Reading Birnbaumâ€™s book, I cannot help but also view it as a complement to Lin Yutangâ€™s 1937 Confucian classic The Importance of Living, in which the author speaks so eloquently and so spiritually of lifeâ€™s simple pleasures, like â€œlying in bedâ€ and â€œsitting in chairsâ€. Lin tells us â€œIf you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned how to live.â€ Birnbaum, in God and Evil, espoused a much more active, and hence Jewish/Western, view of lifeâ€™s meaning, but here in â€œ120 Guardian Angelsâ€ he makes room for such dalliances as â€œBubblesâ€ (angel #13), â€œKite Flyingâ€ (#54) and â€œCatching the Momentâ€ (#40). There appears to be an appreciation that in matters of actualizing Holy Potential there is, indeed, as Lin Yutang articulated, both â€œthe noble art of getting things done [and] the noble art of [sometimes] leaving things undone.
The Kabbalists, in whom much of Birnbaumâ€™s thinking is rooted (angel #109 is â€œLurianic Kabbalahâ€), held that there is a coincidence of opposites governing both God and humanity; Birnbaumâ€™s latest effort, especially when placed in the context of his earlier one, (with the complementary book titles explicitly forewarning us) most certainly seems to embody this dialectical spirit.
Chayyim Vital, whose great work Sefer Etz Chayyim, is the classic exposition of Lurianic Kabbalah, once acknowledged that the world is for the most part evil, with only the slightest bit of good mixed in. Adin Steinsaltz, the contemporary rabbinic sage and Kabbalist, has said that the full meaning of Vitalâ€™s seemingly pessimistic dictum is that â€œours is the worst of all possible worlds in which there is yet hope, and that this is paradoxically the â€˜best of all possible worlds.â€™â€ The reason for this, Rabbi Steinsaltz tells us, is that only in such a world of extreme adversity, a world â€œon the brinkâ€ of total disaster, can humankind be motivated to realize the emotional, spiritual, aesthetic and intellectual possibilities that have been bequeathed to it by our creator.
David Birnbaumâ€™s mythic 120 Guardian Angels are a celestial chorus imploring us to do just that, to realize our full cosmic potential as human beings and thereby act as partners with the divine in actualizing the potential of our world.
Dr. Sanford Drob
May 19, 2006
Founding co-Editor, The NY Jewish Review
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