In our previous article, we began exploring the deeper reason behind our desire to waste time and words. Chazal connect this strange desire to an important historical transition in history: the transition away from avodah zarah, and our loss of nevuah. In the modern age, avodah zarah seems foolish, senseless, and pointless. We are no longer enticed by it, and we cannot even grasp how one could be. However, this inability to grasp the appeal of avodah zarah is not incidental. The world has changed, the very inner workings of the human consciousness have shifted, and we no longer crave idolatry. However, we no longer crave nevuah and transcendence either, at least not to the same degree. Why is this? What changed?
The Desire for Nevuah and Avodah Zarah
In order to understand why we have such a strong desire to waste time and words, we must study the historical origin of this desire. Until a few thousand years ago, human beings had a nearly unquenchable desire for transcendence. This manifested in two unique spiritual drives: nevuah, and avodah zarah. Both of these drives embodied our desire to transcend the limits of the finite self to reach into that which is higher, that which is beyond us. The drive for nevuah is the drive to connect back to our ultimate source, Hashem Himself. This is a deeply spiritual, existential desire for transcendence, connection, meaning, and accomplishment. As with all drives, there is a negative expression for this desire to transcend – the desire for idolatry. Idolatry takes the root desire for transcendence and corrupts it, using the drive to rise above oneself in a way that cuts one off from Hashem. The Rambam (Mishneh Torah: Avodah Zarah 1), Ramchal (Derech Hashem), and others explain that the sin of avodah zarah lies in worshiping the intermediaries that serve Hashem’s functions in this world, rather than sourcing the world, and everything in it, back to Hashem Himself. The statues that idolaters “worship” are merely tangible representations of the higher forces they serve.
Therefore, there is potential for good in the root of avodah zarah – it is the process of looking upwards to the source of this world, to that which is beyond us. The mistake lies in stopping at the intermediaries, addressing those who are merely servants of Hashem. This is both misguided and evil.
In the Second Temple Era, the Anshei K’nesses Hagedolah (Men of the Great Assembly) recognized the destruction that was being caused by the overwhelming craving for avodah zarah. A challenge is only worthwhile when there is a genuine chance for success. At this point, Klal Yisrael were no longer able to overcome the appeal of avodah zarah. It had become purely harmful, no longer a source of potential merit for overcoming it. It was no longer a challenge, it was a plague, a source of spiritual death. Something had to be done; the desire for avodah zarah had to be obliterated.
The Gemara (Yoma 69b) relates in detail the steps the Anshei K’nesses Hagedolah took to excise the desire for avodah zarah from the human psyche. The sages fasted for three days and nights, after which the yetzer hara for avodah zarah came flaming out of the Kodesh HaKodashim. They were able to contain and neutralize this flaming inclination, which is why we no longer have the desire for idolatry. While the decision to excise the desire of avodah zarah is understandable, the method for doing so seems strange. Why did the yetzer hara for avodah zarah, the most abhorrent sin, come from the Kodesh HaHodashim, the holiest, most transcendent place on Earth?
We can understand this seeming inconsistency based on the ideas that we previously developed regarding avodah zarah. Avodah zarah is a corruption of the desire to transcend and connect with that which is higher. When correctly manifested, this drive leads one to connect with Hashem in the deepest of ways, i.e., through nevuah. The drive that emerged from the Kodesh HaKodashim was the desire to transcend. When it was destroyed, both the desire for idolatry and the desire for prophecy were destroyed along with it. Prophecy and idolatry are not opposites; they are contrasting manifestations of a single drive. The difference lies only in how the drive is harnessed – whether for evil and idolatry, or spiritual transcendence and nevuah. (Everything in this world is potential, neither inherently good nor inherently bad; it depends on how it is used.)
Emptiness and Void
Destroying the yetzer for transcendence was like destroying a spiritual radio located within our consciousness. Once you destroy the radio, the transmitter and receiver no longer operate. Once this spiritual organ was excised – surgically removed – we lost the ability to connect to a higher reality through nevuah.
It is important to note that although this drive was mostly destroyed, it was not completely eliminated. We still possess a yearning to transcend, and we still struggle with the core concept of avodah zarah – of correctly and fully sourcing ourselves back to Hashem. Nevertheless, this drive was significantly diminished, and the desire to transcend that we feel now cannot be compared to the original.
