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Archive for June, 2009

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Is this true? Was FDR simply affecting rhetorical flourish, seeking a bon mot, or is there real wisdom in this phrase?

The first thing that Adam said to God after eating from the tree that got us cast out from Eden was, ‘I heard your voice in the garden, and I am afraid.’ This was not Adam relating some passing emotional episode; he was expressing the new nature of human existence.

As one teacher of mine put it, “fear is the glue that binds the ego together.” Eckart Tolle too, in both the Power of Now and A New Earth, points to fear as the underlying emotional impulse of the ego identity.

Let’s look at one more, long quote:

…a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.

Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.

True they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.

The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.

Sound familiar? Possibly Barack Obama? This quote too, as with ‘fear itself’, comes from Roosevelt’s first inaugural address in 1933. FDR closed his address by saying, “…in our progress toward a resumption of work we require two safeguards against a return of the evils of the old order; there must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments; there must be an end to speculation with other people’s money…”

Why has nothing changed? FDR said it himself, fear. But fear in so many dimensions it’s hard to capture, even to see: Fear that if we make too many changes, too fast, the system will collapse and we’ll all become poor (the ‘Sky is Falling’ economics); fear that we can’t let go of our individualized pursuit of wealth and wellbeing and broaden our orientation towards the health and wellbeing of all because then maybe I won’t get a reasonable share, maybe I won’t get enough (‘Ring of Gyges’ economics), and; underneath it all, the fear that comes from the misperception that we’re all separate, that we’re somehow not intimately and always connected to all that is—Adam’s fear.

“Ask not if a thing is possible. Ask only if it is necessary.” This quote from the Alter of Kelm, an old Jewish mystic, underlay an approach to the world that has as its basis not fear, but faith. Today, we might call it ‘Veil of Ignorance’ economics, after John Rawls “original position,” which posits that we should determine the course of justice in our world by divesting ourselves of personal details, that we should organize our societies and economies without knowing where we might find ourselves within them; that is, we should have as our guide truly blind justice. From behind a veil of ignorance, would we really choose to develop a society that awards roughly 85 percent of its resources to only 20 percent of the population? Not likely, since chances are we’d fall into the category that more or less gets shafted, the group that’s loosing their jobs right now, or didn’t have them to begin with.

Is ‘Veil of Ignorance’ economics necessary? Certainly. Is it possible? Who knows? We cannot predict the future; the only thing we can do is work today to build the one we choose and hope for the best—or if you prefer, put the results in God’s hands. What stands between us and building a world of true justice, freedom and peace? Only fear itself.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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I went to a festival the other day. It was ostensibly one of those crunchy-granola, blissed-out, We are One, Earth People, California peace and love fests. What struck me, however, was how much of the fair grounds were given over to commerce. About eighty-percent of the space, it seemed, was taken up by booths with people selling bells, crystals, candles, ways of life, musical instruments, plants, food, pipes of various kinds and an absolute tonnage of clothes. To navigate from stage to stage, one had to negotiate a world on sale.

I’ve been reading an interesting book recently—Salt: a world history. It’s reminding me, in great detail, of how much our world has been shaped by people striving to sell things. It’s such a central feature of our way of life I don’t know why it should seem strange to me, but it does. I’ve lived in and been the beneficiary of a capitalist society all my life, but I can’t help feeling that we’re off the mark somewhat. Not entirely, but somewhat.

It brings to mind the story of Kain and Abel. The Bible is pretty terse with the narrative of these two brothers, leaving out a whole lot of details. It mentions only that they both offered sacrifices, that God rejected Kain’s, and that Kain was pissed and killed his brother. But that’s just about it. The murder itself gets only one line: ‘And Kain spoke to his brother Abel when they were in the field, and Kain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.’ That’s it.

There’s an ancient midrash, oral account, that fleshes out this story, helping us to understand the nature of the world’s first murder by answering the question—what did they talk about? “‘Let us divide the world,’ they said. One took the land, the other all possessions. The first said, ‘the land you are standing on belongs to me.’ The other replied, ‘the clothes you are wearing are mine. Strip.’ The other countered, ‘fly’. After this, Kain rose up and killed his brother Abel.”

