In my regular column in Haaretz, my new article: “Good Luck Donald, Because We All Need to Trump the Ego“
We can make Donald Trump’s inauguration the start of a new future, now all it takes is our determination.
Today, Donald Trump becomes the 45th President of the United States. But I am still not sure if we should congratulate him or comfort him on his inauguration. Wherever you look, there are chaos, helplessness, and hopelessness. In the 20th century, humankind’s unalloyed egoism has brought nature to its knees. In the 21st century, it is bringing humankind to its knees.
Since September 11, 2001, when al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four passenger jets, demolished the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon, and killed 3,000 people, the US has been at war with Islamist terrorism. Since 2011, when the Arab Spring broke out, the Arab world has been devastated as regimes all over the Near and Middle East collapsed and entire nations lapsed into deadly chaos that has claimed the lives of millions of civilians. To date, with the exception of Israel and partially Jordan, no country in the Middle East enjoys stability and relative normalcy.
The wave of migrants following the collapse of governance all over the Muslim world has prompted a tsunami of migration into Europe. The Europeans, who were already struggling to recover from a financial crisis—a ripple effect of the US 2008 near meltdown of Wall Street—found themselves overwhelmed and literally raped by unabashed, predominantly male swells of vociferous Muslim migrants demanding to be treated as proprietors, not as refugees.
As the European mayhem unfolded, the US did not lag far behind. Violence has spread throughout the country, Muslim terrorism has struck hard several times, racial tensions have intensified significantly leading to frequent aggression, and anti-Semitism, which was already terrifying Europe’s Jews, has spread throughout US academic institutions and has begun to spill over to the streets.
And as if all this is not enough, nature has begun to avenge man’s abuse through massive earthquakes and tsunami in Japan, Haiti, and other places, record setting worldwide temperatures three years in a row, and a general sense of helplessness before the ire of nature. Who would have thought that in the 21st century, Parisians, once the dwellers of the capital of “good life,” would be told “not to fear wolves roaming Paris streets as they only eat four-legged animals.” Let’s face it; the world’s a mess.
Even at Davos, Forbes Magazine concluded that “It appears that a dramatically new world disorder … has begun to emerge, calling into question the viability of the post-war, liberal international order.” And so, before Chinese fake food factories manage to poison their entire nation out of sheer greed, before Europe plunges into total disarray as the EU crumbles, before the US army declares martial law within the United States to curb violent riots, and before the Jews are slaughtered the world over, let’s stop for a moment. Instead of panicking, let’s climb aboard an imaginary plane and look at our reality from a bird’s eye view.
We really, really need to make some sense of the new world disorder
That Sweet and Evil Nectar
Rav Yehuda Ashlag, known as Baal HaSulam (author of The Ladder) for his Sulam (Ladder) commentary on The Book of Zohar, was the greatest kabbalist of the 20th century. He was also the father of my teacher, Rav Baruch Ashlag (RABASH), who continued his father’s teachings and inherited his manuscripts. One night, as I was sifting through letters that Baal HaSulam had written to his students, I came across an allegory that had touched me very deeply. Baal HaSulam wrote there that egoism is like a sweet, yet poisonous nectar placed on the tip of a sword. The nectar is so sweet and so addictive that anyone who finds it is compelled to lift the sword up to his mouth, stretch out his tongue, and let the nectar drop onto it, drop by drop, by drop, until the poison overcomes him and he dies.
That sweet and evil nectar is our ego. The ego promised us that capitalism would make everyone rich. But once people became rich, the ego made them snatch everything for themselves and leave nothing for others. The ego also promised us that communism would make everyone equal and ensure that everyone were well-fed, well-clothed, and healthy. But once the champions of communism became rulers, the ego took over and equality and well-being for the people went out the window and into the Siberian permafrost. The ego also promised us that liberalism would guarantee our freedom of speech and freedom of thought, but once it took the reins, it alienated us from one another through political correctness. In the name of the First Amendment, the ego has driven us so far apart that people feel that it’s okay to ban family members just because they aren’t liberals, too.
All of these false promises of the ego are the poisonous nectar. They are all sweet when we first taste them, but they all turn out sour and leave us hungrier and sicker than before. We need the real cure!
When Life Serves You Lemons…
“When life serves you lemons,” goes the saying, “turn them into lemonade.” The ego is a huge lemon. No other species has been dealt this type of snag. All other parts of nature—animals, plants, and even minerals—run merrily along with nature’s perfect balance between the positive and negative forces that create ebb and flow, day and night, summer and winter, and life and death. We, on the other hand, have been given only the negative—an ever growing desire to take, and no desire to give (unless we can receive more in return).
Thousands of years ago, our ancient Hebrew sages noticed this and noted, “The inclination of a man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen 5:21). However, they did not settle for pointing out the problem; they devised a recipe for turning sour lemons into sweet lemonade.
The first to do this was Abraham the Patriarch, whose legacy of mercy set the foundation of what was later to become the law of Israel: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
But the ego did not rest; it kept on growing. Maimonides tells us (Mishneh Torah) that Abraham bequeathed his teaching to his sons and his disciples, who continued to develop it over the years. Finally, under Moses’ leadership, Abraham’s group was told that they could either unite “as one man with one heart,” and thereby become a nation, or the mountain of Sinai (from the Hebrew word, sinaah [hatred]), which had been turned over them like a vault, would be their tomb (Masechet Shabbat). They chose unity.
