Grow Up; Choose Your Door
Towards the end of my college career, I went to speak to Professor Karl Weintraub, whose two-semester course on autobiography had first introduced me to the concept of individuality. I told him that the graduate school program I had hoped to start in order to at least delay law school had closed, and it appeared that fate had destined me for law school.
"But I haven't even read Huizanga and Burckhardt," I whined, referring to two great cultural historians about whom he had written. Professor Weintraub, a large, Germanic man, looked slightly bemused, and then quoted another of his favorite cultural historians, Ortega y Gassett, "The charm and insolence of youth is that it is everything in potentiality and nothing in actuality." For good measure, he added that on my death bed neither Burckhardt nor Huizanga were likely to be uppermost in my mind.
The relationship between potentiality and actuality was a recurring theme of Rav Moshe Shapira, zt"l. On the cosmic level, everything begins with tohu, defined by Ramban as undifferentiated matter (chomer), lacking all form (tzura). Only with Hashem's first command, "Let there be light," does Creation begin to take form.
The two thousand years of tohu (desolation) end and the two thousand years of Torah begin with Avraham Avinu. The Torah reveals the true form of the world, the ideal for which each thing was created. And though Avraham did not receive the Torah, he was able to discern its commands from the world around; he read the world. The products of heaven and earth remained, as it were, in a state of desolation, until Avraham called in the Name of G-d, i.e., attributed those products to their Creator.
Subsequently, Avraham's descendants went down to Egypt, a land that is described in terms of undifferentiated matter, chomer, and whose people are compared to the chamor, donkey. The entire being of every Egyptian, Rav Moshe would say, was focused on expanding its options, and when those options reached their limit, the Egyptians resorted to sorcery to expand them even further. Into the depths of Egyptian depravity, Hashem brought the sons of Yaakov. And from there, He would take them out – one nation from the midst of another – to receive the Torah, and through the light of the Torah to reveal the true form of existence.
The verse states, "These are the names of the Children of Israel who came to Egypt" (Shemos 1:1). A name reveals the essence of something. Each of the bnei Yisrael descended to Egypt in order to eventually reveal some aspect of Hashem, and that aspect is reflected in their names – Reuven, Shimon, Levi – which all contain references to Hashem.
AT THE INDIVIDUAL LEVEL as well, each of us has the task of actualizing potential, and turning it into a unique identity, a name that reveals some aspect of the Creator. But there are many today who are unwilling to do so. Like Ortega y Gasset's perpetual youth, unwilling to go through one door because doing so means foregoing other doors, they remain at the level of potential. Such a person has no name, no identity.
When a person whose being is based on potential rather than actual, exercises one of his options, it still remains incidental, not an expression of his unique self, for the next moment he wants something else. Later, he seeks to actualize another desire, and still later, he wants something different.
"He never defines himself," Rav Moshe would say, "he remains forever in the realm of the potential. As a consequence, every moment of his life he is someone else."
One indice of the extent to which one has left the realm of potential for that of the actual is fidelity, the ability to form permanent bonds. Thus Egypt, who citizens sought to live forever at the level of maximum possibilities, was a land filled with zima (licentiousness).
At the societal level, people who seek always to remain in a state of potential make community impossible. They can never band together for a collective purpose because each member is ever ready to take off in some new direction.
WE LIVE IN A GENERATION in which most people can be little bothered to think deeply about what makes then distinct from the next person. Or perhaps, it would be more accurate to say, that they are not very different from one another. They lack individuality.
Facebook encourages us to spend our lives comparing ourselves to others. Even, or perhaps especially, among those attending elite schools there is an increasing readiness to salute the flag of the regnant political correctness. Go along to get along.
Of course that trend did not begin with Facebook. Nearly half a century ago, the late literary critic Lionel Trilling devoted his Norton lectures at Harvard to tracing the shifting cultural ideal of sincerity to one of authenticity. Sincerity characterizes the well-made man who fashions his unique identity by setting goals, establishing a hierarchy of priorities, developing particular talents, and pursuing certain options and eschewing others. All of these require the exercise of moral judgment.
Authenticity by contrast comes closer to the Egyptian focus on maintaining all the options, keeping open all the possibilities at every moment. It begins with the recognition that we are all born with a welter of impulses and desires that vary little from one infant to another. And it calls upon us to explore all those desires and to acknowledge that human beings are but smarter animals distinguished from the latter only by our greater number of desires and the intelligence available to fulfill them.
