Part 16: Jury Duty

With a Samach-Vav Twist

— Samach-Vav Part 16 —

Wednesday June 21, 8:30AM – Riding the Number 4 train to Borough Hall, to fulfill my jury duty.

Hundreds of people are filing into the NY State Supreme Courthouse on Adams St. to do their part in “upholding the justice system,” as we are reminded by the indoctrination video welcoming us as we enter the vast hall called Room 216, where I and my compatriots will spend the day.

I come well prepared. With my Samach-Vav [the series of discourses delivered by the Rebbe Rashab a century ago] in hand and other papers to review, I have my day planned. I will study this week’s discourse in Samach-Vav, make a few telephone calls and twiddle my thumbs in between.

My first hurdle was to smuggle my cell phone into the courtroom. The jury instructions clearly stated that “cell phone cameras will be confiscated for the day.” But how can I – and so many of my vulnerable colleagues – survive a day without a cell phone?! What are they thinking?! Do they understand the consequences of cell-phone deprivation? (And why don’t they allow taking photos in courtrooms anyway?)

It didn’t end up being that difficult. I wasn’t the only one with the dilemma. Everyone — and I mean everyone — arriving had a cell phone with them, and we were all allowed in unscathed.

The day is filled with many humorous moments, but perhaps the funniest is when the clerk announces: “Anyone that does not have basic knowledge of English, please line up to my right.” I thought to myself: “How is someone who doesn’t have a basic understanding of English supposed to understand that announcement…” But before I finish my thought the same announcement is made in Spanish, Chinese and Russian.

And here is the funny part: Immediately following the announcement (in English) around a quarter of the crowd arises and begins making their way to the line on the right. Until the clerk continues: “If you’ve lived in the United States for over 20 years the likelihood is that you have a basic knowledge of English.” Some of the people sit back down.

I guess “basic knowledge of English” can means many things; and the desperation of jury duty has a way of making people feel that “basic” is professor level English. Any thing to get outta this place.

The clerk continues: “Not having a basic knowledge of English does not mean that you can go home. It simply means that you will be interviewed.” More people return to their seats.

Clearly, jury duty is meant to keep as many people hostage for at least a full day. But then again, who will sit on juries if we are all allowed loopholes of escape? Doesn’t that sound sweet…

I turn around on my bench to watch the large crowd. People of all backgrounds, colors and creeds fill the room. A true cross section of NY has gathered here today, as they do every day, in room 261, awaiting instructions and their name to be called.

Time to travel elsewhere. I pull out my Samach-Vav.

What sustains negative and evil forces in life? Since they don’t have any power of their own, what keeps them going? Explains the Rebbe Rashab, they are sustained by a force that is called “makif” in mystical language. “Makif” (lit. surrounding) is a transcendent, hovering form of energy that is somewhat removed from the internal details and therefore can tolerate and give off energy even to the “other side.” When you are detached you often allow room for harmful forces.

For this reason, even good deeds need strong protection in this world. Since every good deed we do manifests in the material world, which is a hybrid combination of good and bad, selfish and selfless, there is always a potential that good actions will “feed” negative forces in the process.

Good people with good intentions need protection in a hostile universe. The protection comes from a force that is above and beyond us, an even higher level of makif, called the “distant makif,” a place that is beyond any form of negative influence, which cuts off the flow of energy (from the lower makif) to any unacceptable place. We access this higher makif through the negative mitzvoth (and through Torah). As discussed in a previous segment, the positive mitzvah generates a defined form of Divine energy, one that can be contained in the particular act of each respective good deed. The negative mitzvah manifests the Essence – the Divine energy than is beyond any form of expression, expressed only in the sheer effort of withstanding temptation to do something wrong. By avoiding destructive behavior we fortify our lives, building defenses and drawing down the Essential energy that surrounds us in its embrace and shields us from all harm.

Someone taps me on my shoulder. “We need your form.” Startled, I lift my eyes from Samach-Vav and remember that I am sitting in courtroom waiting to serve on a jury. Will I be arrested for learning Samach-Vav?

I give them my filled out form, and go right back to my thoughts.

This week’s Torah chapter and the following one discuss two opposite philosophies in dealing with the challenge of materialism.

