When we’re told that man was created b’tzelem Elokim, in Hashem’s image, we’re meant to take that seriously. Hashem is, first and foremost, a Creator. One of first things He created in His world was Gan Eden, a utopian setting for the first man and woman. Ever since, we’ve been trying to create Utopia, too.
The original Utopia didn’t last. It didn’t last because human beings were involved, and where there are human beings, there will be failings. Adam and Chava did not obey their Creator’s command and were consequently banished from Paradise. Since then, and all through history, man has been trying to recreate paradise in his own image.
There have been individuals throughout history with a vision of a better world. The precursors of the French Revolution, for example, witnessed the depredations that the noble class perpetrated upon the plebians and envisioned a better, brighter world. A world in which liberty, equality and fraternity would replace elitism and privilege.
It was a fine goal, but the price exacted for the creation of this Utopia was a harsh and bloody one. In the process of turning France into a republic, entire noble families were fed to the hungry guillotine. Anyone with blue blood running his veins was considered fair prey. All in the cause of brotherhood.
More than a century later, Karl Marx saw the need to right the injustices he saw in his own time. He conceived of a universal brotherhood of man, a sort of worker’s paradise in which all men would be equal, and everyone would be supported according to his need.
A pretty vision, even a noble one. But once again, human failing stepped in to muddy the picture with its grimy footprint. Man’s greed and lust for power, decreed that, in this particular workers’ paradise, some are created more equal than others. In the cause of freedom, liberty was stolen in inconceivable quantities. In the name of loyalty to the State, people were encouraged to be disloyal and throw their own nearest and dearest to the wolves. Where capitalism had ruled, now political muscle reigned supreme.
How enamored was the average citizen of this new paradise, with its atmosphere of fear and intimidation, endless bread lines, and the threat of imprisonment always hanging over their heads?
As has happened so many times before, Utopia had been stolen from the many and handed over to the few.
Making it Personal
In our own lives, we fashion dreams of Utopia, too. Who hasn’t dreamed of the perfect marriage, perfect children, the perfect career? Once we’re dreaming, we dream big. We dream of a perfection that will erase all previous imperfections and sorrows.
In other words, we dream the impossible.
And still, every new couple embarks on marriage like pioneers stepping onto the Utopian Trail. Every new parent paints their newborn’s future with the rosiest of palettes. Each new job in our chosen profession holds out the promise of everlasting happiness and fulfillment.
I think we’re just made that way. The part of us that’s divine and eternal strains ever upward, yearning for perfection. The trick is knowing what we have the ability to perfect, and what lies beyond our control.
No, we can’t control other people. No, we can’t choose which family we were born into or even the kind of family we marry into. The circumstances of our lives are decided Elsewhere.
But still, being made the way we are, we dream. We see ourselves and our future as somehow larger than life, burnished with a surreal glow of success. When human failings set in, as they inevitably must, the alarm clock goes off: a rude awakening from the pleasant dream. “Wake up and smell the coffee,” the world tells us. “Paradise does not happen by itself!”
And so, we get to work… but sometimes not right away. First, we may indulge in a bout of sulks or tears or tantrums. It’s hard to give up the dream. Being the children of the One who created Paradise, we want to do the same, both in the world at large and in our own personal lives.
When we fail, as we inevitably must, it can take time before we adjust our attitude from, “It’s not fair!” to “What do I need to do to make this better?”
We realize at last that the road is not as smooth and untrammeled as we once pictured it to be. There are obstacles hidden in the undergrowth, and the undergrowth is us.
At some point, if we’re lucky, we have a light-bulb moment. A flash of insight when we realize that we just may have been barking up the wrong tree. That, instead of straining for a Utopia that will always be beyond our reach, we need to correct our inner world and let it impact the outer one.
Slowly, we start to understand that our job is to use the raw materials of personality, family, setting and circumstance that Hashem has given us, and fashion them into something that may be less than perfect but will move us ever closer to perfection.
It’s like being a runner who perpetually runs into a brick wall… until he finally realizes that the wall is not going to move, so it might be a good idea if he does. It can take a whole lot of headaches and bruises before understanding finally sets in.
As Rebbetzin Esti Hamilton says, tzaros are Hashem’s way of turning us in a different direction. It may not be a direction that we ever thought we’d need to take. But, in the overall scheme of things, it is a direction that will help us grow into beings that actually deserve the Utopian existence we long for.
There’s a fine line between idealism and acceptance. Young people often burn with idealism. They envision a better world and are willing to fight to achieve it.
As we grow older, we begin to see things in less black-and-white terms. We start to notice the positive in the negative, and vice versa. Instead of chasing rainbows, our functional stance becomes a matter of intermingled hope and practicality. If something is lost in the process, much is also gained. As sharp edges blur, we begin to find comfort in the resultant softness. We become softer. And perhaps we start to realize that a bit more softness all along might have made the whole journey a little easier.
Still, the yearning for perfection never quite goes away. There are occasions in our lives when we sense it more keenly than others. Times when the vision of feels real enough to touch.
Standing under the chuppah is one such moment. Holding our newborn child. We feel it at moments of supreme joy or great triumph. We sense it when we solemnly face ourselves and our Creator on Yom Kippur. These are moments that transcend the down-to-earth and soar into the heavens. Moments when we see what we can be and what the world can be.
Moments when Hashem, in His infinite kindness, lets us have a tiny taste of Utopia while we’re still very much immersed in this distinctly non-Utopian world of ours.
Moments when the curtain of the mundane is lifted, and we glimpse the possibility of perfection.