How to illuminate a Dark World
By Simon Jacobson
April 25, 2002
As we experience a very tentative lull following
a period of severe Middle Eastern bloodshed, and we hold our
breaths hoping the worst is over, this week’s Torah portion,
Emor, sends us an imperative message that teaches us how to
forcefully deal with adversity while becoming greater and
more dignified people in the process.
Coming away from the Passover Massacres and
the lives they shattered, we count the days of the Omer, which
emphasize emotional refinement and personal growth as we count
down to Sinai.
How do we balance these two poles: Intense hatred
and wanton violence on one hand; strong conviction in our
higher values and hope in the future on the other. How can
we maintain a vision of a better life when we have to battle
so much death and pain, and go to war with those that are
causing all this suffering?
This week’s Torah portion begins with the words
“Speak…and you shall tell them.” Our sages associate this
commandment with the obligation of education. The redundancy
(“speak” and “tell them”) informs us ‘to caution the adults
concerning the children’ (Talmud Yevamot 114a. Cited in Rashi’s
opening commentary to this week’s portion).
The Hebrew word used here for ‘caution’ – ‘lihazhir’
– shares the same root as the word ‘zohar,’ meaning
“radiance.” This teaches us a fundamental lesson in education:
We must not just caution our children and students but we
must radiate for them. ‘Speak’ to your children and warn them
of all life’s dangers, but do so in a way that ‘you shall
tell them’ and radiate the beauties of life.
Discipline is a most necessary component in
the education. An unshaped and impressionable child needs
direction and guidance to grow into a healthy and virtuous
adult. Discipline helps avoid the pitfalls and traps of our
own selfishness. Yet, how often do we witness – and how many
of us have been hurt if not damaged – by discipline devoid
Especially in the religious world, how many
of us have been affected by dogmatic, fear driven discipline?!
I personally have witnessed the devastating psychological
effects of many people growing up (can we call it ‘up’?) in
homes and schools that indoctrinated children with the wrath
of G-d, with fear and guilt – with everything that has been
coined today as ‘religious neurosis.’
The primary causes for fear based education
vs. love based education include:
1) Laziness. It’s simply easier to just yell at your
child and create strong rules, than to patiently and warmly
cultivate the child’s personal responsibility.
2) Adult insecurity. We project our own fears
and insecurities (perhaps absorbed from our own parents) onto
our children. When we internally feel unconfident we will
instinctively treat out children in kind, and make them feel
afraid and insecure. When we suffer from low self-esteem we
will more often than not gravitate toward fear driven approaches
rather than love driven ones. It is hard to love another if
you do not love yourself. Because of our own inner guilt and
inadequacy, we feel that the only way to prevent problems
is through driving the fear of punishment into our own hearts
and the hearts of our children (as we may have witnessed our
parents doing). We presume ourselves and those around us ‘guilty
until proven innocent.’
How sad it is that parents and educators have
such power over our children; the power to distort and obscure
the inherent beauty within each of us. And how sad it is that
society contributes so much to this attitude – society shaped
by philosophies and schools of thought that narcissism is
the inherent state of a human being, and that ‘evil’ is as
powerful as good if not more powerful. Concepts like ‘original
sin’ and sexuality as a ‘necessary evil’ have helped foster
our feelings of shame and guilt about ourselves. Add into
the equation the prevalent belief that humans are just billion-year-old
evolved bacteria, and it should be no wonder that we feel
ourselves as lowly, worthless creatures. Our present education
system, both in its attitudes and in its teachings, feed the
powerful illusion that we are in essence insignificant ‘insects’
overshadowed by a vast world, where ‘survival of the fittest’
is the dominant rule.
It is therefore no surprise that the ‘natural’
approach in education is not love based by fear driven. We
are afraid of ourselves and of those around us, so we need
to create and reinforce protective ‘gates’ around ourselves
to guard against the enemies within.
