Liad Braude, Jerusalem, Israel
MyLife Essay Contest 2018
Introduction – The “Quick-Fix” Generation
In today’s society almost everyone is addicted to something. A person wakes up in the morning and gets ready for work. They go to their top-of-the-line espresso machine for that miracle juice that will get them through the day. The reader may be thinking, “Ah, I see where the author is going with this. He thinks we are all addicted to coffee without realizing it.” While it is true that many people rely on one or more given substances to get them through the day, in the above example, the coffee is not the only reliant to which consumers turn to for assistance. There is a culprit which enslaves us in a far more subtle way – this being the technology itself.
Each year, companies release the new and latest in everything from coffee makers to microwaves, computers to iPhones. Each release renders the previous model obsolete and leaves the consumer feeling prehistoric until they catch up to the newest trend. If last year’s coffee machine could make a high quality coffee in two minutes, the newest model can do it in one minute. If the last iPhone had the latest in high-resolution camera technology, the newest version is even higher in resolution. Without even realizing it, today’s society has become enslaved to the consumer phenomenon that renders our generation the “quick-fix” generation.
Pirkei Avot teaches, “who is wealthy? He who is content with his lot.”(1) According to this, many people today would be classified as poverty-stricken. Even those that make a million dollars, upon reaching the milestone feel that they now need two million, and set their sites on the next tier without ever feeling satisfied. Take the following example, a teenager goes to college where he acquires a taste for beer. In time, his palate grows more refined and he begins consuming higher quality beers from micro-breweries that are far more expensive. To cope with the newfound desire, he must make more money. This means that he must work more hours. In time, he has less time to spend on school work and dedicates more time to business in order to satisfy his craving.(2) Worse yet, he may go years without realizing that his consumer tendencies have consumed him.
Section I – Double Concealment
The Torah refers to this timeless disease in the phrase “and on that day I will surely conceal my face.”(3) The literal wording is “haster aster” which is a repetition of the same root word. The founder of the chassidic tradition, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, redefines this phrase in a revolutionary manner. The Baal Shem Tov renders the double usage of the term for “concealment,” in what he refers to as a two-fold concealment.(4) Put in simple terms, the Baal Shem Tov explains that there is a phenomenon of being sick or addicted which is clearly detrimental but recognized. This is a single concealment. Then there is a far more deceptive situation that he classifies as a double concealment in which the individual or collective is not merely sick or addicted, but is sick or addicted without even realizing there is any issue whatsoever. In our case, this is the phenomena of being enslaved to the next “quick-fix” without even realizing the shackles of bondage that have us dependent on a certain consumer good for contentment of spirit.
The inner dimension of Torah interpretation not only reveals the issue but also guides toward rectifying it. The enslavement that the Jewish people faced in Egypt serves as the prototype for bondage and redemption that grants us the answer to our reliance on a “quick-fix”. The word for “Egypt” in Hebrew, “Mitzrayim,” comes from the root that translates to “straights” or “limitations.”(5) In this context, Egypt does not refer to a geographic location but to a place of limitations or bondage of consciousness. The exodus from Egypt therefore provides the method for escaping this consumer phenomenon rampant in today’s society.
Thus, our journey to recovery begins with the character called “Pharoah.” The Prophet Ezekiel describes Pharoah as “the great serpent.”(6) Pharaoh can be thus be connected to the original snake that tempted Adam and Eve to sin. Thus, Pharoah as the snake, represents the toxic element within us that lures us and has us enslaved to the notion that acquiring more things will make us happier. Despite the fact that Adam and Eve resided in paradise, the snake convinced them that more was needed; namely a fruit that made one like G-d.(7) This “snake” is an all-inclusive evil that separates us from true peace and freedom. Our sages tell us that “Peace” is a name of G-d.(8) Thus, to be disconnected from our essential selves and to be reliant on another for peace of mind is likened to being tempted by the snake into walking a crooked path that leads to our demise.
The Torah outlines the redemption process, in effect outlining a practical way to combat this decline. Thus, Moses and Aaron were able to have full control of the snake in the very first miracle used to instigate the healing process. The Baal Shem Tov taught that all transformation can be categorized in a three step process known as submission, separation, and sweetening.(9) This methodology combined with the exodus narrative reveal a practical path toward recovery.
Section II – Submission, Separation, and Sweetening
Moses serves as the first to submit to the sickness prevalent in his culture and to free himself from this enslavement. At the top of Egyptian society is Pharaoh who says, “my river is my own, and I have made it for myself.”(10) He has the greatest wealth and the most valued resource in the form of the Nile as his possession. All Egyptians dream of such a capability not realizing it’s deceptive nature. However, one day Moses sees an Egyptian, here representing a person of limited consciousness who is enslaved to the consumer trend, beating others and has a profound moment of submission. All these Egyptians are enslaved to a toxic phenomenon and are willing to trample on others to get ahead. Today we refer to this in the common expression, “it is a dog eat dog world.” If a person wants to get ahead in the consumer world they must be ruthless. Moses see this and wants no part of it any longer. Moses kills the Egyptian (In Hebrew, “hamitzri”).(11) Interestingly, the word used for “the Egyptian” in the Torah is numerically equivalent to the word “Moses.” This alludes to the notion that Moses fully resolved to remove this toxic element – the Pharaoh, snake, or Egyptian – from within himself.
