What pursuits are worthwhile pursuing in order to live a life well lived? Philosophers have been debating this question since time immemorial. Starting with Epicurus 2300 years ago to Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill some philosophers have argued that to be ethical one should pursue actions and policies that bring about the most pleasure and the least amount of pain to the most amount of people. Thus, to them life is all about the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. This is called Utilitarianism.
There are many counter arguments to this approach to life. The most convincing one to me is the fact that, when asked, most people would rather choose a life of struggle and achievement rather than one of pure unadulterated pleasure that contained no opportunity for personal achievement. Simply stated, a life that contains nothing but the pursuit of pleasure would not be fulfilling for most people, it would instead result in a life that feels empty and depressing. Actions that lead to such a state surely cannot be the aim of life.
No one wants to live a life of mediocrity or failure and therefore go through life desperately seeking success. Yet, for many success seems to be ever-moving and unreachable goal post. What is the secret to true and lasting success? The life of Jacob, holds the secret to true and lasting success.
Jacob lived a life of struggle. He grew up in the shadow of his older brother Esau. Based on the pecking order of his family Jacob was destined to be second-best and doomed to a life of mediocrity. Although Jacob fought to be heard and recognized, somehow everything he touched seemed to turn bad.
At the age of 63, when it seems that he could stand it no longer, his sympathetic mother Rebecca heard that Isaac was going to give the coveted first-born blessings to Esau, rather than to Jacob. Together they devised a plan for Jacob to take the blessings instead. This, in the end, backfired spectacularly and after spending 14 years in exile hiding from Esau, finally at that age of 77 years old he arrived in Charan still a bachelor and penniless. His life up till that moment seemed to have been an complete and disastrous failure. He had struggled to get ahead, he was not willing to accept his fate, he constantly strove for excellence and greatness--yet nothing had worked, he was still a prodigious underachiever.
We Jews have cried many bitter tears over the last six months. From the brutal murder of the teenagers killed by Hamas terrorists earlier in the summer to the terror attack this week which killed five including rabbis praying at a synagogue and everything in between, this past half year has been tragic for Jews. Whilst the murder of fellow Jews affects me more deeply because it is closer to home, I admit to also having shed tears for Palestinian children killed during the Gaza conflict over the summer. The girls that were kidnapped by Boka Haram in Nigeria as well as the victims of ISIS brutality similarly breaks my heart. The idea that parents will never see their children again or that kids have had their parents ripped away from them is simply devastating. The fact that the people suffering such tragedy are not part of our community or live thousands of miles away makes it no less heartwrenching.
When we found out that a mentally disturbed Jewish man killed a Palestinian teenager over the summer every segment of the Jewish community both in Israel and in the diaspora was outraged. Our hearts went out to the victim and his family and we all condemned this murderous act as un-Jewish and terribly wrong on every level. Even the murderers own family have disowned him because of what he did. Despising death and murder does not make Jews special, it makes us human. To be human means is to feel the suffering of others. Humans empathize with each other, we try not to do unto others that which we don’t want done unto ourselves.
One of the strengths of Judaism has always been that our religious leaders of each era have been able to successfully bridge our ancient tradition with the needs and the zeitgeist of their generation. To be sure, this does not mean that they made substantial changes to the tradition, it means that rabbis of old were able to understand the intellectual currents of their contemporaries and thus show the relevancy of a timeless religion and Torah.
Maimonides, in the 1200’s for example, wrote his philosophical works in order to bridge Judaism with the intellectual trends of his time. The publication of the Kabbalistic magnum opus the Zohar in the 1300’s coincided with the popularity of sufism and other forms of non-Jewish mysticism. This orientation has continued up until recently where some scholars have maintained that certain forms of Hasidism contain distinctively postmodern themes (see Loewenthal, 2013). It can be argued that this trend of constantly reapplying our ancient tradition to the intellectual currents of the time is what has kept our religion alive, vibrant and relevant.
The alarming success ISIS has had in conquering territory in the Iraq and Syria coupled with our current inability to confront or hold them back is deeply troubling. Early this year many of us watched in horror as ISIS carried out acts of unspeakable evil and posted them to Facebook and other social media sites. Many of us asked why the United States government was silent when it came to this horrific group. We were alarmed when State Department statements and briefing papers made no mention of this threat.
While Israel was fighting a war against Hamas early in the summer the Obama administration and the rest of the “civilized” world were busy condemning Israel for excessive force while they were silent about the barbarism of ISIS. President Obama now wants us to believe that while those of us with a Facebook account were aware of what ISIS was doing, the Unites States intelligence community was not. It seems to me that there is more to it then that: this was a case of willful ignorance and that ignorance continues to this day.