Thursday, Dec 9, 2021

Playing the Long Game

In a Perfect World

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were engaged in what famously became known as the Cold War. The two superpowers had clashing ideologies and nurtured serious mutual grievances, and the competition for global dominance was fierce. The stakes were high as each side stockpiled nuclear weapons and toiled in a wide variety of ways, both openly and covertly, to undermine one another. In everything except actual battlefield action, the two countries were enemies.

One of the methods that the Soviets used with some degree of success was the insertion of spies or moles into the United States. These moles would take up residence in this country and remain for years or even decades, acting the part of the good American friend and neighbor while secretly waiting for the signal to embark on the mission for which they had been sent. A mission which, it was hoped, would wreak a certain amount of havoc on the host country into which they’d been inserted.

This was not a situation designed to reap immediate or short-term benefits. The Russians are a very patient people. As many have found to their detriment, they excel at playing the long game.

Let’s take a look at these “moles.” Imagine settling down to live in a certain city or town for years, doing your best to look and act and sound just like everybody else, while simultaneously harboring a private sense of mission that nobody but your handler back in the USSR knows about. What might be the pitfalls of such a lifestyle?

For one thing, there is always the danger that you will find yourself forgetting why you are there. The many amenities offered by your new home might easily distract you from your original purpose in coming. You could form relationships with people who know nothing about your secret life, and those relationships could in turn make it increasingly uncomfortable for you to lead a double existence.

You may find the norms, hobbies, and sheer friendliness of those around you hard to resist. Nobody likes to feel different; this all-too human weakness undermines a spy’s ability to maintain his essential inner identity over the long term. The longer the stay, the harder it would become to remain firm in one’s sense of purpose.

As the years pile up, the Motherland you left behind begins to wear an air of unreality. There is a growing sense of disconnect between what you were trained for and how you are living. After a while, you might even begin to forget why these people are on the “other side” at all. These are my friends and neighbors. They’re great guys!

Spies are carefully trained to avoid these pitfalls. But the passage of time, and the natural erosion that comes along with such distractions and that sense of disconnect, can’t help but have an impact. Sometimes a serious one.

The double outer life you’re leading begins to reflect itself in a double inner life. Your loyalties become muddled, your sense of purpose blurred.

Why am I here again?

What, exactly, am I waiting for?

Who am I really?

*****

I’m sure you’ve figured out the nimshol. Every one of us was sent here with a divine purpose: to serve Hashem. But we are planted here for a long time, at least in human terms. And there is plenty going on during that long haul to pull us away from that first, burning sense of mission.

Our neighbors and co-workers in this friendly country can make it hard to remember our “otherness.” When we’re all working toward the same goals and prizes, it can become difficult to view ourselves as different. After all, we all want the same things, don’t we? A comfortable lifestyle, a reasonable bank balance, a modicum of success in our chosen field, joy from our children. We’re only human, right?

Our own thoughts and feelings can carry us away to a place far from where our consciousness ought to reside. If we let it, our emotional life and its attendant dreams and aspirations can make us lose sight of our mission. As we have stated so often on these pages, emotions are powerful things. Sometimes powerful enough to blind us just when we most need to see.

Our ambitions can distract us, as well. Spiritual ambition leads us to ever higher rungs on the ladder of closeness to Hakadosh Boruch Hu. The desire for material comfort or professional success, while not inherently negative if used correctly, provide only transient rewards. Worse, the struggle to achieve those material goals can distract us from our true purpose. Rabbi Moshe Don Kestenbaum’s marvelous new book, Olam Ha’avodah, posits that becoming close to Hashem is, or should be, the goal of all our spiritual strivings. Every mitzvah that we do, every piece of Torah that we learn, is to be utilized toward this purpose. With every seemingly mundane action or speech, we should ask ourselves, “Will this bring me closer to Hashem?

It is through this process that we can perfect ourselves and help perfect the world.

But distractions abound. We can lose sight of our purpose through many things… some of them very good things! At times, our very focus on the minutiae of a mitzvah can make us forget the One Whose word we are obeying. And certainly the day-to-day ups and downs of our lives, our jobs and our relationships can take up too much territory in our minds, leaving little room for more exalted reflections. Running our homes and earning a living are useful and necessary. It’s only when these things become the be-all and end-all of our stay on this earth that the problems creep in. Because this is not all we’re here for.

The things that we share in common with the rest of the world are only the starting point. We have a higher purpose that extends far beyond that. A purpose we were charged with at the moment our divine soul detached itself from heaven and settled into our physical bodies for the duration.

A purpose that we must never forget.

*****

So there you have it: the three “D’s.” Distraction. Disconnect. Divinity. The first two are challenges which we face as we move through our years on this planet. The third is the solution that can help set us straight.

When life becomes so chock-full of distractions that we find it hard to focus on the important things… When we sense a certain disconnect from the non-physical aspects of our all-too-physical selves… When we begin to identify so closely with our day-to-day small goals that we lose sight of the overarching purpose for which we were sent here… That’s the time to concentrate on the divine spark within us. The reminder of who we are and what our mission really is. Our homing beacon.

The signal which, if we only manage to keep the faith and play the long game successfully, will one day bring us home again in a blaze of joy and triumph!

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