Our system for wealth generation may seem pretty sensible, but unchecked it has some deep flaws. Just consider some of the things we’re willing to sell to make money. One of the clearest cases of excess is what one New York Times journalist called, “perhaps…one of President Bush’s most lasting legacies.” He was referring to massive arms deals that were pushed through in the last years of the Bush presidency. In a three-year period, from 2005 to 2008, US government weapon sales abroad increased almost threefold, from $12 to $32 billion. Major beneficiaries of this trade were, of course, Iraq and Afghanistan. But the deals were far from limited to these two titans of stability. The windfall also piled great drifts of “tanks, helicopters and fighter jets [and] missiles, remotely piloted aircraft and even warships” on the shores of such secure, dependable, sure-to-never-let-things-get-into-the-wrong-hands countries as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Romania and Georgia.

When a man came to the Chofetz Chaim, the great ethicist, and asked how he could make amends for all of the bad things he had said about other people, the Chofetz Chaim cut open a pillow, went to the window and scattered the feathers on the wind. ‘When you’ve collected all the feathers and put them back in the pillow,’ he told the man, ‘you will have repaired all the damage.’

In selling weapons around the world, we’re scattering feathers that kill. To do so, we employ a bizarre logic that isn’t all that dissimilar from the logic we use to support our consumerist way of life. Our economic model is based on a premise of self-interested competition; in tandem with this, we act without considering all of the long-term consequences, the true costs. One senior Pentagon official justified the increase in arms sales simply by asking, “Would you rather they bought the weapons and aircraft from other countries?” No. But is that the only other option?

Pursuing self-interest, without considering the consequences over time, can be disastrous. It is the cause of our current economic meltdown.

Unchecked competition and consumption can act like a cancer, destroying its host organism and, ultimately, itself. This is at the root of Alan Greenspan’s revelation, after years of being one of its lead champions, that capitalism in its current incarnation may not function in a stable, healthy, rational manner. This is why, as he told Congress, he was in a “state of shocked disbelief” to discover “a flaw in the model that [he] perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.” That flaw, simply put, is that self-interest alone is not a sufficiently reliable governing principle to ensure the proper functioning of an economy, not a sound enough ideology on which to establish a society’s wellbeing.

One of the deepest insights of the Torah (Hebrew Bible) is that self-interest must be balanced not only against the interests of others, but also against something much greater. In biblical speak, this greater thing would be the divine. On our plane, the Torah proposes we accomplish this by balancing our competitive self-interest against time. With the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, the Torah encourages us to make episodic corrections that take the edge off ballooning inequities and allow our overall organism (the earth and all its creatures, including us) to recalibrate. Indeed, it could be argued that the market corrections we currently experience every seven years or eight years are a direct reflection of the Torah’s inherent wisdom in this regard. The corrections we face now, however, are involuntary. If we took it upon ourselves to correct the disparities in our system, by periodically adjusting for accumulated inequities and other harmful consequences, it’s entirely possible that we could avoid these financial hiccups and, more importantly, the economic tsunamis that occasionally follow in their wake.

Ultimately, though commerce carves and shapes our world, we are still only selling our own planet back to ourselves. One of the key underlying lessons of the story of Kain and Abel is about interdependence. Each brother could not thrive without the other; they both needed what the other produced. That’s how an organism works. When the accumulation of wealth becomes an end in itself, unchecked, we divorce that growth from the bedrock reality of our world. Money becomes abstract. We can print more, but that doesn’t make the planet a bigger place. Our own accumulation also doesn’t ensure the wellbeing others. In fact, it often diminishes it. Living in a world where a tiny percentage of the people control the lion’s share of resources is simply evidence that we still don’t comprehend the true nature of life. It demonstrates that we’re not thinking like an organism.

So what’s the alternative? We learn to live with what we have, to slow down, take a step back and let go of our accumulation; we learn to share this planet more equitably. This probably sounds overly simplistic and idealistic, but it may just be the most difficult, rational thing we could ever do.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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[I apologize for the delay in getting this out. Friday I was in no condition to write anything.]

“Now here [the sages] have awakened us to a great secret of secrets from the Torah… Bend your ear to hear what I am permitted to make you hear from it, in language that you will hear. And if you merit, you will comprehend…”
–Nachmanides

You may not have the slightest interest in the Torah (Hebrew Bible), which is completely understandable. You may even think of it as a primitive text filled with unconscionable violence and an alarmingly arrogant, malevolent god. Still, I urge you to at least consider that there may be some good reasons why it has survived as a major religious guide for so long. The secret Nachmanides is pointing towards is certainly one of them. Its relevance penetrates beyond any national, religious or cultural boundaries.

It would be difficult to overstate the authority of Nachmanides as an interpreter of the Torah. Known in traditionalist circles as the Ramban (from the initials of Rabbi Moses ben Nachman), his commentary on the Torah has been a central text for nearly eight hundred years. Drawing from all possible sources to illuminate deeper meanings, it makes clear that he devoured the canon whole, and retained every morsel. His insights are challenging, and sparkle with fresh possibility even today.