Therefore, the first step is to submit to the understanding that the addiction is there, that pharoah or the snake is lurking beneath the surface, and that only by accepting this condition can healing come. We see this further exemplified in the first official plague that strikes Egypt. Pharaoh and the Egyptian culture worshipped the Nile River for it provided them with their sustenance to survive. What manifests in the Torah narrative as the Nile would be representative of the consumer good/s we believe will bring us happiness. To the Jew, the Nile water was merely water, but to the Egyptian it turned to blood.(12) Therefore, for a person in a constricted consciousness, any given item may be a toxic addiction while another may have a very healthy relationship with the item.(13) Therefore, the first practical step to conquer our reliance on the “quick-fix” must be to accept and submit to the fact that the craving for goods as a means to achieving happiness is a false delusion.
Moses then moved to the process of separation. Later, he would guide the entire Jewish people to take the same step in their road to recovery from this enslavement. He had to fully separate himself from the environment that had been holding him down. Thus, the Rambam teaches that if a person finds himself steeped in any given extreme, the solution is to go to the opposite extreme. In time that person will find harmony and balance out.(14) Moses thus left the life of royalty in Egyptian civilization for a long period of detox in isolation. The Jews likewise spent fifty days in isolation from the toxicity of enslavement to prepare for the Torah and forty years to prepare for entry into the land of Israel.
Thus, the step of separation is to set boundaries from the environments and trends that may be detrimental.(15) To those extremely steeped in consumerism, a more rigorous detox regimen would be necessary. They may consider a drastic life change wherein they limit everything. This has been popularized in recent years by the term “minimalist living.” Chassidus is not fond of asceticism, as our job is to be involved in the world and thus elevate it. Nevertheless, one must not be enslaved to materialism either. A healthy means of separation would be to relegate our consumer drives to special occasions and towards holy purposes. Perhaps a person will resolve to only indulge for a holiday or birthday. In this way, they are able to temper their craving for materials and will thus come to appreciate special days that much more.
Another helpful way to eliminate an addiction can be seen from the exodus wherein people were surrounded by like-minded people desiring to escape the same constriction. This may mean to surround oneself by people, or choose to live in places, where there is less emphasis on material things. The Jews were also successful due to their acceptance of a leader or mentor who had himself been where they were and had successfully transformed his own nature. It would therefore be useful to accept a mentor or guide who will give a person sincere and objective advice on their material usage.(16) Just as our sages say, “each day a man is obligated to see himself as if he just left Egypt,” someone who is serious about recovery should bear a constant reminder each new day to remain steadfast on the path to redemption. Making a verbal statement each day will do a person wonders. It is for this reason the sages instituted reminders about the exodus of Egypt in the daily prayers.
The Baal Shem Tov states that “you are where your thoughts are.”(17) Thus, it is a powerful rectification to constantly meditate on the goal we desire in order to bring it to fruition. However, the Alter Rebbe explains that thought is just the beginning. Thoughts remain to the person alone. The next level is to bring it to expression. This makes the desire more real as now others can hear it and pressure the speaker to follow through on the resolve having witnessed them express the sincere will to be better. This flow of thought to speech will ultimately manifest in a change in the physical actions that a person will make in his daily life.(18)
We see with Moses, our prototype for the successful transformation from bondage to redemption, that he inevitably returns to Egypt to help others become free. This is the sweetening phase of the Baal Shem Tov’s methodology. Now that a person has made a sincere effort to change themselves for the better, they will see others suffering and will be able to help guide them on the same path they walked to recovery. What was a darkness and a crutch is now a light that manifests in a source of pride and empowerment that has bettered the self and will benefit countless others. Having gone to the extreme of minimizing their lifestyles they may even find themselves able to once again become involved in material acquisition without feeling the adverse effects. By remaining vigilant not to fall into the same toxic behaviors of the past, a person ensures that they will not fall into old habits. Through sweetening the consumer temptation a person may now be able to cherish a new garment or gadget without feeling guilty. Harmony results from the newfound balance. We can now consume without the trend consuming us.
1 Pirkei Avot 4:1
2 See Chapter 13 of Ramchal’s work entitled the “Path of the Just” for further reference
3 Deuteronomy 31:18
4 See “Toldos Yaakov Yosef” beginning of “Bereshit”
5 See Psalm 118:5 for the source of the root “metzar”
6 Ezekiel 29:3
7 Genesis 3:5
8 See Rashi on the opening verse of “Shir HaShirim” and Zohar Genesis 29a
9 The Baal Shem Tov’s three-part-system can be seen as a derivative of Berachot 5a
10 Ezekiel 29:3
11 Exodus 2:12
12 Shemot Rabbah 9:10
13 Sefer Baal Shem Tov on Parshas Va’eira
14 Mishneh Torah, “Hilchos Deos,” Chapter 2
15 Hayom Yom 27 Shevat reads in the name of the Rebbe Rashab: “The chassidim of earlier generations made a firm resolve in their souls that whenever they encountered something that was halachically permitted but they desired and craved for it, they would refrain. Such a habit breaks physical desires.”
16 Pirkei Avot 1:6 stresses the importance of having both rabbi and friend in order to grow spiritually.
17 Tzaavat HaRivash lesson 69. See also Tikkunei Zohar 21:63a and Zohar III:247b – “Man is identical with hi thought.”
18 See the “Tanya” also known as “Sefer HaBenoni” by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi where he elaborates on thought, speech, and action, as the garments of the soul.