An exclusive aish.com excerpt from Rabbi Weinberg's first book, "What the Angel Taught You".
Something very strange is going on in this world.
- The more knowledge we accumulate, the more confused we get.
- The more conveniences we invent, the less time we seem to have.
- The more pleasures we create, the more pain we need to confront.
The questions appear to engulf us. The answers seem so elusive. We run. Sometimes physically, sometimes mentally. We hide. Or at least we try to. But more often than not, the questions come with us. Gnawing at us…reminding us that we are not really at peace. When contradictions abound, we are perplexed and in need of direction, clarity, and understanding.
The voices within us never really go away. The "mute" button may be on and the "white noise" might be deafening, but the doubts still lurk in the distance and the uncertainties never really fade away.
When will I be truly happy with my life?
Can I really trust my beliefs?
How do I know if my decisions are the right ones?
What is the definition of "love"?
How do I get my prayers answered?
Why doesn't money bring me more pleasure?
Is life pre-ordained or do I determine what happens to me?
Are there absolute truths in this world or only people's "perceptions"?
Believe it or not, according to Jewish thought and tradition, you don't have to search far for the answers. You already have them! The answers to these and all the other questions you may ask are closer than you think. Permit me to explain.
According to the Talmud, before we were born, when we were safely ensconced in the comfort of the womb, we all had access to the ultimate search engine. God dispatches a personal angel to each and every soul in utero, who sits besides each and every one of us, and actually teaches us all the wisdom we will ever need to know on this planet. Everything.
And then…just before we are born…the angel gives us a little "tap" between the nose and the upper lip and everything he taught is immediately forgotten. That is how all human beings receive that small indentation in the skin beneath their noses, anatomically known as the "philtrum."
"Strange story," you say. And who could blame you? First of all, how do we know that angels exist? And secondly, why would God send an angel to teach us everything we need to know, only to instruct him to then make us forget everything he just taught us? What would be the point?
Proving the existence of angels is not an easy chore, nor is it the purpose of this book. However, if we believe in God (and four out of five people say they do believe in some kind of deity), trusting that He would have some kind of ministering work corps is certainly not very far removed.
More perplexing is question # 2. Why bother to teach us everything, only to erase our memory chip immediately afterwards?
The answer, like most answers after we know them, is really rather simple. The best way to acquire real knowledge, and to retain it, is through self-exploration. The facts and the understanding that we become most proficient with are those that we ourselves have studied, researched or experienced personally. Wisdom that is spoon-fed to us or acquired second-hand is not nearly as clear or as functional. So allowing us to keep the knowledge we learned in the womb would surely not be in our best interests. So why bother teaching it to us in the first place? Because learning something once, makes it so much easier for us to learn it for the second time.
Learning something once, makes it so much easier for us to learn it for the second time.
Life is so very complex. Knowing all there is to know in order to navigate through this world safely, productively, and pleasurably is a daunting task. God says, "Let me help you out a little. Learn about your destination before you embark on the journey. That way, when you get there, you'll have a head start." Everything will seem just a little bit familiar to you. Instead of starting from scratch, and scratching from the start, you will be reviewing, so to speak, everything you already knew.
What a novel concept! Perhaps this is what King Solomon was alluding to when he proclaimed in Ecclesiastes, "There is nothing new under the sun." Once we are born and live "under the sun" we have already been exposed to everything we need to know. So there really is nothing we can learn that is new to us.
WHY IS THIS SO IMPORTANT?
Before we can answer life's questions about happiness, beliefs, love, prayer, absolute truth etc, we must first clear a path -- a path that fosters openness and authenticity. A path that allows us to examine truth in a light that is truly objective and dispassionate. And for that to happen, we need to understand the building blocks of the human experience.
Five billion people inhabit this Earth. No two are the same. Diversity is present in every facet of our existence. And yet, there are certain tools to understanding mankind that are truly universal. There are mechanisms at play that cut across all lines of difference - racial, cultural, religious, biological, characterological - all components of the human species. Let us examine these fundamental truths, remembering all along that we are not seeing them for the first time, but rather re-connecting to a knowledge base that we encountered long before our conscious awakening.
THE ABC'S - "A"
The first primary concept of these foundations of life, or ABC's of human understanding, is the appreciation of where our personal values and beliefs about life really come from. We would all like to think that each one of us has formed his or her own belief system based on independent and unbiased perceptions and experiences. After all, who would allow a prejudiced view or ideal to influence the formation of the core of one's character or values?
The sad reality is that we are all creatures of the society we live in.
