There are no reruns or do-overs in life, and it’s always exponentially harder to repair the damage than it was to cause it. Time, for us, moves only in a forward direction and it’s next to impossible to put the toothpaste back into the tube.
While the Buddhists say that the cause of all suffering is desire, our tradition goes deeper than this and teaches us that the cause of desire itself is narcissism. It is a universal human tendency to replace God as the center of our universe with ourselves. It’s gotten so bad that contemporary Western “enlightened” values have elevated self-empowerment/realization/fulfillment, the ultimate אבודה זרה (avoda zara), idol worship, into the crown of all virtues.
The lesson of Adam’s and Chava’s (Eve’s) expulsion from Eden is neither a history lesson nor a myth. Rather it illustrates the first step, which each of us seem doomed to replicate, many of us frequently, in our own lives, of addiction–addiction to self. With the opportunity to contribute the final perfection to Creation by restraining his desire to coronate himself as the ultimate authority (“No one will tell me what I can and can’t eat!”), Adam was unable to follow a single, very simple rule. He couldn’t resist satisfying his ego and doing what he wanted rather than what He wanted; rather than lead the world into eternal perfection he began the process of cascading disasters which follow us to this day. He insisted on making his own will supreme, of following his desire rather his duty.
Probably the most frequent criticism of traditional (orthodox, for want of a better word) Judaism is that there are too many rules. A quick look through the contents of the first part of the Shulchan Aruch and you see that every waking moment is accompanied with rules, orders and prohibitions. At first glance (as if one can take a “first glance” at the infinite realm of Halacha) some of these seem “reasonable” and “just”, many more arbitrary and some even contradictory. What they all have in common is that we’re challenged to follow an agenda, from the moment we rise from bed until we go to sleep in the evening, other than our own.
Professional musicians find that it takes a mind-boggling number of repetitions to learn how to perform a composition. Roughly estimated at 500 times, maybe even 1,000, some performers and teachers judge the required repetitions closer to 5,000 or even 10,000 times! And when you make a mistake during practice you need to immediately correct it and repeat the proper notes and rhythm over and over again. That just seems to be the way the human brain is constructed and how “permanent pathways”, i.e. long-term memory and habits, are created.
Let’s be honest. Self-indulgence initally feels good. It rewards us with immediate “positive feedback” and it encourages us to repeatedly treat ourselves as the ultimate authority and arbiter of values, all of which, “coincidentally”, please us. But, as we perform the score of our life’s symphony, ultimately it’s discordant, out-of-synch and destroys the potential value our lives can really have.
We correct these acts of narcissism by doing the opposite, by resisting our desires and, rather, filling another’s desires. And, to really learn the music of life, the harmony of reality, we must repeat these correct actions over and over and over again. Hence, our Torah provides us sufficient reps to overcome our selfishness and to make selflessness a habit, eventually overcoming the damage caused by Adam’s first act of me-first-ism.
Although deeply embedded by that first self-indulgence into what then developed as “human nature”, narcissism is not fundamental to human nature–we can live without it. We have not only the ability, but also the technique (the Torah) to fundamentally transform ourselves, all humanity and all creation, to reach our greatest potential. These many rules, from waking to sleep, day after day after day, are our only way to truly repair ourselves, to repair the damage in the very fabric of existence. It just takes a lot of practice to transform ourselves, but with practice we can, eventually, make ourselves, our lives and our universe sing out in beauty.