Escapism and immersion.

The scouts, in this week’s chapter, are charged by Moses to check out the land of Israel in preparation of its conquest. The scouts return with a terrible report: “We cannot go forward against those people [living in Israel]. They are too strong for us.”

Hmm, the scouts were good people with good intentions, but they lacked the necessary protection. The scouts, the best men of their time, wanted to live spiritual lives, and felt that the optimal protection from the strangling tentacles of materialism is to avoid engagement at all cost. To remain in the insulated wilderness. The land is too powerful, they argued, a “land that consumes its inhabitants.”

And in their insistence to protect themselves from the material they ended up destroying their true protection. Because after all is said and done, what protects us in this world is not our own logical machinations, but a deep faith in the Divine, and the power that the Divine endows us to face all the challenges of life. [Joshua and Caleb, by contrast, did have extra protection: Moses prayed for Joshua’s wellbeing, and Caleb prayed at the gravesite of the patriarchs and matriarchs at the Machpela cave in Chevron].

You can run but you can’t hide. The scouts wanted to run – to escape behind the clouds of glory, the bread from heaven and the miracle water – to avoid the material land that “consumes its inhabitants.” All good and fine, but it is G-d that created the material land, and it is G-d who commanded the people, and blessed them, to enter the Promised Land, thereby giving them all the power and protection they need to not only survive but to thrive.

As Joshua and Caleb declared:

“[it] is a very, very good land. If G-d is satisfied with us…He can bring it to us. If you don’t rebel against G-d you won’t need to be afraid of the people in the land, because they are our ‘bread’ [i.e. we can transform them by elevating their sparks], [G-d will] have taken away their protection [i.e. the sustenance and power they receive from the makif, “shadow” (tzel)]. G-d is with us so don’t be afraid.”

Korach on the other hand (in next week’s portion) took the exact opposite approach: Since G-d created and placed us into the material world and we have nothing to fear, let us immerse ourselves entirely in materialism to elevate its powerful Divine sparks. His mistake was that you cannot survive on the protective “makif” energy from above alone. You need to build a life of virtue in this material world, through positive actions.

In Samach-Vav terminology: The scouts wanted the inner life (pnimi) without the protecting makif; Korach wanted the makif without the pnimi.

Extreme insulation and extreme immersion are not acceptable options.

To live a spiritual life in a material world requires not only avoidance and insulation but the ability to engage life and transform it.

Insulation and integration.

Back to earth, my name is called. Off we march to Room 5 to be screened as prospective jurors. After a judge instructs us as to the procedures, the attorneys representing the plaintiff and the defendant interview us to see if we will, as they put it, be fair and impartial. The case is about a door falling on a cleaning lady who is suing the owner for pain, suffering and damages.

I won’t bore you with the details. Bottom line is I am dismissed from this jury, and return to the lounge to continue serving my sentence.

I make some casual conversation, perhaps looking for the Divine providence of meeting someone I need to meet on this Wednesday. A man shares with me his tragic life. His mentally disturbed wife ran off with his son. He is so alone. Too many people are so alone. Life is too sad for too many people…

I escape back to Samach-Vav. Escape is not an option, the Rebbe Rashab tells me. Immerse, but stay above. Engage – and transform. Influence, don’t be influenced. Enter the universe and lift it.

No where to run. No where to hide.

1:00PM – Lunch time. At 12:45 an announcement sets off a scramble for the doors. Nothing like lunch break. I remain behind to see if anyone has anything else to do but run for lunch. No one remains. I guess no one wants to die of hunger. Or is it the lunch ritual that has us all programmed?

Off I go roaming the streets of downtown Brooklyn looking for a kosher meal. Not so simple. Finally a kosher stand emerges. Sit down on the wide steps of another office building to eat and observe. Are these steps that lead you somewhere or makeshift lunch seats that just look like steps?

2PM – back to the courtroom. Now what? We wait, and wait, and wait. Finally at 4:00PM I and many of my co-potential-jurors are discharged.

So now you know: I am a good American citizen, fulfilling my duty to the justice system. Ho-hum.

But I don’t know if I could survive just on that.

Thank G-d for Samach-Vav…