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One Hundred Plus One by Dr. Marc Gafni

by Dr. Marc Gafni, from his Uncertainty book, which will be re-released as part of two-volume Integral Religion.

One Hundred Plus One

c. 2013 photo courtesy of digidreamgrafix

c. 2013 photo courtesy of digidreamgrafix.

The Talmud has a famous comment about study: “eino domeh mi shelomed meah pa’am lemi shelomed meah vahad paam.” Loosely translated, “One who studies a passage one hundred and one times is radically superior to one who studies one hundred times” (Chagiga 15A). The Talmud then goes further by suggesting that one who studies only a hundred times is not anOved Elohim,” —  is not even considered to be one who has “served God”.  Only the one who studies one hundred and one times is considered to be an “Oved Elohim,” a true servant of God. The hundred-and-first time, the time of struggle with one’s limitations and patience, this is when divine service begins.[1]

Is this passage only referring to intellectual pursuits? R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, 19th century mystical master, says that the principle has far wider applications. He subtly shifts the intent of the epigram, and applies it to devekut, our desire for intimacy with God. Just as in true study, he says, divine intimacy is attainable only at the moment of struggle, at the moment of one hundred and one. Applying again the interpretive key used in the preceding paragraphs[i] “through my flesh I vision God” from Job chapter 19, which is a contemplative call to all mystics on visioning through the body and accessing embodiment, we can begin to understand R. Schneur Zalman’s point.

A Word about Body-Building

The key to the principle of Mibsari, through my flesh I vision God, is to read it with an emphasis on the word “my.” If I access the epic of being through the drama of the psyche, it can only be my psyche, i.e. my story. So let me share with you a personal note. I once went through a period in life frequenting a gym. It had something to do with a fantasy of mine that one day I’d be walking down the street (with dark glasses) and someone would make a natural mistake: “Hey, Arnold Schwarzenegger!…Oh, I am sorry, it‘s Gafni.” It never happened, nor do I expect it ever will, but while working out, I was surprised to learn that a gym is a very holy place. I’ve boiled it down to 6 reasons why:

  1. In the gym you are not competing with the world: the competition is always only against yourself.
  2. In the gym people are always willing and eager to “spot” you. When you say to someone, “Will you spot me,” that means “will you be there to help me lift the heaviest weights in case I can’t do it myself? The burden may be too great. Please be there to help me so I can try to do it myself.” In the gym people are always happy to help one another grow.
  3. In the gym you can’t cheat. You are what you are, and you have what you have, and you don’t have what you don’t have. There are no externals that can fool anyone. In a real gym great clothes and sneakers just don’t make an impression. (For someone like myself whose skiing career was limited to buying ski clothes, this was not an easy adjustment)
  4. You cannot skip the process. You can only grow when you work stage-by-stage–dramatic leaps and overnight transformations don’t happen in the gym.
  5. If you lift more than you are ready for, you get hurt.  In Kabbalistic language, you are the vessel, and if you accept more light than you are prepared for, you shatter.
  6. Yet, you must push your outer limits in order to grow. Lift ten pounds more than you believe you can lift. This gives an enormous sense of self-transcendence: it is a deeply spiritual experience.

In this holy environment, we can also learn about uncertainty. I may choose to lift three “sets” of a particular weight: three sets of lifting the weights ten times – ten repetitions – ten “reps.” The first two sets of ten reps are easy. Operating in the realm of certainty, I feel strong and in control. The struggle comes with the third set. I can just about manage the first four or five reps, but the essence of weight lifting is in the last one or two reps of the final set. Even as I am straining to lift the last rep, it is unclear whether I will make it. It is precisely here, in the tense realm of uncertainty, where I struggle with the weights, that physical growth–bodybuilding–takes place.

“Through my flesh I serve God.” As in the body, so in the soul. It is at the moment of struggle that I am either an “oved elokim” one who serves God — or I am not. To cleave to God from the moment of tension and struggle, from the one-hundred-and-first time, this is to be an “oved elokim” and to touch true faith. The difference between 100 and 101 is not only one: it is all.

An Exercise in Faith

From Jacob’s struggle and these graphic images of exercise, we are beginning to gain an entirely different picture of “emunah,” of faith or trust in God. In Volume One we learned how “emunah” can be seen to share etymological roots with “omen” — the nursing mother — and explored the benefits of such primal core certainty gained in God’s cradling arms. But there is an alternate spiritual and etymological root of “emunah” — faith, which, far from being passive, is reflected in a work-out in the gym and an all-night wrestling match?

Consistent with his original re-framing, R. Schneur Zalman proposes a fresh understanding of “emunah” (Tanya, ch. 42).  He makes the fascinating etymological proposition that derives the word “emunah” from the word “emunim.” The word “emunim,” in the understanding of R. Schneur Zalman, means exercise, it means practice, it means struggle.[ii] “Emunah” in this light can be seen as an action which I am not fully capable of performing, which I need to do again and again, always striving but never quite attaining full competence. “Emunah” is about struggle. The “Emunah” of Jacob is the faith of uncertainty.


[1] In Hebrew as we have pointed out, letters have both phonetic and numerical significance. The  numerical values of words referred to as Gematria, can reveal hidden folds of meaning within words as well as important  relationships between different  words. The numerical value of the word forget ‘shakak’ and remember ‘zakor’ support our point about the difference between 100 and 101 times. For the gematria of shakak is 338 …and of zakor is 227 The difference between the two is 101- the point being — the difference between memory and amnesia is the passion symbolized by 101.

[i] An expansion of this idea is found in book one, chapter one  in relation to Noah’s and Leah’s ability to intuit the murmurings of God.

[ii] Sefer Hatanya, R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Chapter 42.

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