Artificial Intelligence and Self Esteem
Philosophers have long pondered the question; What defines life and where is the “self” located. These basic metaphysical questions are not merely philosophical questions, but rather have important practical applications regarding ethical debates like euthanasia, assisted suicide and the source of self esteem to name a few.
When considering the differences between animals, plants and stones it isn’t hard to find differences. Rocks don’t reproduce, eat or have living cells in them. Plants have limited mobility and don’t outwardly display emotions or cognition like animals do. When it comes to the question regarding the differences between animals and humans the lines become more grey and when we consider artificial intelligence the question is even more puzzling and thought provoking.
Two basic streams of thought in philosophy are dualism and materialism. Dualism as introduced by Rene Descartes views the mind as an independent metaphysical entity which is ultimately separable from the body. This continues along the lines of the philosophy of Hippocrates who introduced the concept of vitalism which describes our life force as vital energy. In short they believed in the existence of the soul. Materialism views our entire existence as a purely material series of physical chemicals and components. In short, their view is that there is no soul.
Modern philosophers have revelled in the the theory of Darwin which claims that people have evolved from animals. Thus, accordingly we are just extremely well adapted animals and have no unique soul that separates us from animals. When comparing animals and humans, the question often becomes clouded by the myriad of tricks humans can perform, showing their superior intelligence. Truthfully, this isn’t enough to show a significant difference between humans and animals. The argument is best highlighted by discussing artificial intelligence.
Imagine a super robot that acted and looked exactly like a human. It learned and adapted to new situations and was impossible to tell apart from a human without cutting it open. Modern philosophers have asserted that there really isn’t a difference between this super robot and a human. This isn’t very surprising considering that the Nazi regime used Darwin’s theories as a springboard for philosophically justifying mass murder. If humans don’t truly have a soul that is unique, then what awards them individual rights and freedoms? When animals seek survival they kill the weaker of the species to continue. What makes us any different?
I will soon return to the argument and present the vital difference between humans and animals, but let us first consider a couple of points. G-d could certainly create a world of evolving species and also decide at a certain point in time to introduce a unique soul in humanity. That would not be a problem for G-d. It is not a powerful question on the text of the Torah which makes no mention of evolution, because the Torah seeks to explain ethical concepts rather than scientific ones. The torah doesn’t discuss dinosaurs or porcupines for that matter. It simply has a different goal than science which observes the observable and seeks to answer the question of how things function and develop, while Torah answers the question of why we a here.
The true question for scientists who believe that life is a random series of events is where the origin of life comes from. Richard Dawkins is a scientist who believes strongly that there is no G-d. He authored a book called “The G-d Delusion” to publicize his views and popularize them. In the documentary “Expelled” by actor Ben Stein, Ben Stein interviews Richard Dawkins and asks him where the origin of life comes from. He responds that “no one knows what the origin of life is, but there is a signature of sorts in all life.” He then suggests that “perhaps it was aliens that designed us, but that still leaves the question of where the aliens came from.” Even Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist believes it intelligent design! Give the interview a watch on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t09Pzg9MSZ8.
So, let’s return to the original question. What is the difference between a human being and a really well designed robot? Which would you rather marry, a robot or a human? Hopefully, you answered a human, but why? Imagine you married the robot and your anniversary comes around. Your robot spouse writes you an absolutely beautiful poem. How do you feel receiving it? What’s missing? A robot can only do what it was programmed to do. A human being chooses to write a poem for you and strives to make it beautiful and relevant to your taste and relationship out of its own will to connect with you and nurture the relationship.
Think about any great hero. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Hellen Keller. What makes them great? Every great hero had a difficult challenge before them. Instead of caving in like many of us would, they chose to persevere and rise above the challenge for some valuable principle. At the end of their life, humanity cheers their accomplishments. Even if a robot performs many more tasks, they get no applause, because they merely did what they were programmed to do.
When we exercise our free will to make moral choices, we don’t do what we are programmed to do, but rather go against our programming to create a new program for ourselves. If we have a propensity towards anger and we use our free will to choose not to get angry, then we have reprogrammed ourselves. This is what the Torah calls the tzelem Elokim, meaning that we are created in the image of G-d, with a highly developed soul. An animal does not have that trait. If you look at two baby animals of the same species, you can approximately explain what they will do with their lives. Two human babies are completely unpredictable. One may choose to be Einstein and the other a horrible tyrant.
When Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge the first thing they did was hide. They were so embarrassed by the poor choice that they had made that they hid. We can see that their self esteem fell because of their act. By making a poor moral choice they were one step closer to associating themselves with something animalistic. Our self esteem is directly linked to our recognition of our unique G-dly souls. If we believe that we have unique divine souls, then we believe that we have unique divine missions on earth. Every day becomes a new chapter in the saga of our cosmic destiny on Earth. It is truly wondrous and amazing. On the other hand if we believe that we are no different from animals and have no divine soul, then we also have no divine mission on Earth. We are just random particles playing out a meaningless maze. That should be fine with us if we are no different than animals. They are perfectly happy being what they are. Somehow, we can’t seem to find true happiness without seeking, accomplishing and conquering our nature. Perhaps that itself is evidence that we are truly unique. We should all start our days with the phrase “I accept upon myself the positive commandment from the Creator of the universe to love others as I love myself.” Try it and it will change your life!
