| Second Thoughts |


In today’s society no one has ever learned to say “no” to one’s wants and desires


Although America’s extreme right and left are obviously poles apart, they share one characteristic: They cannot abide anything that challenges them. Those who disagree with them are subject to vitriol, maledictions, riots in the streets, and worse.

The January 6 Capitol riot because of the “stolen” election was the product of the far right. The current demonization of the Supreme Court because of its abortion decision is a product of the far left. The Capitol riot that was apparently ready to take over the Congress and that threatened the lives of elected officials; the vicious personal attack on a Supreme Court Justice by the former Democratic presidential candidate in the aftermath of Roe; certain Democrats advocating — with foul-mouthed obscenities — the cancellation of Fourth of July celebrations… We pray that these signs of disintegration are limited to the fringes, but the prescient lines of the famous Irish poet William Buter Yeats come to mind: “.…things fall apart, the center cannot hold; the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity….” Written over a century ago, it is even more relevant today than in 1919. The very fabric holding contemporary society together is fraying — with consequences that raise the question if such a society is sustainable.

For many Americans — and for that matter much of mankind  — objective truth, clear-cut right versus wrong, good versus evil are irrelevant. The definition of good has become simple: Whatever pleases me. Whatever displeases me is bad. If an impartial jury renders an unpopular decision, wholesale break-ins, thefts, and mob rule can be anticipated, because my preconceived views were not sustained. If a national election does not yield what I want, riots are the result.

With the country’s social stability being threatened, sober citizens had a right, after the Roe decision, to expect national leadership to step up and say We disagree with the Court, and will try every legal means to overturn it, but it is the law of the land, and we will uphold it, as we swore to do when we took office. But instead of courageous leadership we have cheap demagoguery. The decision is “despicable,” says a leading member of the Biden cabinet; and President Biden himself calls the decision “outrageous.” Instead of the leaders controlling the mob, the mob controls the leaders.

Such behavior undermines public confidence in the legal system and tarnishes the reputation of the courts. And where there is no trust in authority or in the judicial system, then we have nothing but chaos. Chaos means insurrections, demonization of police, burnings, and lootings. Sound familiar?

Our Sages in Avos 3:2 urge us to “pray for stability in the ruling government, for without respect for it, man would swallow his neighbor alive.”

In today’s society no one — neither mob nor leaders — has ever learned to say “no” to one’s wants and desires. There is no Thou Shalt — you cannot tell me what to do, I will do as please. There is no Thou Shalt Not. You cannot deny this pleasure to me. I want to steal, to lie, to violate what my neighbor owns. I will do as I please. The Commandments are now Suggestions — which I can ignore if they make me uncomfortable.

From this Me-ness stems the shallow buzzword of the Roe reaction: autonomy. I have autonomy over my own body. This mindless mantra has become an Immutable Truth among the protesters. But it is false in every sense. We are merely trustees over the bodies that we are given at birth as the carrier of our souls. As the gift of our Creator it is sacred, and we are bidden to protect it and not do with it as we wish. Just as the ancient Temple was holy because it housed the Divine Presence, so is our body holy and inviolate because it is the temple of our soul.

The mantra of Autonomy is a direct outgrowth of this preoccupation with the self. No one can tell me what to do, not mother or father, not friend, not teachers, not church or synagogue, not priest or rabbi. Not the Bible, not even G-d, because I have autonomy — read: Autono-ME. And all the time, the truly Autonomous One watches from Above, and waits.

The wisest of all men, King Solomon, writes in Koheles 3:19: “the preeminence of man over beast is naught — mosar ha'adam min habeheimah ayin.” In one way he is saying that the preeminence of man over beast is the ability to say ayin, to say no to one’s self. To our Me generation, everything is a beast —like Yes. Not why, but why not?

Will the sensible middle of society summon the passionate intensity to push back the fringes that threaten to engulf us? Ponder Avos 3:2 , and stay tuned. And pray hard. —


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 920)

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