Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Sign Language

Any casual observer of the Tri-State Area over the last week would assume that we’re heading towards Armageddon. Earthquakes and hurricanes are not common in this area, yet since last Tuesday we felt the ripple effect of a 5.8 in Virginia and got our first taste of a hurricane since Gloria in ’85. Things like that just don’t happen here, and so, sitting here in the wake of two near-miss natural disasters, I can’t help but think that God is trying to tell us something. The question is what?

The basic premise that has been echoed by the hundreds of “biblical scholars” of all religions that have popped out of the woodwork since Irene was announced is that those crazies on the streets with those “THE END IS COMING” signs are right and any second now we’re all going to be wiped off the face of the earth unless we repent for Sin X. Sin X usually turns out to be the subject of a personal vendetta of said “scholar” and he/she was looking for any excuse to rant about it. This holier-than-thou soapbox preaching REALLY pisses me off. When an Orthodox rabbi has the audacity to blame the recent tragedy of Leiby Kletzky’s murder on the legalization of gay marriage in New York, steam starts coming out of my ears. That kind of thing does not sit well with me at all, and to be honest, the fanatical “all ye sinners” approach doesn’t really do it for me anyways, so, moving on.

One of the many traditions of my family’s Shabbat table is that my father will give over the speech that the rabbi of our shul gave earlier that morning, for the sake of my mother and sisters, who do not attend shul. Every now and then, something in it resonates with me and changes the way I think about the topic discussed. What stood out to me this past week was a concept that is pretty famous throughout Judaism and, now that I think about it, many other religions as well: crisis is a sign. If a person is going through a particularly abnormal, difficult time, it may very well be a sign that there is something in their life that needs fixing. The same applies on a communal scale; if the community is suffering (enter: Irene), it is a sign that the community needs to focus inward and figure out what provoked this “wrath of God.” This two line synopsis really doesn’t do the 30 minute speech justice at all, and while it was certainly well thought out and well delivered, I fundamentally disagree with the premise. My personal experiences shed a subtly different light on the concept.

As regular readers of this blog know, I went through a tumultuous period for around two years right after high school comically referred to as “The Dark Ages.” For a long time I was wandering aimlessly through life, doing what I should with no motivation, doing what I shouldn’t because I could. The purposelessness really messed me up, and I suffered educationally, socially, and emotionally. For a long time it bothered me that I didn’t know why I had to go through that. If God was out there, as I believed he was, then what the heck was the purpose of putting me through that if not to punish me for my sins? The whole experience conflicted with my (Judaically inspired) idea of a benevolent God. It took a long time and many connected events before I realized that I needed to hit that rock-bottom before I could make the decision to return to Israel and reach the heights that I did that year. In retrospect, it was worth it.

My philosophy on the issue then, is that I don’t have the arrogance to presume that I know the so-called master plan, but I’ve seen enough of it in my life to know that it exists. So when something out of the ordinary happens to me, I think, “I’m having this experience for a reason, and I might not know what it is now, but things have a way of revealing themselves in time.” Automatically plugging in to self-deprecation or self-promotion in situations of an abnormal or ambiguous nature is precarious. Looking at a situation and trying to shoehorn into it what you, in your limited scope of perception, think to be the meaning behind it, is a dangerous game. Instead, acknowledge that there is certainly a meaning behind it, but understand that you may not know what it is for a very long time. In my experience, that’s a much healthier and more productive way of handling those types of situations, and you avoid the inevitable god-complex perversion that comes with thinking you know the purpose of everything in your life.

