HAVING TO HAVE IN ORDER TO HAVE
A Teaching from Gershon Winkler
There is this strange concept in ancient Jewish wisdom: You cannot fill a vessel that is empty. Only if it’s got something in it, of any quantity. To receive Blessing you need a “Vessel capable of grasping Blessing”, the ancients insisted, for “Less grasps More” (Midrash Bereisheet Rabbah 5:7). This seems puzzling on the surface of it because why else would I be in need of Blessing if I weren’t running on empty? It is precisely because I am lacking that I am in need. So if I am empty, please fill me up!
Let me tell you a story. About 2800 years ago, there was a great Jewish prophet named Elisha. He was the foremost disciple of the prophet Elijah (Eliyahu), and he was a seasoned miracle-worker, a real true-blue shaman. One day a guy comes to share some bread with him,and Elisha instructs his aide to share the bread with everyone. The aide looks around at the several hundred people gathered around the prophet and says, “No way. There are only like twenty loaves here.” And Elisha again insists that he share the bread with everyone. So the aide goes around, and lo and behold the loaves of bread multiply and keep multiplying until everyone in the crowd has been fed (Second Kings, 4:42-44). So he was that kind of guy. Well, one day, a widow who had fallen on very hard times came to Elisha to seek his help. She had lost everything, was very poor, and in deep debt, to the point that shewas going to have to offer her sons as indentured servants unless some miracle occurred soon. Elisha then asked her “What do you have in your home?” She says, “I have nothing in my home other than a teeny-tiny drop of oil.” Says Elisha, “Go to your neighbors and borrow from them as many empty vessels as you can. Then go home, shut the door behind you, and pour that teeny-tiny drop of oil into all the vessels.” The woman went to her neighbors and with the help of her sons schlepped dozens of empty vessels to her home, then went inside, shut the door behind her, and began filling all of them with oil as her teeny-tiny drop of oil miraculously swelled into gallons and gallons until she ran out of vessels. Elisha then instructed her to sell the oil, which she did, and soon she recouped financially and lived happily ever after (Second Kings, 4:1-7).
The Zohar teaches us the following about Blessing, that Blessing is drawn to us from Above by what we already possess if we cherish the gift of what we already have. When we cherish what we do have, no matter how little of it we possess, the appreciation itself is potent enough to draw further blessing from the Root of all Blessing. This is why, when that poverty-stricken woman came to the prophet Elisha seeking his help, he didn’t ask her what it was that she lacked. Rather, he asked her what it was that she already had, that she didn’t lack, that she cherished already having. Her reply sounded pathetic: “I have nothing in the house. Well, I do have a smidgen of oil” – which the Zohar elaborates on, “Meaning, just enough to spread across the tip of her finger”. Elisha’s reply, the Zohar elaborates, was: “Oh! You have consoled me. I was worried you might feel like you have nothing at all. But what you acknowledge that you do have is more than enough to draw Blessing from Above”(Zohar, Vol. 1, folio 88a).
In other words, you took the time and effort to look beyond the obvious scenario of your situation to uncover the hidden, the blessings in your life that were overlooked, overshadowed by your problems.The woman could have said, “I have nothing whatsoever.” Because what is a smidgen of oil? But since she demonstrated her awareness of even so little being precious enough to consider as a blessing of some degree – it sufficed to draw down further blessings of further degrees, enough to fill all of the pots and pans that she had borrowed from her neighbors. Great teaching. In order to invite more of what you need, you must first come to grips with what you already have, and acknowledge the gift of it, even if it’s just the shirt off your back, or your health, or enough of your health to move around, and so on – even if you have absolutely nothing at all but peace, it’s a good start, “for there is no greater vessel capable of grasping Blessing than Peace” (Midrash Bamid’bar Rabbah 21:1).
It’s like the Kabbalistic take on Creation, that the fledgling primeval universe was completely empty, and therefore when the Light of Creation entered it, it exploded, it shattered, because it was not a “Vessel capable of grasping Blessing” – having nothing within it. Shattered, it became filled with the sparks of the Light of Creation that it failed to contain, and thus, by becoming filled with something,even the debris of the implosion, it became a vessel capable of receiving the subsequent unfolding of existence as we came to know it. Blessing is primarily drawn not by virtue of what is obvious to us that we have, but to what is not obvious to us that we have (Talmud, Baba Kama 42a).
What is conspicuous to us, is in that moment measured, large, small, worth five dollars, worth three dollars, worth a buck fifty, great, not so great, etc. On the other hand, taught the 16th-centuryRabbi Yehudah Loew of Prague, what we have that is not right off obvious to us is in the realm of the immeasurable and draws Blessing because Blessing is immeasurable as it emanates from the realm of the Infinite as opposed to the Finite, “For the eye casts boundaries and limitations, whereas Blessings are without either” ( _Maharal in ChidusheiAggadot_, Vol. 3, folio 21).
This is an exercise that requires us to look deep inside our life situations, to seek out what gifts we have been in possession of all along but have been oblivious to all this time. This takes effort, this takes introspection. “The Blessing Flow from Above comesto us in strengths and quantities commensurate with our desires and efforts to draw it Below.
This is akin to breast milk, abundant and ready to flow forth, but dependent upon how determined the infant is in suckling” (Kitzur Sefer Yo’nat Ilem, No. 122). The widow in the story of Elisha did not stop at declaring that she had nothing in the house. She stayed with the question, examined deeply her situation to see if there was anything of any value in the house, and remembered that there was a teeny-tiny drop of something worth being thankful for.
The Hebraic New Year 5771 is almost upon us, sneaking up on us earlier than usual this year. What an auspicious time to examine Blessing in our lives. Often we become frustrated and skeptical around this time that promises renewal in the year to come. And then the new year comes, and it’s same-old, same-old. Perhaps that is because we expended so much energy and intention praying for a better year than we had without really examining the good stuff that came to us during the past year, the Blessings. Instead, we skimp right over all the wonderful things that happened and pray for something better. This Rosh Hashanah, it would be refreshing for a change to spend a little time being thankful for whatever went right this past year and only then praying for a good year ahead. By so doing, we will create in our lives “A Vessel Capable of Grasping Blessing.”Like the ancient rabbis taught: Before you ask God for what you lack, thank God for what you have (Midrash Devarim Rabbah 2:1).