Friday, October 24, 2008

Parshat B'reishit - פרשת בראשית

Rav Wieder, the new Rosh Yeshiva of my Yeshiva, (Yeshivat HaKotel,) spoke a while back in September at a Mishmar session one Thursday night on what he thought the problem with the world is. He mentioned a few examples of the world's troubles; people stabbing each other in the street and the ever-increasing divorce rates around the world, for instance. Or something he was been encountering a lot at the time, as it was the start of the new year in Yeshiva - requests from students that they be permitted to switch rooms due to disagreements with their current roommates. He explained that in all these cases, all that interests at least one of the parties involved is the here and now. The problem with people nowadays is that people do not have the patience to invest even a little time or hard work into something. I have been to many shiurim where Rabbis have referred to our generation as the "iPod generation," or the "mp3 generation," the generation of instant pleasure. Whatever happened to that age-old cliché, "Good things come to those who wait?"

The problem with seeking instant gratification is that it is attained without work. This world is a world of work and toil, there is no getting away from that. When Adam and Chava were unceremoniously ejected from the Gan Eden, they were told that they would have to "בעצבון תאכלנה כל ימי חייך", till the land so that it would bear the fruits that had been given to them until now. Previously, Adam and Eve were able to not just eat the fruit of a tree, but the tree itself, too. The concept to be grasped was that we were deserving of everything being accessible to us. And then we ate from what is unfortunately wrongly quoted as "The Tree of Knowledge." That title is merely a contraction of its full name, "The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad." What happened was that when we ate of the tree, we became aware of the existence of good and bad, but had a ingested a potent mixture of both, and as such, we are now in the terrible state of not truly knowing which one is which. Not for nothing do the M'kubalim, the mystics, refer to this world as the Alma D'sfaika, the world of doubt. Not for nothing is the Jewish people's biggest enemy called Amalek, which has the same gematria as the word Safek, which means "doubt."

This world is all about the work we have to do in separating the good from the bad. If we are to understand the concept of Ein Od Milvado correctly, then we will automatically understand that each one of us is part of God. With the understanding of such a concept, Sin'at Chinam, baseless hatred, would quite simply cease to exist. When we understand that despite our differences, we are essentially all the same (all together now... Awww!) and that we are all from Hashem, we will only have love for one another.

Rav Wieder rightly contends that if we are to try attaining things in this world without bothering to work at them, if we are to expect pleasure to be an immediate right, then we will never have more than a moment's gratification from that pleasure. True pleasure comes from the work itself. The chairman of a big company can rightly be proud at having worked to attain such a high office in a prestigious establishment. But the man who can started that company by investing his own money, who can now claim to have built this enterprise by himself can take so much more pride. There is simply no comparison. The satisfaction of building something is the biggest pleasure we can get in this world. By building a family, a relationship with another human being, or indeed a relationship with G-d, we can attain something that is very hard to lose. When one man stabs another on the street, it is because he cannot be bothered to invest the time into fixing an obstacle that stands between the two of them. We can choose to ignore a problem, but that problem still exists. When one Yeshiva student and another would rather avoid their problems than face them, they let their problems fester. Yes, the problem has been resolved to a degree, but instead of tackling it head on they have merely postponed their difficulties. We can be sure that will the quick fix is desirable, it is almost certain that the same problem will pop up later on. Learning how to coexist is a basic human skill, and people today seem more interested in being insular and getting what they want now. If however, we acknowledge that instead of seeking instant pleasures that will in turn instantly wither, we would better serve ourselves by seeking to build something.

I have wondered why old people go mad. I have come to the conclusion that it is not because old age is so boring and vacant, rather that their lives were often futile and empty. I read recently that some lady's worst nightmare was to die alone in a nursing home, complaining that the food she had received was not to her liking. I agree with her sentiment, it is indeed a pathetic scenario. To come to the end of one's days, and the last impression on this world is about to refer to one's material desires, well, that is pitiable.

I believe (and if I were a betting man, I would even risk putting a wager on statistics proving my theory,) that religious Jews are less susceptible to going mad in old age. I believe that as they have been learning all their lives, they have something that they have built. Compare that to the average irreligious Jew or heathen who believes that life is all about play, enjoys a hedonistic lifestyle, who lives for the here and now, and builds nothing that can last. For the Jew however, even with the frail body of an old man, study is still always possible. The hedonist, come old age, will be aggravated by his body's failure and be the realisation that he has done nothing of substance in his life will be forced on him, as will the consequent lack of self-worth. The man who has taken every opportunity to learn and to build can rest easy in the autumn of his life for he has bridged the transient, built something that will last. It is he who has expressed the true meaning of life.

Shabbat Shalom!

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