The Sparks Of inspiration
“What are we, but earth, and sky, and seas, stars above, spaces in between the wisdom of a dream.”
Benami- from the lyrics of “The Wisdom of a dream”
We spoke last time about the Or Ain Sof (infinite light) being constricted and returning into itself to leave the makom panoy (dark space) as a palate for existence. We see this every time there is the development of a new world when we’re speaking kabbalistically or in the development of new levels of maturity when we’re speaking about ourselves. There is a flash of light and then the light recedes to leave a dark space as a palate for growth. Let’s explain the reason technically and then try to understand its application to our own personal growth.
Why would a flash of light be emitted just to then recede afterwards?
Darkness only exists in contrast to light. There can be no darkness without there first having been light there. It’s like the expansion of the universe. Space is being created that didn’t exist before, we too are expanding into a new space that never existed when we develop as individuals. We don’t have the ability to imagine what we have the potential to become; sort of. Another reason why there must be a flash of light that recedes afterward is that we get a flash of what we can become before we enter the darkness. It’s like a child who wants to become a doctor. Why do they want to become a doctor? Most likely it’s because they met a doctor and thought “I want to be like that.” Not because they saw all the work that it will take to become a doctor and desired to go through that rigorous process. It’s a flash of inspiration that can carry us through the darkness and also becomes a map for our growth. It’s like being in a dark room and wanting to get to a door on the other side. There is a flash of light so you can begin to get directed and then it’s dark again.
Phosphors are a substance that retain light and then glow in the dark. That’s why white materials glow brightly in black light. We too have to express our gratitude when the lights are bright and take a snapshot of the good times to fuel us through the darkness.
When this first light bursts forth we have an expression from The Infinite, which means that The Infinite is already expanding, so to speak to begin forming the earliest makeup of our universe. This expansion is described by the first letter; yud of the four letter name of The Creator. The yud represents the information or the seed that will become the gift of life. The yud has a gematria of 10 and represents the seed of all ten sefiros (expressions) that are going to follow. The Heh represents the planning and flushing out of the idea into a structured plan. Heh is gematria 5 and and represents the hand that gives us the gift of life. The vav is the next 6 sefiros which are the outstretched arm delivering the gift of life through a process of building the world and everything in it. It’s also like the 6 sides of a cube which is our space to actualize our potential. The final Heh represents the final sefirah of Malchus and is also gematria 5 which represents the hand that receives the gift of life. That’s our choice and participation in the process of connecting worlds and building a divine relationship. That’s the center point to the cube that we mentioned. It’s the deep and internal purpose of life that is central to the structure of all existence.
When the light expands out of The Infinite it is becoming more defined, so to speak in its expression. Yet let’s remember that it is still nonetheless infinite light and remains at its core infinite. Just like we are an expression of a soul that’s rooted in the infinite, we are at the same time a body with a limited perception. The infinite aspect of the light returns to it’s source in The Infinite, leaving behind a dark space, but also a residue of light so to speak, which was left behind to become the most descript expression of that light in the formation of vessels. It’s like a person contains within them the ability to have children. The children will be an extension of their parents, so to speak, because they are made from their DNA, but they will also be an independent entity. The light recedes very much like a parent steps back to allow the child some space to learn how to stand on their own. The child is now the most expressive and compressed element of the parent. It is the most physical and undeveloped expression of a grown person with complete potential and room for growth. When we see that flash of inspiration that points us in the direction we should explore in life it is an expansion of The Infinite reaching to us and communicating with us about how we can grow in our lives. The inspiration recedes back into The Infinite and we then begin the process of hard work to try and grasp what we tasted in that moment of inspiration.
We now have the residue of the original light that went back up which is a light of rachamim (mercy) and then a second expression of light which is at a much lower intensity. This second light also recedes back to the infinite producing the Or hadin (the light of judgment or boundaries). Just like a parent communicates to a child by giving them something it also communicates by taking something away. Either way its a message from the same source, the expression is just as much a revelation of the will of the parent. The light of the original residue and the light of din come together or crash into each other and this creates the birth of a new light called Nitzotzos (sparks).
So here’s our process; the child wants to become a doctor because of an original inspiration of seeing the doctor. The light is removed so to speak, because the child must embark on a journey to actually become the doctor, but a memory or residue remains and will provide a key ingredient to the child’s success. Now the child begins it’s study and there is a considerable amount of encouragement, talent and recources given to the child to grow and advance, but it is a greatly reduced amount of light to allow the child to be a part of the process. The child becomes a doctor and now the ease of being in school (a sheltered environment) is removed and the child must perform surgery and make tough calls, maybe lose some lives along the way. The strength that’s produced by this process is the Or hadin. Now the memory of that doctor who was the original inspiration returns to the mind of the young doctor, like Obi-Wan-Kenobi the visiting hologram strengthens Luke in his fight against the dark side. In our case the dark side is the Or hadin and it is all from one holy source of course. The challenge and the inspiration collide together to give birth to the ultimate finished product; a well balanced doctor who is now ready to embark on the next journey; inspiring the next generation.
