Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Some (Further) Thoughts On The Individual

Reb Zusha was laying on his deathbed surrounded by his disciples. He was crying and no one could comfort him. One student asked his Rebbe, "Why do you cry? You were almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham." Reb Zusha answered, "When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won't ask me, 'Zusha, why weren't you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham,' rather, they will ask me, 'Zusha, why weren't you Zusha?' Why didn't I fulfill my potential, why didn't I follow the path that could have been mine."
Rabbi Meshulam Zusha of Anipoli, Galicia [1718-1800]

Abraham Isaac Kook [1865-1935]: "There could be a freeman with the spirit of the slave, and there could be a slave with a spirit full of freedom; whoever is faithful to his self – he is a freeman, and whoever fills his life only with what is good and beautiful in the eyes of others – he is a slave." [In "Arpilei Tohar": p. 27–28]
Photo Credit: © Perry J Greenbaum, 2012
I have been reading a book that I picked up from my son-in-law’s library, Abraham Isaac Kook: The Lights of Penitence, Lights of Holiness, The Moral Principles, Essays, Letters, and Poems (Trans and introduction by Ben Zion Bokser). Rabbi Kook (1865-1935) was a prominent Jewish thinker and Torah scholar, whose ideas continue to be studied and debated more than 75 years after his death.

In the "Introduction" of these collected essays of Rabbi Kook, Prof Bokser writes about the perils of selfish individualism, which has become a common and accepted practice for many. To make the practice more palatable, a qualifier has been placed in front of the phrase to make it sound ethical, if not moral, i.e., enlightened self-interest.
The individualism that places self-interest in opposition to a concern for others is, according to Rabbi Kook, a false individualism, which distorts life and begets pernicious consequences. It teaches men to see each other as competitors and even as enemies, instead of what they truly are, sharers in a common adventure, who are meant to collaborate, and thereby, lighten their respective burdens. In truth, self-interest merges with a concern for others, self-love expands to include the love of our fellowman. (7)
In essence, what is found here are the kernels of truth that lead to living a life of meaning, which is what every human being desires, that is, if there is awareness in their soul for such matters. Humans are more than working machines. Unlike machines, we desire meaning, and much of that meaning is bound up in a purpose for existence. Honesty compels me to say that I believe that such a purpose is closely associated to achieving a goal of goodness. That the highest goal of humanity is to do good, to better the human condition, and to seek wisdom, justice, beauty and truth.

The highest goal of the individual is to be true to his self, thus fulfilling his potential, and thus raise up others to achieve their moral and ethical goals. Again, returning to Rabbi Kook:
The yearning to effect unity and perfection in the world is part of the divine strategy to emancipate man from ignorance and parochialism. . . . In the words of Rabbi Kook: "Whenever a person raises himself through good deeds,  through a higher stirring of his yearning for godliness, for wisdom, justice, beauty and equality, he perfects thereby the spiritual disposition of all existence." (24)
Such is a heady, if not inspiring, thought. Good deeds (i.e., mitzvot) are never done in vain, and always achieve their intended, if not unknown, purpose.

Tonight at sundown marks the Jewish holiday of Purim (14th day of Adar in the Jewish calendar), a festive and joyous holiday where the Jewish People were saved from annihilation in a miraculous way. To all those celebrating, Chag Sameach Purim.