As we turn the corner from April into May here at Williams, we move into the home stretch toward the end of the semester. In addition to making plans for getting vaccines, many of us are thinking about summer plans, moving out, and, of course, finals. At a place like Williams, midterm tests come with such regularity that it can often feel like we are always moving through one long period of midterms all the time.
But there is something a bit different with finals. Every class has its final assignment, the workload builds up, and there is often a heightened sense of pressure about the stakes for your work. With final assignments counting for a significant portion of course grades, it’s pretty common to get more stressed out during this time. You’re concerned about your grades. You want to make sure you do well and that, when you finish off the semester, you have a sense of success and accomplishment for what you’ve done.
One of the downsides of this time of year and the pressure that you feel is that your sense of enjoyment for your learning can actually diminish. When you’re thinking about grades, it can be harder to appreciate the new discoveries that you make in class, to take a risk on a novel approach or theoretical analysis, or to luxuriate in the simple pleasure of reading a book. The pressure of expectations, the overwhelming feeling of doing everything you need to do — of putting it all into a well-written paper or a perfectly executed experiment or a flawless problem set — can stifle your enjoyment of learning.
I was thinking about this problem recently when I encountered a passage from the Zohar, a 13th-century masterpiece of Jewish mysticism. In a section (3:166b) devoted to the heavenly journeys of a group of mystics called the chevraya (“the fellowship”), the leader of the group, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, is in the midst of an ecstatic visionary experience of the heavens. All of a sudden, the spirit guides who had been leading him through various chambers of the upper realms tell him that they need to take their leave for the evening. Before departing, they tell Rabbi Shimon that he should take a pen and a candle, and that he should write words that capture his experience. They tell him that they will return in the morning, with the expectation that they will want to see his work.
Talk about an intimidating final exam.
As soon as the spirit guides take off, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai breaks into tears and groans. How could he possibly capture in words that which he has experienced? How could he express the inner meaning of something so ineffable and mind-blowing.
He tries to begin, and he composes a song in honor of the Torah, which is an expression of the sublime mystery and source of what he has seen. He writes:
Torah, O Torah,
The light of all worlds,
Oceans, streams, and rivers flow out from you.
It spreads out in all directions!
Everything is from you.
Everything above and below depends on you.
Supernal light, it all comes from you!
So far, so good! It’s a moving paean to Torah. But then we begin to notice that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is getting tripped up. He continues:
Torah, O Torah,
What can I say about you?
…above and below is your love.
Who is able to drink from you, as it really should be?
We start to see that Rabbi Shimon doesn’t feel as if he has the words, that he can’t drink from the source of life that he hopes to. And then it gets even harder for him:
Torah, O Torah,
You are the delight of your maker,
Who is able to reveal and to speak?
Your secrets are hidden…
And then, we read, Rabbi Shimon weeps. He puts his head between his knees and kisses the dust. It appears as if he is in a state of despair. He feels deep pain at having to translate something that has been experiential, at being explicitly told to do that. It’s too much. He can’t write it all down.
I think this is something we often feel during finals in college. There is so much to do, the pressure is so great, and it can be overwhelming.
So Rabbi Shimon is sitting there, weeping. Then, he lifts up his head. And what does he see? The faces of his companions surrounding him. They say to him, “Don’t be afraid, Bar Yochai. Don’t be afraid. Write! And take joy in the joy of your master.”
At the moment of Rabbi Shimon’s despair over producing something to show what he has learned and experienced, two things happen. The first is that his friends appear. They are the ones to encourage him. They see him in his suffering, and they support him. They lift him up.
The second thing that happens is that they remind him that the writing is not actually about him. For as long as he is caught up in his fears and anxieties about his inability to fulfill his task, to write his final paper for the spirit guides, he is stuck. He can’t do it. But his friends remind him that what he should do instead is tap into the inner divine flow — call it God, call it intuition, call it whatever you like. That he should tap into the joy and the pleasure that the source of life has for him in his capacity to produce something authentic, and then write. To connect to that. To connect to the authentic flow of inspiration inside of himself. Not to think about the pressure. To tune into the pleasure that the universe has for him, and then to write.
So as we begin to look at finals, I want to bless you with two things: first, with friends who can lift you up out of your despair during finals, if and when it comes. And second, to tap into the pleasure that the source of life has in you and in what you do. To take that energy, and to turn it into a final project, an essay, a piece of art, a musical performance, a poem, or whatever it is that you are called to do. To see your assignments as opportunities to access your inner wisdom and skills and to bring something new into the world.
Rabbi Seth Wax is the College’s Jewish Chaplain.