I went through some serious medical issues roughly a year and a half ago, and, having experienced my post-high school master plan revelation, I was much more at peace with it than many might be. I knew that somehow it made sense on some metaphysical level and it was happening to me for a reason that I might never know. Life circumstances would prove me right again, serving to strengthen that belief. So when we, as individuals or as a community, are faced with disastrous circumstances, we may not learn the reason for a long, long time, but we should be at peace with that. Maybe we had a hurricane because a terrorist cell was planning on reenacting 9/11 that day but couldn’t because all flights were cancelled. Who knows? All we should know is that it happened for a reason. So when an area that is not prone to natural disasters is struck by two in the same week, it doesn’t mean we’re all sinners, it doesn’t mean that we should prepare for a volcano to spring up and erupt in Times Square next Monday night, and it doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world as we know it. It just means something; what that is has yet to be determined.

Then again, I’m about to post two hours before I normally even start writing. What’s the phrase? When hell freezes over?

Okay, maybe the world is ending.

Song of the Day: Parallels – As I Lay Dying


  1. I just discovered your blog and am enjoying it a lot :)
    The speech you rabbi said in Shul is similar to the one My rabbi said in my Shul (assuming it aint the same) But the problem with those is that everyone time a tragedy happens, the same things is said. That we are in crisis, that its a message to us... but how many times does it actually make a difference? especially now in Ellul, thats what speeches are about
    But i like the idea that maybe somthing worse could have happened but was prevented by hurricne (which btw, was awesome)

  2. Well thank you, I'm glad you're enjoying it :)
    It's interesting that you mention how it often seems to make no difference because just a few hours after I posted this last night, my dad told me about an program that's been started in my neighborhood focused on kindness and interpersonal relationships. This program was started in response to several tragedies that have struck the worldwide Jewish community lately, including Leiby Kletzky's murder and the murder of the grandson of the Baba Sali. I don't know what will come of it, but if nothing else, Jews in my community will be nicer to and more accepting of each other, which is a good thing in my book. Sometimes, if a few people are motivated enough, it can make a difference.
    What I'm specifically railing against is the tendency of many to use a crisis to push their own agenda (I browsed your blog after I saw your comment, and I noticed that in your recent post "Says Who?" you quote the rabbi that I quoted above in relation to Leiby. I mean people like him) and people who shoehorn their personal beliefs into a crisis because they presume or desire to know why everything happens. Sometimes we will never know why things happen, and the importance of being at peace with that fact is what I'm trying to get across here.

  3. you're entirely right, and im happy to hear about the steps your community has taken upon itself.
    (Side point:About that "rabbi" in the video, I dont even know if its fair to use him as an example of people trying to push their own agenda. By that I mean, that I cant imagine anyone buying his theory and if he truly knew how to make good use of rhetoric, he wouldn't have posted such videos. I was discussing that with a rabbi who knows him and he said to me he's a very naive person, probably not so bright, who doesn't even realize the consequences of his words. For me, its hard to be upset at someone so clueless.)
    It makes people feel better to have a reason, a sense of control. If you have a problem and you know about it, you can fix it.

  4. Ah, but that's exactly my point! I understand that it makes people feel better to have that sense of control, but oftentimes that false sense can cause more harm than good. People so desire that control that they invent things that aren't there to give themselves basis for the situation they're in and for their future actions. The premise is flawed and the actions are based on faulty logic. That's a pretty dangerous game to play with your life.
    The whole thing is a manifestation of the instant vs. future gratification debate that we all constantly go through. Yes, the false sense of security feels good now, but it can cause future problems. I say better to come to terms with the fact that we as humans don't know everything and that, on a metaphysical level, we have very little control, if we even have any at all. It takes longer, but the peace and security from that acceptance are truer and longer lasting than any that come from a false sense of control.
    As far as the rabbi, him being clueless is reason for the whole thing to irk me even more. As a rabbi, he's in a position where people will listen to him, and he needs to be aware of that. Whether anyone buys his theory or not, at the end of the day we're all still talking about him and his inflammatory opinions.

  5. Really enjoyed your post, Tzvi.

    "I understand that it makes people feel better to have that sense of control, but oftentimes that false sense can cause more harm than good."

