What is Real and What is Not
As Jews prepare to dance ecstatically on Simchat
Torah, completely oblivious of the world around them, let’s
explore the nature of this dance. Is it a form of escapism
or a taste of reality?
This continues the theme
of last week’s article: the lesson we learn from Sukkot about the deceptive
world in which we live.
I want to thank you all
for your interesting reactions to last week’s column, and share with our readers
a sampling of suggestions some of you offered as to the various manifestations
of our lying world.
But first, a story.
October 3, 1995 was Erev
Yom Kippur. It was also the day when a jury found OJ Simpson “not guilty”
for murdering his wife. It was the talk of the town. That same day I had a
pre-scheduled radio interview in connection with my book, Toward A Meaningful
Life, on a station in Miami. The host called me that morning and said to me:
“I read and liked your book. But frankly, today everyone is interested in
only one thing: The OJ Simpson verdict. They just won’t care to hear a discussion
on your book. I suggest that we reschedule your interview.”
Until today I am not sure
what got into me, but spontaneously I told the host that my book can shed
light on the OJ Simpson controversy, and contains the answer to the big question
everyone was asking after the finding of the black majority jury split the
country into celebrating blacks and incredulous whites: What can we do about
racial prejudice? The radio host was surprised. “So you’re ready to discuss
the OJ Simpson trial?” She asked. “Absolutely,” I answered not knowing what
I would actually say during the interview.
So the interview commenced
as scheduled early afternoon on that Erev Yom Kippur, October 3rd.
After introducing me and my book as a distillation of the Rebbe’s teachings
on life, her first question was, of course, what, as a Rabbi and author, I
think about the Simpson verdict?
My reply: “First of all,
allow me the share with you that today is the day preceding Yom Kippur. As
we speak Jews around the world are bustling about preparing for the holiest
day of the year. Many are completely oblivious of the OJ Simpson verdict.
Now you may think that this is an unacceptable form of detachment from society
and world events, a sort of religious escapism. The fact is quite the contrary.
“Let me tell you a short
story. The great 18th century Chassidic Rebbe, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak
of Berditchev, once led the High Holiday prayer service. Before he began Kaddish,
he declared: ‘The Prussians say that their Kaiser is the greatest. The Russians
say that their Czar is the greatest. The French say that their Emperor is
the greatest. And I, Levi Yitzchak ben Sarah Sosha say… Yisgadal v’Yiskadash
Shemei Rabba (Exalted and hallowed be His Great Name).’
“It’s not that we don’t
know about social activity around us. It’s simply an issue of priority and
context: To define what is real and what is secondary. On the day before Yom
Kippur, while the public is consumed with the OJ Simpson verdict and other
‘vital’ events (today it’s OJ Simpson; tomorrow it may be what some actor
will wear to the Academy Awards – Jews declare: ‘Today we enter the holiest
moment of our lives; we connect to G-d and to the purpose of our existence.
We are preparing to enter the Holy of Holies and face our destinies!’
“Yes, it’s all about defining
what is real and what is not. Many people are trapped in a ‘matrix’ dictating
the rules of ‘reality,’ shaped by social, media and peer pressures, unable
to free themselves from its grip. People worship ideals and social structures
that may be superficial if not plain negligible.
“We all need a moment
of reality check, where we emancipate ourselves from this ‘brainwashed’ condition,
and embrace the eternal – that which not man-made. The you can re-enter society
with a fresh perspective that will elevate our discourse with the world around
After I waxed eloquent
about the virtues of Yom Kippur, the interviewer said: “Quite an interesting
perspective, which I did not expect to hear. But what about the actual issues
of the controversy around the verdict? Blacks across the country are celebrating
victory; many whites feel that the trial was a manipulative mockery. You know,
Johnnie Cochran’s line [Simpson’s attorney], which sounded like a jingle:
‘If the glove don’t fit, you gotta acquit.’”
“Well,” I replied, “here
is where the wisdom of Torah contained in Toward a Meaningful Life, can illuminate
us. In it I cite an episode that took place after the racial riots took place
in Crown Heights, in 1992. David Dinkins, who was then the mayor of New York
City, visited the Rebbe, asking for a blessing of peace between the two peoples,
the Jews and the blacks. The Rebbe responded, ‘Not two people but one people,
under one administration and under one G-d.’
“The only true and lasting
solution to racial prejudice is an one that cannot be written into law. Is
the emotional, and invisible, divide that separates peoples, races and those
that are unalike each other. Only when we embrace the Divine Image in which
each of us has been created can we transcend our differences and our comfort
zones, our prejudices and stereotypes, and recognize the sacred dignity of
each individual, regardless of background.
“This is the energy we glean from Yom Kippur, a day when we face our common
Creator. This day gives us the power to re-enter society
with a renewed sense of the Divine in all people and experiences,
and with the obligation to actualize that dimension
in all our interactions.”
That’s the story.
Now we are up to Simchat
Torah, when we celebrate the “marriage” between the Divine and the human on
Yom Kippur. We dance with unbridled joy because we have a connection that
allows us to transcend all our man-made institutions with their inherent distortions.
