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
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.