September 26, 2011
Resurrection of the American Undead
A Universal Rosh Hashana Message
As a child growing up in America the only time I heard about vampires was once every ten years or so with the inevitable Dracula movie remake. Today, however, vampires and flesh-eating zombies dominate movies and books, especially those aimed at teenagers. And with good reason. For we, with our predictable, monotonous, suburban lives have become the walking undead. We may not dig our teeth into each other’s necks to draw blood or suck out an eyeball out from a friend’s socket. But we are consciously aware that as a nation we have reached a point of inertia and stagnation, a point felt most acutely by the young who look upon the passionless, consumer-oriented world of their parents and fear that they too will be transformed into lifeless androids.
Our politicians seem intent on blaming all that’s wrong with America on the other party when in truth the nation as a whole is stuck. We have a broken economy that bedevils the experts. We’ve tried Keynesian intervention and massive bailouts and now we’ll try austerity measures, all in an effort to fix what feels unfixable. No matter what we throw at the Taliban in Afghanistan, like indestructible cartoon characters they bounce right back. We pour money into ‘allies’ like Pakistan, only to discover they harbor our worst enemies and collude with terrorists to kill our soldiers.
On the political front we jump from personality to personality in the hope that one will prove a modern Prometheus and reignite a flickering American fire. A few months ago Sarah Palin had wall-to-wall media coverage until it was Michelle Bachman’s turn. Now both are shrinking in favor of Rick Perry with whom we were enamored until he performed poorly in a single debate and we started clamoring again for Governor Chris Christie. And as we stagnate the only American sector benefits is the entertainment industry that provides us with mind-numbing escapes, all the better to forget our troubles even as a couch-potato existence causes us to vegetate still further.
Here is where America as a whole can find enrichment from this week’s Rosh Hashana holiday, whose central theme is a wakeup from lethargy and stagnation. Unlike the secular new year which involves public celebrations filled with alcohol and fireworks, Rosh Hashana is a serious day whose shofar call pulls us out of our stupor and forces us to confront the stationary nature of our lives. The Biblical reading on the Sabbath before Rosh Hashana finds Moses declaring to the Israelites on the very last day of his life, “I have set before you today life and death, a blessing and a curse… Choose life.”
As we pray for life on the Jewish new year we make a mental inventory of every component of our existence filing it into one of two categories: life and death. That which animates us and must therefore be nurtured, and that which stifles us and must therefore be purged.
The loving part of you that offers compliments rather than criticism to your spouse needs to be retained for it forms the lifeblood of the relationship. But the part of you that comes home tired from work and retreats into four hours of TV and internet surfing must be eliminated as it spells the death of love. The part of your married sex life which is goal-oriented and rushes to the climactic finish line will ultimately deaden the erotic connection with your spouse and must be replaced by an intimate, soul-connection expressed through the flesh.
A similar accounting is made of our intellectual life. There is the mind-death of idle Hollywood chatter and celebrity conversation versus a life of learning and thought-provoking ideas, journals, and books. There is the death of husbands and wives discussing only practical matters pertaining to children’s after-school activities and picking up the dry-cleaning versus a life of soulful conversation where spouses find healing in the revelation of fears, anxieties, hopes, and dreams.
On a national level there is the death of endless and silly political bickering where the body politic becomes dismissive of politicians as hopeless narcissists out to score points, versus the constructive work of elected officials who, like the right and left wing of a bird, cause the nation to soar specifically through antithetical propulsion.
Our economy will only be rehabilitated once we separate life from death. Let’s get rid of expensive social programs that have created a deadening dependency of men and women who yearn to cease being wards of the state and clamor for lives of dignity, self-sufficiency, and purpose. Let’s urge our teachers unions to stop protecting the small number of dead-beat teachers who gain lifelong tenure after just two years and bring enlivened educators to the classroom who invigorate young minds.
America must drop allies who are dead weight, extending one hand in friendship while knifing us in the back with the other. We have no extra tax money to buy off governments that will never be our friends. Mahmoud Abbas thinks he can create a living Palestinian state with a stack of stapled papers, not realizing that a nation first requires a living infrastructure, something that the Israeli halutzim, pioneers, understood when they first worked for fifty years before the UN vote of 1947 that merely confirmed what was already a fact. A living Jewish state had been born from the ashes of the holocaust because decades of life had first been breathed into it.
Finally, our leaders must choose policies that embolden life and deny death. President Obama’s early vows to breathe new life, say, into relationships with leaders like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not take into account that one cannot have a living relationship with a culture that glorifies death. Three years ago Obama’s speeches were electrifying and uplifting. But just two weeks ago he had to move his speech to a joint session of Congress out of prime time to 7pm because he knew he could not remotely compete with a football game that same evening. His rhetoric is dead and he has lost his audience because rather than unleash the power of American individualism he has become a detached, cold professor spreading the wealth around while reading from a teleprompter urging us to reembrace tried-and-failed policies. It is the Republicans who today demand that we cut away the dead fat from the bloated Federal budget.
In this coming year let us be a nation of innovation, creativity, and imagination, as Henry David Thoreau said, one that ‘suck[s] out all the marrow of life,’ rather than a nation of the undead that sucks the last few drops of blood out of an exhausted and burned out economy.
This essay is dedicated to the memory of Machla Dabakarov, the mother of Rabbi Shmuley’s close friend, Michael.
Rabbi Shmuely Boteach this week publishes “Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself.” (Wiley). In December he will publish “Kosher Jesus.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.