    I love this, and I think that there are many Mitzvot targeted to focus a person on this very point - our own lack of control.

    Sukkot, for example, highlights the false sense of security that we take from our homes and material possessions. We are at the mercy of nature, whether we live in a five star palace or a bamboo roofed sukkah.

    The harm that our false sense of security in our material possessions can cause is evident in the lack of precautions that we take for even those disasters that have a fairly high probability of occurring at least once in our lifetimes. How many people don't bother to put money in their savings accounts for a rainy day because they assume that every day will be sunny? (::raises hand:: I'm guilty of that one... sigh...) How many articles have you read about people that build houses in tornado/hurricane/flood zones and assume that trouble will not come to them?

    The question, then, is how do we deal with this frightening lack of control over our environment? It is much easier to make up a system of appeasement - if I just say an extra Tehillim then G will take care of me.... - but does that extra Tehillim really change us as a person? What steps should we take in the face of the frightening realization that our worlds can crumble at a moments notice and if they do we will be powerless to stop it?

  6. Thanks for your feedback Yael.
    First and foremost, I'd like to say that I am in no way a repository of Jewish law and/or custom. I write on what I feel and how I feel about it, more often than not drawing from outside the traditional boundaries of Jewish thought. Therefore, please take my words and advice only for what they are. I don't really think that many will interpret my stream of consciousness as divine mandate, but I still feel it's important to point that out for the sake of that one person who might :)
    That being said, there are several points I'd like to make in response to your question:
    1) I learned once in a lecture series on prayer that we don't daven so that we can change Hashem's mind and make him give us what we want. We daven so that the words we are saying can create a change in us, and then we will become the people to whom Hashem would give what we're asking for. In that same vein, saying Tehillim can very well change you as a person, spiritually or otherwise. If saying Tehillim will truly change you, it's a viable option, but you have to know for yourself if it actually is. If all you're doing is going through the motions, I'd say there are better uses for your time.
    2) I'm a big believer in having a Plan B; I get it from my dad. For example, for the weekend of Irene, I wasn't too worried, because my dad already had several versions of a Plan B in place. Long story short, we have a whole house generator that runs off the gas line, so we never had to worry about power failure. Stuff like that. So, on a practical, real world level, having a contingency plan seems to be the obvious first step. However, as you mentioned, it seems that most times having a Plan B takes too much time and effort for people to want to make it happen, which is interesting.

  7. 3) The way you phrase that last question, "our worlds can crumble...we will be powerless to stop it," is very descriptive of the problem we face. It is the thread that ties point #2 above to point #4, which I will make shortly. In the end, if it is the divine will, the next line in the script, or some cruel twist of fate - however you choose to look at it - no amount of backup planning is going to stop what is meant to happen from happening. As the phrase goes, "Man plans and God laughs." Keeping that in mind, we can do whatever we want on a practical level and all our efforts may be thwarted regardless of how much we prepared.
    4) Taking point #3 into account, it seems that the only work we can do that will have any effect in the long run is on ourselves, as opposed to our environment. While outwardly depressing, point #3 is actually what gave me the strength to let go and accept my inability to control everything. A favorite analogy of mine comes to mind: You get into a car accident, one that is clearly the other guy's fault, yet he comes out screaming and raging like you made the mess. In that situation, you can't control the damage to your car, you can't control his outburst, and you can't control that now you're going to be late to wherever you were going. The only thing in that situation over which you have control is how you react to it.
    I think that story describes perfectly what I feel a first step could be, and in fact, it could serve as a summary to my entire post (to the point that I'm surprised I didn't actually put it in there in the first place). In life, what will happen will happen, and all we truly have control over is how we respond to the hand that life deals us. I think that before any further steps can be taken, that fact needs to be truly believed and internalized. It is only through letting go that we can truly begin to take control of our lives. That sounds very deep, esoteric, and philosophical, but I believe it wholeheartedly.

