“Constant pleasure isn’t pleasurable.” –Baal Shem Tov
Have you ever heard of topsoil? The literal definition is the uppermost portion of soil in a garden, yard, or field. Okay, simple enough. But to climate scientists, topsoil is revered as the most valuable substance on Earth—a manifestation of pure magic. From nourishing our foods to sustaining our plant life to storing massive amounts of carbon, the 2-8 inches of soil below your feet is teeming with diverse microbial life that is responsible for nurturing all life on Earth. Jane Zelikova, a climate change scientist, gave an entire TedTalk aptly called “The Hidden Wonders of Soil” and described the soil as “the literal foundation of life on this planet.”
And it’s composed almost entirely of decaying organic matter.
Growth and decay are opposing forces in the natural world, but one simultaneously begets the other. Growth may represent vitality and healing, but—as evidenced by the life-giving power of topsoil—in order for growth to take place effectively, if at all, decay is necessary. Our lives are in a similar dance of polarity. According to Kabbalah, desire is a gift from the Creator and leads us to profound experiences of fulfillment and joy. However, constant happiness quickly becomes an illusion, a trap that keeps us disconnected from our true selves and from the spiritual realm.
The theme of duality—and, indeed, of happiness!—figures largely into the energy of the month of Pisces. It’s the Hebrew month of Adar, the twelfth and last month of the lunar calendar falling under the zodiac sign of Pisces, which is considered the month to stabilize the year ahead. Every so often, the month of Pisces will repeat in a calendar year giving us a leap year of sorts, an extra dose of the joy and happiness from the Supernal world that the kabbalists encouraged us to draw down during these four weeks.
The energy of Pisces is available to us to increase and expand our happiness but also to remind us that our challenges serve not just to grow us but to grow our appreciation and gratitude as well. Rav Brandwein explains that the moment we can know and live with the consciousness that true happiness is a gift from the Creator and that this gift comes by way of changing ourselves is the moment when we can maintain that level of joy in our lives no matter how difficult the challenge.
Every situation is, in fact, an opportunity to change. And every challenge serves to strengthen and cultivate meaning throughout our lives. Returning to the transformational metaphor of topsoil, we welcome the joy and happiness of spring, and as our manifestations wane and wilt, their “death” becomes the fertile ground for our next harvest to bloom.
Think of it this way: a life in which every desire is instantly gratified and every pleasure is always available leaves no room for longing, seeking, or yearning. On the surface, this may seem like the ultimate dream, but in practice, it will lead only to a spiritual emptiness and a lack of true fulfillment.
Just like the decaying matter enriching the soil with vital nutrients, contrast is essential for our spiritual growth. It is through the experience of both pleasure and pain, light and darkness, peaks and valleys, that we can truly appreciate and savor the moments of joy and pleasure in our lives. A tree that continuously bears fruit without ever stopping creates nothing but a headache—a garden drowning in fruit that one person could never possibly eat! Similarly, constant pleasure would eliminate this contrast, making it difficult for us to recognize the Divine spark within the moments of happiness.
This contrast and resulting fulfillment are evident throughout nature. The moon waxes and wanes, our bodies inhale and exhale, the tides ebb and flow. It is this constant back and forth between opposing forces that creates the dance of all life. It is responsible for the hope we reach for in times of crisis and the deep emotion of gratitude we feel in moments of pure beauty.
This month, celebrate all of the struggles and challenges that got you here today. Know with certainty that they served an enormous purpose: growing you into this version of yourself capable of unprecedented amounts of joy. And maybe buy yourself a potted flower and admire the contrast of the dirt and the petals. The sweet feeling of affection you hold for that little blossom might just be the way the Creator looks upon you…