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April 17, 2014 / 17 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘INDIVIDUALS’

Failing in Order to Succeed

Monday, August 19th, 2013

The rabbis teach that we can only truly understand Torah when we allow ourselves to fail at it (Gittin 43a). Unless we push ourselves to reach for deeper understanding, where we inevitably get it wrong before we can get it right, we will not grasp the very essence of the Jewish enterprise. Rashi here seems to think that it’s the public shame of getting it wrong (and the concomitant rebuke) that strengthens one’s intellectual rigor. It is not hard to think about giving constructive feedback (“rebuke”) when it comes to moral matters, but do we care enough about ideas that we (respectfully) challenge others when ideas are misinterpreted or misapplied? How much do we really value the marketplace of ideas and the assurance that we as individuals and as a society get it right?

History is full of examples of leaders who acknowledged that persistence in the face of failure was more important than individual failures. President Abraham Lincoln, whose army suffered many crushing defeats in the early years of the Civil War, said: “I am not concerned that you have fallen — I am concerned that you arise.” A century later, Robert F. Kennedy echoed the optimistic spirit of youth when he said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” Besides for being tragically assassinated, what these presidents have in common in that their causes lasted, their legacies carried on, and they are remembered as being among the greatest and most successful men to occupy the Oval Office.

Very often, one can be lured by the traps of conformism (just follow others’ ideas or practices) or isolationism (just follow one’s own marginal ideas and practices). Our job as Jews is to break free from these ploys for mediocrity. We must challenge ourselves and the status quo to reach higher by engaging with societal ideas but without blindly accepting them.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of the Chassidic movement) and founder and intellectual-spiritual leader in his own right, was anything but a conformist. He not only told his followers to be happy, but he also encouraged them to do silly things, highly unusual for a religious leader. Rebbe Nachman stated that each person had to fall in order to rise, and stressed the universality of this concept:

[E]ach person who fell … thinks that these words weren’t spoken for him, for he imagines that these ideas are only for great people who are always climbing from one level to the next. But truthfully, you should know and believe, that all these words were also said concerning the smallest of the small and the worst of the worst, for Hashem is forever good to all.

However, Rebbe Nachman went further, stating that it is “a great thing for a person to still have an evil inclination.” Even the tendency to evil could serve G-d, as people worked through these passions and eventually overcame them. To Rebbe Nachman, it seems, spiritual stasis is the only unacceptable path.

We must be willing to learn and debate with others. Ideas matter. Inevitably that will lead to some level of shame when we get it wrong, but the promise land afterwards is much greater. It offers a culture of more honest, informed, connected individuals who are willing to be vulnerable for the sake of truth and who are willing to be wrong in order to get it right. Our great rabbinic and presidential leaders wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Great Identity Crisis

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

http://sultanknish.blogspot.co.il/2012/06/great-identity-crisis.html

A moral crisis tends to go hand in hand with an identity crisis. It’s when you don’t know who you are that you’re most likely to take refuge in a political or ethical identity that provides you with the comfort of a false sense of superiority. When all other identities fall apart, you can always rely on being the better man, the better nation and the empty space with the moral high ground.

Societies that go multicultural tend to experience identity drift and take refuge in a self-definition based on values. Who are Americans? As generations of presidents on the left and right have told us, they are people who believe in American values. What are American values? They’re the values that Americans are told they need to believe in, in order to be Americans. Like tolerance, immigration, free trade, and respecting the right of anyone to be a member of the Communist Party or the Muslim Brotherhood.

In a time of crisis, nations and peoples have to choose to survive. But what is survival? Proponents of a values-based identity have argued that survival means the survival of our values. If we take Measure X against an enemy, whether it’s outlawing the Communist Party or waterboarding Islamic terrorists, then we have “killed our values” and we are no longer Americans. It doesn’t matter then whether an act saves millions of American lives, if it means we destroy our values, then we have killed the only worthwhile thing about us.

Physical identity and values-based identity are in conflict in a time of crisis when the question is asked, do we want to survive or do we want to be morally pure. A values-based identity appears to be superior, but it is actually the product of an identity crisis. And a nation or a people with an identity crisis is vulnerable because they no longer know who they are. Their identity has been replaced with an identity based on their superior values, values that require them to die rather than give up those values. And if they have forgotten who they are, then they are too afraid to risk their values-based identity by fighting back.

The problem is not a unique one. For example, Jewish assimilation dropped the ‘peoplehood’ aspect leaving behind a values-based identity. When liberal Jews express their identity, it is values-based, built around “Tikkun Olam”, or “Social Justice”. That opens up a hole for someone like Peter Beinart to crawl in with a crisis of Liberal Zionism, a conflict between values-based identity and Jewish survival.

Would you rather live as Jews or die as liberals? The determining factor here is whether you have a Jewish identity. Without a Jewish identity, there is only the posturing of values-based identity, and giving up the high “ethics” of bending over backward for the bad guys seems a lot like the death of the only identity such miserable people have. If all that matters about Jews is their “ethical values”, then to step down from the moral high ground by bombing a terrorist stronghold is suicide.

The first question is; “Who are you?” That’s a question that is asked to individuals and to nations. It’s asked directly in the form of a national dialogue, and it’s asked indirectly in the choices that are made in a time of crisis.

The second question is; “What do you live for?” The answer to this question is determined by the first question. What we live for derives from who we are. Self-knowledge gives purpose, and purpose gives self-knowledge. A lack of identity is also a lack of purpose. And a lack of purpose betrays a lack of identity. A nation adrift has lost its identity; it lacks direction because it has no starting point.

A thing that does not exist for its own sake has no existence. It has no existence, because it is not survival-based. It is well and good to dedicate yourself to higher causes and beliefs, but if they do not begin with your own existence, then they have no more substance than you do. You can volunteer for a thousand causes, but if you don’t care whether you live or die– then you have nothing to contribute to them.

