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Vayigash: 2006

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The Year in Review

As we conclude the calendar year – my 50th on earth – it’s an appropriate time to examine the past year’s events, and attempt to place them in perspective.

One of the most vital lessons in life is to both live in the moment but never forget that the moment is part of a continuum. As a period comes to a close, connect the small steps of your day to day life with your larger ones; align the small picture with the bigger picture.

After all, our lives are like one running film, which we must live frontward, but can only be understood backward (as Kierkegaard said).

Highlights of the small picture of 2006 include:

  • Confrontation with Iran as a nuclear threat, with the rising prominence of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his inciting words.
  • A bottomless pit called Iraq.
  • The Middle East quagmire remains “intact.”
  • The threat of radical Islam and worldwide terrorism.
  • The Hezbollah Israeli War in Lebanon during last summer.
  • Midterm elections – with the Republicans losing control of both houses to the Democrats.
  • Accelerated battle between science and religion.
  • Radical atheism emerges – with best-selling books The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and Open Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris.
  • Warren Buffet’s unprecedented $35 billion charitable donation.
  • North Korea, under President Kim II Sung, rattles its nuclear sabers.
  • Unprecedented wealth generated by the financial markets.
  • Technology speeds ahead at a breathtaking pace.
  • YouTube and MySpace lead the Web 2.0 revolution of personal empowerment, with Time magazine designating “You” as its 2006 Person of the Year.
  • Our dependency on oil and gas controlled primarily by despots only continues to grow.

What stands out among all these events is a gnawing paradox impossible to ignore: While prosperity grows profound unrest is brewing below.

On one hand, Warren Buffet demonstrates an unheard of level of giving. Charity, in general, continues to grow. On the other, narcissism is also on the rise. Frank Rich makes the case (in the NY Times) that Time magazine’s choice of “You” as Person of the Year is actually a condemnation – reflecting today’s narcissistic pastimes of the Internet.

As technology advances and individual expression finds a universal platform, is the world – and our personal lives – improving?

The continued battle between a faith and atheism is merely another reflection of the dichotomy of our times: Dawkins and Harris passionately argue, with a tone no less fundamentalist and dogmatic than that of their religious compatriots, how religion and God have caused all the world’s problems. Simultaneously, religion continues to dominate people’s lives. The mega-churches are routinely turning out 20,000 plus people each week. Just look at the successes of pastors like Rick Warren (best selling author of The Purpose Driven Life) and Joel Osteen (Your Best Life Now), and best sellers like the “Left Behind” series selling over 100 million copies. With 2.5 billion Christians and 1.5 Muslims religion is hardly on the decline.

Indeed, the battles originating in the Middle East – which is also the source of most of the world’s oil – are religious in nature.

Yet another paradox: Freedom steadily grows around the world. Most nations today proclaim (though not always practice) universal human rights as an ideal. Yet, in Iraq and in the Muslim Middle East it seems that tribal passions and religious fervor takes precedent to personal freedom which many Westerners see as a God given right, ”written in the hearts” of all peoples and “the permanent hope of mankind,” “the longing of the soul.” Some Asian countries, like China, with only 2.5 billion people, might also disagree with the Western definition of individual rights that they feel disturbs the collective good.

So with all the empowerment of “You” – YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, blogs and, of course, Google – the globe is not exactly embracing individual power. And one can strongly argue, that placed in corporate hands (MySpace owned by Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, YouTube bought by Google) commercialism, not individualism, lies at the heart of their business plans. Only now “individuality” carries powerful marketable equity. Are you feeling empowered?…

Don’t get me wrong. I firmly believe, that despite corporate cynicism, the “individual” will rise, but only when individuality will be fused with higher purpose and a sense of a higher calling (see Individualism and G-d).

The fact remains: Unprecedented technologies, which dramatically have improved our standard of living, cannot protect us from our deepest vulnerabilities exposed by primal religious wars being waged against us. The profound tensions festering fermenting simmering in the Middle East casts a long shadow of global uncertainty. All our medical and scientific advancements have not improved the quality of our emotional and intimate lives, only amplifying the growing dissonance between our outer and inner lives, between material progress and spiritual regression.

2006 can be summed up as a year of pronounced disparity between prosperity and uncertainty. It’s as if success and bankruptcy are growing hand in hand.

Placed in context, the paradox of our times is nothing new. Nothing more than a manifestation of the millennia-long battle between spirit and matter. As our material lives continue to prosper our souls beckon for equal time. And therein lays the tension and anxiety of our age – crying out from the rift between our material and our spiritual lives.

The Zohar states: “Strong body, weak soul.” Material dominance equals spiritual weakness. This however does not mean that material success is a curse. It is a challenge – the challenge that has vexed mankind form the beginning of time continues to vex us today: How do we reconcile matter and spirit?

Global tensions – driven today primarily by the clash between the Muslims and the West – reflect the battle between different world views on the meaning of human progress and how we must make our peace with G-d.

Technology – with its inherent contradiction between uniting us as people in unparalleled ways, while depersonalizing us in the process – creates its own form of existential tensions.

As we enter 2007 these conflicts will only intensify. It is vital that we see the small picture in context of the big one – the universal friction between our outer and inner lives. Only when we begin to bridge the two will we find some peace.

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