A World Upside Down
I’m searching myself again, like a whole new stranger, with a million more sides, that I never knew I’m digging even deeper, becoming more refined, there’s a treasure inside this mine that’s mine
Benami- from the lyrics of “The Elul Song”
The month of Elul is the time that Jews start thinking about the high holy days approaching. Rosh Hashanah is known as the yom hadin, (a day of judgement) meaning that since human beings were created on Rosh Hashanah we as a species are judged by our Creator as He takes an inventory, so to speak, to decide how we have fulfilled our potential thus far. It would be like auditing your own business. You set a goal and then check in on how you have done in order to mark your progress. You then decide whether the project is successful or not. If it is too far below standard you may choose to abandon the project entirely. Obviously if it is going well, you will choose to invest more energy in the project for the coming year.
Humanity as a whole is compared on Rosh Hashanah with the overall goal of creation and each individual is likewise held up against their own personal potential and decisions are made regarding the best way to proceed with the project. Being under this scrutinous lens is called din or judgement.
We generally turn away frightened at the idea of being judged. I mean who wants to be scrutinized and judged? In a Kabbalistic sense judgement or din means a constriction of light or another way of putting it is a hiddenness of G-d’s presence, which means we will face hard times. What is less known and spoken about is another Kabbalistic concept which describes the revelation of light or an increase in the presence of G-d as din or constriction in itself of an even greater nature than His hiddenness.
Let me explain; in the beginning there was only Atzmo, which means the Creator Himself, which is something we cannot discuss other than to mention it, because we cannot grasp it. Atzmo created something called Ein sof, the infinite. The Infinite is giving off Or Ain Sof which is infinite light. The Ain Sof restricted His light so to speak and almost all of that light returned to the Or Ain Sof and was nullified within the Or Ein Sof, leaving a dark space called the challal which is now a makom or space for existence. The Or Ain Sof then injects a kav (beam) of light into the Challal in order to reveal Itself as the universe we live in including all its parts physical and spiritual.
The first concept to understand is that the original creation of the Ein Sof, Infinite, is a hiddenness of the Creator Himself in order for there to be revelation. The Or Ain Sof even though it is infinite is still somewhat describable meaning that it is yet a further hiddenness of the Creator Himself, but a revelation of Ein Sof (the Infinite). The Challal is now a hiddenness of the Or Ain Sof (Infinite light), but a revelation of Ein Sof (the Infinite) which cannot be truly described by the Or (light) coming from it. The challal (empty space) is now a greater hiddenness of Atzmo (the Creator) in order for there to be a revelation. Now when the kav of light enters the Challal, it becomes a hiddenness of the Challal, but a revelation of the Or Ain Sof and yet another level of hiddenness of Atzmo Baruch Hu(the Creator may He be blessed). We find that there are two forms of light. Black light and white light.
In the physical world black light means ultra violet rays are being emitted which are invisible to us. They also happen to cause harm to the skin causing burns and cancer. Similarly the Challal (empty space) is as much a revelation from the Holy one as the flash of visible light is. In fact it turns out that the Challal must be stronger than the light contained within it, otherwise it would not be strong enough to contain the light within it. Just like a styrofoam cup is not strong enough to house molten lead. It must be strong enough to hold the light within it, i.e the kav which is more like coffee to the Challal. Therefore there is a more powerful revelation to us through gevurah (restraint and hiddenness) then there is through chesed (kindness), because the gevurah of the challal precedes the kav of Or and must be able to contain it.
So what does that really mean to us? It means that our natural reaction to suffering and darkness is to run, because we don’t understand that the darkness is our greatest and only opportunity to express ourselves. Every level of growth is only enabled by another level of constriction. Hence all the worlds are built upon this tzimtzum (constriction of light) and so are our characters. We often try to teach ourselves to focus on the positive. What that means to us is that we focus on things that we recognize as chesed (kindness from the Creator) and look away from things that we recognize as gevurah (hardship). The problem is that it’s only a trick and a hard one to do, because the gevurah (challenges) are painful and we are fooling ourselves if we try to ignore them. Our suffering really remains deep inside and we remain repressed and unexpressed. We need to learn to rather see the gevurah (restraint) as chesed (loving kindness) and the chesed (kindness) as gevurah (restraint). Would we really prefer an easy life void of challenges and no true pleasure? The truth is that every revelation of light is only a chesed if we have the kelim (vessels) to appreciate it as a revelation. Otherwise it is like seeds thrown into the garbage which can never sprout. The hard times are the Creator’s greatest chesed (kindnes), because they are only in order for us to build our kelim (vessels or tolerance and character traits) and hence truly taste the pleasure of the chasadim (kindness).
Remember that before the constriction of light forming the challal (empty space) there is a burst of Or Ain Sof (infinite light, wisdom, love) to be constricted. That means that you will always get a flash of revelation and chesed (kindness) to reveal your ultimate goal before you fall into the hard times. We usually speak about a yeridah (falling) letzorech aliyah (to facilitate rising up). Now I’m talking about an aliyah letzorech yeridah (rising in order to fall). We are shown a flash of vision to awaken in us a desire for growth. The desire for growth is answered from above with a new level of challenge. A part of us dies in order for new growth, but before that a part of us lives in order to die.
