Force of habit, passivity, fear and their consequences
Thoughts on Parasha Shelach
In this week’s Torah portion Moses sends twelve spies to the land of Canaan. They come back forty days later, bringing an enormous assortment of grapes, pomegranates and figs to prove the richness and abundance of the land they traveled across. However, ten of the spies warn everyone that the inhabitants of that land are giants and warriors “stronger than us”; only Kaleb and Joshua insist that this land can and should be conquered, in line with what God Himself has ordered. Once again the Israelites start to whine and lament that they would prefer to go back to Egypt. God gets angry and decrees that the entering of the Israelites to the Promised Land shall be postponed for forty years, until the whole generation of Israelites dies out in the desert (probably He had in mind the “power-wielding group”.) A handful of repentant Israelites decide to rectify their mistake and storm the mountain at the country’s border. However, it’s already too late for that, and without God’s support they are destroyed by the Amalekites and Canaanites.
This story shows us what might happen if we are afraid to take up challenges, to undertake various kinds of actions or simply due to the force of habit. The results can be quite dramatic: in the best case scenario the fulfillment of our dreams is postponed until the distant future, and in the worst case scenario a tragedy befalls us. The Israelites backed away from a challenge because they were afraid of defeat. They chose their current, miserable state over their own dreams just because their attempt to fulfill them might turn out to be a failure, and in consequence – might lead to suffering. As a society they were not mature and determined enough to take a risk that would radically transform their fate.
Life at its core involves suffering. Even if at this moment of your life everything is all right or even better than just all right – you lead a happy and fulfilled life – this state will not last forever. Ultimately we will all face suffering – both physical and spiritual suffering. Old age, illnesses and especially our last moments – all these entail suffering. Many of the people we love will die before we leave this world. These are the facts, the truest and hardest facts, and no postmodernist attempts to convince us that this is not the case, no claims that there are no facts, that there is no objective reality and that the only things that exist are our interpretations and so on, can ever change that. Pain, suffering and death are encounters with the ultimate reality, which is also the ultimate judge in matters such as what is true or false, good or bad. Life itself is also such a judge, even if we look at it solely from a naturalistic, evolutionary perspective. The things you will leave behind – your children, various kinds of goods, including intellectual ones, cultural goods or even good memories – are a testament of the genuineness and authenticity of your life. None of the above mentioned things – none of the things which are truly permanent and valuable can be achieved without taking up challenges and risks.
However, we should not envisage in advance, just in our imagination, the suffering that will come in the future. This paralyses our actions and can set us up for failure, just like it did in the case of the Israelites. This being said, we should live in such a way so as to prepare emotionally and mentally for all the bad things that we’re going to face in the future. We can achieve such a state of preparedness through spirituality and this is something which religious people have been telling us for a very long time, since the beginning of our human written history. This is the message conveyed by most, if not by all the world’s religions, although the specific solutions to the problem of suffering offered by those religions may vary.
Generally speaking there are many solutions to the problem of suffering, but I believe they can be reduced to four main types, to four general solutions. The first “solution” is nihilism – we do nothing. We passively accept the “pain and meaninglessness of life” and as a result we became increasingly cynical and prone to a negative outlook. Actually, this stance is inconsistent, since a consistent nihilist should just lay down and wait for death to come, not even getting up to go to the toilet. Although in fact there is a group that can be seen as consistent nihilists. With time they usually either commit suicide or become mass murderers.
The second solution is hedonism: curing suffering with fleeting life pleasures. This is a rather short-term perspective, especially if one plans to live fairly long. This path usually leads either to nihilism or to having an insight and choosing one of the last two solutions which are offered by religions – for example solution number three, i.e. believing in a world beyond this one. This solution entails making this earthly life moral and ordered according to specific rules, but without any great engagement in changing “this world”, without a deeper belief that it actually can be changed. This answer is typical for some branches of traditional Christian religiousness.
The fourth solution is the answer provided by our religion – Judaism (although not only by Judaism, some branches of Christianity nowadays embrace a similar ethos.) The misery and brokenness of our existence is unquestionable. So what can we do about it? We can reduce them by fulfilling mitzvot and by making our lives more organized, more meaningful and generally better. Through serving the Supreme One and through believing that a real change of our fate is possible only in partnership with Him. Nurturing family values and living in a society – this can alleviate all kinds of pains which are part and parcel of human existence.
The concept of repairing the world (tikkun haolam) has been quite popular in some Western liberal Jewish circles for some time now. It is a commendable concept, but without some kind of a meaningful practical implementation it remains nothing but a pipe dream. The world cannot be repaired through tzedakah, a good word or compassion. The world cannot be repaired through a redistribution of wealth, since there are genuine reasons why poor people are poor. These reasons are varied, complex, sometimes really in-depth and they cannot be reduced to simple answers such as for example that it’s because the rich take everything away from them, because of systemic racism or corporations. Such conclusions are gross simplifications – and in light of the complexity of human fates and relations they are pure nonsense, dangerous nonsense, especially in the hands of populists.
Systemic undertakings aimed at repairing societies are serious and responsible tasks for expert think-tanks – and not for well-meaning, passionate people convinced that they have a mission to fulfill, convinced that they’ve found a remedy for all the problems. If you think I’m mistaken, then go ahead and fix a broken army helicopter. Good luck!
We should start repairing the world and reducing global suffering from ourselves, from our closest environment which consists of our family, other people close to us and our (religious) community. If it seems to you that there is not much to do there, you are mistaken – there is always a lot to do. If you have the necessary status or the means that allow you to shape the life-conditions of hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of people, then you must know that your responsibility increases at least proportionally, perhaps even exponentially to the means you have at your disposal.
This kind of work aimed at improving our closest environment (which we as individuals are also a part of) makes our life meaningful. If we neglect this responsibility we find ourselves on a slippery slope at the end of which we will face Amalek and his squad of merciless murderers (that whole gang was probably a mix of nihilist and hedonists) or – in the best case scenario – a desert-like solitude, bitterness and whining that the loathsome Egypt – which we nonetheless idealize in our minds – is forever gone and will never come back.
Do not back away from a challenge, because if you do someone else will get the prize. Do not lament and whine that this challenge is difficult. Every one of us faces serious challenges and you must realize that there are people whose situation is much worse than yours. Also, don’t let yourself be dragged into an endless debate or endless planning.
Life without taking risks and making responsible decisions is dull, even if for the time being it might seem pleasurable – ultimately it will become dull and insipid, and this quite often tends to breed resentment, victim mentality and other unpleasant things. Don’t be afraid of failure, since if fear of failure paralyzes your actions you will never get to the prize which is waiting for you. And once you realize this, it might be already too late – for you. Therefore stay vigilant, since that prize has been prepared for you. The only thing which can destroy everything is yourself and your insecurity.
Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka