Darkness Descends and the Light at the
End of the Tunnel.
Amidst all the horrible news streaming from Iraq and Israel, a small headline
struck me on today’s front page of the New York Times:
“The Dimming of the Light: In the second half of
the 20th century, the world has literally become a darker place.”
Defying expectation and easy explanation, hundreds of instruments around
the world recorded a drop in sunshine reaching the surface of Earth, by as
much as 10 percent.
With the latest tragic events taking place in the brutal, blood soiled Middle
East – the beheading of Nicholas Berg, the tortures of Iraqis by American
soldiers, more senseless deaths in Israel – it appears that the world is getting
We seem to be getting progressively sucked in the bottomless, absurd quagmire
of the Middle East – forces that seem so profoundly complex, with no way out.
It brings to mind a story I recently heard (from my brother YY) about the
Israeli photographer Levi Yitzchak Freiden. Each year during the Jewish High
Holiday season of Tishrei he would make a pilgrimage to New York, and photograph
the Crown Heights Chassidic community celebrating the holidays. Upon his return
to Israel he would present a photo exhibition of the images he captured. People
attending the exhibit had the option to remark on their experience in a journal
that Frieden had prepared for that purpose.
At one of these exhibits a well-known secular, anti-religious Israeli writer
asked Frieden if he could jot down a negative remark in the journal. Frieden
told him that he welcomes all reactions, positive or negative. Afterward Frieden,
with great curiosity, looked at the journal and he read the writer’s remarks
(in Hebrew): “These are beautiful images. But they remind me of the dark Middle
The following year Freiden offered the Rebbe his journal for review. After
reviewing it, the Rebbe told him that he would like Freiden to pass on a message
to the writer who wrote the unflattering remark. The message consisted of
- Thank you for taking the time and sharing your thoughts.
- Thank you for being honest. Whereas others may have written compliments
perhaps just paying lip service, you shared your sincere feelings.
- Please open up a current newspaper, and read some of the news. Then sincerely
ask yourself: Is everything in the modern world bright and beautiful? [The
Rebbe continued] Know that not everything in the Middle Ages was dark, and
not everything today is light.
- Being that you clearly are a non-conformist and have the courage go against
the flow, may you use your independence and individuality to break the status
quo of our times and help illuminate the darkness of our times with the
things that were bright from the Middle Ages.
End of story.
We should never confuse modern life with personal growth and progress. One
can have all the most advanced technologies and still be living in a dark
age. Who was it that said: “Make no mistake and say that in the modern age
there exists a lower rate of illiteracy; That’s not the case. Rather, today
illiterate people simply know how to read.” And wasn’t it the same man that
said: “There are those that know the price of every thing but the value of
What is most mind boggling is that all the focus is on the immediate crisis,
on the latest developments. In this fast food age, we have become so seduced
by the momentary, by the newest images streaming at us from TV, the Internet
and all our other supersonic instantaneous technologies, that we have become
blinded from seeing the big picture.
In the olden days, news came at a much slower pace. That
allowed people to digest, to process and to step back and
try to understand the forces at work. Today we have become
inundated with information, flooding all our brain cells,
to the point that we have no time or energy to reflect on
unfolding events, as we have become addicted to a steady
menu of streaming data and images overwhelming our senses.
True, the news that Americans tortured Iraqis is disturbing. Any torture
is appalling, especially when it’s coming from Americans who were supposed
to be using their power for the good. But, without in any way minimizing abusive
behavior, this is war, and war is ugly. Perhaps it’s a tribute to American
democracy and freedom that we indulge in self criticism, while other nations,
whose atrocities far exceed American ones, simply don’t have the same conscience
issues. They don’t have 24-hour pundits filling round the clock airwaves spouting
wisdom and opining in every which way. But perhaps, this is also our undoing.
We have so much free time and energy that we have the luxury to sit and watch
TV and analyze every detail ad naseum. Wars are fought on battlefields, in
real life and death situations, not in stadiums, TV studios and living rooms,
while munching on popcorn or sunflower seeds.
American freedom comes at a great cost. We are a complacent generation. With
Reality TV, palm pilots, the web and all our other modern amenities, we have
lost focus on purpose – on our purpose and calling in life. That apathy is
the price of freedom from all pressure.
Americans cannot fathom the meaning of the battles in the Middle East, because
we have no frame of reference. We know about Cowboys and Indians, we read
about the battles in history, we view war movies, but we have never experienced
a battle of civilizations and spiritual wars, let alone one that touches on
the very purpose of our existence.
Allow me therefore, as a Jew, to offer some frame of reference. I say “as
a Jew,” because as I have written extensively in this column since 9/11, Jews
have a distinct role to play today being that they are an ancient people that
has been a witness to history and have personally experienced similar challenges
from the beginning of time. The Jewish people have been around. They are not
young spoiled spring chicks, spoiled and naïve, who are suddenly shocked by
What does history tell us?
That the battles today have been going on from the beginning of time. Close
to 4000 years ago a struggle ensued in Abraham’s home between Isaac and Ishmael,
the respective ancestors of the Jews and the Muslims. A generation later came
the battle between Esau and Jacob, respective ancestors of the Western/Christian
world and the Jewish people.
