Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, the Ramchal, the seminal 18th century kaballist, writes in his book, “Derech Hashem, The Way of God”, “…all is overturned when we, as humanity, allow ourselves to be obsessed with greed, focused only on desire. Wisdom becomes disgusting to us and we choose to become stupid. We no longer are willing to devote ourselves, even a little, to creating the holiness of other-directed effort. We run from any truths and allow evil to grow and dominate. Fraud and deception and stupidity are all given free rein. Perversion becomes respectable and the very concept of “values” becomes laughable, just one more tool to manipulate.”
As a result of this, noise blares at us ceaselessly, there is never a moment of calm. Suffering spreads universally and the only Divine recourse seems to be abandonment, leaving our world to feel senseless, random and mechanical. It’s as if a senseless bureaucracy has taken over, as if our world has been reduced to the absurdity of a Rube Goldberg device.”
(Part 2, Chapter 8, section 2 (my translation and adaptation–This book is available with a definitive translation by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, and I recommend it to everyone. The limitations of translating for publication are addressed by Rabbi Kaplan by his copious footnotes, but the richness of the text allows other editorial choices in choosing how to translate).
Does this sound frighteningly familiar? When I see the cynicism, the contempt for truth and honesty that categorize the war in Iraq, the recovery efforts Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, the exploitation and out-and-out swindling of the American middle class by our leaders, when I read the Alice-in-Wonderland revision of history making Israel the “big bad wolf” and the surrounding Arab nations the “victims”, I see that our world truly is sunk in this terrible blueprint the Ramchal describes three hundred years ago.
I left the US for Israel in 1982 and returned (I’m in the sixteenth year of my two-year sabbatical) in 1989. I didn’t recognize the country I had returned to. In those few short years characterized as the “Reagan Revolution”, greed was transformed from a venal sin to the highest virtue, the energy that “made America great”. The sixties and seventies dream, perhaps naive and idealistic, but the formative one for my generation of Americans, the dream of fairness and equality, of a progressive society which, while moving ahead at an ever-increasing (and perhaps this was the naive, unsustainable part) but keeping an eye and an open heart on those at the lower end of the economic scale, was shattered. The, again perhaps naive, dream of legalized pot and a mellow America had been replaced with the horrors of crack, mainly in the ghettos, gang and drug violence, and prisons filled with victims, those addicted to the harder drugs and even those “guilty” of smoking something more harmless than legal beer.
In short, I felt that I’d fallen through the rabbit hole and landed in my worst nightmare. Sure there were plenty of new toys, all sorts of consumer “goods” to buy, but it has devolved to mindless consuming equalized as patriotism. I can take a walk in the wilderness without an uzi-carrying chaperone, but, with my head covered with a kippah, I better not try it in certain parts of my adopted home, the northwest, as well as in many other parts of this country. The guys extorting the US as well as the rest of the world with their strangle-grip on the oil supply are the international victims and the US government, instead of searching for new sources of renewable energy, is the oil business. The middle class quickly becomes the lower class with pensions and medical benefits and all the safety nets we’d taken for granted now bankrupted with the money going to those with absolutely no use for it. Athletes and singers made yearly salaries that exceed those of entire families over a lifetime.
And, perhaps, the scariest is that somehow this is all sanctioned by “God”. Well, definitely not by the God of our Jewish tradition. Not the God Whose name and seal are “Emet”, Truth. Not the God who tells us to look out for the widow and orphan, for the poor in our midst. I don’t know much about Christianity, but I can’t imagine the Jesus I have read about saying anything to legitimize the rape of the American people that we are still in the midst of.
What can we, as Jews facing Rosh HaShana one more time do beyond despairing, complaining and pointing out the obvious? Perhaps one key comes from the Ramchal who introduces this section by telling us that this situation is the polar opposite of the ideal condition for which all creation is intended. The horror is triggered by placing greed at the center of our lives and values. Perhaps the solution really is as easy as dethroning greed and selfishness, returning, i.e. Tshuvah, to our higher, rather than our lowest values, “Godding” by trying to resemble our Creator who lacks nothing and, thus, is motivated by giving rather than by taking.
It seems a tiny step, but this tiny step taken by enough people can create the critical mass to transform our world. It is in each of our individual reaches to make this indeed a Shana Tova.