Burning of Woodstock: Society Response on Ask the Rabbi
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Burning of Woodstock

I always imagined the icon of "Woodstock" to represent peace, love and goodwill. But that image exploded when I watched the 1999 edition of the rally turn into a spontaneous riot. Large fires were set, trailers full of merchandise and equipment were forced open and burglarized, and various property was set aflame. My reaction of disgust mixed with incredulity left me dumbfounded at how life could be so absolutely ironic: Using "love candles" to spark destruction!

Can you offer some insight into all this?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The original Woodstock was a collection of musicians, entertainers and thousands of youth, who shared an interest for not only music, but also for an alternative philosophy of life. This philosophy embraced a "spirituality" based upon feeling good and a freedom from oppressive materialism and societal constraints.

I believe these people were, for the most part, idealists seeking happiness for themselves and the world around them. But the problem is that the "feeling good" was not linked to any defined, concrete goal for how to build the world and repair its ills. Perhaps more problematic was that its primary focus was on personal gratification, freedom from all constraints, and unbridled fulfillment of desires. That is a flawed view of utopia.

By contrast, the spiritual system described in the Torah is based on self-expression through a framework of moral laws. The focus is not just on rights, but on responsibilities. The Torah system is based not on "taking," but on "giving." It's only when we break free from our self-centeredness that we can truly relate to others. An outward focus means that we care and enables us to become like God, the ultimate Giver.

This year's Woodstock attracted a different crowd than the original. The idealism, as well as the rejection of materialism, is gone to a great degree. But what remains, and what draws the world's attention, is how vast numbers of young people are still searching for the "spirituality" that last generation's hippies strived for. People realize there is more to the world than the physical, and they realize that in some way, the idea of Woodstock represents an avenue for searching for what's beyond.

But the violent finale of this year's festival makes quite clear that while the music may tap into aspects of spirituality, once a person realizes the lack of deeper, more meaningful aspects of responsibility toward oneself and others, one can't avoid feeling a degree of despair and emptiness. Even with the best intentions.

The Talmud says that fire has a potential which is both good and bad. Fire can warm. But it can also burn. The chaos at Woodstock will hopefully enable this generation of searchers to realize that the answer lies in giving to others, not taking. It's the difference between warming the world and burning it.

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