The Joy of Overcoming Oneself
A notice was recently posted in our building that the elevator will be repaired this coming week, and therefore not in use for the first four days of the week. I'm not quite sure how to take the news. On the one hand, lately I've been trying to walk up the four flights to my apartment more frequently, and the loss of the elevator will remove any temptation to do otherwise.
On the other hand, the good feeling that I experience every morning returning from Shachris as I pass the elevator, especially when its already waiting on the ground floor, comes from exercising my free will. Ignoring the elevator is a small victory over my natural laziness that gets the day off to a good start. Without being able to choose will my spirits still be buoyed by the knowledge that climbing stairs is supposed to be great exercise?
It turns out that much of what gives us pleasure in life comes from overcoming ourselves. Walking up four flights of stairs is a trivial example, and the feeling of happiness it generates, while real, is minor compared to that of triumphing in more serious struggles with our yetzer.
The Maharal explains in Derech Chayim that our task in life is to complete ourselves in three ways: in our relationship to Hashem; in our relationship to others; and in our relation to ourselves. Each of the three cardinal sins for which a Jew must give up his life rather than transgress relates to one of these three areas. To transgress any of those sins would make completion in one of those three areas impossible, and thus one must give up his life instead.
We are all born incomplete; each of us faces specific challenges. By developing our middos and overcoming the challenges we confront, we complete ourselves.
As parents one of the worst things we can do is to try to spare our children from challenges. Rather our task is to encourage them savor the pleasure that comes from overcoming challenges. Overprotective parents cripple their children for life, and stifle their growth.
There is a fascinating scientific experiment in which children are offered a treat and told that they can eat the treat now or they can wait fifteen minutes and receive two treats. Then they are left alone in a room with the treat. Some of the youngsters succumb immediately. But others bravely try all manner of tricks to distract themselves from the treat within easy reach. Their efforts are both poignant and amusing. But the experiment had a very serious result. Over the years, psychologists discovered that the ability to overcome instant gratification reflected in the experiment was the single best predictor of subsequent success in life.
The recent riots in England reveal that the result of never learning to work towards a goal is a life that strikes us as barely human – nothing more than the fulfillment of the most pressing urge of the moment. The rioters inevitably expressed an unbounded sense of entitlement to whatever anyone else possesses, and it never occurred to them that others, including the owners of the stores they looted, might have worked hard to earn some of those things.
WORKING TOWARD A FUTURE GOAL is connected to the Jewish concept of time. The Ramban notes, as we have written before, that the Torah leaves out all mention of the many stages of Avraham Avinu's life that preceded the commandment, "Lech lecha." This teaches us that a Jew's life is not just the result of past experiences and events. It is nourished by the unique mission for which he was brought into the world, even though that mission will only come later. In the natural order, Avraham could not have children, but because he was destined to be the father of the Jewish people, he was able to father Yitzchak.
The struggles between Yaakov Avinu and Esav, in utero, over two worlds, reflect their different orientations to time. Yaakov Avinu brought an "Olam Haba"tefisa (orientation) to the events in this world. Olam Haba is not merely what comes after life in this world; it exists now, as reflected in the blessing, ". . . Who has planted in us eternal life."
Experiencing that eternal life has a great deal to do with how we experience time. Do we see the passage of time as nothing more than a succession of present moments, a series of "deaths" of each moment, culminating in the final death? That is the chaye sha'a perception – the perception of Esav, for whom there was never more than the present moment.
Chazal say that on the day Esav sold his birthright, he returned from the field "tired" from five separate aveiros. One of those involved taking a na'ara me'urasah (a betrothed woman). In halacha, there does not, in fact, exist a status of betrothed for bnei Noach. The only form of "marriage," at that time, involved cohabitation. But Chazal specify that Esav was guilty of taking a betrothed woman to teach us about his concept of time: He could not see beyond a woman's current status to the fact that she was destined to be married to someone because his conception of time never extended beyond the present moment.
And because Esav focused only on the present, he could not develop. His name indicates that he was born hairy and fully-formed (asui). Yaakov, by contrast, was born holding on to Esav's heel. He comes afterwards. His focus is on the future.
The joy that we experience every time we overcome the yetzer is that of having adopted the future orientation of Yaakov over the orientation that sees nothing but the present moment and the urgings of the yetzer. It is the recognition that our lives have a purpose and goal, and that their attainment depends on developing and completing ourselves in certain ways.
Democrats Split on Israel
The current Democratic coalition is a fragile alliance of groups with often conflicting interests. For instance, President Obama recently postponed, until after the 2012 election, a decision on the Keystone Oil pipeline, which would bring Canadian oil extracted from tar in a pipeline through the United States to the Gulf of Mexico and other destinations. Environmentalists disapprove the project, just as they oppose almost any energy development other than so-called "clean energy" sources, like wind and solar power. Unions, however, see the pipeline as a major job producer, as they do the development of the United States's vast shale oil reserves and numerous other projects that would go a long way to securing America's energy independence. The President could not afford to alienate either group. So he punted.
Israel too seems destined to be another wedge issue in the Democratic coalition. Democratic congressional support for Israel – at least outside the Black Caucus – has always been high. That congressional support is a reflection of the concentration of Jews in a handful of Blue States and their dogged faithfulness to the Democratic Party since the New Deal and also to the disproportionate share of "Jewish money" funding Democratic campaigns. But polls have long shown that Israel is far less popular with Democrats than with Republicans. And many important Democratic constituencies, including Blacks and Hispanics, harbor largely negative views of Israel.
Politico reported at length last week that the Center for American Progress (CAP), described as "the party's key hub of ideas and strategy," and Media Matters, "a central messaging organization," have veered sharply from the Democratic Party's congressional support for Israel. After the flotilla incident, CAP's Middle East Director, Matt Duss wrote, "Like segregation in the American South, the siege of Gaza (and the entire Israeli occupation, for that matter) is a moral abomination that should be intolerable to anyone claiming progressive values."
Both organization's have played down the threat of Iranian program, and even questioned its existence at all. M.J. Rosenberg, a former AIPAC official, who now works at Media Matters and refers to American supporters of the Netanyahu government policies as "Israel-firsters," talks about America's "almost bizarre obsession with punishing Iran, its people along with its government."
And Eli Clifton, the national security reporter at ThinkProgress, CAP's blog, accuses AIPAC of "now using the same escalating measures against Iran that were used before the invasion of Iraq." That charge is a repetition of the Walt-Mearsheimer canard in The Israel Lobby that the Iraq War can only be understood as the result of machinations of a "Likud faction" in the U.S. Defense Department – a claim fully refuted by Mearsheimer's subsequent admission on National Public Radio that Israel warned the United States against invading Iraq.
Media Matters' Rosenberg, with the full support of the organization's executive vice-president Ari Rabin-Havt, describes his goal as shifting the discussion of the Democratic Party on Israel and influencing the Party's younger generation. That younger generation will, of course, have been fully exposed to the anti-Israel line on university campuses.
The split in the Democratic Party over Israel, it seems, not only pits Jews against other key constituencies, but pro-Israel Jews against other Jews, like Rosenberg, Rabin-Havt, and ThinkProgress's Eric Alterman.