ONE Convention, Newark, New Jersey, May 19-22, 2016. Image by Tim Knox
Last week's column "Fascism is looming over the US -- and it's bad news for the Jews," seems to have touched a raw nerve. The nearly 1,000 comments on Jerusalem Post and on social media "accused" me of supporting Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Barak Obama (really!), as well as of being a fascist and a liberal, all based on the same 1,100 word article. It was somewhat of a comfort not to find commenters who concluded that I support Bernie Sanders, too.
During elections, everyone takes sides, so I can see where the comments come from. However, the problem we are facing goes far beyond political affiliations. When you've got cancer, it makes no difference if you like your ballots Republican red or Democratic blue. You first need to treat it, and then see to everything else.
One night, many years ago, as I was sifting through letters that Rav Yehuda Ashlag had written to his students, I came across an allegory that had touched me very deeply. He wrote that egoism is like a sweet, yet poisonous nectar placed on the tip of a sword. The nectar is so sweet and so intoxicating that we are compelled to lift the sword up to our mouths, stretch out our tongues, and let the nectar drip onto it, drop after drop after drop, until we ourselves drop.
Our culture of consumerism, self-indulgence, and frantic search of immediate satisfactions all reflect the depth of our systemic crisis. We are constantly seeking the next poisonous drop, ignoring the fact that we know that it will kill us in the end. We know that life consists of a balance between giving and receiving, but our nature increasingly compels us to choose only the taking and ignore the giving. We cannot help ourselves. This is the cause of the crisis that is spreading through our social, educational, economic, and political systems. Humanity has become a cancerous tumor consuming our planet, and eventually ourselves.
The Social Antidote
This past weekend, I attended a convention in New Jersey. Seven hundred academics, students, friends, and associates from the US, Canada, China, South Africa, Norway, Israel, Moscow, New Zealand, and many other countries convened in a common search of a way to balance human nature, to find the antidote for our cancerous egoism. We formed discussion circles that consisted of individuals of different cultures, religions, and ages, and strove to build a bond that transcends all differences.
The common agreement was that since we did not "program" ourselves into being pleasure-hunting beings, we also cannot "deprogram" ourselves. However, since our societies determine what pleasures we hunt, we can build societies that will inspire us to take pleasure in pro-social values such as mutual consideration, care, and friendship. In other words, while we may be unable to change ourselves, society certainly can. And since we can change our societies, we can also change ourselves.
For example, not long ago I came across a fascinating post that described how drug addicts who are placed in a positive social environment become rehabilitated simply by finding meaning in their lives and enjoying being constructive parts of their environments. They do not suffer from any of the painful side effects associated with drug rehabilitation. Just as we have learned to recognize the importance of the social environment when helping drug addicts rehabilitate, we can harness this instrument to make a fundamental change in our societies. If we can make giving and consideration "cool," we will not have to tell children how to behave; they will absorb it from their friends and peers--their social environment.
As it is with the youth, so it is with adults. If, for example, everyone at my work supports one another and regards the success of the team as their own success, I will not dare to behave otherwise. It will barely even cross my mind to exploit my colleagues. If we create a society that operates as I just described, we will not have to force ourselves to be nice and helpful to others; it will be our nature. This is why to heal our nature from its cancerous traits, all we need is to change our societies. We needn't try to force the change on ourselves or on others, but rather let society do it for us, smoothly, painlessly, and quickly.
There is much more research to do, and much to learn about the implementation of the changes we discussed at the convention, but I am leaving it more hopeful than I came. I have no illusions about the power of any politician to "make America great again." Politicians, by nature, are not "for America," but for themselves and for the people who support them. They are part of the problem, not part of the antidote. The remedy is in our hands.
To make a real and lasting change we need to build it from the ground up. When more and more individuals conclude that our biggest problem is not the climate, fundamentalism, drug abuse, or income inequality, but our very nature, we will know how to create an environment that allows us to be our best selves, while simultaneously helping to create a healthy, prosperous society.
Originally featured in The Jerusalem Post