There is a substance called phosphors. They retain light and continue to glow in the dark. In fact they appear to glow even brighter in the dark. That’s what you see glowing under a black light. They are phosphors contained in the white materials. For us in our avodah (process of growth) phosphors would be our practicing a recognition of the good and appreciation and gratitudein the times of chesed (revealed kindness from the creator) so much so that we retain the light and glow in the dark and challenging times ahead. Then when the light is removed so to speak creating a space for our growth, we shine brighter in the dark than we ever could have shined in the light. Indeed the negative space will enable the next ray of light to come into our lives for the development of the next phase of our growth. If we cherish the darkness for what it enables us to do we can actually start to perceive the uv rays so to speak that are the black light of tzimtzum (constriction), because we have chosen to see with eyes that are more a tuned than to just the physical, rather a tuned to the spiritual. When the going gets rough, just know that the boss has a bigger project for you to accomplish. Therefore you must be very valued in the company. Accept the challenge with joy and if your challenge is that you cannot be joyful then be joyful for that. Great things have certainly already arrived.
The Power Of Speech
“There’s something flowing now, from the depths of my being. It’s secure and simple, conscious, complete and freeing.”
Benami-from the lyrics of “Say Something”
What makes the power of speech so special and unique to human beings?
In my last blog I spoke about free will being one of the main characteristics of human beings and how it separates us from the animals. Another quality that is unique to human beings is our capacity for conscious, complex communication. Let’s imagine a married couple on the night of their tenth anniversary. They slide into their seats in a candlelit corner of their favorite restaurant. They exchange gifts as the wine reaches the table. She loves the earrings! Clearly he was paying attention when they passed the jewelry store and she noticed them. He loves the card! It’s even better than the watch she gave him, because she is such an expressive writer and is revealing new levels of depth and appreciation for their connection and relationship. She is disappointed that his card simply states the Hallmark poem with his quick addition of “happy anniversary.”
“Come to think of it, he does a lot of nice things for me, but he never tells me that he loves me,” she thinks. The food reaches the table. He was keen enough to order her favorite appetizer. There is an odd silence as they wait for the main course. Especially strange considering they have been married for ten years, but don’t have much to say.
Why is it so important to her that he actually verbalize his love for her? Why does it matter that he didn’t write anything original on the card or that there is silence at the table, even though he has expressed appreciation and love by giving her a present that shows his attention to her desires? Speech is so innate to our expression as human beings that our thoughts come mostly in the form of words. We can express much of our essence with the words that we choose to use. We can also hide the essence of who we are by using words that are not fitting or appropriate for the sensitivity of our souls.
In the story above, the wife wants to hear her husband’s words, because when we speak we reveal more of the essence of our feelings than with what we physically give . She sees his gifts, but she will never experience first hand that how he feels for her is genuinely a part of his essence until he says it. Closeness and depth of relationship are built through the power of speech.
Words create new realities A father tells his son that he will definitely be at his little league game tonight. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he calls as he heads out the door to the office. The boy has little hope left that his father will actually come to the game. Unfortunately, there’s still a little glimmer of hope that stings worse than outright rejection. He knows all too well that his father’s words hold little weight and he wishes he would just say, “No, I can’t make make it,” instead of breaking his words time and time again.
Words affect our view of the world One girl exclaims to another, “Oh my gosh she is so awkward, she came into class the other day wearing rain boots and a rain jacket and it was totally sunny outside.” The other girl thinks, “I had never noticed that she was awkward, but now that you mention it…”
Our words can bring others down A man walks in the door after a full days work and trips over a pile of shoes and miscellaneous objects in front of the door. “This place is like a war zone!” he comments, not knowing that his wife has spent hours trying to straighten up and it still isn’t making a dent. His wife feels hurt and unappreciated. Running the house is almost too hard. Her husband’s comment is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It is too hard, she doesn’t know how she’s going to survive with such pressure.
Our words can build others self confidence A son says something quite inappropriate to his sister at the dinner table. His father lovingly explains, “For someone as sweet and sensitive as you, it just isn’t fitting to speak like that.” His son feels important and recognized. He cannot speak to his sister like that when there is so much love present in the room. He feels driven to improve.
We can inspire people and we can destroy them with our words. I had a teacher who used to say that if we try to stop speaking badly about others, the negative words will eventually break through, because until we start to judge and view people in a positive light we are merely acting positive and a mere act cannot last forever. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t “fake it till we make it,” but ultimately we must learn to focus on the positive. Then our words will naturally be words of gratitude, words of inspiration, and words of truth.
WHAT IS FREEDOM?
I asked on Facebook “what is freedom?” The answers came in abundance and what I found to be most intriguing was the variety of definitions for one conceptual term. To summarize the comments, the discussion group said freedom is; controlling your ultimate destiny, peace of mind, overcoming fear, actualizing potential, freedom to make good choices, freedom to make bad choices, freedom from physicality, not having anyone make you do anything…
I find that the dictionary is always an unexpected (ha ha) but reasonable place to start when looking for definitions. The first definition listed for freedom is “the state of being free or at liberty rather than in confinement or under physical restraint: He won his freedom after a retrial.” The variety of definitions that we saw on Facebook were a result of how the concept of leaving restraints applies to each one of us individually. So the definitions aren’t so varied, it’s our experiences, of what keeps each of us confined, that vary.
