The Alter of Norvadok, Rabbi Yosef Yoizel Horowitz zt”l, related a witty parable which presents an accurate portrayal of much of our society:
A stranger came running into town one day, looking flustered and breathless. When people noticed a harried stranger excitedly searching for something, they became curious and intrigued. They too rushed outside and began following the stranger on his relentless pursuit. As they continued down the street, others noticed the commotion and joined as well. Within a short time, an entourage of hundreds of people had joined, and were running through town. However, the masses had no idea why they were running; all they knew was something exciting was about to happen and they didn’t want to be left out.
A lone man noticed the procession whizzing by him. He ran past all the followers, and all the distinguished leaders of the community, and caught up with the breathless stranger. “My friend, can you tell me why you are running so fast and why all these people are following you?” The stranger continued running as he replied, “I have no idea why all these people are following me. All I know is that I really need to find a bathroom quickly!”
After reviewing all the events and travails that the Jewish nation had endured throughout their forty-year sojourn in the desert, Moshe Rabbeinu relayed the horrific curses of the tochacha which would besiege the nation if they did not pay heed to the Torah.
Moshe warned them that the curses would be so severe they would become insane from witnessing them: “You will go mad from the sight of your eyes that you will see” (Devarim 28:34).
I remember once hearing a conversation between two elderly men. The younger of the two was complaining that senility was beginning to set in and, at times, he would forget the most obvious things. The older man replied, “You’re at a tough stage. You still realize that you’re forgetting and that’s why you feel old. Just wait a couple of years and you won’t even realize that you’re forgetting. Then life will become blissful again.”
The Dubner Maggid noted that an insane person is often convinced that his actions are normal. It is only those who watch him who realize he is crazy. However, at times, an insane person may be sane enough to realize that his behavior is eccentric. Such a person will be deeply pained that he is unable to control himself.
Moshe warned the people that no matter how severe and how terrible the curses of the rebuke would be, they would always maintain an awareness of their “insanity.” Many persecuted nations have escaped their misery by “selling out” or defecting. Klal Yisrael lacks that ability. Moshe promised them that they would always be acutely aware of their incredible pain and suffering, and would never be able to become lost in it.
Rabbi Shimshon Pinkus zt”l explains that an insane person is not necessarily a person committed to a mental ward. It can even be a person whom society sees as normal. He illustrates this idea by contrasting a destitute individual with an extremely wealthy individual.
A wealthy person who becomes consumed by his money can easily lose himself to his wealth. He can become so obsessive about money that he unwittingly prioritizes it above all else, including his family and friends. His life becomes a marathon in pursuit of another dollar and leaves him no rest. We can say that such an individual has gone crazy on account of his wealth. But perhaps the greatest tragedy is that he is unaware of his madness and does not realize the damage his wealth is causing him.
A destitute person also lives an abnormal lifestyle. He is compelled to beg others for compassion, and he has no choice but to rely on the graciousness of strangers who view him as a nuisance. He must ignore the ignominy and lack of dignity that his “profession” entails. The difference is that the destitute individual is keenly aware of his insanity. If one would ask him about his lifestyle, tears would well up in his eyes and he would sigh out of anguish.
Rabbi Pinkus writes that this is true about our generation. Our morally depraved society is ravaged by breakdowns in the normal social order. Family life has been shattered, respect for elders and authority has been severely compromised, and society is built upon the pursuit of mindless entertainment above all else.
But the scariest part is that we see it! It is clear to any sensible, rational person that our cultural norms are abnormal, and that we must transform our lifestyles. But we refuse to alter our behaviors. We want to have change without changing! And so we continue our madness, aware that we are only deepening our problems.
Rabbi Pinkus reminds us that every Torah Jew is aware of the spiritual bliss one feels when one serves G-d properly. Hopefully, we have all “tasted” the celestial joy of praying well and doing mitzvos and the feeling of fulfillment one enjoys when learning Torah. And yet, we waste so many opportunities to enjoy that bliss. Precious moments and days slip through our fingers because of our inept and sloth attitudes. We are aware of our folly and yet we continue to indulge in it.
The verse in Koheles states, “Better is a poor but wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knows how to take care of himself” (4:13). The Medrash explains that the “poor but wise youth” refers to one’s yetzer tov. He is wise but is considered poor because most people do not heed his call. The “old and foolish king” refers to one’s yetzer hara. In truth, it is not the yetzer hara who is foolish, but us, the victims of his schemes and plots. By luring us into vapid temptation and inane sin, our yetzer hara causes us to appear foolish and callow.
One of the greatest schemes of our yetzer hara is to create “something out of nothing.” Much of our culture is built on the pursuit of the happiness and inner peace that is achieved from glamour, wealth, paparazzi, and fame. But it is futile. The Alter of Norvadok explains that it is nothing more than a society mindlessly pursuing what everyone else is pursuing, as if without recourse.
Intellectually we are aware of the traps laid out for us. Yet we often succumb anyway. It takes a discerning eye and heart to, not only see the emptiness of our society, but to be ready to fight its trends.
It is a daunting task to refuse to be insane in an insane world, but one who does so is ensured a life of inner peace and happiness.