Three Gifts for A New World
There’s an old story about a father who enters a toy store to buy something for his little boy. Picking up an interesting-looking gadget, he asks the clerk, “Isn’t this a rather complicated toy for a small child?”
The clerk replies, “It’s an educational toy. It’s designed to adjust children for living in the world today. Anyway they put it together is wrong.”
Unfortunately, this story is getting more relevant all the time. The potential for anxiety and frustration seems to grow as quickly as the national debt.
Many young parents today feel that their children have far more complicated lives then they did growing up, and they are correct.
The irony is that grown-ups, too, live in a world more complicated than ever. Our technological innovations always seem behind the stresses they are supposed to address.
Such fears are not only individual. They are also felt collectively by our country. Can anyone say that Twitter has made our social discourse better?In short, we fear a world in which we have instantaneous communication but nothing to say about returning to the values and optimism of the past. We are anxious about our inability to meet the complications of the twenty-first century with the same basic human hardware and software given to us as was given to our Neanderthal ancestors. Edna St. Vincent Millay, a great poet of the early twentieth century, put it well:
Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
Rains from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts….they lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun, but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric…
As the poet suggests, in the last century and a half we have discovered or created so much information. We have invented so many technological wonders. We have remade the world with the telegraph, photography, the telephone, the typewriter, the phonograph, the transatlantic cable, the electric light, radio waves, movies, the locomotive, rockets, the x-ray, the computer, smart phones, and even the safety pin.
There is no question that the quality of our life has greatly improved because of such items. We do not want to go back in time. Often, a hospital stay back then was worse than the disease itself. Until the advent of the telegraph, it could take weeks to have an urgent message delivered to a loved one. There was no refrigeration, no anti-biotics, no incubators, or modern sanitation devices. There is no question that our technological advances have created a better life for us.
But our technology has come with a price. Unlike the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia, we are “awash in information without even a broom to help us get rid of it. What has happened is that the tie between information and human purpose has been severed.” [Neil Postman] We have no loom to weave it into fabric of meaning. And such a disconnection between information and meaning inevitably leads to anxiety. It’s even been suggested that the twentieth century began as a continuation of the Age of Enlightenment but quickly turned into the Age of Anxiety.
In other words, a hundred years ago, Western civilization felt it was on the verge of an era of peace and good feeling, produced by the advancements in science. And then came the bloodiest century in human history, complete with the perpetration of the Holocaust by the most technologically advanced society in the world. And came the Atom bomb. So much for an era of peace. And hello, age of anxiety.
If it’s true that anxiety thrives on uncertainty and confusion about the future, then we should be very anxious people. In this second decade of the twenty first century there is a palpable tension in the air. And this uncertainty frightens us.
One response to this age of anxiety has been a religious reawakening in this country on a scale not seen since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Even a quick stroll through a contemporary bookstore reflects our era’s infatuation with meaning and spiritual renewal. Science itself has begun to reconsider the wisdom of religion, even as religion appreciates anew the insights of science. For no amount of medication or psychotherapy will relieve the anxiety we feel. What we need is an overarching religious context to help us place our worry into perspective.
Here is where the Bible’s creation story, which we read this week, can help. Many years ago the late author, Thomas Cahill wrote a book, The Gifts of the Jews, in which he argued that so much of Western life was produced by our Jewish heritage. It’s ironic, but perhaps we Jews need a non-Jew to remind us that our Jewish sources can provide us vital direction as we try to make a better future for ourselves and our descendants.
If we say that Judaism gave such gifts to the world, then we may be accused of religious chauvinism. Fortunately, Cahill published a book that says it for us.
In his book, Cahill lists a number of specific “gifts” which Judaism has given to the world. Tonight, I would like to share my own brief list, based on his teachings, in order to suggest how our Judaism might help us greet the brave new world that we face tonight. It’s my hope that recognizing the wisdom of our tradition might help us create a new world that filled not with anxiety but with serenity, not with malaise but with joy, not with death but with life.
The first “gift” to consider is that, as Judaism has taught us, what we do has cosmic significance. It used to be that most inhabitants of the world believed in a cyclical worldview. Cahill labels this the “Great Wheel”. According to this perspective, every event has already occurred and will occur again. Nature keeps everything in balance and our human job is simply to exist. We need not worry that some people are victims of injustice or in need of our help, for whatever acts we take have already happened. In other words, we cannot influence the future if everything happens over and over.
In response to this passive view of life, Judaism offers another approach. As God tells Abraham, “Arise, leave your native land, and go to a new place.” Transform your life and your world. With such a declaration, writes Cahill, the world received new words such as “adventure, surprise, individual, person, vocation, time, history, future, freedom, progress, spirit, faith, hope, justice, and even the word “new” itself. The upshot of such a view is that everything we do makes a difference. We can change the future, for good or for bad.
In addition to transforming how we view our role in the world, Judaism also offers us the gift of absolute morality. The ancient worldview taught that what is good for the king is good for the people, Judaism reminds us that every human being, even a king, is subject to a higher law of goodness. Unlike earlier law codes, the Ten Commandments are not accompanied by rationales for why we should follow them. All we are told is that God demands of us such behavior. Murder is not wrong because of certain circumstances. Murder is wrong because God forbids it.
Thanks to this teaching, we know that no individual is above the law, and neither is any nation. Presidents of the United States have no more right to break the law than the lowliest citizen. I think that bears repeating. Such leaders, like everyone else, should be held to the same moral standards. Likewise, our country – as well as the State of Israel – is not at liberty to pursue policies that conflict with moral laws of the world.
Finally, besides the gifts of personal responsibility and transcendent morality, there is one additional gift to mention tonight: Judaism gives us what our world has come to call “spirituality”. In ancient days, religiosity was primarily physical, depending on such things as sacrifices and edifices. It was about “outside” behavior. As Cahill taught, Judaism introduced another view of the religious life: “God wanted something other than blood and smoke, buildings and citadels….[God] wanted justice, mercy, humility…[God] wanted what was invisible.” What was on the inside. Concluded Cahill, “…we take for granted the power of the innerlife…the predominance of the spirit over might. Yet, it was the Jews who gave us this.”
Now, clearly other religions have also taught the world about the power the spirit and the significance of our inner life. But I do agree that our Jewish heritage has presented us with a vital way to bring serenity and healing to an anxious and fractured world. Both the Hebrew word for spirituality, “ruchaniyoot,” and the Latin root of our English word, “spirare,” connote the act of breathing. And herein lies an important insight: Taking a breath is not only necessary to our existence; it is also something we do wherever we go. Most of us are healthy enough to need no assistance in breathing. We are not even aware that we are doing it. But it is happening all the time. The same can be said of life. We are always living it, but we seldom are aware of how little we need to make our lives complete. Spirituality is about recognizing that what matters is not what we have but what pleasure we are finding in the present moment. Spirituality is recognizing that what matters is not our resentment about the past, or our anxiety about the future, but our ability find joy in the here and now. As one modern Zen master has put it, “wherever you go there you are.” Like our breath, our capacity to find serenity in this anxious world is not farther away than the heart and mind we take with us wherever we go.
In this week’s portion God literally inspires all humanity with the breath of life. God is still inspiring and we are still breathing. So the rest is up to us!