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Spiritual Gridlock

Trânsito em São Paulo

With congress increasing paralyzed by gridlock and our president usurping monarchic power by executive fiat, it seems appropriate to revisit this essay from 2008, originally published by Jewish World Review and adapted in my book Proverbial Beauty.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to end traffic congestion in Manhattan. However, as sympathetic as New Yorkers may be to Mr. Bloomberg’s vision, his proposed method is most likely to produce madness.

To curb the number of vehicles entering downtown (which has grown annually by an average of 8000 per day since the 1920s, according to U. S. News and World Report), the proposed law would encourage (or coerce) commuters to rely on public transportation by imposing a daytime tax of $8 per car and $21 per truck traveling onto the island. City officials believe that this “congestion pricing” would reduce traffic by as much as 12 ½ percent.

Whether or not commuters can be persuaded to practice even occasional abstinence in their love affairs with their cars makes for interesting speculation. However, the concept itself is sound. In fact, it has been used for some time on a much larger scale, implemented throughout every borough of the world by the Mayor of the Universe.


The most the dramatic experiment in mass transit came over 3300 years ago when the Almighty split the Sea of Reeds, allowing the Jews to pass through and escape their Egyptian pursuers. In contrast to Cecil B. DeMille’s famous recreation, the sages teach that the sea opened up into twelve distinct passageways, one for each of the Tribes of Israel. As they passed through, the water separating the passages turned clear like glass, so that each tribe could see its fellow tribesmen traveling alongside them.

The design of this miracle teaches three lessons. First, the division of the sea into separate passageways demonstrates that there is more than one way to have a relationship with G-d. The Almighty does not want us to be automatons or clones, sheepishly following whoever is in front of us. Each individual is unique, and his divine service should be tailored to the nature of his singular soul.

Second, the water turning clear like glass reveals the lengths to which we must go to master the human ego. Had the walls of each passageway remained opaque, each tribe would have thought that it alone had discovered the correct avenue to reach the other side, and that it alone was traveling in the right direction to serve G-d. When they saw the other tribes traveling along side them, the Jews of each tribe recognized that they were not the only ones who had discerned the proper path.

splitting_the_red_sea2The final lesson can be learned from recognizing that there were a limited number of paths. Anyone who did not follow one of the twelve passageways was, literally and figuratively, under water. Every spiritual movement does not become legitimate simply because it declares itself so, no matter how sincere its leaders or followers may be. Every self-proclaimed “holy man” is not genuine simply because he hangs out his shingle or attracts parishioners. Natural laws govern the operation of the spiritual universe just as they govern the workings of the physical world. One cannot render those rules null and void simply by wishing them out of existence or declaring them defunct, any more than congress can annul the force of gravity.


There is yet one more insight to be gained from the illustration of the Jews’ passage through the sea, one that is echoed by the New York mayor’s effort to cure his city’s traffic woes.

Consider the car as an allegory for personal autonomy. In a very real sense, we are all control freaks. We want to control our destiny, to chart our own heading, to have our hands on the wheel. Often the greatest demonstration of inner strength comes through humbling ourselves, giving up control and placing our fate in the hands of another. Often this is a concession we are either unwilling or unable to make.

But do we consider the cost? For car owners, the cost is rolled up in the price of the vehicle itself, of gas, insurance, repairs, parking fees, tolls and, perhaps, congestion tax. Public transportation is far cheaper and often more efficient. But still we refuse to relinquish control.

In business, the most efficient workers are those who work as part of a team, who coordinate their efforts with the efforts of others and trust their coworkers to get their own jobs done. Those who try to do everything themselves, or to micromanage others at their work, create confusion, inefficiency, and frustration.

Our relationships, marriages, and families function best when the individuals within them tend to their own responsibilities and allow others to look after theirs. Hovering, ordering, or criticizing before a spouse or child has even had a chance to complete an assigned task breeds resentment and destroys trust.

Spirituality is much the same. We like to think that we are in control of defining our own relationship with the Almighty. We strike out in whatever direction seems right to us, often without any roadmap or compass to guide us in distinguishing good from bad, right from wrong, moral from immoral. We believe that intuition alone will get us to our goal, when we have only the faintest notion of where we are trying to get.

