We all start our lives with innocence and wonder. What a puzzle it must have been working it all out as children. First, how do we organize to meet our needs, our creature comforts, finding out what works and what doesn’t, in the variable conditions and situations in which we found ourselves. It must have felt great when we found out how to interact with our external world to meet our every need. Growing up, we realized that, after all, we were going to have to do all the messy work of organizing to meet our needs and desires ourselves. That was going to be the only way to arrive at something like the particular kind of life that we decided we really wished for ourselves. We ventured out full of hope.
When did we realize that, like it or not, we were going to have to die just like everybody else on this planet? No escape. Our personal fate is inevitably the same as the collective fate. Was there rage or fatalism? Didn’t that mean we should try to make things better for others as well as ourselves? Did we really think about that, or did we just get on with the living part? Why did we get invited to this party when it had such an unpleasant outcome? How could we ever imagine that at some stage passing on might be considered a release, a passage to freedom?
When did we realize that the life we were leading could not be truly meaningful for us, truly joyful, until we had found another soul with whom we could share our life? When did we realize that there were persons, and things, that were more important to us, more valuable to us, than our very own lives? Because of that, because of that dependence, it was totally impossible for us to be fully in control of our own lives? When did we realize that? Ultimately, the power to meet all our needs lies outside ourselves. Our challenges lie in coming to terms with the needs of those people, those forces, to the best of our ability, so they can contribute to our well-being in ways that yield us peace of mind. Perhaps we could never live well with ourselves without that.
There is a system of ethics that inherently lies underneath that attitude to life. Of late I have been thinking about the role of the Hebrew Talmud and biblical injunctions, credos that I absorbed as with mother’s milk. We cannot help ourselves. We continually seek to understand, to bring order out of chaos. Jews have been studying thousand-years- old tractates forever in their attempts to explain the changing worlds they lived in over the millennia in the light of biblical dictates. For Jews the medium was the message, and they learned reason and logic when the world around them was full of ignorance and intellectual darkness. And against all rational possibility they survived. And with them survived the body of ethics that rules the vast majority of lives on this planet. These are the ethics that have guided me in the way I have tried to live my life.
This may be irrelevant to this discussion, but given this, for years I could never understand why in World War II the Allies did not raise a finger to obstruct the Nazi effort to commit genocide against the Jewish people. I am convinced those in authority knew full well what crimes were being perpetrated within the German Reich. How could those who share our ethic stand by in the face of such an evil? Yet, in the end, I am persuaded that there were powerful reasons for this lack of action that were related to achieving ultimate victory against this aberration in human history, a goal of the utmost urgency and importance. I remember the dark days when the issue was in doubt. In their obsession with the Jews, the Nazi leadership committed huge scarce resources to their project. How could the Allies interfere with this diversion, when they were reeling before the Nazi onslaught? The Allied leadership were devoting all their resources to blunting and defeating the Nazi advances in the field. I have to be content with my reasoning in this respect.
How about today? In the same vein, I am drawn to consider our current world landscape. In North America we have witnessed a radical changing of the guard both in the north and in the south. In Europe we see a continent in disarray. A new populism is shaking the foundations of the established orders. The historic coalition that focused on a common effort toward an improvement in the human condition on this planet is in disrepair. In my view, a failure in the leadership traditionally coming from America, most recently in the case of the last administration, has encouraged forces opposed to the principles of liberal democracy, and the ethics we traditionally support. The inward-looking pronouncements of some in the new U.S. administration must give us pause if we were hoping for an improvement in the situation.
And Yet! There is a new factor in the equation. Some of the most regressive elements on the U.S. political scene are in power. But they have been put in place, and are dependent on a leader with a radically different view of what is right and what is wrong. He likes to win. He insists on winning. Some of the programs of the extreme right would likely guarantee a losing hand in the mid-term elections. Will he allow that? Externally, the previous administrations’ policies, to the dismay of allies, encouraged the Russians, the Iranians and their proxies, radical Islam, the Chinese, even North Korea , toward adventurism? Will he continue to encourage that? Not if he wants to win. Will our leaders do the right things for the generality of people?
We have traveled far in this discussion. In the end, I am hopeful! I remain hopeful.