    Well, that was pretty much an entire blog post on its own, which makes me wonder if I should just save it till next time I post and leave you an IOU in the comments section lol. Either way, I hope that answers your question somewhat, though I'd imagine we could exchange many long comments/posts on the subject and barely scratch the surface of the issue. Such is the nature of metaphysical questions :)
    Once again, thank you for your feedback and I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Please feel free to respond; creating these types of thought-provoking discussions is what this blog is all about :)

  8. @ TZVI: in answer to your response (sorry about the delay)
    Isn't the concept of accepting the uncertain somewhat of a paradox in the religious practice? By that I mean that Yes you are right, instead of making excuses and needing instant gratification and reassurance, in the long term, coming to terms with the idea that not all can be controlled by us humans is much more beneficial. However, while we put ourselves in G-od's hands, recognizing His role in our lives, this same concept is used to lighten the responsibility of human kind, ie:blaming whatever happens on G-d or admitting it was His decision, fate and nothing could have been different... That often becomes an issue in orthodox communities where you reach a wall in your discussions because of that metaphysical barrier of religion. This can go on and tap into the concepts of Bechira and Hishtadlus...
    But the point here is that Marx is right in a sense that men created G-d to have the reassurance of a bigger power than himself for whenever someone else needs to be blame. Of course this is not what we believe (limit apikorsus) but the concept remain very true even among the religious community. As a fact people need that reassurance of a higher power and even if they believe in Hashem for the right reasons, they might not always make the best use out of it
    And yes that false sense can create more harm than good, if only they were even aware of it...

  9. You make a very good point, Yedid.
    I think what it comes down to is another core Jewish concept: everything in creation has good and bad applications. For example, wine is typically associated with drunkenness, yet it was also a crucial component in many of the rituals in the Beit Hamikdash. It can be the holiest of the holy and the unholiest of the unholy, and the fact that these two ideas can exist within the same object is no contradiction. In fact, it applies to virtually everything in the world. As a big believer in the balance of all things in the world, I really identify with this concept, and I think it relates to your point perfectly. People can find a way to turn anything into a crutch or an excuse, especially ideas involving God's hand in our lives. Obviously, I do not recommend or condone such use of the ideas i posted about, but it would be naive of me to think that some might not view it in that way.
    Really what it comes down to is personal responsibility. People who have the intellectual and emotional maturity to accept personal responsibility will not look at this concept as an excuse to blame something else for their problems, and people who like to blame something else for their problems will do just that.
    I understand that it's a fine line to tread and it's difficult to express the duality of it. On the one hand we need to understand that we have very little control on a metaphysical level, and on the other hand we need to not use the fact that most things are out of our hands as an excuse to relieve ourselves of personal accountability for our lives. As I said, it's difficult to express properly, even more so through text, but I hope I've made myself clear. Either way, thanks for bringing it up; it's an important part of this conversation.

  10. "People who have the intellectual and emotional maturity to accept personal responsibility will not look at this concept as an excuse to blame something else for their problems..."
    I like how you put this into words a lot. I think we are both agreeing with each other, but its great to be able to have these conversations with someone on the same page :)
    I realized recently that I have very little if any tolerance for people who cannot understand that concept as a given, who have a need to express it and who still cannot fully grasp it.
    Looking forward to your next post :)

  11. I'm pretty sure we're agreeing with each other as well, but had you decided to say nothing in response to my post, we wouldn't be having this great give and take of ideas, would we? :) Besides, you brought up an important point in your last comment that I had not even thought of before. For reasons such as that, fleshing out our opinions, however similar they may be, is not necessarily redundant. And it's a thought-stimulating, enjoyable discussion on top of that, so there you go.
    Here's hoping I can crank out a good post next time. You blog, so you know how it is: sometimes they're really good, and sometimes they're...not lol

  12. yep, and sometimes it doesnt matter cause its just something you wanted to get out :)
    ps: come visit!


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