Parashas Lech Lecha 5773 -- Go to ... Yourself; Fix the Debate Format
by Jonathan Rosenblum
October 26, 2012
Go to . . . Yourself
"Go West, young man, go West and grow with the country," newspaper publisher Horace Greeley famously wrote in 1865.
HaKadosh Baruch, by contrast, did not explicitly tell Avraham Avinu where to go – only where to leave. True, Avraham knew that his destiny lay in Eretz Yisrael. According to the Ramban, Avraham was seventy-five when he heard the command, "Lech lecha," and bris bein habesarim had already taken place five years earlier in Eretz Yisrael.
Nevertheless the command does not refer to a specific geographical location. Rather Avraham is told "Go to yourself." He is commanded to embark on a journey, above all, of self-discovery, of finding his specific mission in life and realizing his unique potential.
The goal is never fully achieved; it cannot be. It always lies ahead, closer but not fully grasped. Every time we imagine that are on the verge of attaining our goal with just one more step, it recedes yet again. It is forever "the Land that I will show you" – a goal held in front of us towards which we direct our striving.
The greater one becomes, the more of his potential he realizes, the more he feels himself capable of. As Avraham's grandson Yaakov would learn, there is no rest in this world, no peace for the tzaddikim. There is always more to do.
At the very outset of Jewish history, Hashem tells Avraham that his task in life is the completion of himself, and that there can be no greater pleasure and benefit than striving for that completion. The Maharal in Derech HaChayim(which we have quoted before) writes that a man comes into the world in order to complete himself. The "tov meod" of the sixth day hints to man (meod and adam share the same letters aleph, dalet, and mem) – the only creature with the capacity for growth, for self-transformation.
Man completes himself through three relationships: with HaKadosh Baruch Hu, with his fellow man, and with respect to himself. We are commanded to give up our lives only with respect to the three cardinal sins – idol worship, murder, and promiscuity – because any one of those sins would negate the possibility of completion in one area and therefore make the attainment of our purpose in life possible. The choice of avodah zara would negate the possibility of completing our relationship to HaKadosh Baruch Hu; murder negates the possibility of completing our relationship to our fellow man; and promiscuity negates the possibility of completing the relationship with oneself by reducing one to the level of an animal.
Only one who perceives his life in these terms can hope to achieve happiness. That is what Rashi means when he interprets "lecha" as "for your pleasure and benefit." Realizing one's potential, i.e., journeying towards one's true self, is the ultimate pleasure.
To define oneself in other terms, to identify one's happiness with the attainment of anything that lies outside of oneself, is to doom oneself to a lifetime of vague disquietude at best, and misery at worse. For the Jew, who is born with a larger vessel for the receipt of holiness, the pain if that vessel remains empty is correspondingly greater. As Rabbi Aharon Feldman once said, "Take a two suburban housewives – one Jewish and one gentile. They may look exactly alike. But there will be one difference: the Jewish one will have an ulcer."
Until the vessel is filled, we will never be at rest; we will feel driven and uneasy. What pain is to the body, a lack of fulfillment, a vague restlessness is to the soul. It is Hashem's way of redirecting us to the proper destination – to ourselves.
To identify the attainment of material objects as the solution to our unease can only make things worse. The emptiness is inside. No material object can become part of us; it cannot complete us or fill the emptiness. A famous pop singer of my youth wailed that if she just had a "Mercedes-Benz" everything would be alright. She could have afforded dozens of Mercedes's, but at 27 she was dead, killed by her own excesses. The Mercedes brought her no peace.
Yet once we have embarked on the path of identifying the salve for our disquiet with material objects, it is not easy to disembark. Even when we realize that the Mercedes was not the solution, it is easy to mistake the reason. "Right, I made a mistake," we tell ourselves, "I needed a Lexus, not a Mercedes." Or "one Mercedes was not enough, but maybe two will provide the salve I'm seeking." That response is hinted to in Chazal's statement, "A person has hundred [maneh], he wants two hundred; he has two hundred, he wants four hundred." The more he obtains the further he is from attaining his desires, and even further from curing his spiritual pain.
