Caught in a land mine, no escape from reality

Movies and song are intertwined with our daily lives and attitudes, our memories and legends. The recent biographical film “Bohemian Rhapsody” tells the story of British rock band Queen, their music and their lead singer, Freddie Mercury. The title of the movie is taken from the first legendary six-minute single from their album “A Night at the Opera.”
Widely considered one of the best songs of all time, the form is intensely rich — a cappella, a ballad, an opera and rock mixed into one — as the composer takes these contrasting sections and creates a symphony with them. The ambiguous content likewise conveys a blend of dark sadness, silliness, regret, courage and indifference.
As with all good lyrics, the ballad section puts intense emotions into words, capturing the complex human condition so the listener can empathize with the narrator’s inner turmoil. After expressing his shame, in the peak of the confession, the narrator declares, “I don’t wanna die. I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all.”
If we briefly freeze that snippet for inspection, at first glance, the two lines (and emotions) may appear contradictory. If you don’t want to die, you must want to be alive. Why then do you wish you’d never been born?
I’ve heard people resolve the simultaneous, yet apparently conflicting, thoughts in different ways. Not wanting to die may simply be prompted by fear of the unknown. This fear or pain associated with leaving the world, however, would never be felt if there was no birth, leaving space to squeeze the meaning of the latter verse within the former. The emotion of wishing you’d never been born may sometimes be an expression of failure, the regret at having caused damage to others, or simply a desire to escape the suffering that comes within life.
From a less self-centered perspective, fearing death may be a concern for all your leaving behind in this world — a deep sense of responsibility to be available for the people who love and depend on you. At the same time, had you not been born, the situation would have never come into existence in the first place.
In the sacred text of Jewish guidance, Ethics of our Fathers (4:22), the Mishna addresses these discrete emotions, likewise expressed in paradoxical phrasing, except in the reverse order — first the desire not to be born (and live), then a feeling of not wanting to leave this world:
“Let not your heart convince you that the grave is your escape…for against your will you are born, against your will you live and against your will you die.”
Viewing these two opposing desires in the broader context of the soul’s journey — rather of the individual voice — the esoteric texts explain an existential tension in a spiritual framework. And here too, there seems to be a contradiction: Saying “against your will you live,” suggests that the inherent longing to leave the confines of the physical. On the other hand, saying “against your will you die,” reflects the person’s wish to remain alive.
What’s so bad about being born? Each neshama (soul), before being born into a body, is comfortable, a spiritual being in a spiritual world — no struggle, no tests of faith or moral dilemmas, no suffering. It resides in a high place, with a storehouse of souls and wants to remain basking in the glory of divine radiance. Suddenly, it’s sent down into a body and physical existence, which attempts to make it forget its origin and mission.
What, then, is so bad about dying? Beyond the natural fear of the unknown, the soul comes to understand the unique opportunity for accomplishment that only this physical world presents. Uniting the spiritual and physical through mitzvahs is more powerful than any insight, experience or revelation. Contrary to other religions and forms of mysticism, our physical world — the most removed, completely concealing divinity — is paradoxically the most connected to the source.
So, amid the journey, there is a shift. The soul begins to detect just how precious the opportunity is. Then another desire, to remain, kicks in.
Through years of labor, trials and the risk of getting lost in a spiritual abyss, a person must develop the mind, guide the body to act and attempt to rectify a portion in the world, through taking care of family, having a career and giving back to community. When the soul departs, it experiences a full revelation of its potential and the realization of what could have been achieved in this world, but can no longer be, is the deepest possible anguish.
The underlying message is that as long as you’re still alive in this world, there is a chance to rewrite one’s story. Hence, “a single moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is greater than all of the World to Come (Pirkei Avot 4:17).
The book of the Tanya explains that the ideal state of mind is when there is a proper balance between the inspirational thirst of the soul and the ability to stay conscious of a higher purpose and act accordingly. In kabbalistic terminology this is called the experience of “run and retreat” within the soul.
The desire to break free of physical limitations (run) is an inherent quest of a healthy soul. But in the grand purpose, the aim is to uplift this world instead of trying and escape it. Initially, a spiritual person experiences a longing to transcend, yet must embrace the challenge to find the discipline, trust and focus (retreat) — against your will — to reside within a less ideal environment, for the sake of transforming it.
At the same time, while being occupied with rectifying the world through positive actions (tikkun olam), there needs to be an underlying sense of the soul’s sojourn in a foreign land. In other words, the soul is born, placed down here against her wishes, but for a specific purpose.
Connection to this week
This week’s parasha opens by repeating where we ended off last week — the lonely journey of our forefather, from the spiritual ambience of the Holy Land, the shelter of his home, to cross the border into Haran, headed for his uncle’s home: “And Yaakov went out from Beer-Sheva and went towards Haran.”
The explanations for the name Beer-Sheva signify a state of tranquility. The name of the destination, Haran, indicates the opposite — fierce anger (charon af) of the world. There are multiple layers of interpretation to each word of the Torah, and moving from Beer-Sheva is often seen as a metaphorical journey, moving from a place of peacefulness and sanctity into a lowly corrupt environment.
On the surface, the verses relate a challenge for the individual who feels insignificant in a giant world: On a mystical level, it’s the journey each soul takes into a “world of falsehood”; on a global level the verses foreshadow the long exile that Yaakov’s descendants, the Jewish people, will endure throughout history, forced from their homeland and scattered throughout the globe.
The common theme is that precisely through Yaakov’s grit and resilience, perseverance within a coarser hostile spiritual place — not simply by staying home in the Holy Land — will he ultimately merit building the House of Israel.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit

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