What is Real and What is Not
As Jews prepare to dance ecstatically on Simchat Torah, completely oblivious of the world around them, let’s explore the nature of this dance. Is it a form of escapism or a taste of reality?
This continues the theme of a previous article: the lesson we learn from Sukkot about the deceptive world in which we live.
I want to thank you all for your interesting reactions to last week’s column, and share with our readers a sampling of suggestions some of you offered as to the various manifestations of our lying world.
But first, a story.
October 3, 1995 was Erev Yom Kippur. It was also the day when a jury found OJ Simpson “not guilty” for murdering his wife. It was the talk of the town. That same day I had a pre-scheduled radio interview in connection with my book, Toward A Meaningful Life, on a station in Miami. The host called me that morning and said to me: “I read and liked your book. But frankly, today everyone is interested in only one thing: The OJ Simpson verdict. They just won’t care to hear a discussion on your book. I suggest that we reschedule your interview.”
Until today I am not sure what got into me, but spontaneously I told the host that my book can shed light on the OJ Simpson controversy, and contains the answer to the big question everyone was asking after the finding of the black majority jury split the country into celebrating blacks and incredulous whites: What can we do about racial prejudice? The radio host was surprised. “So you’re ready to discuss the OJ Simpson trial?” She asked. “Absolutely,” I answered not knowing what I would actually say during the interview.
So the interview commenced as scheduled early afternoon on that Erev Yom Kippur, October 3rd. After introducing me and my book as a distillation of the Rebbe’s teachings on life, her first question was, of course, what, as a Rabbi and author, I think about the Simpson verdict?
My reply: “First of all, allow me the share with you that today is the day preceding Yom Kippur. As we speak Jews around the world are bustling about preparing for the holiest day of the year. Many are completely oblivious of the OJ Simpson verdict. Now you may think that this is an unacceptable form of detachment from society and world events, a sort of religious escapism. The fact is quite the contrary.
“Let me tell you a short story. The great 18th century Chassidic Rebbe, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, once led the High Holiday prayer service. Before he began Kaddish, he declared: ‘The Prussians say that their Kaiser is the greatest. The Russians say that their Czar is the greatest. The French say that their Emperor is the greatest. And I, Levi Yitzchak ben Sarah Sosha say… Yisgadal v’Yiskadash Shemei Rabba (Exalted and hallowed be His Great Name).’
“It’s not that we don’t know about social activity around us. It’s simply an issue of priority and context: To define what is real and what is secondary. On the day before Yom Kippur, while the public is consumed with the OJ Simpson verdict and other ‘vital’ events (today it’s OJ Simpson; tomorrow it may be what some actor will wear to the Academy Awards – Jews declare: ‘Today we enter the holiest moment of our lives; we connect to G-d and to the purpose of our existence. We are preparing to enter the Holy of Holies and face our destinies!’
“Yes, it’s all about defining what is real and what is not. Many people are trapped in a ‘matrix’ dictating the rules of ‘reality,’ shaped by social, media and peer pressures, unable to free themselves from its grip. People worship ideals and social structures that may be superficial if not plain negligible.
“We all need a moment of reality check, where we emancipate ourselves from this ‘brainwashed’ condition, and embrace the eternal – that which not man-made. The you can re-enter society with a fresh perspective that will elevate our discourse with the world around us.”
After I waxed eloquent about the virtues of Yom Kippur, the interviewer said: “Quite an interesting perspective, which I did not expect to hear. But what about the actual issues of the controversy around the verdict? Blacks across the country are celebrating victory; many whites feel that the trial was a manipulative mockery. You know, Johnnie Cochran’s line [Simpson’s attorney], which sounded like a jingle: ‘If the glove don’t fit, you gotta acquit.’”
“Well,” I replied, “here is where the wisdom of Torah contained in Toward a Meaningful Life, can illuminate us. In it I cite an episode that took place after the racial riots took place in Crown Heights, in 1992. David Dinkins, who was then the mayor of New York City, visited the Rebbe, asking for a blessing of peace between the two peoples, the Jews and the blacks. The Rebbe responded, ‘Not two people but one people, under one administration and under one G-d.’
“The only true and lasting solution to racial prejudice is one that cannot be written into law. It’s the emotional, and invisible, divide that separates peoples, races and those that are unalike each other. Only when we embrace the Divine Image in which each of us has been created can we transcend our differences and our comfort zones, our prejudices and stereotypes, and recognize the sacred dignity of each individual, regardless of background.
“This is the energy we glean from Yom Kippur, a day when we face our common Creator. This day gives us the power to re-enter society with a renewed sense of the Divine in all people and experiences, and with the obligation to actualize that dimension in all our interactions.”
That’s the story.
Now we are up to Simchat Torah, when we celebrate the “marriage” between the Divine and the human on Yom Kippur. We dance with unbridled joy because we have a connection that allows us to transcend all our man-made institutions with their inherent distortions.
Not escape, not denial, not avoiding the challenges of life. Simply a day when we rise above it all so that we can re-immerse with a fighting chance…
Here is a sampling of thoughts some of our readers offered as examples of the deceptive world in which we live.
