The Illusion of Ruling


In Yertel the Turtle, Dr. Seuss brought us the story of a turtle that was ‘King’ of the nice little pond in which he lived with a number of other turtles.  One day, Yertel decided that ruling over his pond wasn’t enough.  Oh, no, not for King Yertel – he wanted to rule over more!!  And, because Yertel believed he ruled over everything he could see, to be able to rule over more, he needed only to get higher and see farther. So Yertel did what most rulers in history have done, he “stepped on” and took advantage of others.  Yertel ordered turtles to climb up on each other’s backs and make a tower of turtles on which he could sit, and then Yertel sat on that tower and declared himself King over the newly-visible cow, mule, house, blueberry bush, and cat.  But even that wasn’t enough for Yertel.  He ordered more turtles to join the stack, so he could sit on their backs and declare himself ruler over the birds and the trees.

Hillel Zeitlin, in his Fundamentals of Hasidism (as translated by Rabbi Arthur Green, Hasidic Spirituality for a New Era, Paulist Press 2012), explains Hasidic philosophy by comparing it to ideas of other philosophers. He notes:

  1. Baruch Spinoza postulated the most basic desire of each “thing” is to “continue to exist [without being] destroyed by some external force.” (p. 79).
  2. Schopenhauer explained Spinoza’s “desire to live is . . . realized in each [thing] in an individualized way” and “creates the illusion of being as a whole.”
  3. Nietzsche disagreed with Spinoza, teaching instead that each thing’s most basic desire is not to live, but to rule – “to manifest one’s full inner powers, to have them rule and master the powers of others.” (p. 80).  “This [desire to rule] is the secret of personhood, of individuality.”  (id.).

Zeitlin then explains that what “the modern philosophers and poets see as the beauty of creation, the individual identity of each creature,” (id.), is the very thing the Hasidim see as “the fall, the descent, the brokenness.” (Id.)  Hasidim believe “kingship” (i.e., the ability to truly rule) “belongs only to the One . . . the Creator,” (id.), because kingship is a term that can apply to a thing only if it has “no need for anyone or anything else.”  (Id.)  And, much to our own dismay usually, we humans are not able to exist without anyone or anything else.

Hasidim assert each of us has the illusion that we could rule over others because we sprang forth from G-d.  As Zeitlin explains:

Each quality [or ‘being’] has within it, from the moment it flows forth from that source, the inherent claim of ‘I will rule,’ which it had as part of its original Source.  There in the Root, the claim was appropriate; all of them were raised up there within that Root.  In this way they came to have that natural sense about themselves even when it was no longer accurate, after they had been cut off from the Root and had their own force of life.

(Id., quoting Or Torah).

Hasidim believe it is exactly this illusion of being able to rule, of insisting we can assert our will over other people and things, that leads to all the brokenness, negativity, and discord in our world . . . and I find it hard to argue with that philosophy — after all, is it not our frustration with those who refuse to listen to our ideas (and adopt our position) that leads us to be intolerant of others in a social context?  And is it not the desire to control other people or lands that leads to war within or between nations?

After reading both of those texts in one week, I began to wonder . . . when we close our eyes and cover them to say the Sh’ma, praising the One G-d, the Only King, the One who rules over each and every one of us . . . are we trying to prevent the Yertel in each of us from distracting us with the illusion that we could rule over any of the people or things we might see if our eyes were open?

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