Cutting away all trimmings, bottom line the battle is between matter and
spirit, to discover how balance the sacred and the secular – as discussed
at length in previous
articles. Our universe will not be at peace – both personally and globally
– until we make our peace with G-d – peace and integration between body and
soul, between our material life and its higher purpose.
Just as a machine cannot function properly unless it follows the design of
its engineer, so too life will not work unless it is aligned with the design
of it’s Cosmic Engineer.
And this battle – between Ishmael, Esau and Jacob – has replayed itself time
and again throughout history. Sometimes with different names, but essentially
this is the essence of all the battles between the West and East, between
the Christians, Muslims and Jews. [Indeed, I just received an article explaining
how the US Navy was founded in 1794 in response to the hijacking of US merchant
shops and citizens by… Muslim militants!]. And the battle continues to be
centered in the hotbed of the Middle East, just as it was in Biblical times.
The philosophical leaders of modern Islamic fundamentalism clearly write
that their goal as Muslims is to repair the “hideous schizophrenia” between
the physical and the spiritual, between religion and science, between the
steely impersonality of modern power and technology and the nature of the
What lies at the true heart of today’s conflicts, after stripping away all
the immediate politics and short term issues, is an ideological and spiritual
battle, that has continued to be fought for centuries on end, in one form
We are not dealing with an isolated case in Iraq or Afghanistan, but a formidable
global confrontation with an entire people (over 1 billion Muslims) being
fought in a central region of the world.
Make no mistake about it. After all the smoke clears, the true war is being
fought in the schools and homes of East and West – in the very value systems
that we are teaching our children It is a battle for the minds, hearts and
souls of future generations. Because after all is said and done, whatever
the immediate outcome of today’s battles will be, the fact remains that a
major schism exists between how Muslim and Christian children are being educated.
When it comes to personal, moral and religious standards East and West stand
at almost complete odds, diametrically opposed in the their primary objectives,
regarding happiness, freedom, spiritual integrity – both personally and professionally,
both at home and at work.
This fundamental war is much less discussed if at all, because we either
don’t have much understanding at this philosophical
level, or we prefer not to go there due to its complexity
and consequences. Above all, if this is truly a spiritual
war, then it renders us responsible for our personal behavior,
and that’s a big (perhaps the biggest) no-no in America
– we cannot impose moral and spiritual demands on
How many of us have truly asked – or answered – the question: What do the
radicals really want, both in Israel and the entire Middle East? Why did they
attack America on September 11, and continue to perpetrate attacks around
the world? And even if it’s only radicals (true or not), why does the general
Muslim population applaud their efforts? Why do they so hate the West and
After all the immediate answers (Muslim humiliation, hatred for Western secularism,
oil, politics and so on) remember that these conflicts have been going on
for hundreds, thousands of years.
As students of history, we can confidently say that the war is between matter
and spirit, between the Divine and the universe – a war to make our peace
with G-d and to discover unity between our natural lives and our Divine mission
No doubt that this may be difficult to swallow. Why not
just chalk it up to President Bush hating Saddam Hussein,
or US interests in Middle Eastern oil, or other selfish
and corrupt reasons.
Indeed, the American in me says: “Leave me alone! Allow me to return to my
baseball season, to my stock portfolio, to all my entertainment, and yes,
also to my home and family. Allow me to live in peace. The immediate war is
bad enough. Why do you insist on turning this into a global and historical
battle with such far reaching consequences?!”
The ancient Jew in me replies: “Hey, I know it’s more comfortable to remain
ignorant then to face the complex realities of life. More knowledge more pain.
Perhaps that can conveniently work when things seem calm on the surface, allowing
us to maintain a superficial equilibrium. But, when we witness the world shaking
at its core, the only true option to understand world events and to achieve
a level of sanity and control (excluding the option of digging your head in
the sand in denial) is to recognize the deeper forces at work beneath the
surface and behind the scenes.”
What no one can disagree with, whether you were just born yesterday (in more
ways than one) or generations ago, is that we find ourselves entrenched in
a true quagmire. If events weren’t bad enough, the last week sure offers us
a wake up call as to the enormity of the situation.
What a mess. How will we ever get out of the Middle Eastern quicksand?!
The world may be getting darker on one hand, but on the other therein also
lies the salvation. The fact that these battles began years ago in Abraham’s
home, with the conflicts between Isaac and Ishmael, does not merely reinforce
the gravity of the battle. It also provides us with the answer. Our challenge
today – Christian, Muslim, Jew and everyone else – is for us all to embrace
the teachings of Abraham, “father of all nations.”
As events spiral out of control, we also have the opportunity to finally
understand the true message that we are receiving: For years and years matter
and spirit have been at war, waiting, waiting. Waiting for us today to finally
accept that we and the world cannot be at peace until we make peace between
our bodies and souls.
Yes, war is ugly. It’s not a movie or a video game. The only thing that counters
war’s ugliness is knowing that we are fighting for something more beautiful
than the hideousness of war, something important enough to make war worth
Sadly, Americans, Israelis and for that matter most of the Western world
does not articulate passionate beliefs as do the Muslims. As misplaced and
destructive their intentions, we must always know that passionate radicalism
is more powerful than complacent sanity. A meshugener who believes in a cause
is stronger than a normal person who does not.
Do we stand for such a cause? That is the big question.