We live in a world where politicians and therapists and doctors and social workers tell us that “it isn’t your fault:” the blame actually lies with our upbringing, or parentage, or environment, or discrimination, or genetic makeup. It can be anything – as long as we do not blame ourselves.
We tend to think of this mindset as somehow being unique to modern life, part-and-parcel of the welfare state, with Freudian explanations of childhood trauma, or of children raised in a spoiled environment where parents find “no” the hardest word of all.
But the mindset is not modern at all. It is in fact as old as man’s self-consciousness. From the earliest pagan religions, man has found a way to resign himself to a certain level of accomplishment. All he has had to do is decide that his fate is the will of the gods.
And in a pagan world this makes a great deal of sense. Deities after all live on a high mountain, or are forces of nature that no man could hope to stand against: the sun or the wind or the sea. Worship of pagan deities involves both acknowledging the forces of nature, and accepting whatever is doled out by those forces.
An end result is that men who worship nature wind up being enslaved to it; life as a pagan means an existence wherein one excels by being in harmony with the natural world. And being “in tune” with nature means not fighting it. It is not even resignation, so much as finding “balance”, of being happy with what one has received. This kind of worldview is conventionally considered wise and experienced.
So the history of mankind is one in which accomplishment is actually the exception, not the rule. Most societies, in most places, have advanced very little. Even today, the vast majority of people in the world are born, grow, live, and die without making a lasting impression on the world around them. Mediocrity is the dominant cultural desire, and therefore the dominant result.
Modern America, which has slipped back into a culture that celebrates only our most earthy desires and dependencies is in fact reverting to that dominant human meme throughout history. We may use labels like “discrimination” or “the rich”, but the excuse remains as old as time: Ours is the fate doled out by the gods. Any other outcome “is not meant to be.” All around us, humans are not change agents, but victims, buffeted by impersonal deities, who must be appeased through acts of sacrifice. In principle, there is no distinction between the island barbarian who sacrifices virgins to the volcano god and the modern American who self-sterilizes to “save the planet.” Both are expressions of the human desire to suffer in order to appease a larger, all-important “force.” And both are ways in which otherwise intelligent people adopt pagan worldviews in order to come to peace with their place in the world.
Enter, in the ancient world, and even today, the Torah. The Torah stands directly at odds with the pagan worldview. When Adam and Chava choose to eat the fruit, G-d teaches them that they are free to make choices, and that those choices have consequences. When Cain kills Abel, G-d teaches us that we are responsible for each other, that we are capable of mastering our own anger. And then, from beginning to end, the Torah perspective stands in direct opposition, root and branch, to the pagan worldview.
When G-d breathes his spirit into Adam, mankind becomes, not a victim of nature, but G-d’s partner, imbued with the divine capability to make and shape and improve the world around us. And the Torah tells us that this is indeed what we are meant to do in the world: love G-d as He loves us. We are to engage and love each other. Our relationship with each other and with G-d is not meant to be the impersonal pagan relationship wherein we go through the motions, and get to be bad people. On the contrary! The lessons of the Torah are that G-d profoundly wants, above all, for us to seek to better ourselves!
A loving wife does not really want her husband to bring her flowers every week. It is not about the flowers. What she wants is a husband who loves her, who remembers to think of her, who brings tokens of appreciation to show that he continues to have her in his heart.
Consider that the words of the prophets have a strong recurring theme: G-d does not, actually, want our sacrifices for their own sake. When we go through the motions without changing ourselves, we are trying to treat G-d like a pagan treats their deity, like a Gaia-worshipper dedicates themselves to “sustainability” without actually becoming a better person. What does G-d actually want? For us to treat one another with lovingkindness. For us to guard our speech and our acts and our thoughts, to improve ourselves. He wants us to love Him, to be mindful of our relationships at all times.
Ours is not a religion of submission or appeasement. G-d is not some remote force on a high mountain, or an impersonal and unknowable force like the sun. Ever since Adam was filled with the divine spirit, G-d has been found in our very souls! The Torah wants us engaged with G-d, with each other, and with ourselves – because they are one and the same!
But do we really need to go through all that work? To a simple or a lazy person, it would seem to make sense to shortcut the process. If the goal is ultimately to better ourselves, then all we have to do is to be mindful of being a good person. How hard could that be? By comparison, the rituals can seem silly, or a waste of time or energy.
But anyone in a good marriage knows otherwise. A man who marries a woman has not succeeded in marriage once she takes the ring. He succeeds after many years, after he has built a beautiful long-term relationship, one that weathers the impersonal forces of time and nature. Relationships require a never-ending stream of consideration and kindness and service, or they wither away. A husband and wife who are not engaged with each other, continuing to improve each other, will fall apart as a marriage, as a relationship. Love that is not nurtured will die.
And so G-d requires us to go through the motions – not (in the case of sacrifices) for the sake of the motions themselves, but because things like prayer and following commandments are both tokens of commitment, and required to keep the relationship fully engaging. And of course, following commandments of visiting the sick, or providing hospitality or feeding the poor are, in themselves, ways of serving G-d directly. When we change ourselves, we are serving our personal, anti-pagan, G-d.
And it is profoundly personal. The Torah tells us that G-d put his soul in us. And so our prayers, our services, our blessings, have an internal audience: G-d does not need your sacrifices, or even your blessings for their own sakes. What He really wants is for sacrifices and blessings to lead us to a closer and more intimate relationship with our own spiritual souls, and G-d on the elevated spiritual plane. Prayer is directed both outside and inside, which is why it is closely linked to meditation. The Torah has entire chapters dedicated to the spiritual illness of “tzaraat” (translated as leprosy), which occurs to people who treat others poorly, as Cain treated Abel. Seen in this light, every single law of the Torah, from sacrifices to divine services to the laws of kosher food and caring for the orphan is there for the purpose of correcting and improving ourselves.
Coming full circle, it becomes clear why those who are serious about serving “the planet” consistently give less charity than those who are serious about a Judeo-Christian religion. In a pagan world, gods merely need to be appeased, and they, through fate, will determine whether someone is healthy or sick, lives or dies. One can look at India to see the result of that kind of worldview: it is believed that everyone has a destiny, and some destinies are more fun than others. If one fails to go through the motions to appease a deity, then one can expect retribution for failing to have proper respect, but the retribution is not because a person failed to better themselves or love others. Compassion is meaningless in such a world, and so is self-improvement. A person like Mother Teresa in India had an unlimited market.
The Torah gives us a world where we can strongly influence and change our own destinies. Humans are so very powerful that only our mortality keeps us from being on G-d’s own level: “And the Lord God said, Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, what if he puts forth his hand, and takes also from the tree of life, and eats, and lives forever?” (Gen: 3:22)
Our power is huge – but it is not only limited by our mortality! Most important of all, our power is limited by whether or not we are aware of it in the first place! As and when we believe that we are masters of our own destiny, then we can change ourselves and our world. But when we feel that we are subject to the winds of fate, to a master plan of an impersonal deity, then we easily regress to an lower human condition, a condition where we no longer are aware of our own power, where we are not even aware of the difference between good and evil because we live in Gaia’s garden, in a world where nothing is our fault because nothing is our responsibility. Before they made that first choice, Adam and Chava lived in harmony with nature, with every need provided for, with no opportunity for growth or change in themselves or the world around them. If we refuse to see ourselves as both responsible for ourselves and our world, and ”like G-d” in having the power to change these things, then we indeed are nothing more than victims, nothing more than primitive barbarians in a state of nature, lifelong beneficiaries of a welfare state.