Emor tells us – it actually commands
us – to educate our children with radiance and love. Discipline
and caution are necessary, but they are part of and rooted
in the same word as ‘radiate;’ discipline is but a dimension
in radiance – gevurah within chesed.
See yourself as a gardener, the Torah is telling
us. Within the earth lie flower seeds. Each person carries
within him/herself divine beauty and light, by virtue of the
fact that we have all been created in the Divine Image. No,
we are not insects or animals; each of us is an indispensable
flower in a grand, cosmic garden. As a gardener, the role
of parent and educator is to clean the earth, rip out the
weeds – create a nurturing environment so that the ‘flowers’
within your child can emerge intact, unencumbered.
Discipline is cleaning out the weeds in your
life, in your home and in your behavior, so that your child
can flourish. Even when discipline is required in education,
always, but always ensure that the child feels that it is
coming from a loving place
* * *
Lag B’Omer is coming next week. This mystical
day is the yahrzeit of the great sage and mystic Rabbi Shimon
Bar Yochai. Rabbi Shimon was known for his mastery of Torah
in both the revealed (exoteric) and hidden (esoteric) dimensions
– the body and soul of Torah. Rabbi Shimon was the author
of the holy Zohar, the classical ‘Bible’ of Jewish mysticism.
Indeed, Lag B’Omer is called the “Mattan Torah” of the inner
The legal body of Torah must be balanced with
its spiritual interior. If not it risks becoming a doctrine
that regulates life, but lacks the spirit within.
I recall meeting a woman who shared with me
her reasons for escaping her ultra-religious home because
she felt spiritually asphyxiated. “The anger and guilt of
my parent,” she told me, “simply destroyed my spirit. There
was no talk of soul or love, no talk of hope and faith, only
rules, rules and more rules. If you do this, you will be punished
this way, and if you don’t do this, you’ll be punished another
way.” “It seemed,” she concluded, “as if G-d has nothing better
to do that to penalize transgressors.”
After hearing and acknowledging her anguish,
followed by a long emotional talk, I told her that I do not
judge her in any way. On the contrary, she did the healthiest
thing by getting away from her abusive environment. But, I
added, “if you really want to understand what happened in
your life and not short change yourself, I suggest that you
study some Chasiddus (the inner dimension of Torah). It will
show you that Judaism is a comprehensive and deeply spiritual
way of life, that teaches us how to fuse body and soul, matter
and spirit, in one glorious dance.”
Zohar – ‘lihazhir’ – radiates light.
All forms of discipline are but subsets of this illumination.
* * *
As it is in the microcosm so is it in the macrocosm
– in today’s global conflicts.
When people are attacked they naturally respond.
But often this response will be driven by the force of the
attack with the goal of protecting yourself and your loved
ones. We have an ample demonstration of this both in America’s
response to September 11th and Israel’s response
to the terrorism against its citizens.
The question is this: Are you fighting a defensive
war only to protect yourself, or are you fighting an offensive
war for something you believe in? In other words, are you
fighting against or for something?
Emor teaches us that if your battle is only
against, you will always remain locked in a cycle of
violence. Your fear and caution must be coupled with light
and illumination – a deeper embrace of what you truly believe
in. And that core belief becomes the foundation that allows
you to fight against your enemy, while maintaining sight of
your ultimate goal: To radiate light in your own home, community
and in the entire world.
We are faced today with this unprecedented opportunity:
To see the war we are fighting as a catalyst to fight the
true war against today’s widespread distortions of all sorts.
Distortions of the facts, distortions of religion, and distortions
of what it means to be a human being.
We are all Divine flowers and have nothing to
fear. Yes, we must be extremely cautious today and do whatever
it takes to defend our lives and freedoms. We must go to war
to unequivocally eliminate all forces that threaten innocent
lives with terrorism and other violence. But our calling –
and our physical war – is fueled by our embrace for truth,
freedom and G-dliness.
But do not allow your life to be driven by caution
and fear. Allow it to be driven by radiance and beauty.