During the last half of December through the month of January, I was recuperating from surgery and was, for the most part, bedridden. To pass the time, I played an online game called cityville. The point of the game was to build a city from scratch. Since I had time on my hands, I started out with a one horse town I named Michaelville. As it grew, it became a thriving metropolis I renamed for my birthplace, “Manhattan.” It was quite detailed with a Chinatown, a Little Italy, and an impressive downtown section. I used every square inch of land to build a large population center. In all honesty, it was a beautiful city, almost an ideal Utopian version of Manhattan. There were no slums, no trash, no traffic and no blight that a real city would have. It was a city of order and beauty. It was the kind of city I would like to live in. The problem was, it was not reality. A real city, by virtue of so many humans living in it, would have all those problems and more. Did I mention crime?
In a way, life is like that. If we assume we can build a world that will not have real problems, we are going to be sorely disappointed. Life is lived in the midst of chaos, violence, traffic, and garbage. Humans are not perfect peaceful beings. We fight, get angry, get hurt and disappointed with one another. We feel surprised or even ambushed by life, but that is how it is.
The idea of bringing order in the midst of chaos is nothing new. In the beginning of the Torah, in Bereshis, it says, ‘In the Beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth, and the Earth was Tohu v’Vohu, v’Hoshech….” The earth was empty and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. The creation story goes on to describe how God brought order in the midst of the chaos in the initial stages of creation. In that sense, as we bring order into our lives in the midst of a chaotic world, we are re-enacting God’s act of creation in our own lives.
If you live your life according to the Torah, you will find that a Torah oriented life is an ordered life. The commandments bring an order and rhythm to our lives that is peaceful and brings comfort. It regulates how we live our lives with other imperfect humans. We make mistakes and have squabbles, but even then the Torah teaches us how to make things right. People are always looking for the perfect congregation, or the perfect Bible translation, or the right way to believe, but in reality, life is lived in the midst of disorder. Chaos is all around us, but in the midst of the chaos, if we live a life set in order by Torah, we become islands of peace. As Tevye the milkman said in the Shalom Aleichem stories, “Because of our traditions, we know who we are, and what God expects us to do.”
The answer is not finding the perfect congregation or the perfect Bible. It is in conforming our lives to the Commandments of God to Israel. This does not mean we are striving to become Orthodox, because there are plenty of Orthodox who’s lives are also in turmoil.
Life has a way of throwing us curves we couldn’t anticipate. Having an ordered life means we are better equipped to deal with those curves. It doesn’t mean curves don’t happen. In a chaotic world, that is not realistic. It does mean that as we live out our lives and incorporate Torah principles into our daily practices, we let the commandments shape our values as well as our actions and eventually we become the people the Torah leads us to be.
also posted in Riverton Mussar: A Wellspring For Ethical Change