This shift dramatically changed the nature of reality. Avodah zarah was gone, and nevuah was gone, but there was an even more fundamental and meaningful change as well. Hashem was no longer openly manifest in the world. The stage of open miracles had come to an end, replaced with a new reality: one of darkness, distance, and apparent disconnect from Hashem. But there was one more dramatic change that resulted from this new reality: we began to tremendously enjoy wasting time.
The Desire for Nothing
What happens when you remove an organ from the body? You are left with empty space. If you remove a kidney or liver, what remains is the empty space that this organ used to occupy. The same applies to spiritual organs as well. Within our consciousness, there used to be a spiritual organ – the drive to transcend. This organ generated a powerful desire to connect to that which is transcendent, i.e., to Hashem Himself. We had an antenna, a receiver, a transmitter that connected us to this higher dimension. This organ was also connected to our drive for achievement, accomplishment, and destination. It drove us toward our goals, toward living a life of purpose and meaning. But that was removed. And what is there in its place? Nothing… Nothing at all.
When we lost this spiritual organ, the desire to transcend, what filled that empty space is not simply a lack of spiritual desire. What took its place is an incredible desire to connect to nothing, to do nothing, and to talk about nothing. But we have to understand that this space of spiritual emptiness is not simply a lack of spiritual desire. What was once the pleasure of transcending the self and connecting to something higher has been replaced with the pleasure and desire to exist in a state of endpoint and non-movement. Instead of speaking to connect to a higher world, we desire to speak for no reason at all. Instead of spending one’s life devoted to a higher truth, committed to growth and development, there is an incredible desire to simply waste time away.
Corrupting the World to Come
There is a second level to this discussion as well, which reaches into an even deeper layer of wisdom. The Gemara (Berachos 57b) compares Shabbos to Olam Haba. The weekdays represent Olam Hazeh, because this world is a place of process and becoming, movement and work. The World to Come, in comparison, is a place of existing, where we stop the process of becoming and exist as the person we have become. In this dimension, we enjoy everything we accomplished and everything we created. Shabbos is ideally meant to be a taste of that experience – a taste of destination and endpoint, where we mindfully halt the creative process. However, the entire purpose of Shabbos is for us to refocus our priorities and gain inspiration in order to enter the coming week reenergized; to reenter the “weekday” (Olam Hazeh) with clarity and purpose, ready for a week full of growth, accomplishment, and creativity.
The ultimate corruption of Shabbos is turning our entire lives into a Shabbos experience, so that instead of experiencing a taste of endpoint and static existence, our entire life becomes one long vacation, free of responsibility, devoid of genuine achievement and accomplishment. This is the root behind our obsession with wasting time, taking vacations, playing games, and having meaningless conversation. A game is something self-contained, where the process becomes justified within itself; a completely intrinsic existence of purposelessness, something that goes nowhere. The enjoyment is that it’s an escape, a time outside of time. There are no external influences; it is justified within itself. Of course, games can be very productive and help foster meaningful relationships, but when life itself becomes a game, something self-contained that goes nowhere, that is a tragedy.
Journeying toward Greatness
These truths can be hard to hear, as the struggle described is genuine and deeply human. However, it is only if we understand our overwhelming desire to waste time that we can hope to maintain control over our lives. We need to live growth-oriented lives full of purpose and spiritual accomplishment. Shabbos is not life. Shabbos is meant to be a guiding force in our life, reminding us to live with our goals and destination in mind.
When one strives for greatness and journeys toward the truth, there is a lengthy, often bumpy process that ensues. When one encounters these obstacles that arise, there are a few options for how to proceed. One option is to push through the journey, focused only on the end goal, despite the fact that it is painful and unenjoyable. Another option is to give up, terminating the journey. The complete corruption of this process would be to enjoy the journey toward nowhere, forgetting about destination, and getting lost within the journey itself.
However, the ideal is to journey toward your greatness, toward your truth, and yet still enjoy every step of the way. For when you know that you are building your eternity, and when you know that every step of the journey is leading you closer to your destination, you can enjoy every single step of the process. May we be inspired to harness the extraordinary potential within us, utilizing the power of time and speech to the fullest while wasting as little as possible. May we attempt to revitalize that spiritual organ within our consciousness and use it to strive for greatness and truth, using our time in this world to build toward the ultimate Shabbos.