The World Is Getting Angrier. This is Why.
Someone once wrote a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe in a state of profound sadness. The letter read as follows:
“I would like the Rebbe's help. I wake up each day sad and anxious. I can't concentrate. I find it hard to pray. I feel that life has lost its joy and is pointless. I need help.”
The Rebbe wrote a wonderful reply without using a single word. He circled the first word of every sentence in red, and sent the letter back.
It is no coincidence that the rise of individualism in the Western World correlates with the rise in depression. This is not simply anecdotal. Multiple studies have discovered that the more one identifies as “I”, the more susceptible one becomes to depression, loneliness and self-destruction.
But this is not a new problem, we've been dealing with it since the inception of our nation. The Torah begins this week to describe the decent and failure of Klal Yisrael in the Midbar. For the past two weeks (Bamidbar and Naso) the Torah explained how our nation coalesced under a series of banners, surrounded the Mishkan, rallied together and built an army. In that moment they were prepared to leave Sinai and march directly into Eretz Yisrael.
Moshe Rabbeinu famously declares:
קוּמָה ה׳ וְיָפֻצוּ אֹיְבֶיךָ וְיָנֻסוּ מְשַׂנְאֶיךָ מִפָּנֶיךָ. “Rise up, Hashem, and let your enemies be scattered! Let those who hate you flee before you!”
Everyone is standing, ready and prepared to fulfill the destiny of the Jewish people... Except that they are not; at least, not everyone.
So the Torah continues it's cautionary tale:
וַיְהִי הָעָם כְּמִתְאֹנְנִים רַע בְּאזְנֵי ה׳ וַיִּשְׁמַע ה׳ וַיִּחַר אַפּוֹ... The people were complaining in the ears of Hashem. When Hashem heard it, his anger was kindled...
Wait a minute! We can't go into Eretz Yisrael yet, and all of Jewish destiny is put on hold.
What were they complaining about? What was the big problem? The Torah doesn't tell us. But they were certainly unhappy. One wonders what they might've been so upset about.
Moshe Rabbeinu, however, diagnoses the problem a short while later:
וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה שֵׁשׁ מֵאוֹת אֶלֶף רַגְלִי הָעָם אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי בְּקִרְבּוֹ Moshe said, “There are six hundred thousand people that אנכי – I, am amongst.”
Meaning: There's six hundred thousand אנכי's. That's a lot of “I”'s. There's not a lot of “we”, and certainly not nearly enough of “You, Hashem”. Because if it's about me, then it's not about You.
Why does the Torah not tell us what the people were upset about? Because there wasn't a singular reason. Everyone had their own little issues, that together combined into a general feeling of discontent.
Rav Hirsch explains:
כל זה היה חסר ערך בעיניהם ולא נראה להם כתמורה ראויה. הם לא הרגישו שזכו בדרך חיים נעלה ומאושרת יותר The entire enterprise of being Jewish, of conquering Eretz Yisrael, of building Klal Yisrael, didn't seem like a fair trade for the life they were giving up in exchange.
Each person felt like they were getting a raw deal. In the moment that they realized that the vision of Yetzias Mitzrayim was, against all odds, actually coming to fruition, they got nervous. They began to question: Do I really want this life? What does it mean to be a committed, connected Eved Hashem?
They got upset, they complained, and the future of our nation was stalled for generations.
Of course, the Torah does not tell us this story for us to be upset with our ancestors, but instead for us to fix those middos within ourselves.
So we ought to take a moment and consider: What exactly a life of “We” and “You” mean. What is it that the Torah asks of us? What is the life that Hashem wants us to live? Torah? Mitzvos? Tefillah? Chessed? What's the goal of this Jewish enterprise?
Ultimately, the goal of everything that we do is כבוד שמים – to bring a little bit of Hashem into the world. But there is no way to bring Hashem into the world without making space for Him. To be a Jew requires that we give up a little bit of “I” for the bigger picture – “You” – be realized.
This sacrifice manifests in a myriad of ways: Finding a minyan on vacation. Ensuring that the food we eat is up to standard even when we're with non Jewish colleagues. It means not listening to the story that someone is telling you, no matter how juicy. It means not getting angry on a WhatsApp or on the highway – even if it's warranted. Even when they're wrong. Even when they deserve it.
These are all the same challenge: Making my agenda less important that Yours, Hashem.
Naturally, the greatest Yetzer Hara in the world of “I” manifests in Avodas Hashem. No one gets more angry than Jews fighting about minhag and nussach and shul leadership.
To this the Kotzker would say:
Everything must be done Lesheim Shamayim (for the sake of Heaven), even the actions done Lesheim Shamayim.
The moment that we realize our frustrations are simply a misalignment of priorities, we can begin to fix them.
Rabbi Nachman (שיחות הר״ן מב) explains the root of our discontent:
עַצְבוּת הוּא: כְּמוֹ מִי שֶׁהוּא בְּכַעַס וּבְרֹגֶז, כְּמוֹ שֶׁמִּתְרַעֵם וּמִתְלוֹנֵן עָלָיו יִתְבָּרַךְ ח”ו, עַל שֶׁאֵינוֹ עוֹשֶׂה לוֹ רְצוֹנוֹ. Sadness is like anger and rage. It is like a complaint against God for not fulfilling one’s wishes.
A few years ago, Walt Bettinger, the CEO of Charles Schwab Corporation, shared his unique style of job interview.
Before every new hire, Bettinger takes candidates out for a breakfast. But what the potential employees don't know is that every time, Bettinger shows up early and asks the restaurant to purposefully mess up the order in exchange for a handsome tip.
For an employer like Bettinger, character is everything. He told the Times that his “wrong order” test is meant to gauge how prospective hires deal with adversity.
“Are they upset, are they frustrated, or are they understanding? Life is like that, and business is like that,” he said.
“It's just another way to look inside their heart rather than their head.”
Hashem should help us to stop complaining, to finally fix the malady of our history. To see ourselves as part of the great dream and purpose of Klal Yisrael, and march to Geulah together.