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Judaism: A Sad, Sad World

Large parts of the world and of its billions of people are enveloped in sadness, violence, injustice and death.
Published: Wednesday, March 05, 2014 11:42 AM


There is a well-known anecdote/legend that circulates in the Mussar/yeshiva circles about a young yeshiva student who left the yeshiva world and its environment to find his fortune in far distant fields. At the time that he left the yeshiva he had a beard and dressed modestly as was his Jewish tradition.

A decade later he met by chance on the street the head of his former yeshiva. The former student now was completely clean-shaven and dressed in the most modern and fashionable garb of the time. Nevertheless, the old mentor recognized his former student and engaged him in conversation.

He innocently asked him: “Since I am not a man of the world and you obviously are, would you please answer a few questions that I have about the outside society? Are most people happy or depressed? Are most people satisfied with their wealth or do they consider themselves to be poor? Are most people psychologically well adjusted or are they anxious and sometimes almost insane?

"And finally, are most people physically healthy or are they afflicted with disease, discomfort and some sort of illness?" The student was taken aback by this conversation but he dutifully replied: “Master, I must admit the truth to you. Most people are not happy, they do not consider themselves wealthy no matter how much money they have, many psychologists and therapists are doing a thriving business because a great deal of the world is dysfunctional and even somewhat crazy, and those that are sick and ill, in pain and in anxiety, far outnumber those who consider themselves completely healthy, normal and well-adjusted.”

To which the mentor commented: “So for such a sad, depressed, sick, poor world you removed your beard?!”

In our daily prayers we state: “That we should not toil for emptiness and nothingness nor should we have been born to be confused and depressed.” Judaism does not negate the outside world. It is a practical religion that deals with life as it is and does not make unrealistic demands upon its adherents.

So even though the outside world may be one of poverty, mental strain, physical pain and suffering and constant frustration; that is the world that we live in. We are not to shut ourselves in lonely solitude and become hermits. But, as I have often pointed out in these columns, Judaism is always a religion of balance.

And the balance here is not to allow us to remove our beard, so to speak, because of the pressures of the outside world and our desire to conform to its current standards and political correctness.

Like hundreds of millions, if not even billions of others. I own a cell phone. I rarely use it and for most of the time it is in the off mode. I do so purposely because I still value human conversation face-to-face. My grandchildren all text – they cannot spell correctly and many times are flustered when having to actually communicate with another human being on a personal and face-to-face basis.

The outside world tells me that I am a Neanderthal, a relic of a long past era. Maybe so, but I am not willing to ‘shave my beard’ on this issue. It represents to me a very advanced technological world that is innately sad, poor, disconnected and in very many cases very dysfunctional.

Ukraine, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Congo, Zimbabwe, Bosnia, North Korea and a host of other countries on the globe are not pleasant places to currently be in. In fact, large parts of the world and of its billions of people are enveloped in sadness, violence, injustice and death.

If one does not have principles and beliefs that transcend current events and the present situation of the outside world then one is doomed to this constant feeling of depression, tension and enormous frustration. The Torah gave us a set of principles and beliefs in order to be able to live in such an uncomfortable world and yet have a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment.

The Torah promised us eternal life and unending memory. The Torah deals with the myriad details of daily life and weaves them together into a tapestry of meaningful and satisfying values. The sadness of the outside world can be somewhat ameliorated by a sense of serenity and accomplishment in our inner world. Prayer, study, charity, good thoughts and good behavior are all part of building our inner world and allowing us to successfully deal with that most difficult and sad outer world. This is a daily lesson that should never be ignored.