Before looking at the relevance of his secret for our time however, we must acknowledge an innate difficulty. When the Ramban wrote that he would say what he was “permitted”, he did not have anyone sitting over his shoulder, staying his hand. In dealing with ancient Hebrew, we’re faced with a language that aimed to express the essence of a thing through the word used to describe it. This is why the word for “word” and the word for “thing” are one and that same: Davar means both “thing” and “word”—there is no separation. The situation at hand is a perfect illustration of this. In referring to something as a great secret, the Ramban is pointing towards what is in essence secret. As Akiva Tatz has put it, ‘it’s not secret because no one will tell you; it’s secret because no one can tell you.’ This is the Torah version of, ‘The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao.’

Seen in this light, the Ramban’s call to bend our ears is not hyperbole, it’s literal. I won’t be able to tell you the secret. Still, we can dance around the periphery, hoping to fall in. As the Ramban indicated, if we merit, we will comprehend. In this instance, the word for “comprehend” can also be read as contemplate, examine or study. If you’re still reading, congratulations! Apparently you’ve got some merit under your belt.

In order to investigate the Ramban’s secret, we’ll work from the outside in. First off, if we take a giant step back and look at the Torah from a distance, perhaps the simplest and fairest way to characterize it is: It’s about service to something greater than ourselves. This should come as no surprise to those aware that the traditional tally of the number of commandments contained in the Torah comes to six hundred and thirteen.

If service is the essence of Torah, then we can reasonably deduce that the Ramban is pointing towards some kind of secret about the nature of service. Even further, we can surmise that he is alluding to the deepest nature of service, the service of service.

While we’re out here looking from a distance, we also need to identify the countervailing force to service. All things in form exist in contrast, duality, so service too must have its counterpart. In biblical terms, we would call this counterforce exile. Just as there are degrees of service, so too with exile. These two forces have a dynamic, inverse relationship. The degree to which we serve is the degree to which we are no longer in exile. Ultimate service, the service of service, is the final end to exile, and vice versa.

The Ramban’s comments relating to this great secret are in large part an elucidation of the deeper nature of this relationship and its consequences. His words serve as both a caution and an alert to opportunity. Throughout his long commentary on the Torah, the Ramban draws attention to the connection between our actions and the fate of the world, the interrelationship between the twin destinies of humanity and the earth. One way to look at it is, he was anticipating climate change by nearly a thousand years (of course he was taking his cue from the Torah, which alluded to this relationship millennia earlier). In conveying the secret at hand the Ramban was pointing towards the essential choice we face: that is, which direction do we take—service, or exile?

To understand the nature of this choice we need to come in for a closer look and examine the Ramban’s remarks in their specific context. In doing so, we find that they relate to two commandments in particular—the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year. Of all the commandments in the Torah, the argument has been made many times over hundreds of years that these two require the greatest degree of selflessness to fulfill. Putting them into practice requires that we look beyond our narrowly defined personal interests and subsume our individual wills to the greater good. Not easy.

The commandments relating to the Sabbatical and Jubilee years include radical prescriptions for economic freedom and ecological renewal. They require that we do more than hope that our individual actions will add up to a sustainable, healthy, peaceful, just, free world; they call on us to align our personal choices with a very clear endgame, a specific, shared vision. They call on us to give up liberty in favor of freedom.

But it goes much deeper than this, obviously, or it wouldn’t be such a great secret. The fulfillment of these commandments points to a mode or degree of selflessness that takes us far beyond any simple prescriptions for socialist economics. To realize the Jubilee, in particular, requires the attainment of selflessness in its ultimate form. And this is where words begin to fail, where we encounter the outer reaches of a new atmosphere and language starts to break apart upon entry.

There is a state—of mind, spirit, body—where all of this makes sense. Where the Ramban’s secret is perfectly clear, and the entire Torah comes into singular, crystal focus. This is also the state where fulfilling the Jubilee not only becomes possible, but natural. It is the end of all exile, the ultimate indwelling. In this state there is no true other. We see clearly that our own wellbeing and that of others, including the earth and all its creatures, are one and the same. This state of transcendent oneness cannot be conveyed in words, but it stands as the remedy to all exile, the ultimate form of service and the destiny of humankind, should we choose it.

I wish I could say more, and hopefully I will. But for now, if we contemplate these ideas, we may come to merit comprehending them…

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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