In my regular column in Haaretz, my new article: “Connection: Something New on the Seder Menu“
This year, as we sit around the table during the Seder and talk about freedom, let’s talk about freedom from hatred
The deeper we go into 2017, the more chaotic the world appears. Today, the only thing most people can agree on is that the train of human society is derailing and the driver seat is empty.
Donald Trump is struggling to set his administration in motion against loyalists of the previous government in the media and the judiciary system. Even in his own party, Trump is battling criticism that sounds as though it came straight from a Bernie Sanders speech. In Europe, the UK has begun the Brexit process, no one is certain about the results of the breakup, nor is anyone certain about the desired direction for the EU.
A Passover Seder table setting
Today, most leaders of the European Union and MEPs agree that the bloc has lost its way. Leading figures such as Gianni Pittella state, “We need a new direction for Europe that goes toward a strong social pillar.” Similarly, Rosa D’Amato said, “There is the EU of the banks, big companies and lobbies, and the EU of the citizens; those who have lost their jobs and have no rights.”
It appears that the leading trend in the political arena is “each country for itself.” Brexit is underway, Trump’s policy is “America first,” Marine Le Pen in France and AfD in Germany are garnering support, and the majority of Swedes are supporting a Swexit. Yet, if the EU falls apart and each country must fend for itself, who will be the responsible adult calming things down when conflicts arise? In such a state, the distance between a relatively minor dispute and a full-blown war could be a matter of days.
Nature vs. Human Nature
Nobel Prize laureate in physics Dennis Gabor wrote in 1964: “Till now man has been up against Nature; from now on he will be up against his own nature.” Indeed, for several decades we have been technologically capable of providing every human being with every basic need in order to sustain ourselves. If we wanted to, we could provide everyone with fresh food and water, adequate sanitation, electricity, communication, and education.
The problem is that we have no desire to do so. Our hatred of each other is causing the most technologically advanced era in human history to produce the most widespread hunger since World War II, which in itself was the most satanic display of human hatred.
Everything around us, including our own bodies, is the outcome of different, often conflicting forces, organs, and vectors complementing one another to create the universe we live in and of which we are a part. Each part in the web that is our world contributes its share to the stability and prosperity of the system that is our world. Moreover, the higher up the evolutionary chain we climb, the more complex system of interconnection and interdependence we find, requiring a higher level of communication and connectedness among the parts.
Yet, we humans are completely opposite to nature. We strive to separate ourselves from everything as though we are not dependent upon the world around us. On every level of human existence, we strive to create “Brexits.” Even our health is affected by our mutual dislike. In an interview for Channel 2 in Israel, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times said that he asked Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, “What’s the most prevalent disease in America, is it cancer, diabetes, heart disease? He said, ‘None of those; it’s isolation!’”
It turns out that our alienation from each other is causing our personal, social, and global crises by attempting to go against the connected nature of reality. In fact, that tension between our isolationism and narcissism vs. the connectedness of reality has grown so intense that in all likelihood, it should have snapped by now. We view the global wave of terrorism as a tragedy, but for all its tragic consequences, terrorism is a way to vent ethnic and religious hatred in less injurious ways than an all-out war. Yet, clearly, this type of “pressure-relief-valve” is unbearable and unless we hurry to decompress this time bomb, it will explode in an all-out war.
The more we develop, the more connected and interdependent we become. Ironically, our narcissism is driving globalization even faster because it makes us want to exploit everyone for our own benefit, and therefore compels us to connect to other people even more tightly than before in order to use them. Yet, since our narcissism grows as well, our forced connection is becoming so painful that we are losing our ability to connect to one another properly. We either avoid connection altogether through suicide or substance abuse, or attack it by being abusive, aggressive, and sometimes even homicidal.
The Brexits brewing the world over are necessary adjustments to ease the pressure of our forced connection. Romano Prodi, former Italian Prime Minister, correctly concluded that “The EU has no strategies and there is no leader to follow. The Europe I dreamed of is dead.” He was also correct in saying, “Whoever leads a political coalition and a group of countries must consider the interests of all the members.” Since this consideration is clearly not the situation in the EU, it must be taken apart before it blows us all to pieces.