I would like to break down our definitions into two distinct categories of freedom; physical freedom and spiritual or mental/emotional freedom. When we define freedom as leaving physical confines, as does the dictionary, it seems to be lacking a complete picture that many of us internally understand. We realize that while the prisoner may be freed from prison, if he is still living without the ability to make proactive decisions we will not truly call him free. On the other hand, someone who can find joy in simply existing without the aid of any physical comfort could be called free even in a prison cell. We will call spiritual freedom a more real sense of freedom than physical freedom, because physical freedom only lasts as long as you are physically free, but once someone is truly spiritually free there is nothing that can confine them.
For those who defined freedom as being able to do what you want when you want. The issue is, who are you and what do you really want? If you can say in one breath that you want to quit smoking and then a moment later say that you want a cigarette, then which you is you? Obviously there are two yous. A higher more spiritual self that wants to quit and a lower more physical self that wants a cigarette. Having what you want when you want it essentially means being rich. Jewish wisdom asks in the Ethics of the Fathers, “who is the wealthy person? One who is happy with their portion.” Knowing that every concept has a physical and also a spiritual definition, the sages flipped the word wealthy on its side revealing that true wealth is spiritual wealth i.e. being happy with and making the best of your personal circumstances, even if it means that you are not monetarily wealthy. One added addendum to physical freedom is that being able to do what you want when you want physically is not truly freeing either. Proper boundaries are necessary for true enjoyment. For example, a society cannot function without a system of justice.
Yet, spiritual freedom still requires a concrete definition. In the Facebook discussion, Benami drummer Graham Tugetman defined freedom as actualizing your potential. This really hits the nail on the head, because the purpose of our being created is to learn to express our spiritual potential in the physical world. When we can’t achieve that we remain trapped in a state of confinement. In the classic sci-fi movie The Matrix the main character Neo is offered a red pill or a blue pill. One will allow him to forget the hard reality of a conquered alien world and continue to live an average life in an illusionary world, while the other pill will awaken him to a troubling reality where he must take responsibility for the fate of humanity. If he has the choice stay in an illusionary world and forget the harsh reality why would it be freeing to awaken himself to the truth and battle to the death? Yet somehow we want to say that the only true freedom is in facing the hard reality. The reason for this is that we are created to never feel satisfied as long as we are not actualizing our potential. Therefore we would never truly forget the reality. Deep inside we would not be happy living in illusionary world as “average” people. This is the slavery that we all suffer as we struggle to actualize our true selves.
Michael Frising explained on Facebook, that it is fear that holds us back from achieving freedom. Behind the surface we all have subconscious fears that are automating our decision making process. Whether it is fear of rejection, or fear of failure, or fear of the unknown etc. we are all at some level afraid that beneath the surface there is no great spiritual potential to be expressed. In short answer to that fearful voice, we should all strengthen ourselves with the truth. That we are all created with deep love and true purpose. Deep inside we have great spiritual strengths that are unique to each of us and with effort and proper guidance from a place of authentic wisdom we can all actualize our true potential and experience lasting freedom.
WHY ARE ABOUT 30% OF PHISH FANS JEWISH?
I posed this question on Facebook and got a variety of responses from friends. Much of the feedback were wisecracks about the eating of traditional Jewish pesco-delicacies such as Herring, Lox, and Gefiltefish, to name a few. Even though eating salty fish is a traditional practice that leaves one thirsting, many find it too reminiscent of the long-cried tears of fasting old-timers over their antiquated English translations of Yom Kippur services.
Many of the new generation of Jews seem to prefer the healthier “baked” Phish with a “side of mushrooms”. And while, I do agree that Jews eat a lot of fish, I have a suspicion that the Jewish connection to the Jam music world is deeper than its, eh-chem, dietary habits. The reason I ask this question at all is because, approximately 30% of the Jam Band audience is Jewish (The Jewish Daily Forward, “Phish Phans Give Phinal Phreylach Pharewell to Band”By Laurie Hahn and Aaron J. Tapper, Published August 20, 2004) while the percentage of Jews in the world is less than 1%. This disproportionate representation begs the question, “What are Jam Bands offering to Jewish youth that Judaism is not?”
Many Jews refer to themselves as “part of the tribe”. It sounds nice, but I wonder, “Where in the modern day synagogue service, or the Torah study hall is the tribal experience?” When I hear the word tribe, a picture of Africans with painted faces dancing to drums around the fire pit immediately comes to mind. I have experienced some deep tribal moments in synagogue, but only after moving to Israel and delving deep into a culture far from the American Judaism that I saw growing up. And even there, in the heart of it, I often longed for a deeper sense of unity and spiritual intensity.
Judaism is founded on the collective experience; an entire nation of millions of people receiving prophecy from the Creator of the universe. It says in the Torah that we were “like one person with one heart”. Seemingly, there is a connection between our unity as a nation and our capacity for collective, spiritual experience. One thing I think we can all agree upon is that we find a real sense of unity amongst the crowd at a Jam Band show. As the band improvises, the crowd feeds off its energy and the band in turn feeds off the dynamism of the crowd and together a collective consciousness is nurtured. All share in and contribute to these fertile, ecstatic moments in a unification of the upper creative, spiritual realm and the physical space below; the buzz is magnificent.
Out in the parking lot, like-minded friends gather with goods, stories, songs, and kind words. Some love it so much that they opt out of contemporary society for a while and join the Jam Band caravan, traveling from festival to festival with the hopes of gaining expanded insights on attaining ultimate joy. The community feeling is something we all wish was a part of our daily experience in this misanthropic, digitalized modern world. The “I need a miracle” signs dotted throughout the parking lots are a plea for a free ticket to the upcoming show. These signs remind me of the longing faces of those waiting for their 3am appointments with the holy “guru” rabbis of Jerusalem; both searching for a free ticket to “salvation”.
