Everyone understands that it’s always best to solve a problem at its root rather than merely address its symptoms. Why then is it so difficult to cut to the core of a dilemma and see beyond its secondary effects?
The one word answer is: Subjectivity. Once we are faced with a challenge, our own biases, comfort zones and blind spots distort our vision and we only see the outer manifestations rather than the underlying causes. “A person,” the Sages tell us, “can see all blemishes except his own.”
Preventive medicine is always better than symptomatic medicine. Yet once a problem settles in the problem itself seems to hide its own personality, and we no longer are objective enough (and sometimes become too busy) to step back and search for the underlying forces that give the problem life.
But, using Talmudic style logic, what lies behind our bias? Bias doesn’t allow us to see the root, but what is the root of our bias? Why should we be unable to see the origins of a problem, especially if seeing it is in our own self interest?
In one word (I am in a “one word” mood today) the answer is: Duality. The Kabbalists call the root: Tzimtzum. We do not live in a WYSWYG seamless universe. What you see is not what you get. In this two-faced world (or even worse: multi-faced plurality) surface symptoms can conceal and belie what lies within.
If life would be one seamless flow, even if we were uncomfortable (but then again, in a seamless universe we wouldn’t be uncomfortable), we would always be able to recognize the cause of a problem and solve it at its point of departure. No different than, say, seeing the source of a leak and plugging it in time before it causes any damage.
However in our duplicitous world, once we wander away from the course, we cannot see backwards or within and simply retrace our steps; something blocks our vision and it gets increasingly difficult to return to the source. No one gets lost in a vacuum or in a moment. You initially veer off base just by an inch or two. But as you continue to travel in the wrong direction that inch turns into miles.
This may be the reason why it’s so vital to study history and understand how we got here in the first place. The present is always a product of the past, and the future of tomorrow cannot be understood without traveling back to yesterday. Fruits are borne by deep roots.
Could this be why the Bible is the number one best seller, beyond any charts? The story of Adam and Eve’s fall in the Garden of Eden, for instance, is the first documented description of temptation. Indeed, the mystics see this episode as the first loss of innocence, which set in motion a chain of events that would shape all human failings till this very day.
Abraham, in this weeks Torah chapter, is the first deconstructionist, who actually retraced the steps of human bias (to put it mildly) and its resultant consequences. Faced with a self involved pagan world, Abraham early on, recognized the short sightedness of the society around him and began a search – a search that would lead him to profound truths and unprecedented heights, and ultimately to father a revolution that would affect all nations until this day.
In a dramatic study of deconstruction (the first of its nature in history) Maimonides opens up his Laws of Idolatry with a fascinating account of social devolution from a universe experienced as a seamless Divine creation to a narcissistic profane society.
Maimonides’ analysis in sum goes like this: Originally the universe was seamlessly connected to its Creator, G-d. Everyone understood that the Divine was the only Source of existence. Since G-d is invisible, as time passed, social perception changed. Maimonides delineates three stages in this downward spiral.
The first stage happened in the time of Enosh (grandson of Adam and Eve). “The people made a grave mistake, and the scholars of that generation erred.” They speculated that since G-d created heavenly bodies through which He guides the world and placed them on high and gave them honor as His servants, it would only be appropriate that man praise, glorify and honor them as well.
Initially, at this stage, people knew that the one G-d was the only G-d, and they understood that the heavenly bodies had no power of their own. Their mistake was that they believed that G-d intended the heavenly bodies to be served. They then constructed temples for these celestial bodies and brought offerings to honor them, mistakenly thinking that this was G-d’s will and honor.
After many years this devolved into stage two. False prophets arose and claimed that G-d told them to worship the power associated with a particular celestial body and to bring offerings to these stars. They fashioned a figure which they claimed was symbolic of that particular star, which men, women and children should worship. Slowly an “industry” sprung up offering all forms of objects that these false prophets fabricated in their imaginations. These objects could be found everywhere – in temples, under trees and atop of hills and mountains. People would gather and worship these images in the false belief that they could improve or hurt their lives, and therefore are worthy to worship and fear. Other exploiters began to claim that the stars themselves (not G-d) communicated with them to serve them in different ways.
Slowly this way of thinking became the “norm” and spread to the entire population of the world, to serve these images with various forms of worship and offerings. Polytheism was born.
Stage three then became manifest, as the devolution hit a new bottom. As this “norm” took hold with the passing of time, G-d’s name became forgotten amongst the masses. They no longer perceived or recognized G-d’s existence. At this point men, women and children knew only of wooden and stone figures and the temples of stone in which they were educated from childhood to worship, serve and swear by. And their leaders perpetuated this illusion. No person was aware of G-d, the Cosmic architect, except for a few individuals like Chanoch, Metushelach, Noach, Shem and Ever.
