There are times and there are times. Times to
address the immediate – the needs and issues of the
moment. And times to step back and look at the big picture,
to see the forest from the trees.
As we enter a new year (5766) this is the
time to look back at the year in perspective. And since
no year stands in a vacuum, an effective annual review requires
us to also reflect on the general period in time in which
we live. We do so in order to make better sense of our lives,
correct mistakes and improve our actions as we chart a course
ahead. Studying the patterns of the past help us define
trends of the future.
These days especially, the ten days between
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, are particularly auspicious
to define our priorities. These ten days are days of building
[in Kabbalsitic language: the building of malchut] –
days that define and construct the year ahead. Like a central
nervous system this month of Tishrei (same letters as reishit,
head) controls the mechanics of the upcoming year.
Highlights of the last 12 months include,
working our way backwards:
- Our human vulnerability – as well as the rifts between
the poor and the wealthy – was exposed in the wake of
Hurricanes Katrina and (to a smaller degree) Rita.
- The Middle East remains a bottomless quagmire, with
Iraq haunting us daily, but not limited to Iraq.
- The threat of terrorism – able to strike anytime anywhere
– hovers over us, whether we think about it or not.
- The Middle East remains a hotbed, with the force of
one billion Muslims yet to be reckoned with. We are sitting
on a powder keg.
- The identity crisis in Israel has come to the fore with
Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, with no peace in
sight and no clue of a future strategy.
- Here in the United States, the housing boom continues,
technology and medicine and science march boldly ahead,
reflecting on our ongoing prosperity, yet oil prices are
rising, family life and children remain deeply dysfunctional
and the ineptness of our infrastructures are stark reminders
of a very fragile and tenuous balance between our increasing
outer prosperity and our decreasing inner control.
- The battle around the role of religion and faith in
our lives continues to surprisingly accelerate, with no
resolve in sight.
Overall a growing tension is developing between
our personal happiness and our personal comforts. Are we
becoming happier people standard of living gets higher?
It appears that the more comfortable our material lives,
the more therapy we need.
What is clear from all recent events is that
we stand at the transition stage between changing paradigms.
Whenever we move from one state to another, many many cracks
open up, reflecting the need to adjust and align ourselves
to a new reality.
Events and developments in the last few centuries
– coined Renaissance, Enlightenment, Emancipation,
Democracy, Capitalism, Freedom, Equality, Liberalism, Science
– have moved us from the Middle Ages to the Modern
Age. Following the first two revolutions, the Agricultural
and the Industrial, we have entered the third revolution
– called by various names – the Atomic, Nuclear,
Computer or Information Revolution (the most poetic perhaps
is the one I like most: The Quantum Revolution).
Is this however the end of history? If, as
Hegel contends, the “struggle for recognition”
(self-esteem and dignity) is the driving force of individuals
and nations, and the cause of wars, then it would seem that
evolution of the human spirit and history would come to
and end with the liberal democratic state, as Francis Fukuyama
argued in his book The End of History (1992).
Fundamental to Torah psychology is the confidence
that every challenge is preceded by its solution, as every
illness is preceded by its cure. This gives us the strength
to face any challenge knowing that it can always be conquered.
Samech Vov – whose centennial we celebrate
this year (as discussed in last week’s article) – offers
us a fresh vision for the future.
Following the opening discourse which we addressed
last week, Samech Vov continues with a comprehensive discussion
on the nature of human achievement and pleasure. Basically,
the Rebbe Rashab explains that all pleasure known to and
experienced by man are linear forms of pleasure, distinguished
by different quantitative levels that each of us experiences
as we climb the ladder of our personal development. All
these dimensions of pleasure, even the highest forms, are
mortal and limited – and therefore inevitably fragmented
(the pleasure of a good wine, for instance, has no relationship
with the pleasure of reading a good book). All these pleasures
are derived from the “river that flows from Eden and
waters the garden.”
The ultimate pleasure however is the one that
the “eye has yet to see” (Isaiah 64:3) –
an immortal, eternal, unlimited pleasure, that is qualitatively
different than any pleasure ever experienced. This level
of pleasure – called “Eden” itself –
is the essence and source of all pleasure, and is a pleasure
that is integrated into all our life experiences, from the
mundane to the sacred. This pleasure is accessed through
our toil in this universe. Our mitzvot have the power to
generate new unprecedented dimensions of pleasure that create
a seamless, unifying flow between all aspects of existence.
The ultimate revolution, according to Samech
Vov, is the one achieved through our work in building out
of the material world a “home” for the sublime.
As long as we do not access this essential
level, we remain locked in battle with the forces of progress
and the dichotomy of accelerating material pleasures and
decelerating psychological and spiritual ones; between an
increasing comfort zone and a decreasing level of personal
peace of mind.
All pleasures of life are only as powerful
as the root of the pleasure. On our own, as we say in the
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur prayer, “man’s origin
is dust and his end is unto dust, he earns his bread at
the risk of his life, he is likened to a broken potsherd,
to withering grass, to a fading flower, to a passing shadow,
to a vanishing cloud, to a blowing wind, to scattering dust
and to a fleeting dream.” However, we have been endowed
with the gift of being Divine, and accessing the essence
and source of all pleasure, which does not break, whither,
fade or vanish.
The issues we are facing today go back to
the ongoing struggle between matter and spirit that has
been with us since the beginning of time – so powerfully
captured in Samech Vov. These issues have accumulated over
history, and the last few centuries have brought them to
the surface in new ways. Modernization of the world, advanced
science and technology, exposure of outdated systems and
corrupt religious forces – have all contributed to
our current predicaments, locally and globally.
However, the struggle has been coming to a
head in the last 100 years. Both World Wars, followed by
the baby and economic booms, and the information revolution
we are currently undergoing, have all set the current stage
for a final showdown between the narcissistic forces of
materialism and the uniting powers of spirit.
Samech Vov poses for us the following challenge:
All the forces in the universe, all the diversity among
nations and all the conflicting opinions, can be resolved
by recognizing that destiny is in our hands. Our individual
moral choices and specific actions in this physical world
determine the future course of our lives and the life of
This challenge is the core of our soul searching
work during these Ten Days of Teshuvah/Return between Rosh
Hashana and Yom Kippur – when we attempt to uncover
the superimposed elements of our lives and return to the
Essence, and – align our daily lives to this Essence.
As Maimonides writes: “A person must see himself
and the world as equally balanced on two ends of the scale—by
doing one good deed, he tips the scale and brings himself
and the entire world redemption and salvation. Therefore
in the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, more than
all year round, it is customary to increase charity and
good deeds and the performance of the mitzvot” (Rambam,
Laws of Teshuvah 3:4).
Now the question is: Do we have the courage
to accept the challenge?