Chapter 9: Plurally Speaking
Affecting Social Cohesion Through the Social Environment
The Drive for Superiority
In Chapter 2 we introduced the words of our sages concerning the fundamental desires at the foundation of Creation, and the four levels that make up the desire to receive. Briefly, we said that reality consists of a desire to bestow pleasure and a desire to receive it. We learned from those sages that the desire to receive pleasure is divided into four levels, known as “still,” “vegetative,” “animate,” and “speaking.” However, it is still essentially one desire that wears different attire at different levels of development.
For example, the most basic desire in existence is to sustain oneself. At the human level, that desire would appear as being content with a shelter, be it even a tin hut, and the means to keep warm, clothed, and fed. This is the still level of desire. Just like inanimate materials that keep their atoms and molecules together but do very little else, such a person will wish only to sustain oneself, seemingly “keeping one’s atoms and molecules together” and very little else.
At the vegetative level of desire, a person will want to sustain oneself on the same level as everyone else. As all plants of a certain kind blossom and wither at the same time, such a person will want to be the same as everyone in one’s town or village, or follow the latest trend seen on TV.
If everyone is poor, that person will not feel poor as long as his or her standard of living is on a par with that of the social environment. And if the new trend in clothing is to wear the left shoe on the right foot, and vice-versa, the vegetative-level person will be more comfortable wearing the wrong shoe on the wrong foot, so long as he or she is in line with the prevailing trend in fashion.
The animate-level person differs from the vegetative-level one in that he or she begins to seek self-expression. Such a person no longer settles for being like everyone else, but needs to establish one’s individuality. For the most part, this level leads to enhanced creativity and distinction in that person’s subject of choice.
The speaking (human) level is the most complex and tricky. Here it is not enough to express oneself. On this level, the desire is to be superior. This is the desire that makes people want to be recognized as special, even unique. In other words, on that level we constantly compare ourselves to others.
Moreover, these days we cannot settle for being the best at something; we strive to be the best ever. Think of the sports statistics we constantly hear about: Michael Phelps’ ambition to break Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in swimming in the 1972 Olympic Games, or basketball players comparing themselves to Michael Jordan, or Roger Federer’s drive to keep winning tennis titles, even though he has already won more Grand Slam tournaments than anyone before him. And yet, he is still troubled by the fact that he has not won an Olympic gold medal.[i]
Sports may be a conspicuous example, but it is certainly not the exception; it is rather the norm. The film that earned the most money in its first week, the album that sold the most copies, the company that sells the most phones/computers/cars—competition and comparisons are everywhere. Ask a high school student, “Are you doing well in school?” and you will probably get an answer along the lines of, “I’m on the top five percent of my class” (assuming you have asked a good student). Thus, being good is no longer good enough; superiority has become the motto of our lives. We call it “being somebody.” Being me is not good enough; if I am not somebody, I am nobody.
There is a Hassidic tale about Rabbi Meshulam Zusha of Hanipol (Anipoli), brother of the renowned Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, one of the founders of the Hassidut. Rabbi Zusha used to say, “When I go to heaven, if I am asked, ‘Why weren’t you Elimelech (Zusha’s esteemed brother), I will know what to say. But if I am asked ‘Why weren’t you Zusha,’ I will not know what to say.”[ii] The moral is clear—be yourself and actualize your potential; this is what you need to do in life.
But Rabbi Zusha lived in the 18th century. Today, such a moral would be unacceptable because what matters is not who you are, but who you are compared to others, your position in the class percentile. When the primary motto in society is so alienating and antisocial, it is no wonder that our society is falling apart.
[i] “Roger Federer: 2016 Games possible,” Associated Press, July 26, 2012, url: http://espn.go.com/olympics/summer/2012/tennis/story/_/id/8202865/roger-federer-leaning-competing-rio-2016-body-holds-up.
[ii] School for Culture Education, Be’eri Program, Shalom Hartman Institute, June 26, 2011. url: http://www.school.kotar.co.il/KotarApp/Viewer.aspx?nBookID=98518913#24.9572.4.fitwidth. url: http://medaon.org/files/zehutariel.pdf.