And this is how life continued. “In this fashion,” Maimonides writes, “society continued to spiral and plummet, until the birth of the global pillar Abraham.” Maimonides then goes on to movingly describe, in poetic language, how Abraham from young age came to realize that his society was deeply mistaken. Surrounded completely by a pagan culture, with no teachers and mentors, Abraham began to wonder what moves the celestial bodies. They could not be moving themselves. Slowly, this giant came to realize that which was known at the beginning – before the distortions spiraled out of control – that within all of existence lays G-d, One unified Entity, which created and controls the entire mechanism.
As his understanding evolved, Abraham began to discuss these ideas and address the prevalent beliefs of his community. He argued and called upon them to destroy their idols and recognize the true G-d – the only One worthy of worship. Obviously he upset many, especially in the establishment. As Abraham became more persuasive and influential, the leader of the time tried to have him killed, but he was miraculously saved and moved to Charan. He began to travel from city to city, nation to nation, and gathered people and taught them. He called upon them to recognize the one G-d. As people gathered around him with their questions, Abraham taught them each according to his understanding, until they came to realize the fundamental Divine truth. Abraham succeeded to build a community of tens of thousands of people who learned to get beyond the symptoms – and circumstances – of their time and discover the roots where it all began before the distortion of the Enosh generation.
Abraham then passed on this understanding to his son Isaac, who transmitted it to Jacob, who in turn passed it on to his children, all the way to Moses. And from there these truths were passed on to all generations to come.
Much can be gleaned from the social decline beginning with Enosh, and from the trend reversal initiated by the first non-conformist Abraham.
Perhaps the biggest lesson of all is this: The problem the people had then was that they wanted a relationship with G-d. Every child wants a connection with its parent. Every creature wants to feel attached to its Maker. On the other hand, people also have their more selfish inclinations. They want things on a platter – on their own terms. These two factors – the search for an invisible G-d coupled with our own materialistic selfishness – create the breeding ground for replacing G-d with something closer to us, on our terms.
Initially, the process began rather innocently. No one was replacing G-d; they were simply honoring G-d servants – the celestial bodies, and in doing so, they felt that they were honoring G-d. Innocuous enough. But it was grave mistake. No tragedy begins in a moment. A small shift today becomes a disaster tomorrow. The fundamental, qualitative shift was the erroneous need to experience G-d on human terms.
As stated, G-d’s invisibility provoked people to search for something more visible. And precisely therein lays the problem. For G-d to be true and have any meaning, for us to discover true transcendence, we cannot in any way create a G-d on our terms. That defeats its entire purpose. We were created in the Divine Image, not the other way around. Our challenge is to rise above our finite mortality, our flaws and subjectivity, and embrace G-d on G-d’s terms.
Perhaps this is exactly why G-d must be invisible to our mortal eyes. Once Enosh and his generation gravely erred and began worshiping something outside of G-d, something that was part of us, part of our created universe, then it was just a matter of time until the process would spiral out of control and people would forget about G-d altogether, to the point where the symptoms completely obscured the root. Almost that is, were it not for Abraham.
Where do we stand today?
Abraham’s awareness has now penetrated, even saturated, most of the world. Yet, in certain ways, relatively speaking, we still are faced with the two options of Abraham’s times:
Do we choose a life of self indulgence, self worship and the worship of other people or creatures like us? Or do we choose G-d.
Every moment of your day, in your every move, you have these two choices. Another manifestation of the dilemma takes on an ironic twist. Even Abraham’s spiritual teachings have been hijacked by some. In the name of Abrahamic faith many religious leaders in the last two millennia have turned religion into another form of self-aggrandizement, thereby paganizing it, in the sense that the religion is more about self worship, worship of authorities or other entities other than G-d Himself.
This, of course has had a profound backlash, with many progressive thinkers reject anything that appears faith based – rejecting as it were the distortions imposed on Abraham’s faith. But whatever shape or form the distortion takes it always comes down to the same basic issue: Do we turn to G-d on His terms or on our own? Abraham, born 3818 years ago, left us a monumental legacy – relevant today as much as ever. As “father of all nations” Abraham’s message is for all people. He can help us retrace our steps and see how we were before distortions set in, which can help us align ourselves instead of perpetauting projected social models.
Will you be an Abraham, on a quest seeking the root, or another symptomatic consequence of culture?
As we read about Abraham’s journey, the question we all have to ask ourselves is this:
Will I be part of the problem or part of the solution?