Of Principles and Potholes

This will come as no news to anyone, but the world is not in very good moral shape these days.

We are living through the greatest technological revolution in history. Concurrent with these technical changes in how we live our lives has come a push for social and moral change as well. Unfortunately, the push seems to be all in the wrong direction.

On the surface, we’ve never had it better. Democracy is a beacon of light to the nations, offering, in the words of the passionate visionaries behind the French Revolution: “Liberte’, egalite’, fraternite’”—liberty, equality and brotherhood. The spirit of those heady principles had already taken hold here in America some years before, during our own revolution. They became the paving stones from which the highway of our national edifice was built. More, they have long been considered the road to enlightenment. The pathway to utopia.

Anyone taking a closer look at what’s happening to our society, however, will see that that highway is beginning to buckle. The road is in a state of moral deterioration. The vaunted pathway to utopia, I regret to report, is chock-full of potholes.

Let’s take a look at each of these three founding principles of democracy and see how they have distorted the true founding principles of life.

Liberty, or freedom, is a value we all enjoy. Hashem set up a system in His world in which even the lowliest human being, at the very bottom of the social totem-pole, is endowed with the priceless gift of free will. The freedom to choose entitles us to reward for observing His commandments and following in His ways, something that would not have been possible had we been created as mere robots, programmed to obey.

But the freedom to choose does not entitle us to choose wrongly! Hashem, in His kindness, set things up so that we can earn a reward for what He has every right to demand from us. That, however, does not remove our obligation to obey. Sadly, today’s freedom-drugged world has taken the right to choose as permission to do whatever it wants. Not only is G-d not obeyed, He is not even acknowledged.

The modern world has taken His gift of free will and used it as an open door to walk right out of His house. Liberty, for many, is a key not to entering the royal palace, but to cavorting in the garden with abandon, bound by no rules at all. Moral chaos.

I recently listened to an interview with a couple of well-mannered and articulate students from Berkley, California. It is almost unnecessary to add that those students embrace the most left-wing of liberal ideologies. When questioned about various burning social topics, they expressed the view that everything we’ve ever believed in or lived by is open to fresh interpretation. You are what you think you are; you do what you are moved to do. Human emotion has taken the place of Divine wisdom. Once you take G-d out of the picture, you’re left with a blank page on which to scribble and color as the spirit moves you. It’s like the Tower of Bavel all over again—except that, instead of fighting G-d, they’re trying to erase Him.

The interview, which was conducted in perfect civility, painted a word-portrait of society as the ultra-liberals would have it: a world in flux, morally formless, with nothing fixed or absolute and everything up for grabs.

It was one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever heard.

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The second great principle to which we cling in the Western World is equality. “All men were created equal,” the Declaration of Independence saw fit to remind us. This was the idea that abolished slavery, enfranchised all adults including former slaves and women, and offered a sense of entitlement never before known in history. In the past, in Europe and elsewhere, distinctions of class were strictly preserved. Then along came a brash young country called the United States which declared class old-fashioned and distinctions unnecessary.

But the Torah makes a great many distinctions. A major part of kedoshim tiyehuyou shall be a holy people—has to do with respecting the lines that divide the pure from the impure, the permissible from the forbidden. Kohanim have a different role to play than Leviim or Yisraelim, along with different rights and restrictions. Some animals are kosher while others are not. Certain people may marry while others are prohibited from doing so. Respecting distinctions is the foundation for creating holiness.

Not everything is equal to everything else in terms of its spiritual benefit or applicability. We are all equal in terms of our access to Hashem and His Torah. But equality does not mean the same thing to us as it does to the average citizen of the Western World

When class was abolished, so was a vital ingredient so necessary in perpetuating the human race. I’m talking about respect. For our parents, our elders, our institutions, our traditions. Any teacher today can tell you about the downward trajectory of respect in the classroom; any parent can tell you the same about the home.

Children raised in a democratic society simply do not see a distinction between themselves and their elders that would automatically call for respect. What gives them the right to tell me what to do, just because they’re older? The result is a rude and rudderless society. Certainly not the society we were adjured to create as a mamleches kohanim v’goy kadosh.

Last, fraternity, or universal brotherhood, is a wonderful idea. Indeed, we hope to bask in just that kind of a world at the end of days, when all people will join together to serve our Creator. But we’re not there yet. Brotherhood is fine and good if it leads to peace and friendship among people and nations. It is not so good when it takes the form of a Tower-of-Bavel type of mentality, placing political correctness and human intellect above the Divine. Unity is only positive in the service of a positive goal.

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We are living in dangerous times. Morally dangerous times. The values that have recently been embraced by Western society have the power to creep into even the most strongly-fortified homes and hearts. This is an insidious kind of enemy, one that wears smiles and carries the welcoming banner of friendly-sounding philosophies. When Hashem created the world, there was “darkness on the surface of the deep.” Chazal tell us that the darkness refers to the Greek exile. The Greeks were the spearhead of Western culture, which was shaped by their world view and still lives by it today. The Greeks were seemingly a beacon of light in an unenlightened world, yet the Torah refers to them as darkness. We must be guided by our Torah, to see the heart of darkness hidden inside the outward glow of bright lights and whiter-than-white smiles.

More than ever, we must protect our children, and ourselves, with the Torah’s timeless and Divinely-originated precepts. Only an absolute and unchanging system of values can successfully fight off the blandishments of a morally flexible one. In a perfect world, democracy would be an unqualifiedly positive concept. As Jews, democracy has given us much to be grateful for. Unfortunately, some of its modern proponents have misused those messages to try to recreate a world uninformed by the image and the Word of G-d. This is something that we must fight to the death.

Each of us has a personal task to complete during our years on this earth. But all of us, individually and together, as a nation, have an overarching mission to carry out as well: to fill in the potholes on the pathway to utopia with the true and lasting light of truth.