Monday, March 4, 2019

From Alturas to San Francisco, or from San Francisco to Alturas?


In my previous essay I suggested to look for this writing as it is also inspired by the city of San Francisco.
I wrote this essay four years ago but for some unknown reason, I never had it published.
So …here it is:

California is not the state where I usually work. Nevertheless, I was quite happy to find myself in that state at a time when my fellow New Yorkers were experiencing a few weeks of snow blizzards, followed by ice storms.
Alturas is a town that has quite a distance from any other town and requires at least a two hours’ drive to or from its nearest neighbor. Due to the higher altitude, it can be quite cold over there. In Spanish, Alturas means ‘higher place.’
Interestingly, the main route, Route 59, in my home town of Monsey shares the name with this Californian, predominantly Bask and Native American settlement. But Route 59 in NY is quite flat and its altitude is not too high, geographically speaking. I guess something else puts Monsey on a higher plane.
The day after I left Alturas the town was shut down due to a tribal dispute that took the lives of four individuals.
A few days later I was at a business meeting in a store in downtown San Francisco.
While my customer perused my merchandise, I observed the street through the front glass window. Maybe 25 feet in front of my line of vision, there was a fellow seated on the sidewalk. With worn clothing and tired eyes, this unusually skinny Caucasian man in his mid twenties was sitting there without any support to his back. Somebody brought him some cookies to eat, but what he was doing there was simply watching. Watching a busy street of a big city. People were rushing in all directions, cars were passing by, trolleys were ringing their bells while making squeaky noises on the tracks that were barely visible upon the pavement of the street.
He was seated there and just watching.
That could have been me a little bit over thirty years ago. In a politically different reality but a visually similar tableau, people were walking, running, and chasing something that they will never manage to catch in their lifetimes.
In the brief hippie period of my life, I used to sit on the sidewalk or in the mall or at a train station and just watch. I studied people’s walks and tried to understand where all of them were going and where I myself should go.
Now, on that street in San Francisco, a few groups of hippies passed whose appearances were vastly familiar to me. They looked like relics of the sixties, with long hair, loose garish clothing, and badly in need of a shower. I was sadly reminded of my own hippie phase. For a while, I saw being a flower child as an alternative to the conformist society in which the individual didn’t really count and in which rules were forms of restriction.
There I sat in the San Francisco business district, a part of the soulless business world. Am I soulless? I would be, if not for those memories and whole new set of convictions.

Then I noticed someone on the street going from business to business, even stopping passersby on the sidewalk. In a plastic cup he had something that looked like a piece of worthless polished brass, but apparently, he thought he had some precious metal to sell. In his daydream, perhaps this man already counted the money he earned from his sale and imagined all it would buy him. But in reality, everyone else saw something very different in this object of his affection. While he saw treasure in his cup, they saw only a cupful of despair.
I looked at the man, but he couldn’t return my glance, for his eyes kept shifting in all directions. They could not stop and focus on anything for longer than a second. He was on drug hunger; his young but plowed-with-pain face showed everything. There was no human anymore inside of that human-looking shell, but just an animal chasing after something which would fill the emptiness that caused him to look for artificial happiness in the first place. But now, the very result of the chemical consciousness enhancements was this vacuum - a vacuum of humanness, a vacuum of self-consciousness, a vacuum of anything but the animalistic hunger. He was not chasing after a moment of happiness anymore; now he was only chasing after a moment of forgetfulness, in his desire to kill the pain.

I remember from the shiurim of Rabbi Avigdor Miller zt'l, when he often spoke about our Tzelem Elokim. He said that most people still maintain their Tzelem Elokim – their likeness to G-d - which gives them the potential to climb toward a higher spiritual experience and ultimately to higher spiritual existence. But it was clear from his statement that there are also some two-legged, vertical standing creatures that have lost it.
I didn’t understand it then, I didn’t ask, even though I could have submitted my question anonymously on a piece of paper, as it was customary to give to Rabbi Miller after his shiur. To this day, I still don’t know exactly what he meant.
Is it possible for a human being to lose it all? To lose his soul?
Rashi says clearly that what makes us different from other Nefesh Chai is our intellect and speech. But intellect and speech are only two of the tools to the greatest gift of our Creator – free choice. It is free choice which empowers our Tzelem Elokim. Intellect, along with our means of communication, is just the necessary apparatus without which choice would be impossible.
Are there any Bnai Adam – children of man - who lost the ability for free choice?
I would imagine that a person like the one I described a few lines above is such an individual; but can I say it with certainty?
No. I can’t.
Neither I, nor any other human being has the tools to evaluate the balance between chemical intoxication and the intoxication of our DNA, hormones, and other natural factors which our decisions are influenced by.
We don’t have the tools to measure someone else’s level of intellect to ascertain if it is high functioning enough to overpower the desires of the heart and make them submissive to the intellect, as Sefer HaTanya describes it. This battle between Saichel and Lev is our work of life.
Can we give this evaluation to ourselves? I think this is the first and most basic condition for any spiritual progress in our lives. We must find who we are, and where we are in our lives; which direction we should follow and which utensils we should use. But the most important necessity is our acknowledgment of the One above and our imploration to Him for guidance and help.
In Parshas Netzuvim we learn: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life… - Ivuchartu bachaim.” Many before have directed our attention to the fact that it doesn’t say – choose between life and death, but simply ‘choose life.’
It seems to me, that when we are choosing, when we are using our faculty of Bechira – free choice, the benefit can only be life. But when we follow our desires, when we succumb to our hearts, our bodily requests, we are not choosing at all! We just follow what our body tells us to do, engaging intellect only in the process of justification to see ourselves in a better light than just as thoughtless beasts!
Who are we in times like this? Are we the Tzelem Elokim when we put His gift of Bechira aside? Is our intellect serving the purpose of analyzing reality and following the will of our Creator, the purpose for which life was given to us in the first place? Is our speech used to express where intellectual process leads us, and do we use it to inspire and encourage our fellowmen to do the same – to make choices?
Self-evaluation is a fundamental condition to any effort in our life, any meaningful work.
And this is the only way to get to ‘higher places.’

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