Despair: The Product of Ignorance

Moshe Ben-Chaim


Last week we spoke of faith and bitachon in G-d. It is fitting that we now address the opposite pole of this attitudinal spectrum: despair. Why does one become desperate, and is desperation condoned by the Torah's philosophy? The answer to the former will also answer the latter.

We witness many individuals who appear desperate in many areas of life. Perhaps they cannot find work or a spouse. They continuously "fail" to secure the object of their desires. Of course, their failure most times is due to their own workings. They may seek the impossible, or be trapped by any one of a number of emotions, such as insecurity, which prospective employers and mates detect, and repel. But this unfortunate one keeps failing, and does not reflect on his actions to undo his misery, but blames the world, G-d, or other 'causes'.

Let's make one thing perfectly clear. G-d did not make man so he should be unhappy. Our very design teaches this, as does history's lessons of G-d's providence over His faithful servants. G-d is aware of every soul He created. He desires that each of us reach our potential, and experience the utmost happiness. If someone strives for the good life in accordance with Torah values, he can be certain he will be assisted by G-d. Maimonides teaches at the end of his Laws of Shmita and Yovale. (13:12) The tribe of Levi was set apart from the other tribes to serve G-d. They did not inherit land, go to war, or acquire anything through the work of their hands. Their position was to study Torah and teach the rest of the world. G-d was their inheritance. G-d provided for them. But Maimonides continues in the next law:

"And not the tribe of Levi alone, but every single man from anyone who enters the world (Jew or Gentile) that his spirit freely moves him, and he understands from his own wisdom to separate himself, to stand before G-d, to minister to Him, to serve Him, to know G-d,...and he leads an upright life as G-d created him (to do), and he removes from his neck the yoke of the public's calculations (the 'normal' life of the monetary) that men seek out,...this man is sanctified, as Kodesh Kadashim (most separated) and it will be that G-d is his portion forever (on Earth) and eternally (in the next world) and he will merit (from G-d) in this world a (monetary) portion that will sustain him, as do the priests and the Levites. Behold, as King David said, peace be upon him, "G-d, You are my portion and my cup, You support my lot."

Maimonides teaches that to a person who devotes his entire life to studying and teaching G-d's wisdom, G-d responds by supporting this person with all of his needs. This means that G-d both desires and endorses through His providence, the one who lives in accord with the Torah. This does not include only living the Torah's life of study, but also, all that forms part of such a life. G-d will certainly assist this person in finding a spouse, (as seen with Rebecca) a livelihood, (as seen with Jacob, Joseph, Moses an others) and all else necessary that sustains a life of Torah. This person will be seeking his needs based on Torah parameters, and therefore will be blessed with them, as this is G-d's plan for each and every man who "enters the world", Jew or Gentile. These are Maimonides' words, and deserve much consideration.

G-d desires for man - above all else - that he partake of His wisdom. When one devotes himself in such a fashion, where he forgoes a life of "keeping up with the Joneses", where he forgoes the materialistic culture around him, where he "separates" himself from others who chase and hoard temporal wealth, and instead, he wishes not to be distracted by such typical, blindly accepted strife and calculations which clutter life, when a person dedicates himself to Torah wisdom,....then G-d certainly provides. Why does Maimonides state that this one "separates" himself from others? What is the significance of this word? Why is it necessary that he separate, in order that G-d provide for him? I feel the reason is that man can live only one of two possible lifestyles: 1) he follows mankind and seeks the approval of others, or 2) he lives independently, following G-d's lifestyle, thinking only for himself, and this leads him to "separate" from his society. This does not mean he physically moves from his town. Rather, he does not follow the ways of his neighbors, but acts in accord with his intelligence. He does not chase after the material lifestyle as do most of his peers, nor societal approval, but he seeks a quiet life, where study, and teaching his family forms the majority of his day.

This person also lives a simple life monetarily, that his needs are quite small in comparison to those seeking wealth. With such reduced expenses, he has even more time to devote to study. He experiences far less times of want. His needs are little, so they are met easily as compared to others, whose fantasies propel them into debt after debt. Such a person is never desperate, as G-d provides for him.

Was King David ever desperate? Surely his life was replete with troubles. But he was never desperate. This is because his security in G-d's word as absolute truth, entertained no possibility that he, a G-d fearing man, would be abandoned by G-d. King David must be an example for us, that even in the worst of situations, G-d is aware, and has every capability to remove our distress instantly. If we remain in pain, this is also G-d's method of pointing us towards that which requires our reflection. Sickness, poverty, tragic events, or even discomfort may be a message from G-d that we need correction. As Talmud Brachos states, we must examine our ways when we experience something negative. The Prophet Jeremiah states in Eicha 3:40, "Let us search our ways and examine, and return to G-d." Notice Jeremiah says "Let us search...". Why "search"? Why not simply "examine" without searching? This is because our true natures are quite hidden from how we view ourselves. An objective search is mandatory for our acknowledgement and understanding of our emotions. Only with this approach of searching, examining, and then returning to G-d, will we be successful. We should also note that although the devastation in Jerusalem was horrific, Jeremiah's mornings did not eventuate in despair, but in hope. The conviction in G-d's truth and Torah as the best life was not diluted by this tragedy. The converse is true, that the tragedy was due to an abandonment of Torah, thereby substantiating the truths of G-d's Torah-based curses.

G-d wishes we use the mind He gave us, so His indications of our flaws must be arrived at by our self analysis. How many of our matriarchs were barren? Initially they perceived this as a negative. But upon reflection, which was G-d's plan all along, they conformed their desire for children to G-d's goals, to the point where G-d gave them children. Channa prayed to G-d for children, and when she finally dedicated a child she would bear to G-d's service in the Temple, she became pregnant.

