Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Psychology of Spiritual Jewish Decline

Last week's portion of Aikev speaks of entry into The Holy Land that first requires a trek through, "... the vast desert, the awesome [desert, with] snakes, serpents, and scorpions, [a desert that is] thirst-provoking yet without water." (Devarim 8, 15).

The metaphorical desert represents a series of spiritual levels man must take before he can reach the ideal of self-redemption (i.e., entry into The Holy Land). By looking at the levels of descent a person can fall through, we'll realize how to make the corrective remedies for ascent.

The word "desert" implies a desolate place, foreboding and unfriendly for man. A place you don't want to dwell in.

The proper dwelling place of a Jew is the space defined by the parameters of Torah. The word "vast" suggests the first cause for downfall, the door through which subsequent decline follows. Seeing a "vast desert" renders the space of Torah somewhat smaller now. The "world-at-large", the "vast" world beyond Torah is now given measure and significance, while the superiority of Torah is blind-sided. By deeming the world outside of Torah as vast and great, he proportionately diminishes the value of Torah. This begins his downfall. He loses some Jewish pride and full trust in G-d. Now he's got his eyes ogling other pastures.

The next phase he can fall to is the "awesome" desert. As long as it was only "vast", implied his own dwelling still held importance. As long as he stayed "inside", he could function well; It's only when he interacted with "outside" factors that he lost his full charge. But "awesome" means terrifying, a feeling you have even within the confines of your own circles. No longer is there security felt at home because the outside world has taken on so much more importance, enough to cause you to fear the consequences of neglecting this external force.

The next descent is to the "snake" level. The poison from a snake-bite feels hot. The world-at-large, the awesome secular trappings, now begin to invoke within him a passion. Simultaneously he wroughts a relative frigidity to what is holy.

Then comes the "serpent" level. "Serpent" in Hebrew also means - to burn. The passion for the non-holy elevates to the point where all matters of holiness are consumed by it, until there's no passion for holiness left.

The "scorpion" stage represents the next, larger degradation. Unlike the snake's poison, the poison of a scorpion feels cold. As long as he had passion, albeit misdirected, the heat could still have been reversed to apply to holy pursuit. But coldness brings with it an irreversible deadness.

The final stage is one wherein even if there is an emptiness that provokes an occasional thirst for meaningfulness, there is no water; That is, there is no Torah anymore to fill the void, for it's long been lost by now

But G-d denies no Jew the right to return. The knowledge of this path of descent already constitutes half the cure. The "lost Jew" can retrace this path with new conviction. The first step to take to return to the fold is to correct the first reason for the descent. That is, show great fortitude for the cause of Judaism, remembering that G-d chose Jews to be the highest of the nations. And that G-d gave the Jews the Torah - the ultimate source of all truth.

(Adapted from a talk of The Lubavitcher Rebbe)

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