And yet, the truth parks itself very far from that curb. The sad reality is that we are all creatures of the society we live in. And the influence that our surroundings have on our ideas about life and the way we live every day is both immeasurable and unavoidable.
How do we decide what is right and wrong?
What is considered 'acceptable behavior'?
How do we distinguish between a 'good thing to do' and a genuine priority?
What really dictates our dress code, life-style, and occupational choices?
The list goes on and on. Fact is, the collective consciousness of any culture is communicated to its constituents through the books and periodicals they read, the visual media that is broadcast, the educational system that is employed and the socio-economical and political messages that are promulgated. Some of the messages are direct; others are discreet. All are powerful. Try, as we do, to shield ourselves from the raging forces of partiality, we fail. How we shape our thinking is, surprisingly, often not more than a mere accident of birth.
There are exceptions. But, chances are, no matter what you believe right now, if you were born into a religious family in Haiti, you'd be sticking pins in voodoo dolls. If Tehran was your city of birth you might very well be a devout follower of an Ayatollah of some kind. Sure, radicals emerge in every society, but for the most part, we do follow some party line.
This sorry state of affairs should irk every one of us! How do we pretend to objectively determine reality? How is it possible for any self-respecting individual to discern who he really is and what he should believe in?
The solution to this problem is staring you right in the face…literally! The answer is right under your nose. Yes. The philtrum. It wasn't enough for your angel to teach you all about life. Nor was his job completed when he made sure you then forgot everything he taught you. There was one final step remaining. He had to leave his 'calling card' with you so that the only thing that you would remember was that he was there.
The philtrum was the angel's very personal way of leaving a message behind. "When you seek the truth and feel like the search may be a lost cause, just run your finger over your lips, close your mouth and feel the "impression" that was made on you. Do not despair. You'll recognize reality when you see it. After all, you already found and understood it before."
We enter this world fully equipped with wisdom. The soul knows everything there is to know about life. What holds us back from being fully objective and independent, is not the difficulty in learning what reality is, but rather the effort we need to exert to access what we already know. All three dimensions are really on the screen; we just forget to put on the 3-D glasses!
In other words, there is no clear-cut formula for figuring out which ideas and values are truly bona fide and which are ultimately invalid. But that by no means implies that we are discouraged from conducting the examination. Quite the contrary -- making the effort to conduct the scrutiny, having the wherewithal to demand clarity -- is precisely how the truth will emerge. Living in a semi-comatose existence of blind acceptance of the beliefs of our neighbors, columnists, and yes, even our clergy, is just grazing with the rest of the herd.
This is the true challenge for every one of us. If we commit ourselves to the task of sorting through the muck and the marketing, and become ardent truth-seekers, we can actualize our full potential as human beings on this planet. It is only through this critical analysis that we can say that we lived life to its fullest.
The good news is that we already have a head start. The philtrum.
Folks are fond of saying," Life is complicated." But I've heard it said that life is really quite simple; it's the people who are complicated. And it's true. The mystery of what makes a man or a woman tick will surely be considered until the end of time.
But one fundamental truth about the human condition can be stated with certainty; and this can be identified as the "B" in our schemata of the ABC's of human understanding. There is only one major factor, endemic to all people throughout all of time, which dictates our every move and motivates us in every decision we make. And that is pleasure.
Every single time we are faced with a choice of what to do, we always ask ourselves, "Will this bring me pleasure or not?"
Every single time we are faced with a choice of what to do, be it something crucial and monumental or something trivial and inconsequential, we always ask ourselves, "Will this bring me pleasure or not?" Sometimes the question is asked consciously, sometimes not. Sometimes the choice is rather obvious; other times it is exceedingly subtle. But always, what we end up doing is determined by what action will result in the ultimate greater pleasure. Keep in mind, that the particular pleasure may not be immediate. It may even appear to be more painful than pleasurable (at the moment). But the evaluation will still boil down to an assessment of the potential for pleasure.
Ask any parent: "What do you really want for your children?"
No matter which culture you are in, you are bound to hear the very same answers from all parents. They want them to be healthy, strong, and full of joy and vitality, be accomplished, attractive, confident, popular, maybe even rich etc. But why do they want all these things for their children? One answer. Because these are all ingredients for happiness. Every parent wants his or her child to be happy…full of pleasure -- the maximum pleasure. When their children are happy, the parents are energized. If the children are sad and miserable, the parents can go out of their wits.
In Judaism, and later in all religions, God is referred to as "Our Father in Heaven." We are referred to as His children. Just as a parent only wants his children to be happy, so does God only want His children to be happy. It is clear that this is the reason we were created -- to get the most out of life.
