Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Crossing the Threshold


If a person’s brain is deprived of oxygen for any length of time, his brain suffers. When the heart stops beating long enough so that the brain doesn’t get the oxygen-rich blood that it needs, even though it’s the heart that caused the problem, it’s the brain that suffers the consequences.

Which is why, after any event which keeps a person from breathing for a significant amount of time, the patient will get a diagnosis of TBI, or Traumatic Brain Injury.

On a visit with my daughter to a family member who was recovering from cardiac arrest and consequent TBI, I noticed that the patient was continually trying to flip the sheet off his legs. I couldn’t understand the reason for this and the patient, who had a tube in his throat and was temporarily incapable of speech, couldn’t explain it to me.

After witnessing repeatedly how he kept trying to twitch the sheet off his legs, and his frustration each time he was unsuccessful, I finally had a brainstorm. “Are you trying to see your feet?” I asked.

He nodded vigorously, thankful that I finally understood.

Then my daughter had a brainstorm of her own. “Are you afraid that your legs aren’t there?” she asked.

Another nod, even more decided than before.

The patient’s brain, still struggling back from the devastating episode that resulted in a traumatic brain injury, was not sufficiently in touch with his feet to feel them. The neural pathways linking the brain to his extremities were not working effectively. While he seemed to be aware of the rest of his body, this was not the case with his feet. One outcome of his TBI seemed to be a disconnect between his brain and the appendages furthest away from it. It would take time and therapy to restore the connection.

Sometimes it seems to me that the whole Western world is suffering from a spiritual TBI.

The world has been starved of spiritual oxygen for so long that it’s given rise to a serious disconnect between people and their own souls. And the ones who leveled the blow which gave rise to that traumatic injury of the spirit were none other than our old friends, the Greeks.


Man at the Center

It was the Greeks who placed man in the center of everything. Who not only admired the human being but venerated him. Who gave the world the notion that man is the arbiter of everything that has any meaning in this world.

The Greeks worshiped truth and beauty, but the truth and beauty they worshiped was the kind that they deemed to be true and beautiful. There was no conception that an objective standard exists, and certainly not that it must be obeyed.

The Greeks gave us their definition of freedom, and justice, and every noble-sounding ideal there is. And these are noble ideals. The problem is that definitions created by mortal beings must necessarily be limited. And to be limited is necessarily to be flawed.

If man stands at the center, then it is his judgement, and his judgement alone, which measures and labels and puts the final stamp of approval or disapproval on everything around him. All of which neatly excises one element from the picture: a minor detail called G-d, and the divine values He transmitted to the world at Har Sinai.

I remember learning the second posuk in Bereishis, in which the universe in its original state is described as empty, chaotic, and dark. These expressions, I was taught, correspond to the future exiles that the Bnei Yisroel were destined to suffer. Surprisingly, the expression “darkness” specifically corresponds to the Greek exile.

This seems puzzling. After all, in many ways the Greeks brought tremendous enlightenment to the world. They valued rational discussion, culture and beauty and art. How can all of that be described as dark?

It was only long afterward that I began to understand. An outlook on life which discards an objective source of truth is, by its very essence, groping in the dark. If it’s man who gets to decide what is beautiful and just… then beauty and justice had better watch out. Because, as we all know from personal experience, man is weak, and he is fickle. As such, his views can so easily become tainted by ignorance, self-interest, or straight-up corruption. Is this what we want as our final arbiter of truth and beauty?

I recently heard an ad for some technological innovation, where the message ends with the proud declaration: “Science did that.” I wish I could tell that misguided announcer that, while science may have been the tool that brought about that particular bit of progress, it’s not the tool that ought to get the praise but the Mind behind the tool. The Mind that created the natural and scientific laws that rule the physical world, as well as the laws and concepts that we need to justly rule our own mortal one.

A Mind, and a Will, that is being increasingly ignored in the Western world around us.

The contemporary world makes decisions the way the Greeks taught it: by letting ideas percolate in human minds and hoping that something approximating truth will emerge. Sometimes, it does. The world is lucky enough to have what’s known as “Judeo-Christian values” to lighten the darkness. But more and more children and college students are being educated to turn their backs on that illumination in favor of the biased and unstable vagaries of their own thinking. A way of thinking that is becoming increasingly irrational and intolerant. A way of thinking that every day seems to drift farther away from objective truth.

This is the world that the Greeks, and after them their spiritual heirs, the Romans, bequeathed to us. A world of people who, however well-educated and well-meaning, are walking around in the dark and are not even aware that there’s such a thing as a sun.


Neural Pathways

The patient who needed to see his feet to make sure they were still attached to his body is, thankfully, on his way to recovery and no longer struggles with that frightening disconnect between brain and body. The road to healing is through retraining the brain, by teaching it things over and over until the imprint of the knowledge is there to stay.

I used to wonder why our tefillos are so repetitive. Each time we daven, we repeat the same truths about Hashem, our mutual history, and our relationship to Him. Why? Maybe it’s because the best way for the brain to heal is through repetition.

The Anshei Knesses Hagedolah knew that we were poised on the brink of a long, long exile, and they provided us with exactly what we would need to stay the course.  By deepening the same neural pathways, day after day, crucial information is etched into the brain. In the same way, we endlessly repeat our praises of Hakadosh Boruch Hu and our acknowledgement of the values He’s given us. The same words, the same ideas, the same ineffable truths. Every single day. To make them a part of us. To heal the disconnect.

The antidote to darkness, of course, is light. Every one of us who was fortunate enough to be blessed with the light of Hashem’s Word has a responsibility to behave with all the wisdom, integrity, and kindness which that light demands of us. Each in our own way can be a candle adding some clarity to a dark world.

There’s something called a “threshold dose” of medicine. This means that, below a certain dose, the body doesn’t register the medication at all. Above that critical threshold, the drug begins to take effect.

In the same way, we need to add more and more miniscule bits of light to the world, each of us individually and all of us together. We grow the light through our thoughts and speech and actions… So that, very soon, we will be able to help the whole world cross that critical threshold and step, at last and forever, from confused darkness into the light of eternal day.




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