Three thousand, five hundred years after that historical moment on Mount Sinai, in a land so historically and ideologically far away, the message is harder to hear than ever before. Many spiritual seekers have run thirsting, from their drab Hebrew school memories in search of something relevant, meaningful, and alive. Jews are starved for spirituality and community. It’s clear that a great part of the Jewish education system has sorely failed to offer its youth a positive and exciting message that leaves them fervidly awaiting their next encounters. Modern day American Rabbis have wondered why so many youth have fled the synagogue to the Ashram. In many cases, they are the spiritual seekers who have run away from Friday night services, which can barely be heard through the chatter of sports news and financial tips by the “religious” congregation. A body of laws without any explanation of its deeper meaning and an absence of a community with role models who connect to their Judiasm in an honest, consistent and spiritual way will no longer suffice to interest the keen minds and impassioned hearts of today’s youth.
After having spent time in the hidden corners of Jerusalem, I have seen the rare righteous ones, who are gleaming with joy and glowing with positive energy. I have seen them do things that a normal human could not achieve. I have been blessed to join their ritual dance and song in deep, tribal connective moments. These spiritual leaders have reached the height of “the trip” through wisdom and unfeigned love for all of humanity, rather than substances. Their road was an arduous one. They have committed their lives to the study of ancient texts, internalizing their meanings from the most mundane to the most ethereal applications. The beauty of their high is that it doesn’t fade and leave them searching for the next stop on the tour.
IS ENTERING THE DARKNESS NECESSARY TO EXPERIENCE THE LIGHT?
Why do I have to go through these struggles?
Philosophically, maybe it makes sense that opposites must exist for there to be any comparison and contrast, for me to call anything good as opposed to bad, but why did it have to be created that way? Can’t there just be bliss and good times?
The answer is: That the true joy of achieving any great accomplishment is paralleled only by the effort that we invest. We all know that the harder we have to work at something, the sweeter our success.
Imagine a person born into a low income neighbourhood and subjected to abuse. Statistically, they can be expected to: join a gang, break the law, continue the cycle of poverty and abuse. Imagine this person fighting society’s expectations, risking their life to spend time in the library and struggle with every ounce of their being to break free from what seems like an inescapable destiny. If this person would become a successful member of society; a police officer, a lawyer, a professor, we could make a great film about this hero. This person would have such an ownership over their success that it could never be taken away from them. They would acquire it with the greatest honours and truly enjoy the fruits of their labour.
Some of us may have intuitively known the answer to the question, but why do we still find it challenging to apply it to our lives? Why do we struggle to find strength and joy during times of challenge even if the challenges themselves have within them the potential to make us into heroes?
We are created with a great amount of love. True, we have our challenges, but we are also blessed with, literally billions, of details designed to bring us pleasure and experience. In fact, we are created with so much love and light that it’s literally of what we are comprised.
Scientists now know that the whole universe and everything inside is formed from light and therefore light is at the root of our most basic structure. We exist within the illusion of being separate entities because of a certain illusory darkness that gives us that perspective. We see hard physical matter and separation, but that is our subjective experience.
Under the scrutiny of a fine lens there is another world that exists. A world where the infinite and the finite merge as one. That we experience challenges at all, provides us with an opportunity to grow and shine. Just like a young child can’t grasp why they must get painful vaccinations by their paediatrician, we too often lack the breadth of understanding, at least in the moment, to grasp why we must be fired from a job or become ill.
If we had that vision and understanding there would not be any challenge. There would be no possibility for us to overcome and succeed! We would never be able to make the powerful choices that proclaim us as heroes and masters of our own destiny. Every great artist knows that the details are in a mastery of the use of shading. It’s an amazing paradox. Although we are made of light, it’s the darkness that gives us the opportunity to create who we truly are.
WHAT MAKES HUMANS DIFFERENT THAN ANIMALS?
The question is assuming that we all agree that humans are different than animals. Are we significantly different or are we just another species of animal with its own unique set of characteristics? When we begin to analyze the question, we must turn our attention to, and examine, the behaviour of humans and the behaviour of animals.
Animals build their shelters and we build our homes, animals hunt for food and we hunt, well, the shopping aisles. Animals communicate when they are hurt, hungry or ready to procreate and we pick up our cell phones or get on Facebook and communicate all the same things. Animals are territorial and will fight to defend their home and family, humans load their weapons and claim to do the same. Animals will show affection for each other and share with their families and we might share our chocolates…every once in a while. So are we truly so different?
Imagine the scene…
Momma bird places the last twig into her nest then announces, “There is just something missing from this wall.”
Pappa bird makes his entrance with (what some would say is) a lovely piece of modern art. “I picked this up at the yard sale down the street. Those squirrels are brilliantly creative.”
“Oh Pappa Bird, it’s absolutely perfect for our son Noah’s nest.”
“I will not have that painting on my wall,” exclaims Noah bird, “My friends will think I’m a sissy.”
“Noah,” sings Mamma bird, “when will you learn to validate yourself and stop relying on others for your sense of self worth?”
