Monday, July 6, 2015

Jewish Thought: The Challenge of Change

Rav Aryeh Leibowitz

It emerges from our discussion that man is challenged to determine his own identity.  Man must choose to develop his elevated capabilities, identify with his neshama, and acquire his true tzurah.  If man does this, he earns his exalted position in the hierarchy of creation.  However, the process of achieving this goal is long and arduous.  In fact, it is particularly challenging because the greatest distraction to this pursuit is found within man himself!

Since man is born only with the potential to assume his exalted position in creation, he does not readily identify with his mission.  He is oblivious to the spiritual forces that resides dormant within him.  This is very unlike his relationship with the lower forces that are within him from birth.  Man’s lower, non-elevated, identity is his natural identity. And for this reason, it exert a great influence over him.

Moreover, it takes years until man is able to appreciate his elevated intellectual capabilities and the ensuing free will that is a product of his intellect.  Only with years of maturation does man have the ability to understand his responsibility to create for himself an elevated existence.  By this time, the grasp of his lower identity and its forces is already quite strong.  In many cases, man is not only accustomed to his lower forces, but he is also driven by habit and encouraged by his surroundings that he need not strain himself to develop his more elevated capabilities.

Man’s lower identity beckons him to pursue those acts shared with the lower strata of creation.  From his earliest years he identifies most readily with the consumption of food and drink, the construction of comfortable shelter, the development of the physical body, and engagement in reproductive activity.  It is with these pursuits that he naturally identifies.

What’s worse, man even subjugates his elevated intellect to these pursuits!  As man matures, instead of utilizing his elevated intellect to transcend the pursuits of the rest of creation, he utilizes it to achieve them with greater intensity and consistency.  Instead of using his mind for dominion over his lower identity, he uses his mind to further indulge his lower identity.

Nonetheless, man is challenged to overcome these temptations.  He is charged to ignore the voices that tell him that using his abstract thinking or his moral and emotional intelligence for gaining greater insight into the human condition is unpractical and unworldly.  Instead, he must actively pursue a process of self-change in order to actualize his potential and assume the exalted position of man in creation.  He must consciously raise himself up from the levels below him in creation – his lot upon entering the world – and strive for a more exalted position.  He must discern what inborn proclivities and natural propensities are consistent with his elevated potential and which are inconsistent.  He must realize that the later reflect his lower properties and detract from his goal of actualizing his potential.  Man must turn a critical eye on himself, and change himself for the better.

This basic fundamental principle is unfortunately ignored, at best, and more often scorned.   Convention assures us that we are who we are, and we have no reason to correct or alter how we were created.   Culture often discourages us to “change,” seeing this a “denial of self.”

However, our tradition takes the opposite approach.  We believe that man was intentionally created in an incomplete state.  By nature, man is lacking perfection, and hence there is nothing shameful in acknowledging human deficiencies.  Quite the contrary, it is shameful to deny them.  We are proud to state that man’s purpose in life is to identify his shortcoming and then seek to change for the better.  This is the very essence of man.  His elevated position in creation is only potentially his.  It is man’s mission to rise to the challenge and attempt to achieve perfection. 

This debate is not new.  The Midrash relates (Midrash Tanchuma, Tazria, 5) that the Roman General, Tarnus Rufas once approached the venerable sage, R. Akiva, and asked him what is more exalted: The creations of man or the creations of God?  R. Akiva realized immediately that the General was assaulting the Jewish institution of circumcision, branding it a mutilation of God’s creation.  R. Akiva responded to the Roman General with his own question:  What is more exalted, a stalk of grain or a loaf of bread?  The answer is obviously bread.  R. Akiva’s message to Tarnus Rufas was that human initiated acts do not diminish the greatness of God’s creations.  Quite the contrary, God created thw world in a state of imperfect and it is man’s mission to perfect it.  So too, mankind was created lacking and it is man’s responsibility to bring himself closer to perfection.  The commandment of circumcision demonstrates that man is imperfect and requires human initiative to achieve perfection and completeness.  In a sense, performance of circumcision reflects a commitment to self-development.    

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