At that moment, the lemons had turned into lemonade. The people of Israel discovered that if they did not suppress the mountain of hatred that arose between them, but covered it with love, then this unleashed the positive, balancing force that exists everywhere in nature but in humanity. The book, Likutey Etzot (Assorted Counsels), describes this process in the following way: “The essence of peace is to connect two opposites. Hence, do not be alarmed if you see a person whose view is the complete opposite of yours and you think that you will never be able to make peace with him. Also, when you see two people who are completely opposite to each other, do not say that it is impossible to make peace between them. On the contrary, the essence of peace is to try to make peace between two opposites.”
Between Right and Left
Kabbalah likes to use a term called “three lines,” which it divides into “right,” “left,” and “middle” line. The left line is the ego. We have plenty of this. The right line is the desire to give, Abraham’s quality of mercy. The middle line doesn’t exist independently; it is the result of well-maintained balance between the ego and the quality of mercy, between the right and left lines.
When you look at nature, you do not see three lines; you see harmony. This harmony is the result of the perfect balance that exists between the two desires in nature. Because we humans are devoid of the right line, the quality of mercy, it is very easy to distinguish the ego, and it is very clear that we must supplement it with the quality of mercy. The bigger the ego, the more mercy it requires in order to balance it and create a sustainable middle line. It turns out that the intensification of the ego is happening precisely so we will add the quality of mercy and cover our egos with it.
Our sages knew this wisdom and therefore never tried to crush the ego or suppress it. They knew it was a necessary basis upon which to build the quality of mercy. And in the process of building it, they grasped the secret of nature’s harmony—the perfect balance between the right and left lines.
As the ego kept evolving, so did the methods of supplementing it. The Book of Zohar writes in the portion, Aharei Mot: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to also sit together. These are the friends as they sit together, and are not separated from each other. At first, they seem like people at war, wishing to kill one another. Then they return to being in brotherly love. …And you, the friends who are here, as you were in fondness and love before, henceforth you will also not part … And by your merit there will be peace in the world.”
Making Lemonade in the 21st Century
What worked for the authors of The Zohar would not work for us. We are simply too selfish to be able to introduce the right line in the same way the authors of The Zohar did it.
To counterweigh the ego, we first need to balance the intolerable inequality in our society. Data revealed just recently shows that inequality in the United States has increased so much that today’s top one percent “earn 81 times more” than the bottom 50 percent. (Note, not the poorest, but the bottom fifty percent of the American population.) “This ratio of 1 to 81 is similar to the gap between the average income in the United States and the average income in the world’s poorest countries,” such as “the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and Burundi.”
Among many opinion leaders and politicians, there is a growing realization that some form of basic income must be guaranteed to all. They realize that in a world of growing income-insecurity due to automation and globalization, the risk of social instability will grow the more permanent joblessness becomes ubiquitous. When people have no way of providing for their families and for themselves, they become desperate, and therefore dangerous. One way or another, governments will have to find a way to guarantee that entire populations do not go hungry.
However, giving away money without any strings attached will not taper the risk of civil unrest. If people have nothing to do all day and no commitment to anyone, they will become loose cannons that will undoubtedly explode. Considering that our self-absorption does not stop growing just because we aren’t employed, it is not hard to imagine what city streets will look like a few years from now.
In light of all this, what we can and must do is stipulate participation in “connection trainings” as a precondition for reception of the basic income. In these trainings, people will learn about nature’s balance, human nature’s imbalance, and the need to supplement the ego with mercy to create harmonious balance. In other words, they will learn about the three lines.
But they will not only learn; they will participate in introducing the quality of mercy to humanity, just as the ancient Hebrews did more than two millennia ago. Throughout the world, my students conduct what they have termed “connection circles.” In these circles, strangers, people of different backgrounds, and even people engaged in active conflicts, learn to care for one another in ways they never thought possible.
The circle is used to indicate that everyone is equal. When this is so, no one dominates or imposes his or her view, and everyone listens to everyone else. The goal of the circle is to strive to connect people by trying to rise above the ego. As people do this, they release the quality of mercy that exists everywhere in nature but in us, which then covers our selfishness with care for others. There is no delay; participants feel within a few minutes the impact of the right line—the positive force—and how it balances the left line, the ego. Allegorically, you could say that in the circle, we take the lemon from the left, the sugar from the right, and in the middle, we make the lemonade. The above link demonstrates how this is done, as does this clip, and this (the latter is Hebrew speaking; make sure the Subtitles option is switched on), even among Arabs and Jews. In these circles, people can rise above their hatred and release the quality of mercy (or the right line) into the circle.
Such circles can also be conducted over the internet. Already, some countries conduct online connection circles with dozens, sometimes hundreds of people simultaneously, grouped into circles of 8-10 people, though the participants may be in different places and even different countries. If such techniques were to be employed en masse, it would change the atmosphere throughout the world. People would become geared toward connection rather than confrontation. The streets would be safer, families calmer, and people would actually smile at each other on the street.
If we do this right, people will understand that the ego is a part of who we are, and that it is not meant to be used as a means for overcoming others, but for connecting with them on a higher level. When people grasp that this is how nature’s forces work, they will know how to direct their lives appropriately going forward.
As time goes by, people will need to develop new methods to connect themselves above their growing egos. But since they will have grasped life’s fundamental principle of right, left, and middle line, they will find new ways to connect, rather than turn back to violence. The three lines principle, if implemented, will guarantee peace, prosperity, and happiness on Earth.
I do hope that the inauguration of Donald J. Trump will also be the beginning of a new future for humanity, one where sour lemons immediately turn into sweet and healthy lemonade. We have the knowledge; we have the means; all it takes is our determination.