“It won’t help to psychoanalyze the boy, Mamma” chirps Pappa bird, “ever since he tried leaving the nest and had trouble flying with those short wings he’s been a wreck.”
“Do you have to bring up my short wings all the time Pa? I simply can’t live in this nest,” tweets Noah bird. “It’s not so easy out there trying to catch worms for yourself son, there’s no telling what tomorrow will bring,” instagrams Pappa bird.
“Someday I will get to Pollywood and the world will recognize my ability to dance and act and sing. I’ll be a star and the world will love me,” Facebooks Noah bird.
Noah’s friend all “like” his status. Noah feels validated and secure.
Ok, ok we’re different than animals. We worry about the future, reflect on the past and we have a conscience that scrutinizes and weighs our actions. We create art for the sake of art and explore for the sake of adventure. We analyze our choices and (hopefully) seek a sense of moral correctness. We lift each other or destroy each other with our words and seek to grasp that which cannot be grasped, trying to define the infinite.
I once heard it said that “we don’t know who discovered water, but I can assure you that it wasn’t the fish.” We are on the inside of our reality such that we do not have the ability to step outside of it and see ourselves for who we truly are; amazing creatures that love, express and create. In the next three blogs we’re going to discuss three powerful ways that we, as humans, express our unique abilities: free will, the expression of speech and connecting with the Divine. The fact that we can ponder and have this discussion is a testament to the infinite nature of our inner being; the potential for a sense of individuality that can never be experienced by the animals.
“I’ve got a world to change and a mind to do it, distinctions are the trigger and I’m armed to move it. When you choose, wrong or right, there’s a chain reaction.”
~ Benami “Chain Reaction”
In the last blog, I wrote about the differences between humans and animals. One of the main distinguishing factors I mentioned is the power we have to make choices of our own free will.
Before we can engage in a meaningful discussion about free will, I need to define the term so that we can begin on the same page…
What kind of choices do we make that are significantly different than the choices that animals make?
Is it a free will choice if I choose vanilla over chocolate? How about if I choose between being a vegetarian or eating meat? Did I make a free will choice to fail my exams despite a severe learning disability or was I destined to fail? Does one have free will in the confines of a prison cell with very little opportunity for action or interpersonal interaction?
For the purpose of this discussion, free will is specifically a reference to moral choices; choosing between what ultimately makes us more connected with ourselves and the world around us or not making that effort because it is easier or more tempting to choose otherwise.
So choosing vanilla over chocolate doesn’t count. Some cats probably prefer 9 Lives over Meow Mix. However, does a giraffe choose to be a vegetarian? Does a lion choose to be a meat eater? Certainly not! An animal simply does what is in its nature and instinct to do. When a Praying Mantis eats its spouse after mating it is not morally wrong; it is running its program, as strange as the program may seem to us.
So, if free will is truly a quality that defines our humaneness and sets us apart from the animals, then utilizing it means fulfilling our potential as human beings. Harnessing the power of making positive choices is why were created differently than the animals and therefore expressing that quality is as essential to the human being as making honey is to the bees. Exercising free will is what we were made for and therefore embodies the value of our life humanity.
Imagine a poor man, living on the streets. His clothes are torn and he hasn’t eaten for days. There’s something that he doesn’t know. His old beaten watch is an extremely rare antique. It’s worth millions of dollars! He could be well dressed, fed and warm at this very moment!
Our freedom of choice is worth more than money could ever buy. When we recognize the power of influence that our choices have on the world, we will ignite with great inspiration. We are creators of our own destiny. We are the players in an epic saga with the call of being its heroes.
If we never take advantage of this precious opportunity and analyze and consider the effects of our choices, we do not simply stand still. Rather, we slide backwards, because when we choose not to choose that too is a choice. It’s the choice to ignore our greatest gift and our opportunity to grow as human beings, which ultimately would enable us to make our greatest contribution to the world.
Being born as a human being automatically enters us into the arena of free will. It’s in our nature to either be superior to the animals by overcoming difficult challenges that only a human being can or below the animals by unleashing destruction on the world that could never be conceived of by any animal. The choice is ours and the power lies within each and every one of us.
DOES COMFORT EQUAL PLEASURE?
