Monday, Jul 22, 2024

              IN A PERFECT WORLD

 

 

     Magical Thinking

A baby knows just one thing: I want.

I want food, I want warmth, I want to be changed or picked up or cuddled. If all is well, the baby will receive these things merely by letting out a howl. Easy as pie.

As the baby grows, however, the picture changes. The moment language is introduced into the picture, new expectations arise. Now, when he says, “I want,” some adult is bound to respond with something like, “How are you supposed to ask?” or “What’s the magic word?”

If the child is wise, he will soon learn to preface all his wishes with the magic word. “Please may I have that?” In this way, both his wants and the demands of polite behavior are met. The child is being civilized.

At that age, the word may really seem like magic. The young child has no idea why putting his request one way gets him what he wants, while putting it a different way meets with a refusal. It takes time and a growing familiarity with the rules of society to teach him that there is no magic involved at all.

The use of polite words merely indicates respect for the person one is addressing. It transforms a demand into an appeal. It implies that the person whom you’re supplicating has no obligation to succumb to your wishes; she is doing so only because she wants to. Out of the kindness of heart and her regard for you, her beloved child.

Primitive religions were childlike. The worshiper felt himself at the mercy of powerful forces whom he labeled gods. These gods were mighty and terrible. If you wanted to survive, you thought that these forces must be appeased, their giant-sized egos tickled with constant flattery and a steady succession of (sometimes human) sacrifices. Utterly helpless in the world, man was forced to learn the magic formulas for placating the fury of the wrathful gods.

Hakadosh Boruch Hu gave us the Torah and a whole different view of G-d, man, and the dynamic that is supposed to happen between them. Hashem wants us not to placate, but to relate. And that calls for a substantially different mindset and a whole new playscript.

No more magical thinking. No more, “If I say or do this, then I’ll hopefully get that.” With the Creator of heaven and earth, things work differently. Hashem doesn’t relish our helplessness and revel in His power, as those ancient, make-believe gods were thought to do. He actually wants us to grow up.

Growing up means learning from one’s parents and trying to emulate their ways. It means choosing the correct path from among the myriad paths before us, even if the right one is the most difficult of all. It means moving past the surface to develop something deep and meaningful.

In short, growing up spiritually means moving away from the shallow, easy fix and reaching out for a genuine relationship with Hashem.

Easier said than done, I’ll admit. Much simpler to seize instead on some one-size-fits-all segulah guaranteed to meet all our needs. But relying on quick fixes is akin to the young child who thinks the word “please” is invested with some sort of magic. He doesn’t understand that his parents are responding not so much to his use of any specific word as to his actual needs and the situation as a whole. Ultimately, they will give him what they know is good for him and withhold what is not.

The young child has no conception of the vast background of wisdom and experience that plays into every decision his parents make for their child. All he knows is the magic formula: say this, get that. Easy as pie.

 

The Relationship Conundrum

Growing up means acting like a grown up. And that includes forging grown-up relationships. The person who persists in clinging to superficial formulas and a childish understanding of what goes into a relationship will make for a poor spouse and, later, an ineffective parent.

Ask any three husbands what they do when their wife is upset with them. One may buy her something as a peace offering: chocolate, flowers, a piece of jewelry. The second may sit down and have an earnest heart-to-heart with his wife, replete with apologies and empathy. A third knows that his best move is to simply pick up a broom or wash the dishes to help relieve his wife’s burden.

Any of these things can be done the wrong way, meaning in a formulaic way: “If I do this, then she’ll stop being mad at me,” after which the errant spouse continues on exactly as before. In such a case, not much is really accomplished other than putting a Band-Aid on a state of marital tension.

To make a marriage or any other significant relationship work, one has to act in a way that says, “I know you. I care about you. Your happiness is my priority.” The exact method depends on the individual, but it must always be delivered in a way that says, “You are important to me. This relationship is important to me. I’m willing to look inward to see where I’ve failed you.” It’s not meant to be a quick-fix magic trick meant to get you out of trouble in the short term.

Hakadosh Boruch Hu demands the same from us. In the Novi, He expresses His disdain for karbonos that arrive unaccompanied by sincere repentance. He doesn’t want us to merely go through the motions. No rote verbal formulas or mindless actions can take the place of being a complete, mature, and dedicated eved Hashem.

He wants all of us: mind and heart, body and soul. He wants our best, most mature selves. If we turn toward Him in the correct spirit, then He will take care of us. He will give us what we need if it’s good for us and withhold it if it’s not.

Hashem has made it abundantly clear that He is interested in forging and maintaining a bond of love with us. Not a casual or superficial bond, but one which keeps us involved with Him and living with His transmitted values every minute of the day. A man knows that he’s succeeded with his child when that child grows up and lives his life the way his father taught him to. We want to give Hashem that same kind of nachas.

If we abandon childish, quick-fix religiosity in favor of the deep and genuine avodah that Hashem wants from us, He guarantees us His eternal devotion in return. We will have our needs taken care of in this world and earn the closeness and love that we so desperately yearn for in the next.

And we won’t even have to say “please.”

 

 

 

 

 

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