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Jewish World Review
Oct. 20, 2005
/ 17 Tishrei, 5766
Rabbi Yonason Goldson
Unlike so much of the modern world, Jewish tradition sees freedom not as goal unto itself but only as a means to a higher end
Preventing spiritual vertigo
Rabbi Paysach Krohn tells the following story, heard from an Israeli fighter pilot assigned as the leader of an attack team. This pilot's job required him to identify and target each enemy position and transmit the information to the assault planes behind him, then pull his F-16 sharply up and away from the glide path of the missiles that followed him in.
On one occasion, under the tension of precipitous descents and multi-G force recoveries, the pilot became disoriented by the effects of vertigo. Without realizing it, he had flipped his plane upside down as he approached his next attack point.
The pilot sited the target and, as he pulled back on his controls, his eyes locked in disbelief on his instrument panel, which showed his plane in rapid descent and within seconds of plummeting into the ground. His back-up instruments confirmed the reading, but his mind refused to accept what his senses refused to register as the effects of vertigo refuted the information on his panel.
With lightning reflexes, the pilot radioed his pursuit plane, asking for an evaluation of his position. Yes, came the voice over his radio: he was in diving sharply and only moments away from impact.
The pilot faced a dilemma, with literally no time to contemplate his options. Which should he trust: his interior senses or external objective information? His heart or his head?
The pilot later described how what he did next was the hardest thing he had ever done in his life. He pushed his controls forward, convinced with every ounce of intuition that he was committing suicide by driving his plane into the ground. Instead, he pulled safely out of his dive and survived.
Rabbi Krohn concludes his story suggesting that we all suffer from spiritual vertigo, often believing our senses even when they are clearly contradicted by objective external reality. Our perception tells us that there is no spiritual component to creation, that life is random, that existence has no purpose, that there is no Creator and no higher world. Too often, our intellect willingly believes what our senses perceive.
But how can we refute these inferences? With no instrumentation to contradict what our senses tell us, we seem to have no choice but to conclude that the nature of the world conforms to its superficial appearance.
Pilots and navigators know that wherever they are, however lost or disoriented they may be, they can always regain their bearings as long as they can find three points of reference. By triangulating on the sun, moon, and stars, they can calculate their location and chart their way home.
As the Jewish people have traveled through time and history, we have always had three unwavering reference points with which to find our bearings. These are the three festivals: Passover, the celebration of the exodus from Egypt; Shavuos, the commemoration of revelation at Sinai; and Sukkos, the reenactment of the 40 years our ancestors traveled through the desert. Through the observance of these festivals, the Jew always knows and always has known where he is and where he is going.
Passover celebrates the physical redemption of the Jewish people from Pharaoh's slavery. And just as we regained our freedom from the hands of the Egyptians, so too can we free ourselves from every form of contemporary enslavement: the chain smoker, the alcoholic, the workaholic, the compulsive shopper in short, the modern Western man, confounded by every physical impulse and by the brain-numbing mantras of media advertising, can orient himself by seizing hold of the godliness that resides within him and following the clarion call of spiritual freedom. Passover teaches us that we need not be slaves to the past, to habit, to social pressure, or to our animal impulses. We are children of the Divine, who need only heed the calling of our souls to break the chains of the physical world.
Unlike so much of the modern world, however, Jewish tradition sees freedom not as goal unto itself but only as a means to a higher end. As Janis Joplin correctly observed (before overdosing on heroin at age 27), "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." Somewhat less cynically, Judaism sees freedom as a starting point from which man may choose between right and wrong, between good and evil, between aspiration toward spiritual fulfillment and the folly of immediate gratification.
The festival of Shavuos celebrates the transmission of G-d's law into the hands of man. Having set us free from Egypt, the Almighty did not leave us without direction but gave us a guide book to chart our course toward righteousness and virtue. Instead of leaving every man to follow the capricious cravings of his heart and the subjective reasoning of his senses, the Master of the World handed us the keys to His kingdom and set us on the straight path toward its gates. Without direction, freedom is truly a mixed blessing one that more often than not is exchanged for enslavement to a new master.
What is the third and final point of reference for successful navigation of the spiritual world? The festival of Sukkos, the Feast of Tabernacles. In this season, the Jew moves out of his home, with its clutter of computers, DVDs, telephone answering machines, and designer furniture, to spend the waning days of summer in his sukkah, a simply constructed hut of modest dimensions, quietly contemplating the leaves and branches that separate him from the elements, just as the clouds of Glory protected the Jews as they wandered through the desert.
Sukkos reminds each of us of his place in the universe, of his unique relationship with his Creator. Should we arrogantly think that we are ourselves masters of our world, the contrast between the humility of our surroundings and the vastness of creation restores our sense of proportion. And should we become depressed by our own insignificance and think we have no contribution to offer to the world, our reenactment of the Jewish experience in the desert asserts that each of us has a role to play in the master plan of creation.
Although our egos may rebel at the thought of being just another cog in the machinery of creation, our intellects will appreciate that the finest Swiss watch, containing dozens of tiny cogs and gears, would be worthless scrap if each and every one of those gears and cogs did not perform its function flawlessly.
Together, the three festivals remind us that the individuality of man becomes man's greatest asset only when we are free from every form of slavery, when we direct our freedom toward the attainment of a higher purpose, and when we recognize that every detail in the magnificent machinery of creation including ourselves has an essential role it was designed to serve. By keeping these promontories in our sights, we will never suffer from spiritual vertigo, but will successfully navigate the hazards of the physical world until we find our way safely home.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Yonason Goldson teaches at Block Yeshiva High School in St. Louis. Comment by clicking here.
© 2005, Rabbi Yonason Goldson