The Jew who follows the path commanded to Avraham – the path towards the realization of his unique purpose – is not only spared the vain effort expended in the pursuit of more and more objects. He is also freed from the "envy, desire, and pursuit of honor" that remove a person from the world, i.e., make life not worth living. All make one dependent on something outside oneself. Envy and kavod, by definition, involve a comparison of oneself to others.
But the person who understands that his task in life is the journey towards the discovery of his unique self compares himself to no one else, for each person's lecha is unique. We will be judged only by how much of our own potential we have realized, and not by what anyone else has achieved.
Go, not just to the West (Maarava, the Gemara's term for Eretz Yisrael), but to yourself. That is Hashem's message to Avraham and to each of us.
Fix the Debate Format
One of the things for which I'm most grateful to my mother is having pushed me towards the debate team in high school. Whatever analytical and speaking skills I gained over hundreds of rounds of debates has proven of greater value than the splinters I might have picked up sitting on the basketball team bench.
In high school debate, two teams of two debaters, argue for and against a set topic, which remains the same the entire tournament season. Each speaker gives an opening speech of ten minutes and a rebuttal of five minutes. Some formats also allow a period for cross-examination of the opposing speaker.
The only people in the room besides the four debaters are a time-keeper and the judge. During the hour-long debate, neither is ever heard from. Judging is never perfectly objective. Every successful high school debater can remember years later every debate he ever lost and tell you at length why the judge was an idiot.
But the one thing that could never happen is for the judge to jump up in the middle of the debate to start questioning one of the sides or offer his or her own thoughts on the topic. The façade of absolute neutrality was scrupulously preserved.
That is not the case in the presidential debates, where there is far too much room for the moderator to influence the course of the debate and thereby the perceptions of viewers at home. One can certainly understand the desire for follow-up questions to statements by the candidates that are either evasive or inaccurate. Those questions, however, should not be asked by the moderator, but by the candidates themselves. Otherwise the "debate" becomes two parallel press conferences, with the candidates answering different questions of differing degrees of difficulty.
I'm not sure how relevant Barack Obama's or Mitt Romney's debating abilities are to the qualities relevant to a successful presidency. Those abilities are, at best, a very rough measure of intellectual prowess, which itself may be overrated. But campaign debates do at least give challengers and under-funded candidates a better chance. And the face-to-face confrontation can occasionally illuminate the issues more than the hundreds of millions of dollars of dueling, carefully crafted infomercials.
Whatever value the debates offer, however, is lost by any format that grants the moderator a large role in formulating the questions or in guiding the course of the debate. Michael Ramirez nicely captured the danger in a cartoon after the second presidential debate, depicting Romney wearing boxing gloves in one corner, and Obama and moderator Candy Crowley both wearing boxing gloves, in the other corner.
Crowley interrupted Romney 28 times versus nine times for Obama (four of which for exceeding his time limits). Most dramatically, she intervened to support the President's claim that he had referred to the Benghazi attack, in which Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other State Department officials were killed, as an act of terror the next day, after Romney expressed incredulity.
The President waxed righteously indignant at the suggestion that he or anyone in his administration would have tried to downplay a terrorist attack with a false narrative of a riot against an "offensive movie" turning violent. But his only explicit references on September 12 to the Benghazi attack described it as "senseless violence" and "brutal acts" perpetrated by "killers." And he implicitly reinforced the link between the attack and an unseen movie by describing the United States as a nation "that rejects all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others."
Four days ater the President spoke, U.N. ambassador Susan Rice went on no less that five Sunday morning interview shows talking about demonstrators against the film, who were subsequently joined by extremists with heavy weapons. And Secretary of State Clinton, presidential press secretary Jay Carney, and the President himself continued talking about repulsive and reprehensible video for more than a week afterwards. Remarkably, even Crowley admitted after the debate that Romney had been "mainly right."
Ironically, Crowley's egregious intervention will likely help Romney. It keeps the subject of the Benghazi cover-up hot until the third presidential debate on foreign policy, where Romney, with six days to prepare, will presumably (I'm writing prior to the debate) hit it out of the park.
Related Topics: American Government & Politics, Jewish Ethics
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