unity and connectedness is felt, how shall we weigh such moments? Such moments, which are inevitably the exception and not the rule, may yet be determinative in grounding our religious experience and shaping our souls. In gathering the four species into one cluster, in waving that cluster in all directions so that in effect there are no distinct directions but rather a continuous movement in all directions, we can perhaps begin to explore the unending question of “the many and the One.”

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