Sunday, Aug 1, 2021

The Life Imperative

I had a pleasant surprise the other morning. Last Sukkos, a pile of heavy wooden slats was laid out on our back lawn to dry before being wrapped up for the year. We let them lie there for a number of days, which turned out to be a mistake. When the lumber was finally lifted and carted away, it left behind a large, unsightly, parched-yellow depression in the grass.

For the next six months, that rectangular dent remained depressingly in place. Though no one else seemed to notice or care, I found it an eyesore in the otherwise pleasant back yard. Imagine my delight when, just a few days ago, I noticed the first burgeoning of fresh, green blades of grass scattered across that withered rectangle. Just a few clumps here and there, poking their heads above the barren earth but vibrant with promise. Spring had come, bringing life.

As the earth turns on its axis, away from winter’s harsh embrace and toward the sweeter, warmer seasons, we see an exuberant outburst of new life everywhere. I’ve already spotted the speedy chipmunk and the bumbling bunnies that hide away during the colder months. Not to mention baby robins and sparrows, and the cardinal which, in winter, sports a dull coat of grayish-orange but now decorates the trees with its crimson finery.

The mother deer are back, too, faithfully followed by their spindly-legged youngsters. The trees, stunning waterfalls of pink or white blossoms, are filled with the riotous chirping of birds whose song was muted since fall. Winter’s colorless lawns are wearing new, emerald coats. Here and there, bulbs planted last fall are bursting into cheerful yellow flowers. Abounding life is everywhere.

We humans, too, respond well to the newly-arrived warmth. People who were content to huddle indoors all winter, fingers wrapped around smoking mugs, feel the urge fling open their doors and step outside, sans coat, for a brisk walk in the fresh air. Minds and hearts are invigorated. Touched by the infectious promise of spring, hopes and spirits ride high. We make plans, we take trips, we break out the patio grill. We revel in a renewed commitment to life.

The whole world is attuned to life. Every single creature is programmed with the life imperative. And so are we… when it comes to our physical existence. Like the grass and the birds and the trees, we respond to the renewal of spring with an answering affirmation of love for life. But what about our spiritual selves? How attached to life are they?

When He created the world, Hakadosh Boruch Hu fashioned many marvels. The one that continues to stun me the most is the gift of free will. Our Creator gave us a Torah full of wisdom: a guide for living well and enduring for eternity. In his Torah He pleads with us to “choose life!” He has made His preferences are crystal-clear. At the same time, He has granted us just enough wiggle room to blind ourselves to the truth if we wish. To act in ways that are contrary to truth and detrimental to life. In other words, to sin.

Unfortunately, our unstoppable drive for life finds it all too easy to run out of gas when it comes to the life of the spirit.

Man is the only creature in the world that can consistently act against his own best interests. Somehow, he can mistake the comfort of his bed for the true happiness of serving Hashem together with a minyan of his peers. She can take pleasure in a good gossip instead of nurturing goodness and good feelings among her friends. He can confuse the satisfaction of a growing bank account with the joy of living with integrity.

In some measure, we are all guilty of this confusion. We allow impatience or distraction to dilute our davening. We permit anger or jealousy or greed to dictate our actions. We let lethargy and laziness produce a soul-starving inertia.

Even as we continue to enthusiastically “choose life” in the physical sense, we are all too capable of drifting into the opposite course, r”l, when it comes to the life of the neshomah. This is an astonishing truth.

It is also a very unhealthy one.

*****

In a commentary on Megillas Rus, I once read that a woman is not truly at peace until she is in her husband’s home. In other words, until she is settled and ready to build alongside her partner. In the same way, it seems to me that a person is not truly happy or fulfilled until he is pursuing life in a larger sense than merely ensuring his physical comfort. And I say this despite the big, white-toothed smiles we see on advertisements everywhere, promoting “the good life” which leaves faith completely out of the equation.

Of course, anyone reading these pages will be a person who devotes at least some of her time to matters of the spirit. The question is, how energetically do we do it? And how much genuine pleasure does it afford us?

Living with an emphasis on the material may make us feel comfortable. We may experience excitement or satisfaction or even joy as we respond to the demands of our corporeal selves. But the long game, the one that offers an eternal reward, demands that we respond to the exigencies of the spirit with equal fervor. It calls for imbibing the Torah’s eternal lessons with the same delight that we bring to drinking a cold glass of water when we’re hot. It calls for an exuberance and an urgency that transforms every davening, every Torah obligation, every act of chesed, from a chore into a cherished privilege.

There was once an experiment done on some mice, in which the mice learned that pushing a certain lever sent an electric signal straight to the pleasure center in their tiny brains. Delirious with delight, they kept on pushing that lever, over and over. They stopped eating and drinking. They didn’t bother to sleep. Those mice kept on pursuing pleasure until they literally dropped dead.

Do we want to live like those mice? Do we want to use the lion’s share of our energy in pursuit of material comforts and adventures, draining our limited batteries until there’s nothing left for a full-fledged commitment to ruchniyus?

Whether our reluctance to give ourselves fully to the demands of our eternal, spiritual side stems from laziness or complacency, ignorance or boredom, it behooves us to work on recognizing a different kind of life imperative than the multi-colored outpouring that comes with the spring. An imperative which, though less obvious than the physical one bursting out all around, has no less of a claim on us and far more to offer in return.

Pouring our energies into matters of the spirit may not feel as natural or as easy as devoting those same energies to our physical well-being; that’s because the neshomah, unlike robins and bunnies and blossoming trees, is hidden. But its clarion call is no less urgent, and far less transient. Heeding it will attach us to the only life that lasts.

By all means, let us enjoy every minute of that outpouring of life and beauty called Spring. At the same time, let’s not forget about the other kind of life that the Torah commands us to choose. Let’s commit ourselves with excitement and intensity to the joy of serving our Master, and reap endless reward in this world and the next!

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