Of course, pleasure is a very relative term. People experience pleasure in many, many different forms. And, as they say, "to each his own." However, if I told you that my neighbor's son enjoys playing Lego very much, you'd have no problem with that. If I then told you that he plays Lego 16 hours a day that might be problematic to you. And if I later informed you that my neighbor's son was 32 years old, you'd be unlikely to respond, "Oh, whatever makes him happy, I guess." Especially if you were his father!
Why not? Probably because everyone realizes that there exists on this world an incredibly wide range of pleasurable experiences. We want our children to not only be happy, but also to enjoy what we call, "a full life." And the assumption is that "a full life" is a lot more pleasurable than one limited only to Lego, backgammon, or video games. There's love, meaning, creativity, religion, the joy of giving and so on. But more on that later.
CHECK IT OUT ...
Meanwhile, let us apply the "A" principle to the "B" principle. We are stating that the driving force behind our decision-making apparatus is the quest for pleasure -- be it immediate or eventual. But how do we know this is true? Let us not blindly accept this premise on face value. Without proper investigation, we could be accepting a false reality. What method would we use in order to determine the intended utility of any item? Primarily, we would examine its construction. We see a knife. We take note (carefully now) of the sharpness of the blade. We conclude, correctly, that it is made for cutting purposes.
Now, pretend that you have never before seen a ballpoint pen. Someone shows you the pen and tells you it is a toothpick. You'd say, "Ridiculous! Toothpicks do not have ink in them (among a host of other obvious differences)." So he changes his mind and tells you the pen is really a very small car. "Impossible," you say, "Where's the sunroof and CD player?"
With very little effort you could discern that the pen is, in fact, a pen. You examine the structure of the item and know that it is designed to write with, because that is what it does best. That's what the parts seem to indicate.
Now let's take a look at how human beings were constructed.
Our day is filled with decisions -- thousands of them -- but most of which we make subconsciously. What time to wake up, what to wear, the breakfast menu, whether to answer the phone, how to travel, work related judgments, social commitments etc. And many factors are involved in our evaluations of what we should do. Primarily, however, in every case, we are really deciding what will bring us the most pleasure.
Let's take a closer look. It's 7:00 A.M. The alarm clock rings. You shut it. Now…do you get out of bed or not? Somewhere, in the deep, sleepy recesses of your mind you are asking yourself, "What is my pleasure?" If your decision is to sleep some more, you hug the pillow. But if you decide that going to work will really bring you more pleasure (eventually), you'll get up right away. We may call it "obligation" or "responsibility," but, in fact, it is our assessment that being responsible will result in more overall pleasure that motivates us to get up and go.
Of course, often times the appearance of pain or effort serves to obfuscate our vision, and cloak the pleasure in shrouds of exertion. That is when we fall victim to the trap of making the "wrong decision," and avoid effort at any cost. But clearly, pleasure is the ultimate yardstick. This applies whether we are deciding which pajamas to buy, whom to marry, or what career to choose. If it promises pleasure and enjoyment, we'll pursue it. That's the way human beings are wired.
We are all pleasure seekers. Even when we do something altruistic, we do it because it gives us pleasure. Even when we restrain and restrict ourselves from a certain pleasure, it too is because of our judgment that this particular restriction is "good" for us. And "being good" is a great pleasure.
Curiously, this is exactly the way God wants us to be. We know this to be true because that is exactly how he programmed each and every of us. Sometimes we mistakenly forget that this world, that he created, affords us endless opportunities for pleasurable experiences. We focus on the pain, the effort, the hardships and the suffering that frequently appear inexplicable. These inevitable distractions deflect our attention from the fact that pleasure drives every move we make. That is not a human weakness or accident -- it is a Heavenly design for mankind.
Therefore, if you find yourself unhappy, or not as happy as you should be, it behooves you to ask, "Why not? What is blocking my path to real and lasting happiness?" More than likely, the problem lies in your not having learned all the pleasures that are available to you in this world. You just don't know where or how to get the kinds of pleasure that will be ultimately satisfying -- the kinds of pleasure that all of us are truly searching for.
Later on we will discuss the different classes of obtainable pleasure, how to recognize them, access them, and avoid the pitfalls that impede our means to reach them. Meanwhile, let us understand that just like our parents want us to enjoy our lives, so too does God want His children to get the maximum pleasure out of life. We just have to find out how to do it. That is the goal. God made this world to give us pleasure. That is the "B" of our model.
Now…here is something puzzling. All the systems seem to be in place. God only wants to give us pleasure. We are programmed to receive pleasure. And yet, so many of us are bored, dissatisfied, or just plain miserable! How are we to understand this? What is getting in the way?