Despite the need for temporary separation, in the end we will have to join nature’s course and connect. Proper connection will be the next great challenge of humanity. Our “final frontier” is not space, as we thought back in the 1960s. Our final frontier is our connections with the people with whom we live. Our connections with the people around us and the connections among societies and countries will determine the fate of humanity.
The first step toward building a sustainable society is to understand that whether we like it or not, there is mutual responsibility between us. In the 1930s, the greatest commentator on The Book of Zohar, Rav Yehuda Ashlag, wrote an essay titled “Peace in the World” where he observed that we are all interdependent. In his words: “We can no longer speak or deal with just conducts that guarantee the well-being of one country or one nation, but only with the well-being of the whole world because the benefit or harm of each and every person in the world depends and is measured by the benefit of all the people in the world.” What was true in the 1930s is far more so today, but we have yet to come to terms with the fact that mutual dependence implies mutual responsibility.
In fact, Judaism is built on educating people toward connection. Now that we are nearing Passover, it is a good time to remind ourselves that we were declared a nation only after we agreed to unite “as one man with one heart.”
Throughout our formative years as a nation, we strove to enhance our connection over the hatred that erupted among us. We turned connecting above hatred into an ideology that has survived throughout the generations. King Solomon said, “Hate stirs strife, and love covers all crimes” (Prov 10:12). Likewise, the book Likutey Etzot (Assorted Counsels) writes, “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 your own 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.” Additionally, the book Letters of the Raiah declares that “The great rule about the war of views, when each view comes to contradict another, is that we need not contradict it, but rather build above it, and thereby ascend.” Finally, just last year, Andrés Spokoiny, president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network said, “Respect and disagreement have historically been a major part of who we are. We are a people that believes that disagreement is a way to refine our moral compass. We are the people that taught the world to embrace diversity and celebrate the difference.”
At the Forefront of Connection
Recently, as Mr. Spokoiny also noted during his speech, we have seen “an unprecedented polarization and ugliness in the Jewish community. Those who think differently are considered enemies or traitors, and those who disagree with us are demonized.”
Once we understand that our problem is our separation and mutual hatred, we must strive toward the opposite. When we Jews united at the foot of Mt. Sinai, we were immediately tasked with setting an example of unity so the world could unite, as well. In other words, we were commanded to be “a light unto nations.” We did not know how, but we were willing to try. This is all that is required of us today.
Similarly, in the essay I mentioned earlier, “Peace in the World,” Rav Ashlag writes that we will not know how to connect until we try. In his words, “Such is the conduct of the development in nature—the act comes before the understanding, and only actions will prove and push humanity forward.”
We Jews are at the forefront of science, technology, and finance. Yet, what the world needs is for us to be at the forefront of connection. As Mr. Spokoiny said, “The collapse of civility is not just a Jewish problem. We as Jews are like everybody else, just a little bit more so.” Yet, we as Jews are the only ones who are expected to be a role model of unity and civility, and not an example of the opposite. The severity with which the UN judges Israel compared to all other countries in the world combined is not merely an expression of anti-Semitism. Underneath the hatred lies the expectation from the Jews to be “a light unto nations,” meaning to lead the world in the opposite direction—from hate to love. When that expectation meets the harsh reality of our separation, it results in anger toward us, which then turns into hatred. We call this anti-Semitism. What flames it is not whether we are leftist globalists or hardline conservative isolationists. Rather, its fuel is our treatment of our coreligionists, regardless of their political or economic views.
We must use every opportunity at our disposal to try to reverse the trend toward isolation. Next week, as we sit around the table during the Seder and talk about freedom, let’s talk about freedom from hatred. Let’s really think about what it means to be “a light unto nations” and why there is anti-Semitism. If we do, this may very well turn out to be our most meaningful and memorable Passover night, ever!
Just last month, EU President Antonio Tajani stated before the EU Parliament: “Today more than ever we need show that these challenges can only be overcome if we are united.” Everyone understands that unity is imperative, but only our nation has a hidden key to make love cover all crimes, as King Solomon put it. If “the act comes before the understanding,” as Ashlag wrote, then let’s act on unity and see what it produces. Whatever happens, if we aim for unity, we can’t go wrong.