"Feel Good" Philosophy
Yesterday my wife and I had to be in Tel Aviv for a meeting. It is always an interesting journey when a Jerusalemite ventures into the metropolis of Tel Aviv. The contrast between the two cities is like night and day. One of those contrasts are the billboards. In Jerusalem there are none whereas in Tel Aviv the streets are lined with advertisements of every sort. I must say they make great conversation pieces. The one that caught our eyes was a new advertisement for Coca Cola. It was a picture of young people having fun and the caption below read in large bold letters, “Do what feels good”. I must admit my wife and I had a heyday with that one. I won’t go into too much detail about our conversation but I will get to the crux of what we discussed. That billboard captured what I would say is one of the main tensions that exists between a Jewish lifestyle as outlined by the Torah and between a secular lifestyle.
In just a few words the billboard captured a philosophy where the individual is at the center of existence. The main thing is to have fun and do that which “feels good”. It is an ideology that I certainly would feel very uncomfortable if my children adopted.
When we look around we don’t see that the vast majority of Jews follow the Torah and certainly the vast majority have fallen for the “feeling good” philosophy. Why then is following the Torah so difficult? Why do so many Jews have a hard time with “Just Do It” when it comes to the Torah?
There is a beautiful Midrash that addresses this question. The Midrash compares it to a person who is on a journey and comes to a fork in the road. One path before him is lined for miles with thorns, while the second path is a smooth one lined with beautiful flowers. The person must decide which path to take. It looks simple but just before he continues a man appears and tells him that the path lined with thorns eventually clears up and leads to clear sailing, whereas the smooth path eventually turns to thorns and thistles and is unmanageable. The decision is no longer an easy one. Does the person trust the words of the man and travel the path with thorns or does he disregard the words of the man and take the path that looks good.
In many ways life is the same way. There are times where a certain decision or a certain journey looks great only to lead us to disaster and there are times where the difficult path is really the one that gets us to where we want to get to. Sometimes what looks and feels good is a red herring and what looks hard and unappealing is where the truth is. Unfortunately the red herring is often times lined with gold and hard to resist.
The path of Torah is the same way. It is a difficult one that often times appears unattractive. But those who have traveled it will all tell you that it leads to a beautiful place. I need look no further than what awaits me next week when we begin the “Selihot”. Waking up at 4:30 in the morning doesn’t make me feel good. To boot it lasts (at least for Sephardim) for forty days. Yet I will be the first to admit the beauty of the Selihot, how rich and inspiring they are not to mention that there is something uplifting about waking up so early and greeting the day before the sun does. Indeed the “Selihot” are not so appealing at first sight but where they lead is precious.
This is true for so much of what the Torah expects from us from what to eat, who to sleep with, how to spend our time, when to wake up and just about everything else in between. I can remember a sermon I gave many years ago in my synagogue in Vancouver. That week a congregant of mine gave me tickets to see an NBA game. I happen to be a great basketball fan but as I sat in the crowd I couldn’t help laughing (or crying). There were 15,000 people packed into the arena watching grown men trying to throw a ball into a round hoop. It was the “feel good” philosophy at its best. I laughed because the night before I gave an inspiring lecture in my synagogue attended by some twenty people. People commented to me afterwards that they would remember my words for a long time to come. In my sermon that week I communicated my frustration about a society that prefers to be entertained as opposed to being inspired. Indeed Coca-Cola is winning because to so many it (and not Torah) is the real thing. The “feel good” philosophy has made us take the red herring hook line and sinker.
When it comes to Torah the motto has to be “Just do Good” the benefits you will see later. It is like working out. Its hard, we have to exert ourselves and sometimes it is painful. The results are not always immediate, but we know that what awaits us is good health. Spirituality is the same way. Just like ones body needs a vigorous workout to be healthy so too the soul needs to work out in order to be spiritually healthy.
As a Jewish educator my role is not an easy one. Trying to attract a generation that lives by the “feel good” philosophy to the rigorous lifestyle of the Torah is a challenge. But I will say this, for those willing to listen the road that begins with thorns and thistles eventually leads to beauty and fulfillment.
One final word for those who are ready for the spiritual workout. Don’t be discouraged and don’t be swayed by the norms society creates. To live a spiritual life is to often times go against the flow. The Vilna Gaon makes a beautiful remark regarding the opening verse of our Parasha. He questions why the Torah begins using the singular “Re-eh” which means “see” and then goes on to use the plural “Lifnehem” which means “before you”. To be consistent the Torah should have said “Re-uh” which is plural and speaks to the nation. The Vilna Gaon comments that from here the Torah teaches that one should never say if everyone is doing something then it must be right. Rather by using the singular “Re-eh” we are being told that we must as individuals always examine the philosophies and actions of others and critically determine if they are correct or not. There may be times, he suggests, that we will have to stand up and go against the flow. That is not always easy but it is the beginning of living by the “do good” philosophy as opposed the “feel good” philosophy.
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Yosef Benarroch
Visit his website at www.sephardicseminary.org
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