Another high holiday season upon us. Another opportunity slipping away.
As important a place as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur occupy on every Jewish calendar, they are the holidays perhaps least in sync with our zeitgeist. Classically referred to as Days of Awe, (Yamim Noraim), these days do not suit a generation so unaccustomed to awe and its accompanying fear. Indeed, much of progress has been aimed at understanding phenomena that frighten us. What has become in man's power to control medically, financially, or politically gives us great emotional comfort.
Fear is certainly not a desirable emotion but it may be a very useful one. Traditionally, those afraid of Divine retribution would be effectively motivated by the current holiday season to mend their ways. In Dr. Hyam Soloveitchik's seminal article, "Rupture and Reconstruction", he recalls a few generations ago the trembling of the average Jew during this season - something we are unable to experience anywhere in our own time. This issue is not cognitive but emotional; believing in Divine retribution is not the same as fearing it. Today this fear belongs to the very few, who have managed to isolate their personalities from the culture at large. What about the rest of us: how do we make the Days of Awe real?
A reexamination of Divine retribution is in order. In one of his most brilliant essays, "Ben Sorer u'Moreh" (Collected Writings, vol. VII), Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch addresses the tricky theological problem of G-d's punishing children for the sins of their parents. He points out that the Torah is simply presenting empirical consequences of behavior. In other words, just as a polluted atmosphere has measurable negative impact on our bodies, a polluted parental environment has measurable negative impact on our children. Similarly, whenever the Torah warns of consequences to moral depravity, it doesn't mean that G-d will *decide* to punish us in His anger. Rather, it is saying that all actions have natural, albeit not always immediately apparent, consequences. The Torah thus posits that all vice, no matter how small, will lead to some level of self-destruction in the long run.
We spend so much of our time rationally planning our careers, finances and purchases. This is done by looking at empirical evidence of the results of each possible choice. I choose to buy carX because it offers me the most desired results at the minimal possible cost. Although buying a car is generally not a choice between a good one and a bad one but rather a question of *how* good a car, the difference between a good car and a better car may end up being just the feature that could save our life in the event of an accident. Being aware of this, we try to be careful and not make a mistake.
When it comes to moral choices, we rarely give them the same type of serious thought we give to our commercial choices. We generally think that we are ok, but what we don't pay attention to is *how* ok. Since the causes may not be so clearly determined, it is quite easy to shrug our shoulders at some of the misfortunes that befall us. It is easy to look elsewhere for the blame since we do not see any major flaw in ourselves. The counter productivity of such an approach is self-evident. How often do we see marriages souring due to lack of the extra effort often needed in such a demanding relationship? For the reader who is more frightened by the consequences of his car purchase, the Talmud reminds us that a bad marriage is worse than death.
While some may want to view honesty, kindness and other moral issues as radically different from buying a car, it all comes down to self-interest. Along with many of the modern philosophers, Judaism views man as primarily motivated by self-interest. This is viewed as neither good nor bad, but simply true. Self-interest is what rationally determines which car we purchase and should also rationally determine our moral choices.
That poor decisions and inadequate treatment of character flaws lead to disaster need not be a modern observation. Indeed, this is the stuff of classical Greek tragedy. While all cultures that value reason should admit the critical nature of a person's actions, 21st-century Western man seems to be too sheltered to accept any harsh reality.
When gripped by desire for sin, the Talmud advises us to contemplate our own death. This was patently easier when the mortality rate was so much higher and life expectation so much lower. While poverty, serious illness and death are less common than in the past, they have in no way disappeared - we simply have much less exposure to such things. Our sanitized society isolates most things unpleasant and makes them more removed from our own experience. Presumably to give better medical care, the critically sick and aged are tucked away in institutions. Our large urban and suburban neighborhoods are bastions of socio-economic segregation. As comfort levels become higher and higher, we also make conscious efforts not to expose ourselves or our children to anything that will make us unhappy. That being the case, it is difficult to internalize that bad things could happen to us.
Fear can be rational and can fit into our weltanschaung. More difficult, however, is internalizing even this more cerebral fear. Perhaps we should spend these days going through lung cancer and AIDS wards just to bring home the point that our actions can cause our own demise. If this makes us too uncomfortable, we may well want to focus on the reason for that discomfort.
Before we go to pray on the High Holidays, we need to realize that our futures are largely in our control, and the ten days starting on the first of Tishrei is the time to actualize that control. A little fear may well be in order.