THE HEDONISM to which that cult of authenticity gives rise, and which characterized Egypt, is foreign to Torah Jews. But we too can fail in the task of giving our lives form and coherence, in our failure to think about what is unique about ourselves and how our mission in revealing the Divine Presences differs from that of the person at the next shtender. In short, by being too lazy or too shallow or too unreflective to create a true name.
Two weeks ago, I mentioned a series of pamphlets by a Rabbi Yechezkel Shulwak, about whom I knew nothing. Since then I have learned that he is a forty-year-old father of nine, who was for many years a maggid shiur in the yeshiva ketana of the Pittsburgher chassidus of Ashdod. More recently, he has begun traveling throughout Eretz Yisrael speaking to small groups of twenty to thirty bochurim at a time.
And he has a number of interesting observations. That which gave rise to his series of pamphlets to spur family discussion is that fewer than ten percent of bochurim have any real discussion with their parents beyond, "How are you?" "Baruch Hashem, besader." Seldom does the exchange of information extend beyond the purely factual.
But it is another observation that relates directly to our topic. Rabbi Shulwaks says that he has spoken to many hundreds of bochurim in many different yeshivos. They struggle, as we all do, to overcome their negative middos – anger, taava, jealousy. But one negative middah that is almost absent is ga'avah – pride.
Could it be that in order to suffer from pride one must first have a clear self-identity, a sufficiently strong sense of one's self to which that pride can attach. If one lacks the self-knowledge to distinguish oneself from others; if the decisions one makes are dictated exclusively by the social consensus and societal norms; if one has no clear goals and defined priorities, but rather feels buffeted each day by different desires, then one has no name, no "I." Every day, as Rav Moshe put it, one is somebody else.
And without a name, how can one feel any pride? The inability to make choices, to go through one door and not another, at some point ceases to be "charming" and is merely pathetic.
The Value of a Hike?
Israel is not the same small country it once was. When I first visited in 1962, my aunt's then husband would drive down the Haifa-Tel Aviv highway waving at guys going in the opposite direction he had known as a young teenager in the Irgun. But even today, with a population of over eight million, when tragedy strikes it is often personalized.
Compounding the tragedy of the ten high school students killed last week in a flash flood was the knowledge that the Bnei Zion, pre-induction academy (mechina) they were slated to join next year, had signed just the day before an agreement to participate in Kesher Yehudi's mechina program. A preliminary meeting between the incoming members of the mechina and the Kesher Yehudi volunteers, who will be their chavrusos and maintain a connection during their IDF service, was already scheduled. That program would likely have constituted the first exposure to Torah learning and first close contact with chareidi Jews for most of those lost.
But that was not the only association triggered by a tragedy that appears to have been the product of unconscionable negligence. In September 2014, Ariel Yitzchak Newman, the 18-year-old only child of Mark and Ellen Newman of Great Neck N.Y., died of exertional heat stroke on a hike in Israel in which every safety rule for hiking was broken. The hikers were not properly acclimated to the climate having just arrived in Israel, there was inadequate water, the hikers were not advised about appropriate clothing and were vulnerable by virtue of their lack of adequate sleep prior to the hike. Moreover, the strenuous hike took place, with inadequate rest stops, on a day so hot that had the Israeli Society for the Protection of Nature been contacted the hike leader would have been advised to cancel the planned hike. Most egregious, Ariel Yitzchak's cries that he was burning up were ignored.
For four years, the Newmans have been pressuring Israeli authorities to adequately investigate the circumstances leading to their son's death and to bring criminal prosecution against those responsible. The most recent response from the State's Attorney office cited a forty-year old Supreme Court case extolling the importance of hiking to the Israeli ethos, and the value to the participants of physically strenuous hikes with an element of risk.
That was precisely the attitude that led to last week's tragedy. One of the victims sent out a prescient WhatsApp early in the day, "Were all going to be killed." But the organizers insisted that it would be "wet and fun."
Had Israeli authorities taken more seriously the deaths of Ariel Yitzchak Newman and other tourists on hikes for which they were ill-prepared and prosecuted the negligent parties, perhaps last week's tragedy, which will certainly result in criminal prosecutions could have been prevented.