It is generally viewed as a success of the Enlightenment that we have cast off what philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau called “homme sauvage” (the natural, free, wild man) and built up the “homme civilize” (the civilized, enlightened, modern man). As Rousseau, who paradoxically opposed much of what the Enlightenment brought about, famously wrote in The Social Contract: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they.”
As humans, we have developed to generally be more self-aware, cultured, and controlled. However, we also have become estranged from our core, free and natural selves, and gotten stuck in a web of complex social conventions and conformist behavioral patterns. This process harms human-to-human and the human-to-Divine relationships.
To make matters worse, it has become more difficult to get our hands dirty doing the work that we are here in the world to do, since societal demands and distractions have become so great. Can we recover our original, authentic nature? And if we are not pursuing our purpose naturally, what are we doing?
In But Your Land is Beautiful, the late Alan Paton wrote of a character.
When I shall die, which I certainly intend to do, I will be asked by the Big Judge, “Where are your wounds?” When I say, “I haven’t any,” I will be asked, “Was there nothing worth fighting for?” And that is a question I do not want to have to answer.
If our society is guided by comfortable and conflict-averse decision-making, how can we even get our hands dirty in the work? How can we even discover our cause?
We can view this process on a physical and a spiritual plane. Physically, most of us have no idea how to provide for our own food and shelter, instead relying on supermarkets and contractors to do our work. Historians used to tell a story about an urban government bureaucrat who, when he interviewed a farmer, asked about how many macaroni trees the farmer had. Spiritually, we also have so many diversions, from social media to hundreds of cable television channels and movies on demand, and we may forget our spiritual foundations.
There are divergent views on how to arrive at our true natures. Politically, Rousseau believed in pure democracy, where the majority would have unlimited authority, whereas in a modern republic the rights of minorities are protected. In education, Rousseau’s argument in Emile is that the individual can only discover the authentic true self if he or she is educated in isolation, removed from society. For Jews, by contrast, the education process is all about community and partnership (chevruta). We must all do the work to discover ourselves but still remain immersed in society.
As we approach Pesach each year, we begin to search for and remove the chametz (leavened foods) from our homes. But is it only from our homes? When Rav Yisrael m’Vizhnitz was walking with his friend, on the way to search for the chametz, he stopped and opened his cloak. Uncovering his chest, he said: "You know that the real chametz is the chametz in the heart– check me here!"
By checking the chametz of the heart, we are searching for the spiritual blocks we have accumulated that blind us from our true nature and highest potential. One of the problems is that we must break through a lot of pride to reach a deeper place. Here there is another Passover message. The first century philosopher Philo asked what we can learn from the nature of chametz. He answered that just as leaven is banned because it is “puffed up,” so we must guard against the self-righteousness that puffs us up with false pride. Pride and complacency—these are the qualities we must seek to remove from our character. This is the lesson of chametz, Passover, and civilized man.
Modernity has led to the caging of the soul and aspects of human potential. We cannot go back in time nor do we wish to. But we must still find avenues to journey in our life enabling deeper insight, discovery, and freedom.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."