Posted by: Steve Coplan | July 31, 2006

I had a dream

I’m one of those people who can never remember the details of a dream. Over the past few weeks, two have remained relatively vivid. One of them stayed with me because I’ve never had a dream before where I’ve actually been actively cogitating in the midst of it. (As an aside, I am shocked to learn how many of my friends have not seen “A Waking Life” — a definite favorite.) I was sitting around with a group of Israeli venture capitalists (a parallel with my second dream which involved sharks coming up on to the shore of Lookout Beach in Plettenberg Bay where I’ve spent many happy hours). For some reason, the derivation of the name of the Chabad or Lubavitcher school of Hasidism came up. Chabad is an acronym for chochmah (wisdom), binah (understanding) and daat (knowledge), which also happen to be three of the uppermost sefirot in kabbalah, and suggests it’s not simply knowledge that the group emphasizes but spiritual enlightenment that may or may not be explained in terms of human logic.

Someone in the group suggested that Chabad was an acronym for another Hebrew saying involving being poor. Working backwards, I came up with the phrase ‘Cheshbon borah dalut’. My Hebrew is not that strong these days, so I surpised myself by coming up with the phrase (which I am not sure even exists) while I was ostensibly asleep. Roughly translated the phrase means “counting creates poverty”, although could be expressed as ‘quantifying creates inequalities’ or ‘poverty is relative’. Unless you have a measure to count how much you have, you can’t tell how little others have.

Judaism teaches that individuals are born with two drives – the yezter hatov (the good inclination) and the yetzer hara (the evil inclination) so that we can exercise free will in our actions. Although the idea of a specific agent of evil has infiltrated Judaism and Satan is a Hebrew word (meaning prosecutor in the legal sense), in classical Jewish thought, evil is the result of the unfettered expression of human free will. But that does not mean that Judaism sees no positive value in the yetzer hara. Instead of evil, read bad, and by bad understand that it refers to personal characteristics — selfishness, callousness, greed, pride and envy. The rabbis actually teach that without yetzer hara, a man would not build a house or marry a wife. In the absence of the desire to accumulate material wealth, to satisify one’s sexual urges and to dominate, society would stagnate. The crux, however, is to balance the desire for personal gain with yetzer hatov – to be a caring, compassionate and altruistic member of society. Ben Zoma taught, “Who is strong? Whoever controls their evil inclination.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has an interesting commentary this week on the delicate balance between individual responsibility and social responsibility”.

Although many of the Jewish prophets could be described as social revolutionaries, it’s probably more accurate to characterize Judaism as a religion that espouses egalatarianism and the responsibility rather than prerequisites of leadership. It’s not for no reason that ‘do not covet’ is one of the Ten Commandments — rather than look to who has more money than you, nicer clothes and a bigger home, instead look to the many more who have far less. In a sense, this involves extrapolating the personal struggle to establish a balance between selfishness and altruism to a societal level – one’s own self interest cannot be indefinitely sustained without eventually impacting others. This whole chain of thought has crystalized something that I’ve found deeply upsetting, especially now that the Bush Administration’s incompetence has helped to set the clock back in the Middle East twenty years. That’s the absence of a broad-based opposition to not only a failed foreign policy, but also a set of economic policies (or outright corruption defined as the interests of a few prevailing over sound management principles) that is undermining the fundamentals of the US economy.

There is certainly plenty to criticize in terms of the structure of the US economy and its social ramifications, but the scale of opportunity and its openness cannot be matched. The Bush administration has gradually made it increasingly likely that if your parents were rich, you are likely to be rich. Of course, this generally means that if your parents are poor, you are likely to be poor too and have limited access to quality education. The Democrats have failed to articulate the idea that Bush is changing the nature of US society, instead choosing to act opportunistically for personal advancement. Two of the issues that terrify them are the reproductive rights and civil unions – both attempts to legislate religious beliefs. These are so contentious because they are understood to reflect basic societal values but they also involve imposing personal choices on others that do not share their views and definition of morality. Not unlike people who believe that paying less taxes to improve their own material wellbeing creates a better society. Or that controlling the sources of oil alleviates any of the risks of our dependency on its consumption.

Without a coherent vision of what morals truly underpin our society (ie the balance between personal freedom and an open society), then mistakes will continue to become catastrophes, as we’ve seen in Iraq and Lebanon.


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