This week in His World” – by Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon 1
Leaving more than just cold statutes as a legacy
The deeper life lessons that perhaps should have been learned from the violent protests a few weeks ago, which, at least superficially, revolved around the statue of General Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park and the statue of Gen. Thomas J. Jackson in Justice Park, was unquestionably missed by the protestors who were apparently more filled with animosity and rage than anything else. The ‘teachable moment’ – which was marginalized by the provacative screams and the mindless altercations – was the fact that that neither Lee nor Jackson left behind any lasting legacy passed on from one generation to the next to with respect to improving the world they left behind or changing societies standards of morality, integrity or refinement that future generations could learn from.
The fact is, in order to have more to show for the journey one has had in this world than a few cold stone images, by definition, one has to understand what the purpose of life is and perforce to appreciate that it is only by striving to reach the transcendental aspirations, above and beyond one’s basic needs and drives, that one can possibly hope to leave a lasting impression on the people one leaves behind.
The extent to which each of us will impact the people and world around us as we follow the ‘Spiritual GPS Guides’ customized for each of us and making the necessary ‘recalculations’ until we “arrive at our final destination,” ultimately will come down to the binary choice emphasized in this week’s parsha, Parshas Nitzavim, which we all face many times each day – i. e. – the request that the Almighty makes after placing before us ‘life and death,’ to “choose life, so that [we] will live...” (Devarim, 30:19)
The most cursory and superficial observation of the human psyche would compel any intellectually honest person to realize that there is more to our existence than blindly following our base animalistic instincts. It follows that anyone who acknowledges the fact that man is made up of both a body and a soul would realize that in the aforementioned verse, G-d was not referring to our physical life and death.
The battle that wages between the body and the soul is the quintessential choice between life and death. The pursuit of the body and the soul are antithetical. The body seeks instantaneous gratification without factoring in long term ramifications, while the soul, being in essence a part of the Almighty Himself, is the voice of self-discipline, containment and benevolence. In order to ascertain the source of one’s aspirations or drives, Rav Eliyahu Dessler in Michtav MeEliyahu explains that one of the acid tests is to evaluate whether the action in question is responding to what one “feels like” versus what one “wants.”
The hypothetical scenario to illustrate this dichotomy looks something like this: It is 5:00 am on a cold winter morning. The alarm clock goes off … The day starts with the proverbial life and death decision … The voice of reason reminds you that you truly “want” to become a Talmud Chacham requiring mesiras nefesh and allowing greatness to precede comfort. As the fight to push off the warm comforter begins, the opposing drive reminds you how exhausted you “feel,” and how much better you will “feel” if you just let yourself snooze another 10 minutes. The struggle ends in a split second decision when the snooze button is pushed ever so lightly and a mini death decision prevails …
It might sound harsh to call ten minutes of more sleep ‘death,’ but that is what Hashem is apparently teaching us. The cumulative effect of several mornings where the snooze button beats the Beis Medresh over a life time is enormous. It is not only the compounding impact of time lost that can never be regained but the more subtle eroding of self-respect coupled by guilt and feelings of nihilism that spill over in subtle ways to other aspects of one’s life.
At the end of the day, the only way to ensure that “want” trumps what one “feels like,” is to truly understand the ultimate purpose of our lives – i.e. – to internalize the fact that our souls are sent on the journey of life to develop the closest possible relationship with the Almighty. The tools Hashem has given us to endear ourselves to Him are the 613 ‘lights’ along the journey; Torat Chaim, the Instructions for Living, and the refinement and perfection to be achieved by following the blue print and pushing ourselves to actualize our potential.
It goes without saying that large statues in public parks are hardly a sign of a timeless legacy worth battling over. Our Forefathers left profound lasting legacies that fundamentally changed the world and have become part of the spiritual DNA of the Jewish People until the end of days and yet, ironically, we have no idea what Abraham, Isaac or Jacob actually looked like!
As we prepare for the Yom Hadin, where the choice between life and death literally hangs in the balance, for those who feel overwhelmed by the enormity of what is on the line, one should always remember that while it is ultimately up to each of us to choose life, it is comforting to know that Hashem is rooting for us and doing everything to so called ‘tip the scales’ in favor of a year of brocha, simcha and gezunt for one and all in the year ahead.
1Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon is a Sir Abe Bailey Fellow, Fulbright Scholar and graduate of the Harvard Law School. Chanan has spent most of his career in the high end of the financial service industry.
Chanan can best be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.