Worst of all, there is available transportation ready to take us to our final destination in the most efficient way. By keeping G-d’s laws and following in His ways, we guarantee ourselves the smoothest possible journey through this world until we arrive at the World to Come.


escher-glass-ball1But still many of us won’t give up control. So the Almighty levies His “taxes,” creating obstacles that make the paths of personal autonomy increasingly difficult. We feel stifled in our jobs, unhappy with our families, and discontented with the direction of our lives. So we seek out “detours,” looking for fulfillment in the least likely places: alcohol, drugs, gambling, or extramarital affairs. We think change will make us feel better, but we usually find ourselves worse off than before.

Rabbi Elyahu Dessler explains that we find ourselves in emotional or spiritual darkness at those times when we have cut ourselves off from the source of spirituality in the world. But when we “look into the darkness,” when we recognize that we have created the darkness for ourselves by distancing ourselves from the ways of the Creator, then and only then will we begin to find our way back to the light. By giving up control over our destiny, we regain mastery over our soul.

Whether taxing drivers will solve New York’s traffic problems remains a mystery. But it is in our hands to solve the mysteries of the spirit by following the well-trodden path of the generations that have gone before us. By retracing their steps, we can have confidence that we are not solely dependent upon our own devices to chart our way out of the darkness of confusion, but that we have a clearly marked path to follow toward the light of true meaning.

The War on Women Continues

From the Huffington Post:

imagesBritish chess grandmaster Nigel Short is responding to criticism after recently arguing that inherent differences in men’s and women’s brains may explain why there are fewer female chess champions than males ones.

“Men and women’s brains are hard-wired very differently, so why should they function in the same way? I don’t have the slightest problem in acknowledging that my wife possesses a much higher degree of emotional intelligence than I do,” he wrote in the February issue of New In Chess magazine. “One is not better than the other, we just have different skills.”

“It would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess, and at a higher level, but rather than fretting about inequality, perhaps we should just gracefully accept it as a fact,” he added.

So why would Huff Post run such a blatantly chauvinistic report?  Well, obviously, for the counter-offensive that makes up the last 60% of the article.  Then, of course, you have the comments, which fluctuate wildly between the apoplectic, the apologetic, the politically correct, and the well-reasoned.

Anyone who has raised children or taught school knows that males and females are more different than some species.  We have different strengths and weaknesses, which is why it makes sense that we form partnerships called “the family.”

It’s both fascinating and disturbing that so many people are offended by those who say so.


Just who are “we”?

Tonto:  What is wrong, Kimosabe?
Lone Ranger:  We’re surrounded by bloodthirsty indians, Tonto.  What are we going to do?
Tonto:  What you mean, “we,” white man?

SOTU We 2Thanks to Jay Livingston for this post on behalf of the Montclair State Sociology Department.  He paints a compelling picture of how the collective language of “we” has been increasingly conscripted by modern politicians to create — or fabricate — an impression of common purpose and common allegiance.

With politics dividing us more deeply than ever, it might seem beneficial to employ rhetoric designed to bridge the ideology gap.  In practice, however, disingenuous expressions of harmony and unified vision can do a lot more harm than good.

For one, when a demonstrably divisive leader — a U. S. president, for example — claims that he is the leading advocate of unity and cooperation, he makes himself a lightning rod for accusations of hypocrisy and manipulation that breed cynicism in place of optimism.  For another, by claiming the high ground, he implicitly vilifies all who oppose him, even if they do so from positions of principle.  Either way, the ideological rift grows wider, not narrower.

Perhaps worst of all, the collective “we” diffuses responsibility from the individual onto the collective:  since all of us are responsible, none of us is responsible.  This produces the effective equivalent of such politicalisms as “Mistakes were made.”  Somewhere, someone did something wrong.  There’s plenty of blame to go around, but nowhere for it to stick.

In short, fake unity achieves the opposite of unification.

But when there really is cohesion, whether within a team, a business, a community, or a society, the collective “we” becomes a priceless asset, including the lowly with the high, the rank and file with the leaders, the grunts with the visionaries.  Like it or not, we’re all in it together.  And the more we try to shoulder our collective burdens with one mind and one heart, the more we will succeed.

Symbiosis — Blueprint for Peace

imgresHere’s a beautiful spread from Cosmos Magazine on cooperation in nature.  If natural enemies can make peace with one another for mutual advantage, shouldn’t human communities be able to recognize how much more we stand to gain by setting aside our petty differences… or even working through our substantive differences?

It’s largely a matter of will.  We have to want to resolve our disagreements more than we want to be right.  Some earlier thoughts on conflict resolution here.

Thanks to Rabbi Yaakov Feitman for his article in this week’s Mishpacha Magazine.