Not escape, not denial,
not avoiding the challenges of life. Simply a day when we rise above it all
so that we can re-immerse with a fighting chance…
Here is a sampling of
thoughts some of our readers offered as examples of the deceptive world in which we live.
“Thank you for another brilliant article. It provoked fascinating
discussions at our holiday meals. At our table there was a consensus that
the most blatant deception is the one around Israel. Look at a world – perpetuated
by the New York Times and many so called ‘objective’ sources of information
– absolutely distorting the reality of the situation.
There never was a Palestinian State. Israel did not “occupy” anyone’s
territory. Israel fought several defensive wars to protect itself from hostile
Arab neighbors who simply do not accept Israel’s right to exist, and see it
a an affront to their Islam beliefs.
Myths upon myths have seeped into our consciousness and by now have
become “facts” that we all have to contend with…”
“Sports, for me, are a perfect example of the mythical world which
we live in. Instead of facing the real challenges of life and taking on the
battles between good and evil, we have become a nation of “fans” that root
I like sports and appreciate how it can lift our spirits. But at
the same time we must distinguish between entertainment and the essentials.
We must recognize when recreation becomes obsession, and warps reality in
“Please read George Will’s column in this week’s issue of Newsweek,
Modern Life in NFL Nation. He writes how football is the “distilled essence
of modern life.” He concludes with the following: “In
Sports Illustrated's recent 50th-anniversary issue, Jeff MacGregor wrote,
‘Organized sports are the perfection of the unnecessary.’ Perhaps. But, then,
most of what makes life sweet involves emancipation from necessity. The NFL
is an acquired taste that Americans have acquired less as an alternative reality
than as an intensification of modern reality, although why they want that
is a mystery.”
“Emancipation from necessity.” Hmm. That can include selfless volunteerism,
giving your life to save others, faith and virtue. But on the other end of
the spectrum, it can also include frivolous nonsense, empty minded activity,
drug and other addictions, and yes, that may include sports addiction (or
obsession, if addiction is too harsh of a word).
Sports may be an “acquired taste” and an “intensification of modern reality,” but that does not mean that it is
jot an “alternative reality.” It just means that modern life itself is an
“alternative reality,” and sports just enhance that alternative experience.
And that may be the secret
behind the mystery why people embrace it so.
“…Ahh, distortions. I can’t find an example of something that isn’t
distorted. But if we’re looking for examples, take the recent
Bush bashing. The ambiguous, undefined liberal establishment
has waged an unprecedented attack on Mr. Bush that can only
be explained by their great fear of any moral clarity. Any
defined position on the issue of terrorism and our enemies
simply abhors then to the point that they accuse the President
of being a terrorist!
C’mon. After 9/11 the president made it abundantly clear that he is leading
a long war against terrorism and countries that harbor terrorists.
You may not agree with that approach, but many do (and if
you don’t, what is your alternative, pray tell?).
We need leaders that will stay the course and not waiver
as time passes and pressure builds. This is sustained war
and it must be won.
I do not agree with all
of the President’s policies, but he is our President and he has taken up a
cause that we all embraced after 9/11. Some people may not have agreed with
President Harry Truman dropping the Atom bomb on Japan (I’m glad that it wasn’t
open for debate on CNN), but he did and as a united country we must support
the decision, and we must believe that the world is safer place for it.
When politics takes over
in peacetime it’s one thing. But if you want a distortion, look around when
self-serving pundits and “enlightened” politicians begins tampering with issues
of life and death. One Commander-in-Chief leads the battle. Leave it up for
consensus and disaster follows.
I wonder what would have
their response had the President not gone on the attack, and Saddam Hussein
ended up attacking America (or supporting terrorists to attack).
“Happy and healthy new
year. Enjoyed very much your Sukkos piece. Two examples come immediately to
1. Suffering: when we
suffer, we experience sheer hell. However, suffering, much more than contentment,
allows for the possibility of true change.
Suffering is growth because
it demands hope, which depends on the idea that things, even the worst possible
things, CAN change.
2. Politics: Often the slick, polished and well spoken
talk a good game. But what lies beneath the surface?
As to your comment on
the origins of man, I recently attended a Gateways lecture where a noted physicist
told a simply unbelievable story, especially to me, as a journalist. He said
that the magazine Nature wanted to interview various scientists about where
they got their inspiration. The physicist agreed, on one condition: that the
magazine print exactly what he said. They agreed, and proceeded to the interview.
When they asked him about the source of his ideas, he said his inspiration
came from Heaven. They were incredulous. They told him they simply could not
publish that, that his reputation around the world would be destroyed and
they were not about to let that happen to him. Needless to say, he canceled
the interview. It is amazing to me that people who hold their skepticism in
such high esteem would not be able to see things from another person's point
of view. The intellectual has the most dangerous path to travel in search
of meaning, and that is the belief in himself--or his opinions, above anybody
else's. When confronted with a noted scientist's honest assessment that in
fact, he didn't know where his inspiration came from, but that his BELIEF
was that it came from Heaven, the others could not bear to hear that someone
else's belief could be different from their own.
Thank you again for your comments, and please keep them coming.
To reiterate last week’s thought: Half the cure of the
disease is knowing that you have it. To free yourself from
the shackles of this lying universe, you have to first recognize
the falsity around you and not get caught up in it.