Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            It's a war out there!  This declaration is true on many levels.  Obviously in the geopolitical theater, we have to be aware that our beloved countries are on a war footing with militant Islam.  With the release of the sequel to the eye opening film Wall Street, we are reminded that most of Gordon Gecko's (This is before he started selling car insurance.) advice came from The Art of War by Sun Tzu (d. 320 BCE).  But this week of Chanukah reminds us that there is a spiritual struggle going on for the hearts, minds, and souls of our fellow Jews.  Purim tells the story of salvation from physical threats to our continued existence (Haman=Hitler).  Chanukah, on the other hand, is a fight for spiritual survival.  Here in the United States, based on the raw population data, we are losing this war.  These different kinds of wars sometimes require similar strategies.  When Sun Tzu said, "He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks," I think that's true when applied to military forces, corporations or the Jewish people.  However, the spiritual battle must have different tactics, as well.  Let's try to see those special needs.

            First, we must identify the enemy to whom we are losing so many of our co-religionists.  Throughout the Middle Ages, Sephardic Jewry lost out to the dominant Moslem population.  At the turn of the twelfth century it is estimated that ninety per cent of Jews lived in Moslem countries.  By 1939, Sephardim made up only ten per cent of world Jewry.  Where did all the Sephardim go, long time passing?  Gone to Moslems, everyone.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was a movement towards conversion to Christianity amongst Ashkenazic Jewry, mostly for social advancement.  But nowadays, most of those Jews who stop identifying themselves as Jews, don't identify with another religion either.  So, who is the threat?  Although you might hear of many candidates, like evolution or atheism, I think that the real adversary is Madison Avenue.

            The pernicious effects of advertising even reach those of us who never even consider patronizing the business.  In a revealing study reported in Psychology Today (April 13, 2010), researchers explored the psychological effects of the fast food industry.  Logos for the major fast food chains (if I have to give examples of these, you must live on another planet) were briefly flashed on a computer screen.  Then the participants were asked to read a passage of text.  The subjects read faster after seeing the Golden Arches than before they saw them or than control subjects who weren't shown the symbols. Also the researchers found:  Most striking of all, just a glimpse of the golden arches changes our psychology so that people become impatient about financial decisions—they wind up unwilling to postpone immediate gain for future rewards, so they sacrifice savings, against their own economic interest. Exposure to fast-food symbols also seeps into the way we approach leisure (Sept. 1, 2010).   It's not consuming the food that has these negative affects.  It's just the ads, logos and billboards.  Again from the report:  It turns out that every time we see such marketing devices, they act as psychological primes, reminding us that time seems to be speeding up in contemporary society, making them reluctant to volunteer, and causes them to make bad economic decisions.

            Wow!  Our lives are being negatively impacted by these forces outside our control.  We squander leisure time, go bankrupt and increase stress, without tasting the product.  On most sports programming in the States, there's a new ad campaign trying to convince us that only cool people can drink certain brands of beer.  And, clearly, only cool people are happy.  I think that this multi-faceted phenomenon is the real enemy to a meaningful or spiritual lifestyle.  We have met the enemy, and it is the media.

            So, what can we do to prevent losing this new version of Chanukah's cultural war?  The ultra-orthodox position is to attempt to isolate themselves from all secular influences.  I can't deny that there is merit to this approach.  Personally, I reject this position for two reasons.  First of all, I appreciate many aspects of modern culture.  I believe strongly that knowledge of literature, science and history can help my spiritual efforts.  They add to my soul.  Also, I don't believe that it's possible to totally blockade our senses.  Every nook and cranny of our world is permeated with these symbols, logos and messages.  Hiding is rarely a safe strategy, for ostriches or humans.

            I would like to suggest two propositions.  The first one was in last week's parsha.  When Yosef succeeds in avoiding the temptation of his boss's wife, Rashi, based on the Midrash, tells us that he saw his father's image.  Strength can come from role models and heroes.  Who are our heroes?  If it's our favorite team's slick shortstop or the star quarterback, we're in trouble.  We need spiritual heroes for ourselves and our children.  If our kids only hear us criticizing rabbis and only warm words for athletes and media stars, what message will they imbibe?  We need fewer American Idols and more Jewish heroes.

            My second proposal comes from Chanukah.  In the famous argument between Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai about how to light the chanukiah, Shamai is more logical.  Let's light the candles like the miracle happened, less oil every night.  But we have a greater lesson to learn from Beit Hillel.  Always strive to increase the spirituality in our lives and world.  That's key to success in the spiritual war.  Continually amplify and enhance the spiritual components of our lives.  Go to synagogue a little earlier, add more time for Torah study, always do more.

            Finally a suggestion from Sun Tzu:   If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.  Just like the Maccabees, we can win this war, but it takes a great effort and preparation.  Have a happy and meaningful Chanukah!

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