While wishing all cherished family and friends a powerfully sweet successful joyous New Year 5772 and the full manifestation of all our hearts' deepest desires, beyond our wildest blue-sky imaginations yet within our well-grounded grasp... I'm thinking about something I learned the other day that sort of wasn't new, yet in the context of my recent mindset, was - and which blew me away.
The Mittler Rebbe writes in his Shaar Hateshuvah (Gate of Return) that the root of our undoing is prikat ol – throwing off the yoke.
The idea of bearing a yoke is not all that appealing to freethinking American babyboomers like me and my ilk. That it’s 'the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven' helps – assuming we have some sense of what a King is. Most of us lost that sense somewhere along the way between the Declaration of Independence, the liquidation of the Romanoffs, and the ascendance of poll-driven demagoguery in place of statesmanship. An interesting evolution, or devolution – but I don't want to go there now. Let's assume for the moment that we can appreciate the value of the harness that unites us with the King of the Universe and places our talents at His service.
If so, what gets in our way?
I've been paying a lot of attention lately to the famous kabbalistic principle that it takes one to know one. Or as the kids say, when you point a finger at me you've got three fingers pointing back at you. Or as the Baal Shem Tov puts it, when you see something intolerable in another, it's actually a projection of, a deflection from, something you can't bear to look at in yourself.
Yet another way of seeing it is as a reactive cycle of shame and blame. Who doesn't have some dark place inside where he can't stand himself? We're ashamed, not just of our behavior but even of our thoughts. As Peter Himmelman sings: "I'm a dirty man – I went and took a drink of dirty water." And the Yom Kippur liturgy: "Before You I am like a vessel filled with shame and disgrace." On Yom Kippur we are at our best. In the presence of unconditional Divine forgiveness we're prepared to own up and face the dark side. But we may not be so straightforward on some turgid Thursday in February.
It happens in the blink of an eye: a sudden impulse of awareness of shame bubbles up from the dark recesses of our shadowy side. It's too painful, too hard to take. So we turn it inside out and find the nearest target to deflect the shame: we blame. That awareness was an opportunity to accept the harness of personal responsibility with dignity, to summon the inner strength to change. Instead, we squander the chance, throw off the yoke, and wreak damage rather than repair.
Sometimes it occurs only internally, in the privacy of our own minds. And we may not be so aware – it could be beneath our conscious radar. Next time you look askance at a fellow human being whose very presence irks you no end, step back and trace that feeling to its real source: what is it about him that reminds you of something you don't like about yourself?
It's something all people seem to have in common, from the basically nice guy who can occasionally be a grumpy judgmental curmudgeon, to the sophisticated terrorist who dehumanizes his victims, turning unbearable shame for his own depravity outward to absolve himself. It lies within the black heart of anti-Semitism, the green eye of the envious, and the red clenched fist of the enraged.
The major, dangerous examples may or may not be within range of our efforts to change. But the internal teshuvah is ours to accomplish. Let's seek those moments where we're tempted to turn away, and turn them around. Those small victories of responsibility over prikat ol, of acknowledgement and self-correction over shame and blame, will generate the energy that will change the world. Let the King rule and let the good times roll.