Moments ago I was sitting on a very cushy couch watching the waves of Lake Simco lap almost right to my doorstep. The weather is absolutely perfect and I was feeling drowsy and sedated. “What a great moment for a midday nap,” I thought. A gnawing voice was tugging at me annoyingly suggesting, “Wouldn’t now be a great time to write that blog you’ve been talking about for the last month?” A different voice which was more of a feeling rather than a clear expression said, “You can’t do it, it’s too difficult, too involved, just push it off a bit longer.” I thought, “Writing the blog will be more fulfilling and once I get started I’m sure it will flow. Now let’s go make a cup of coffee, have a chocolate croissant and write that blog.” The draw of a little physical pleasure was enough to convince my heart that the fulfillment of writing this blog would supercede the comfort of a midday nap. To analyze the question, Does comfort equal pleasure, I must seek definitions. What is comfort? The Oxford dictionary defines comfort as: “consolation; relief in affliction.” That means that comfort is alleviating discomfort. That sounds more like just getting by than actual pleasure. What is pleasure? The Oxford dictionary defines pleasure as: “a feeling of satisfaction or joy.” Clearly the two words have distinct meanings. But, is our capacity to experience pleasure contingent upon our level of comfort? Human beings are built to be pleasure-seekers. So the questions must be asked, “If comfort alone does not ensure pleasure, what brings pleasure to human beings?” And, “Why is comfort so often confused for pleasure?” When I ask myself what brings me the most pleasure and joy in life? I instantly picture my children’s faces. Nothing lights me up more than seeing them enjoy themselves. Anyone who has children knows what I mean. Conversely, when I ask myself what is the source of my greatest discomfort? Again, anyone who has children can attest that the hardest thing they’ve probably ever done is raise children. How can it be that my greatest source of pleasure and joy in life is the same source of my greatest discomfort? I also get great pleasure from the relationship with my wife, but I must admit that marriage is a real challenge. Could it be that comfort is just a state of not being in pain, but does not equal true pleasure? Many of us, including myself may have lived a great deal of our lives making decisions guided by the misconception that comfort is the ultimate goal without ever really analyzing the question. Many of today’s young adults are choosing to simply not get married, or put it off till mid life. Really, who needs the responsibility of children and married life? I sometimes reminisce of sleeping till noon, or just playing guitar on the California beach for as long as I pleased free of all responsibility. Whenever we are uncomfortable we automatically seek some way of alleviating the discomfort. The problem is that the discomfort is there to alert us to something that we can improve on and change. We are being sent messages to alert us to growth opportunities and the wise response would be to listen and introspect. These signals can manifest in many aspects of our life. One example that we can all relate to is experiencing discomfort at some point in a personal relationship, whether with a spouse or sibling or friend. The discomfort is there as a signal that something has to change. It may be that we haven’t learned to communicate clearly, or aren’t creating proper boundaries in our lives, or are impatient, or too selfish etc. The very reason our souls were sent into this world is to develop our character traits and improve. If we find some way of attaining comfort in those moments of strife, like avoiding it by using drugs or distracting ourselves with T.V. or shopping, or ice cream etc. and don’t identify and confront the issue, we are merely avoiding the discomfort at the cost of procrastinating on improving this character trait. When we confront, identify, work hard and improve, it is truly satisfying. This discomfort and subsequent pleasure when making the character correction were there to guide us into doing what we came into this world to do; become mature souls. I remember one time, I was driving my comfy suv down Venice blvd. The weather was a perfect 80 degrees and there was a really rockin song on the radio. I was wearing black leather pants, spiky hair, and had my arm propped on the open window. I noticed a wheelchair that seemed to be stuck on the sidewalk and not able to move. A thought coursed through my head “just ignore it and keep driving” but, somehow I couldn’t, so I pulled over to check it out. It turned out to be a mostly paralyzed man on an electric wheelchair which was malfunctioning. He had been stuck out in the sun for quite a while and no one had noticed him. I wanted to help him, but needed help myself to move approximately 200 pounds of dead weight and this electric wheelchair. I stood at the side of the road and flagged down a pickup truck. The driver of the pickup and I lifted this man into my suv. He had a tube coming out of his clothes attached to a bag of urine which was so full it was overflowing a bit. I was put off by the smell and worried about the interior of my nice car, but come on, this was a human being! The experience was jerking me out of my imaginary world where all that existed was this rockin song on the radio, my comfy, cool ride and the sweet waves of the California beach. We hoisted the wheelchair up onto the pickup truck and drove to the man’s house. At home he had a ramp to the door of his cute little decorated house and I wheeled him in in his other non electric wheelchair. We chatted a bit. He had a nice collection of cds and turned out to be a big music fan. He was actually a really cool guy despite his difficulty moving his hands and forming clear words. The whole experience was pretty unpleasant at the time, but looking back in retrospect, it was one of those great moments in life. “Remember the time I helped that guy in the wheelchair.” One of the greatest pleasures in life is doing the right thing. It gives our life value. We actually respect ourselves when we’re contributors to making the world a better place. Usually it’s not so pleasant to do the right thing at the moment we’re doing it, but we can appreciate it afterwards. The rules seems to be, that the greater the pleasure, the greater the price. Physical pleasure is the easiest to attain, but also the fastest to fade out and leaves us wanting more. That’s why so many people have a midlife crisis even though they have attained wealth and honor. Jewish tradition teaches that the world was created for human beings to attain pleasure. The greatest pleasure possible is one that must be earned through free will choices. If it was simply given to us we would be ashamed to merely be on the receiving end. On the other hand, by working to attain that pleasure we actually own it and it’s ours forever. We can all relate to the idea that the when someone climbs a mountain, the view from the top is much more enjoyable than for the one who took the chair lift to the top. It’s the accomplishment of the journey that we really enjoy, not the view alone. The view is just a gift that awaits us at the top to reward our efforts. So too, at the end of our lives (may it be after a healthy 120) we will look back and feel the joy of our accomplishments and good choices even though they were hard to achieve at the time. Sometimes all it takes is a little coffee and chocolate to persuade our bodies to make the right choices. I’m glad that I decided to write this blog instead of taking a nap. It was a good choice that I am proud of. May we merit to recognize the pleasure that comes from challenging ourselves in life and be conscious of it daily, choosing proactivity in effecting the world with positive actions rather than taking the easy and comfortable road which tempts us with the promise of true value and fulfillment through transitory things, yet leaves us empty and searching in the end.