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The Service of the Present: Turning Fear into Laughter

The Service of the Present:
Turning Fear into Laughter


The first thing created by God (alluded to in the Torah’s first word, Bereisheet, which means, “In the beginning”) was time. Our world is defined by the dimensions of time and space. For us, created beings, a reality devoid of time is incomprehensible. The concept of time itself, however, is fluid and difficult to understand.

The three facets of time, past-present-future, are three types of ayin, nothingness. The past is nothingness because it has already happened. The future is nothingness because it has not yet happened. The present is nothingness because it is over in the blink of an eye. Nonetheless, the elusive present is the dimension of time in which we can function. It is insightful that the early Hebrew grammarians called the present tense, “Intermediate time” (זמן בינוני). It is this insight which offers a deep understanding for why the Tanya—Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi’s seminal work serving as an introduction to Chassidut—is subtitled, “The Book of the Intermediaries.” In other words, this is the book meant for those individuals who are intermediaries—people functioning and living their lives in the present. What then is the function of the present?

The Arizal concentrates the history of all souls in three archetypical souls, all alluded to in the name Adam (אדם). Adam himself represents the first letter, alef, of the name Adam and refers to humanity’s past. Mashiach, represented by the final letter of Adam, mem, refers to humanity’s future. Between them, in the present, is King David, represented by the middle letter of Adam, dalet. King David and Adam were spiritually linked, because Adam “gave” King David seventy years of his life. Adam is the beginning of the dynasty, which will culminate with Mashiach the son of David). Service of God in the present is thus to be learnt from the service of King David. King David was a master of rising anew after having fallen down, praising God before Whom he lives through all his ups and downs.

Because there are only three Patriarchs, it is fitting to parallel the three parts of time to them. Abraham, “the head of all believers,” corresponds to the eternal past of the Jewish people. Jacob, whose name alludes to “following” and finishing, corresponds our future, in which we will inherit “an inheritance without bounds.”[1] This leaves Isaac to inspire our present.

Though Isaac’s Divine service is based on his fear or awe of Heaven, his name actually means, “will laught.” His mother Sarah named him so in an allusion to, “the laughter that God has done for me.”[2] Isaac rectifies the concealed dimension of God’s Name, Elokim, which exists mainly in the present moment (as we learn from the verse, “I am first” (in the past, the beginning of time) and I am last (in the future, the end of time) and without Me (in the present, in the “middle” [אמצעיתא] of time, as written in the Zohar) there is no God[3].” Before everything else (before any creature was created) and at the end of everything (upon the fulfillment of “And God will be King of all the earth, on that day God will be One and His Name will be One”[4]) all is simply God’s goodness. In the present that is in the middle, however, we have to face fear, concealment of God and uncertainty. This trial is the secret of “the fear of Isaac”[5] (Pachad Yitzchak, a title for God specifically relating to Isaac, who is afraid of nothng except God). It is the rectification of fear and its transformation to laughter.

The unknown future is frightening, but a person should not worry about tomorrow, as it has not yet happened. It is only at the moment of the present, when the future “bursts” upon us, that there is place for the experience of fear. At that very moment, however, the unknown future becomes the known present and we can laugh. “This is what I was so fearful about?” In the blink of the eye, the present continues on and becomes the nothingness of the past. It transforms into part of the heritage that we will pass on, with more laughter than tears, to our grandchildren in the future.

[1] Shabbat 118a.

[2] Genesis 21:6.

[3] Isaiah 44:6.

[4]  Zechariah 14:9.

[5]  Genesis 31:42.


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