The world: good or bad?
I have a question to ask about the world.
Do you believe it is getting better or worse?
More specifically, are we moving closer to the Jewish vision of "healing a broken world," or are we inching closer towards disaster and oblivion?
I know. Many of you are shaking your heads convinced that the world is worsening each day. You are sometimes worried, depressed and disheartened.
And in some ways, I can't argue. The Middle East is deteriorating. The economy continues to lag. People are hurting. Politicians are so full of bluster and malarkey. Elections, which used to be decided by content and substance, are now won on sound bites, misquotes and half truths.
Those of strong moral conviction bemoan the loss of common decency. It seems as we stumble around YouTube or other Internet forums, nothing is sacred.
Yet I stand before you arguing the opposite position.
I believe that the world, in spite of frequent setbacks, is improving.
For indeed, that same open society which offers copious quantities of Internet dreck, also makes it possible through social networks, to expose companies who exploit children and the environment. Countries and their leaders, unlike any other time in history, are held internationally accountable for their conduct.
And although a "just society' has not yet been achieved, we appear to be moving in that direction. The Iron Curtain has fallen, and apartheid exists as a distant memory.
With the invent of camera phones and other forms of instant recording and broadcast, we are flooded with images, both good and bad.
So I ask you, is the world getting better or worse?
This week's Torah portion, Genesis, which recounts the story of creation, weighs in on this topic. It provides for us some critical quotes from God regarding the stuff which sustains the world.
It notes that after each day of creation, God looked at what had been accomplished and concluded that "it was good." Furthermore, after the creation of Adam and Eve, God reviewed the results and declared that it was "very good."
The words "very good" for me emphasize that although it is easy to be disheartened by difficulties we encounter, this is still a wonderful world inhabited by more good people than bad.
Our Sages remind us that the world is a work in progress. The Jewish perspective is that creation is not yet complete. It is up to humanity to work in partnership with God.
For while God created physicality, it is up to each of us to elevate spirituality.
It is true that we live in a broken world. We observe war, poverty, homelessness, and injustice. But so much of this is human made. Indeed, alongside these reflections of darkness exists the miracle of birth, love, laughter, the arts, the revelations of science, the landscape of nature, and the amazing and miraculous sensations experienced by our senses every day.
There is a story told about the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, involving a conversation he had one day with the village water carrier. "How are you?" asked the Baal Shem Tov.
"Oy," replied the water carrier. "My children study all day, and don't help me out. I have to support my in-laws, and find the financial obligations a real burden. My wife is frequently sick, and I feel like I'm falling apart."
A few days later, the Baal Shem Tov again encountered the man and asked how things were going. With a big smile, the water carrier replied, "I am so grateful for God's kindness. Even though I am old, I am not only able to support myself, but I am even able to support the Torah study of my children and in-laws who study with such diligence. My wife is wonderful to me; with great sacrifice she makes me so happy."
The Baal Shem Tov used this encounter to teach that so much of the perceptions we impose on the outside world are based on what is happening within our hearts.
When we focus on the material, and ignore the spiritual, the world looks barren. But when we increase our levels of introspection, communion with nature, study and commitment to acts of lovingkindness, the physical seems less important, and the world's inherent good rises from within.
This is the week when we return to the beginning and are reminded that the world is founded on positivity. We are born with good hearts, which over time develop many outside layers.
So, let us ask whether we are taking steps each day to set our goodness free, or whether we are choosing to numb the light within.
For perhaps in the end the question is not whether the world is good or bad, but rather whether we possess the courage in our actions to choose light over darkness.
For, in the beginning God said, "Let there be light."
And there was light. And that light exists within you and me.
And it is very good.
Shabbat shalom, kol tuv (with all goodness)
Rabbi Irwin Huberman