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 increasingly darker.
We seem to be getting progressively sucked in to 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 Frieden. 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 Ages.”
The following year Frieden offered the Rebbe his journal for review. After reviewing it, the Rebbe told him that he would like Frieden to pass on a message to the writer who wrote the unflattering remark. The message consisted of four points:
- 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 nothing.”
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 nauseum. 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 terrible events.
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 its 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 human spirit.
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 or another.
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 anyone, G-d forbid…
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 Israel?
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 statement.
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 than 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 the price.
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.