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How Do We Avoid Life’s Pitfalls? (Edited Transcript)

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It is painful to witness the tragedy of a person embarking on a path of self-destruction. In a recent example of this, Steven Smith, then captain of the Australian cricket side, and probably the best batsman in the world, hatched a plan to give Australia in a match against South Africa the advantage by illegally changing the condition of the ball. In pursuit of victory at all costs, he led a few key players in his side in a brazen act of cheating. Evidence of ball-tampering was caught on camera, and Smith was swiftly removed as captain of the side and handed a year-long ban from cricket. Those who went along with his plan received similar bans. Smith’s career – and more importantly, his reputation – lies in ruins.

This kind of self-destructive behaviour has manifested itself throughout history, and the temptation to fall into its trap is part of the human condition. The Gemara (Sotah 9a and b) documents various examples of this self-destructive behaviour. The Gemara begins with a general discussion on adultery, and it’s a fitting place to start: a person who commits adultery destroys everything that they have; their marriage, their children, their name.

The Gemara goes on to cite specific people from Jewish history who had the world at their feet, and then threw it all away. One is Avshalom, King David’s son, who staged a coup against his own father, in a mad pursuit of power. Avshalom had everything – he was a prince, he had the blessings of being part of the royal Davidian House, and he was a person of great charisma and talent. And yet, in the end, he was killed in battle as King David and his troops regained control of the country. In pursuit of something which was beyond him  – beyond the ethical principles which the Torah requires us to live by – he lost everything.

Another example quoted by the Gemara is that of Haman. Haman was the Prime Minister to King Achashveirosh, who presided over one of the largest empires in human history. Haman had power, he had wealth, he had fame and recognition. In fact, wherever he went people bowed down before him. There was only one exception. Mordechai alone refused to bend the knee – and it drove Haman crazy. “And all of this is worth nothing as long as I see Mordechai the Jew just sitting there at the palace gate,” he says at one point. In the end, his obsession with Mordechai leads directly to his downfall, and he and his sons are hung on the gallows by the king.

A classic Chumash example of power driving a person to distraction is the case of Korach, the protagonist and title character from this week’s parsha. Korach was a man of great renown among the Jewish people. He had wealth, power, and exceptional intellectual abilities, but this wasn’t enough. As the first cousin of Moses and Aaron, Korach wanted the priesthood, which had been given to Aaron, and in pursuit of that he mounted a rebellion, marshaling more than 250 tribal leaders against Moses. In the end, he and his followers were literally swallowed by the earth.

Besides having fame and fortune, there’s one thing tying all of these characters together – in each case, they lacked something, and in each case, their downfall was brought about by a misguided, obsessive pursuit of that thing. And that is why, we are all susceptible to self-destructive behaviour. We all have certain blessings and lack certain others. We all face the risk of pursuing the things we lack with such blind ambition that it causes us to lose the blessings we do have.

Even if we don’t actually lose those blessings, we can cause ourselves pain and anguish in a more subtle way – an unquenchable desire for the things that we don’t have can prevent us from enjoying and appreciating the things we do have. Rav Yosef Yehuda Leib Bloch explains that human beings are naturally drawn to whatever it is we lack, and that can begin to occupy all of our focus and attention – to the point where we lose our emotional attachment to the blessings we have and drain the joy from our lives.

How do we avoid falling into this trap of self-destruction and anguish? How do we prevent our lives from being destroyed, either in actual terms or through the emotional dissatisfaction that comes with obsessing over the things we do not have?

The key lies in a profound statement of our Sages in Pirkei Avot (Avot 4:1) which seeks to define the things which everybody wants: wisdom, power, wealth and honour. The Mishneh outlines how best to attain them in a way that satisfies us socially and emotionally, as well as morally and spiritually. The Mishnah states: “Who is wise? One who learns from all people … Who is powerful? One who is able to conquer his own inclination … Who is wealthy? One who is satisfied with his lot … Who has honour? One who gives honour to others …”.

Concepts such as wisdom, power, wealth and honour are almost always defined in relative terms. A wise person possesses superior knowledge, intelligence and insight; a powerful person exerts power over others; a wealthy person is a member of the richest 1% of society; a person of honour receives that recognition and respect from his/her peers. The Maharal points out how the Mishnah turns this traditional model on its head: instead of using relativist, outward-looking criteria to measure wisdom, power, wealth and honour, it calls on us to turn inwards, and create aspirations which are in our own hands to fulfill. Instead of this frantic race to the top of society’s ladder, pursuing greatness becomes about achieving self-mastery.

And so wisdom is embodied by a person who has a deep-seated hunger and curiosity to learn, and has achieved a level of comfort within themselves and a humility to learn from every person – to seek out wisdom wherever it can be found. Supreme power is exercised not through exerting control over others, but through self-control – overcoming our base desires and not surrendering to our immediate impulses. Wealth becomes not about the frantic accumulation of money and possessions, but about a calm, collected state of being, born of gratitude and appreciation for everything one has. And true honour comes not from pursuing the recognition of others, but rather as the in having the generosity of spirit and strong sense of self to award that recognition to others.

We see from here that our sages locate the centre of reference of a person within rather than without. We embark on a path of self-destruction when our barometer for success is based on what others can give us or what we can take from them. When we define our sense of worth externally, like Korach, we end up constantly pursuing objectives which lie outside of ourselves, leading to a life of disempowerment, dissatisfaction and, sometimes, destruction.

On the other hand, by developing an internal frame of reference, an inner benchmark, we can take control of our own lives, and achieve a deep sense of fulfillment: true personal greatness, and genuine, lasting happiness.

Posted on 14 June 2018 in Text, Transcript