Understanding America’s ‘Holiday Period’

Wednesday, January 7th, 2004
As Americans, we Jews share with our fellow countrymen (more or less) certain portions of the annual “holiday period.” Extending from the secular holidays of Thanksgiving to New Years, this span imposes on all the United States the breathless rhythm of a machine. Noisy and relentless, it is a rhythm associated in the popular imagination with enhanced reverence and spirituality, but in reality it produces a decidedly opposite effect. Indeed, looking over the seasonal cacophony of cash registers and vulgar entertainments, the glaringly obvious end of all this delirium is to prevent us from remembering G-d.

How ironic it is! Society is essentially the sum total of souls seeking redemption, but today, in these United States – with the holiday period approaching - millions preoccupy themselves busily with consumption, mimicry and empty ritual. Seeking to defy the unstoppable movement of Time, we Americans seem generally less concerned with making each life authentically sacred and meaningful than with extending this life at all costs. There is nothing objectionable, of course, to vitamins, improved health care and exercise – quite the contrary. But at some point one does need to ask about life-extension: Why? To what end? Surely we are “here” for some greater purpose. Let us discover what it is.

Time is a great deal more than the invented measure of clocks. It is also the unsteady duration of each individual life, an oscillating stream of experience filled with joy, sadness, suffering and ultimately death. In the end, time may be either sacred or profane, and it is our unceasing obligation, especially as Jewish-Americans, to choose the former. While it is true, in the physical sense, that our time on Earth is inevitably a period of deterioration, it is also an opportunity for creating new life and for taking each day as an indispensable challenge for renewal.

At all times of the year, but especially during the holiday period, we Americans are present at the gradual unveiling of a secret, but the nucleus of meaning - the essential truth of what is taking place - is ignored. However strenuously we insist that it is important work we do and that we merit the most tangible forms of salvation, present day America largely ignores what is meaningful while it attends slavishly to petty, prurient and greedy satisfactions. The world’s agonizing impact on our own personal lives is hardly examined. Lying in stupor, we proceed about our day-to-day affairs with nary a marginal tic of genuine reverence or worthy
consciousness.

The fearful anarchy confronting our world during this holiday period is vastly more ominous than it was even 50 years ago. It is now more far- reaching, extending not only between nations, but deep within them. It is a distinctly primordial anarchy, the murderous mob of the boys in William Golding’s novel, Lord Of The Flies, an impending chaos from which there will be no safety in weapons, no help from political authority, no convenient answers from science.

Should we fail to halt this anarchy, it will rage until every flower of culture is trampled. If it is accompanied by the continuing spread of weapons of mass destruction to Arab/Islamic countries or to movements that make a religion of annihilation, entire societies - especially Israel and the United States – may feel the effects of chemical, biological and nuclear violence.

Whoever has not felt the unique danger of our times palpitating under his or her hand has not fully understood what it means to be human. Now is the time for all Americans to recall what is truly important. Now, together with all other residents of this endangered planet, we must promptly decide whether we shall endure as a nation and as a species, or whether, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea, we will be erased.

Disabused of the quaint notion that the holiday period is a sacred and eternally recurring promise of permanence, we could finally acknowledge our personal and collective fragility and begin to look squarely at history’s most perilous crisis of human survival. Unless we all approach the season with a unique sense of awe in the world, with a sober awareness that G-d’s promise to America is contingent upon our responsibility to make the most of ourselves as persons, we will be eluded by each and every form of salvation.

It is time to make the souls of our citizens better. The known universe is said by astronomers to be about 68 billion light years “across,” yet here, in these United States, most citizens are still openly terrified to become persons. “I belong, therefore I am.” This is the unheroic credo of our country, a not-very-stirring manifesto that social acceptance is overwhelmingly vital (hence the ceaseless search for status through money) and that real happiness is solely the privilege of mediocrity.

One can be inconsequential anywhere, but personal sadness in America, a product of immobilizing anxieties, ritualized imitation and empty dreams, grows even more intense during the holiday period. At a time of year filled with lavish devotions of a pretended happiness, the audacity of an American who would dare stand apart and alone from the conforming mass and warn of an approaching chaos can never be tolerated.

The spectre of loneliness haunts the holiday period, yet all of the great religious leaders and founders sought their essential meanings “inside,” in seclusion, within themselves and in communion with G-d. To achieve any sense of real spirituality in life, even at this particular time of year, one must be willing to endure some loneliness. Nothing important, in science or industry or art or music or literature or medicine or philosophy can ever take place without loneliness. To be able to exist apart from the mass - from what Freud called the reconstituted “primal horde” – is indispensable to the very sort of intellectual breakthrough now needed to rescue an imperiled planet.

The shallow material world has infested our solitude, especially during the nation’s holiday season. Facing an indecent alloy of banality and apocalypse, we Americans seek both meaning and ecstasy in this world, but it is surely a vain effort. Rejecting all opportunities to disturb the universe, to take our G-d-given capacities seriously, we stubbornly insist upon dying slowly even as we desperately seek not to die at all.

It is not enough to claim that G-d is on our side, even during these holidays. Living in a most unsacrosanct moment, we Americans must recognize that although we are free as a PEOPLE, we are largely imprisoned as INDIVIDUALS. Before this can change, it will be necessary for us all to emerge from the low estate of mass society and to discover more authentic bases of status and immortality. Should we fail, our misunderstanding of the holiday period may push us unceremoniously toward greater unhappiness and to far more grievous spasms of war and terror.

 

LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and has written widely on international relations and international law. He is Strategic and Military Affairs Analyst for The Jewish Press.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/columns/louis-bene-beres/understanding-americas-holiday-period/2004/01/07/

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