We are called to do more
It’s Passover again, beginning at the full moon of the springtime lunar month of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, and my apple tree usually blossoms now, though this year it seems to be a little late. Passover often falls close to Easter. Passover is to me the best Jewish holiday. The best memories, the best food, the best ritual—the Passover seder means the ritual order of telling the story of Passover with sweet wine, bitter herbs, matzoh and apples, a roasted shank bone, a roasted egg, parsley, salt water, and prayers and songs, which we can hold in our own homes, and lead our own ceremonies.
There is something healing about saying the same words over every year, and every year the story of Passover becomes richer and deeper. At heart, it is a timeless story, of freedom from bondage, from darkness to light, emerging from the narrow places and embarking on a journey.
We read the Haggadah together aloud, the prayer book that tells how the Israelites were released from slavery in Egypt. Towards the end of the seder, we read that “each age uncovers a formerly unrecognized servitude—requiring new liberation to set man’s soul free.” That line always inspired me. This timeless, cyclical ritual affirms that humanity is evolving. However, this year I have to ask, are we evolving, or devolving?
“We’ll go down in history as the first society that wouldn’t save itself because it wasn’t cost-effective,” is a quote attributed to Kurt Vonnegut, the novelist. Well, maybe we aren’t the first—a similar story is told about other civilizations that misused their power, like the Anasazi and Atlantis. Our technology is doing us in, while promising that it will make us more competitive. For example, we knew we could have gone with ethanol instead of leaded-gasoline to fix engine knock, but you couldn’t patent ethanol, so we flooded the planet with lead.
But in truth we know now that we can save the planet, cost-effectively! The most important and devastating report of the 21st century from the world’s 150 top scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that includes those from the worst oil-producing countries, was released this week, and shows that we can avoid raising the temperature of the planet beyond the point of catastrophe, and, that it can be done cheaper with wind, solar, reforestation, and methane reductions, than with fossil fuels and nuclear power. All that is missing is… the political will to do so.
Harmony has become increasingly out of tune, the music is going faster and faster and we dancers simply can’t keep up. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and now the stock market is careening towards a reckoning with inflation. We have a death wish disguised as ambition.
While there is an increasing sense of powerlessness and loss of control, we do need to inoculate ourselves against propaganda. The new big threat is that, with advances in artificial intelligence, computers can now spit out plausible essays—perhaps even smoother than this one. What does this means? As we churn through the next presidential election cycle, we will be exponentially flooded with false information, deliberately intended to increase polarization in this country—provocations seemingly from both the right or the left—a technique perfected in Russia—and tensions here will rise to an all-time high. At the least, we can remain aware of that.
I always have the nagging feeling I’m never doing enough. My friend, a psychologist and son of Holocaust survivors, told me his philosophy of life is, if I remember correctly, for him that the purpose of life is to do whatever you can with whatever you’ve got, to the best of your ability, to offer as much of yourself, despite whatever problems you might have.
Even if we may not be able to control our destiny, we can choose how we face it. Viktor Frankl, survivor of four concentration camps, taught this and helped a lot of people in the camps to not commit suicide there. He later wrote a book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” that millions more have read. At base, we have the freedom to choose how we face life, and in that way not just be a victim of circumstances.
Anna S. Redsand wanted to help the students she was counseling in Cuba, New Mexico, who were giving in to despair and drugs. She wrote a book for them and other young people, “Viktor Frankl, A Life Worth Living” (Clarion Books, 2006). Frankl became a pilot in his late 60’s, and in a lecture to youths, she wrote that “he told how, in a crosswind, a pilot must aim the plane higher, or farther north, than his goal in order to reach his actual destination. He said it was like this with human beings. If we expect something higher of ourselves, we will reach what we are actually capable of. If we aim only for what we are capable of, we are likely to achieve beneath our abilities.” This is a challenge to us, to do better.
This should make overachievers feel good that, even if they never achieve their most grandiose goals they will have contributed to the healing of the world, rather than adding to its problems. This is the task before us that Jews call Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. I think we can do this. We have to.