(Maimonides' Guide for the perplexed, BOOK III - CHAPTER XVIII)
".....Hence it follows, in accordance with what I have mentioned in the preceding chapter, that the greater the share is which a person has obtained of this Divine influence, on account of both his physical predisposition and his training, the greater must also be the effect of Divine Providence upon him, for the action of Divine Providence is proportional to the endowment of intellect, as has been mentioned above. The relation of Divine Providence is therefore not the same to all men; the greater the human perfection a person has attained, the greater the benefit he derives from Divine Providence. This benefit is very great in the case of prophets, and varies according to the degree of their prophetic faculty: as it varies in the case of pious and good men according to their piety and uprightness. For it is the intensity of the Divine intellectual influence that has inspired the prophets, guided the good in their actions, and perfected the wisdom of the pious. In the same proportion as ignorant and disobedient persons are deficient in that Divine influence, their condition is inferior, and their rank equal to that of irrational beings: and they are" like unto the beasts" (Ps. xlix. 21). For this reason it was not only considered a light thing to slay them, but it was even directly commanded for the benefit of mankind. This belief that God provides for every individual human being in accordance with his merits is one of the fundamental principles on which the Law is founded."

Maimonides is quite clear - G-d's intervention is directly proportionate to our perfection. Perfection requires reflection, admission of guilt, resignation of wrong, and adherence to what is true and good, to Torah. All men sin, "For man is not righteous in the land, who does good and does not sin." (Ecclesiastes, 7:20) Therefore we all require correction of our morals and our ideas. We must welcome opportunities to correct ourselves, and not act out defensively, merely to keep our egos intact. Choose a broken ego and spiritual perfection, over an untarnished reputation while masking a corrupt soul.

I will offer an example of how people forfeit self awareness and improvement. People refer to hard times as a "losing streak." Do we recognize such a phenomenon as real? Maimonides states in his Guide, categories do not exist, except in the mind. The concept of a "losing streak" is not real. It is a projection onto reality, when one experiences many events not unfolding according to his desires:

(Maimonides' Guide for the perplexed, BOOK III - CHAPTER XVIII)
"It is an established fact that species have no existence except in our own minds. Species and other classes are merely ideas formed in our minds, whilst everything in real existence is an individual object, or an aggregate of individual objects."

Many times people fabricate a "losing streak" line of defense, attributing unwanted realities to some imagined or parroted "streak" of bad luck, as if something actually exists which overrides reality, victimizing him as an innocent target. One must realize this is in fact not an external occurrence, but the inner workings of human psychology. His sufferings may be stemming from a need to be parented, a fear of rejection, a lack of confidence, no resourcefulness, the list goes on. But most times, this list is of internal, crippling emotions. One who experiences consistent losses in sequence may be doing so as an expression of his sustained, infantile stages, 'crying our for his parent' by rendering himself "helpless", requiring assistance from another, when he is in fact fully capable. If someone else can help him, he can help himself. His abilities are no weaker. "Streaks" do not exist in reality, whether one is winning or losing. In fact, what one perceives as a "negative" experience, may in fact be a positive, if his wishes are not in line with reality:

We must redirect our pointing finger 180º when casting blame for our hard times. Creating phantom scapegoats will not correct our internal, emotional crutches that cripple us. Along with crippling emotions, G-d also equipped us with a very powerful tool: intelligence. Our minds can plan strategies that will emancipate us from a troubled state. We must have a two pronged approach: 1) become aware of our crippling emotions so as to deal with them head on, not giving in to them, and 2) we must use our minds to first seek council from anyone who has it, and then apply this wisdom to free ourselves and start enjoying a life as an independent, healthy, and fully capable human being.

Proverbs, 6:6-8: "Go to the ant lazy one; look at its ways and become wise. That (it) has no chief, overseer or ruler. She provides her bread in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest." King Solomon wishes to teach that all the more so, it cannot be more difficult for us. He wishes the lazy one to end his laziness, and live. Additionally, if we live in accord with G-d's will, i.e., a life where Torah study is the majority if our day, as is teaching our children and fulfilling His commands, then G-d will most certainly assist us.

King David was not desperate, because he was not ignorant of G-d's will or of His capabilities. His life was scarred with more tragedies than ten people encounter today. Yet, his convictions kept him secure in the truth. His son and student King Solomon remained steadfast to the Torah's truths, and he too imbues us with remedies for our flawed thinking.

Until now we have addressed negative events. However, this must not be our main focus in life. Yes, even the righteous experience troubles, but to them, it is not magnified in their eyes. Life's troubles are dealt with, they do so wisely, they do not harp on inconveniences and bad tidings, so they may resume attending what truly captures their interest. What was their perspective which also contributes to true happiness? "Suss anochi al imrasecha, k'motsay shalal rav", "I am elated on Your words (Torah) like one who has found a great treasure." (Psalms 119:162) The real good and happiness is expressed here. Although we seek happiness according to our own agendas, this statement reflects what man finds as his true happiness, i.e., enlightenment through seeing marvelous insights into G-d's wisdom. King David actually refers to Torah as his "plaything". An endearing term, mirroring that youthful excitement we all experienced upon opening our new toy.

In summary, despair is not a attitude found in a G-d fearing and Torah abiding personality. Despair is the product of ignorance. The Torah personality possesses convictions that teach him that G-d is above any trouble thrown his way, and he trusts in G-d fully. He does not despair, as G-d's good life is absolutely true, so he is happy with his life, and deals with troubles intelligently, courageously, and confident that his Torah knowledge will guide him to a plan of his own design. Most assuredly, this Torah personality finds complete peace and fulfillment in the knowledge that G-d's providence exists, and that nothing can prevent his study of G-d's works.

"God is my shepherd, I shall not want." (Psalms 23:1)