“Thank you for another brilliant article. It provoked fascinating discussions at our holiday meals. At our table there was a consensus that the most blatant deception is the one around Israel. Look at a world – perpetuated by the New York Times and many so called ‘objective’ sources of information – absolutely distorting the reality of the situation.
There never was a Palestinian State. Israel did not ‘occupy’ anyone’s territory. Israel fought several defensive wars to protect itself from hostile Arab neighbors who simply do not accept Israel’s right to exist, and see it a an affront to their Islam beliefs.
Myths upon myths have seeped into our consciousness and by now have become “facts” that we all have to contend with…”
“Sports, for me, are a perfect example of the mythical world which we live in. Instead of facing the real challenges of life and taking on the battles between good and evil, we have become a nation of ‘fans’ that root for teams.
I like sports and appreciate how it can lift our spirits. But at the same time we must distinguish between entertainment and the essentials. We must recognize when recreation becomes obsession, and warps reality in the process.”
“Please read George Will’s column in Newsweek, Modern Life in NFL Nation. He writes how football is the ‘distilled essence of modern life.’ He concludes with the following: ‘In Sports Illustrated’s recent 50th-anniversary issue, Jeff MacGregor wrote, ‘Organized sports are the perfection of the unnecessary.’ Perhaps. But, then, most of what makes life sweet involves emancipation from necessity. The NFL is an acquired taste that Americans have acquired less as an alternative reality than as an intensification of modern reality, although why they want that is a mystery.’
‘Emancipation from necessity.’ Hmm. That can include selfless volunteerism, giving your life to save others, faith and virtue. But on the other end of the spectrum, it can also include frivolous nonsense, empty minded activity, drug and other addictions, and yes, that may include sports addiction (or obsession, if addiction is too harsh of a word).
Sports may be an ‘acquired taste’ and an ‘intensification of modern reality,’ but that does not mean that it is not an ‘alternative reality.’ It just means that modern life itself is an ‘alternative reality,’ and sports just enhance that alternative experience.
And that may be the secret behind the mystery why people embrace it so.”
“…Ahh, distortions. I can’t find an example of something that isn’t distorted. But if we’re looking for examples, take the recent Bush bashing. The ambiguous, undefined liberal establishment has waged an unprecedented attack on Mr. Bush that can only be explained by their great fear of any moral clarity. Any defined position on the issue of terrorism and our enemies simply abhors then to the point that they accuse the President of being a terrorist!
C’mon. After 9/11 the president made it abundantly clear that he is leading a long war against terrorism and countries that harbor terrorists. You may not agree with that approach, but many do (and if you don’t, what is your alternative, pray tell?). We need leaders that will stay the course and not waiver as time passes and pressure builds. This is sustained war and it must be won.
I do not agree with all of the President’s policies, but he is our President and he has taken up a cause that we all embraced after 9/11. Some people may not have agreed with President Harry Truman dropping the Atom bomb on Japan (I’m glad that it wasn’t open for debate on CNN), but he did and as a united country we must support the decision, and we must believe that the world is safer place for it.
When politics takes over in peacetime it’s one thing. But if you want a distortion, look around when self-serving pundits and ‘enlightened’ politicians begins tampering with issues of life and death. One Commander-in-Chief leads the battle. Leave it up for consensus and disaster follows.
I wonder what would have their response had the President not gone on the attack, and Saddam Hussein ended up attacking America (or supporting terrorists to attack).”
“Happy and healthy new year. Enjoyed very much your Sukkos piece. Two examples come immediately to mind.
1. Suffering: when we suffer, we experience sheer hell. However, suffering, much more than contentment, allows for the possibility of true change.
Suffering is growth because it demands hope, which depends on the idea that things, even the worst possible things, CAN change.
2. Politics: Often the slick, polished and well spoken talk a good game. But what lies beneath the surface?
As to your comment on the origins of man, I recently attended a Gateways lecture where a noted physicist told a simply unbelievable story, especially to me, as a journalist. He said that the magazine Nature wanted to interview various scientists about where they got their inspiration. The physicist agreed, on one condition: that the magazine print exactly what he said. They agreed, and proceeded to the interview. When they asked him about the source of his ideas, he said his inspiration came from Heaven. They were incredulous. They told him they simply could not publish that, that his reputation around the world would be destroyed and they were not about to let that happen to him. Needless to say, he canceled the interview. It is amazing to me that people who hold their skepticism in such high esteem would not be able to see things from another person’s point of view. The intellectual has the most dangerous path to travel in search of meaning, and that is the belief in himself–or his opinions, above anybody else’s. When confronted with a noted scientist’s honest assessment that in fact, he didn’t know where his inspiration came from, but that his BELIEF was that it came from Heaven, the others could not bear to hear that someone else’s belief could be different from their own.”
Thank you again for your comments, and please keep them coming.
To reiterate the thought: Half the cure of the disease is knowing that you have it. To free yourself from the shackles of this lying universe, you have to first recognize the falsity around you and not get caught up in it.