We are geniuses at making mistakes.
Judaism teaches us that we are geniuses at making mistakes. We get confused. We err. We miss the mark. Our mistakes in judgment cause us to severely limit the amount of pleasure we can derive. The missteps of man do not come about because we are sinners; rather, it is because we are mistake prone. And there is a big difference. That is the "C" of human understanding.
Deep down, everyone truly wants to be good. Everyone wants pleasure. But we err in our evaluation of how to get it. We forget how much effort it sometimes takes to see the benefits and rewards of our toil. Instead, we often choose short cuts, which sometimes can work, but more frequently leave us depressed and bewildered. "What happened to my marriage?" we ask. "Why did this great relationship end? Where did my kids go wrong? Why don't I have meaning in my life? How did I end up in this dead end job anyway? Why am I so unlucky?"
We want a thriving family life, but forget the overwhelming need for commitment and investment of time and effort. We claim to long for meaning, but then fall prey to social pressures that attach importance only to the facade of success. We want to live compatibly with everyone, but never lay the groundwork for the methodology of avoiding arguments.
FOR EXAMPLE ...
Picture the following all-too-common scenario:
Marty, 16, has just walked in to the house at 2:45 A.M. -- two hours past his curfew. It is his third violation this month. Dad, awakened by the slamming car door, comes storming down the stairs to confront him. He is clearly at the end of his rope. In seconds, the situation erupts.
"You're driving me crazy, Marty. What in heaven's name is wrong with you? Are you trying to give me a heart attack?"
What is the response Dad is hoping to get from his sincere plea for sanity? What does he want to hear from Marty?
"Gee Dad, I never thought about it that way. You make an excellent point. That's just the message I needed to hear now. On the basis of your powerful and persuasive argument, I've just decided to turn over a new leaf and do something really meaningful with my life."
What are the chances of that happening? Right. Zero. And yet Dad must believe, on some level, that his tirade is going to work? What a mistake! A far more likely response from Marty might be:
"Listen, Dad, I'm in no mood to listen to you. Fact is that you made a mess out of your own life. You never had time for me and you never really loved me, so just stay out of my life."
Now, I suppose Marty is expecting a reply to that resembling…
"Son, I am really impressed with you. You are very perceptive. I especially admire how you don't let anyone push you around - even me! I want you to know that I am behind you 100 per cent!"
Not in a million years! And yet, we all make mistakes like this all the time.
What is going on here? Dad just wants Marty to show a little respect. He really wants to be close to his son, but hasn't a clue how to achieve that. Marty's needs are not very different. He would treasure a closer relationship with his father, but also wants to be allowed to express his independence. They need each other. They want each other. But they are badly mistaken in how to go about creating a relationship that never really got off the ground.
Our lives are full of mistakes. But don't confuse mistakes with accidents. Mistakes can be avoided. We don't have to put others down to raise our own self-esteem. We can commit ourselves to diet and exercise. We can learn that getting even brings us only to a warped sense of temporary satisfaction. We are able to understand what our life's priorities should be.
But steering clear of these crucial mistakes in life requires perception, commitment, and mostly, hard work. With proper focus we can ensure that the pleasure we ultimately desire can actually be attained.
AND ONE MORE THING ...
Above all, if we sincerely want to stay away from a lifelong pattern of repetitive and catastrophic blunders, we must avoid the number one mistake in life. And that is the mistake of ignorance.
Ignorance is really the foundation of all mistakes.
Ignorance is really the foundation of all mistakes. People ruin their lives out of ignorance. They cheat. They under-achieve. They berate. They complain. They pretend. They even murder -- physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Why? Because they don't understand. They don't know what true pleasure is. They never learned how to enjoy life to the fullest -- in fulfilling and long-lasting ways. And so, out of confusion and ignorance, they react -- without giving serious thought to the implications of their decisions.
Everyone knows that getting an education is important. But is education limited to calculus, literature, microbiology, and quantum physics? Shouldn't we know more than how the process of osmosis works, the trajectory of planetary orbits, and when and why Australia was torn off the Indian continent?
It's nice to know all these things, but when all is said and done, we still need to know who we are, why we were created, and what we are living for. Somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost the forest for the trees. The bottom line is…if we don't know ourselves, we know nothing. And the greatest pleasures in the world will elude us.
We need to re-educate. In this book, we will attempt to do that. The philtrum holds the answers to the questions we really should be asking. About life, meaning, clarity, love, purpose, prayer, free will etc.
Let us re-connect and re-discover the answers that will bring us clear, true and lasting happiness.
Click here to order a copy of "What the Angel Taught You" published by Artscroll.