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The Burning of Woodstock

The Burning of Woodstock

Woodstock '99 lost the idealism of the original and kept the hedonism. A purposeful focus is the difference between warming the world and burning it.

by
The icon of "Woodstock" represents peace, love and goodwill. But that image quickly exploded as the world watched the 1999 edition of the massive rally turn into a spontaneous riot. I doubt my initial reaction of disgust mixed with incredulity was unique, but I wonder if others also found themselves dumbfounded at how life could be so absolutely ironic. Using "love candles" to spark destruction?

How did this happen? Was this event a realistic representation of American culture? A possible reflection on its current lacking and yearnings? What lesson can we learn upon witnessing the world's most famous love-in erupting into flames?

The original Woodstock was a collection of musicians, entertainers and thousands of youth, who shared an interest for not only music, drugs and sex, 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 "feeling good" was not linked to any defined, concrete goal for how to build the world and repair its ills. Perhaps more problematic is that its primary focus on instant gratification and unbridled fulfilment of desires, is a philosophy of "taking," and ultimately escape.

The spiritual system described through Torah is based not on "taking," but on "giving." Only when we break free from our self-centeredness can we truly relate to others. An outward focus means 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 is beyond.

But the finale of this year's festival makes quite clear that this "spirituality" has not been attained, or even worse, has been found to be destructive. While the combination of music, drugs and dancing may tap someone into aspects of spirituality, once one realizes the lack of deeper, more meaningful aspects of responsibility towards oneself and others, one can't avoid feeling a degree of despair and emptiness. A "spirituality" based upon freedom from responsibility can only lead to destruction. 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.


Elliot Mathias studies at Aish HaTorah Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He graduated from Northwestern University in 1997 with a degree in Political Communications and is originally from Buffalo Grove, Illinois.

Published: January 29, 2000


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