When I was about eleven years old, one night my mother called and asked me to load and turn on the dishwasher. I really didn’t want to, but I did it anyway. After stuffing in all the dirty dishes, I reached for the detergent. It was right next to the regular dishwashing soap. I hesitated only for a moment, then poured the green liquid into that little plastic box, closed the door and pushed the button. I didn’t mean any harm; I was just curious if it would make a difference. I then went upstairs to sleep.
|I hadn’t yet learned my lesson
When my mother woke me in the morning, she let me have it. She had come home after a long day at work, followed by some meeting, to find the whole kitchen filled with a foot or so of suds. After two hours of her work, our kitchen was cleaner than it had ever been.
I was smart; I denied having done anything wrong. She was smarter; she had opened the little plastic box, and found the remnants of my “experiment.” I was never again asked to load the dishwasher.
I hadn’t yet learned my lesson.
Some months later, we got a thin plastic record in the mail as an ad for a fast-food restaurant chain. Remember records? You know, back before MP3s, CDs, or even cassette tapes were popular? Anyway, I was still the curious type—my parents always encouraged curiosity—and although I wouldn’t have taken any of our records and scratched them up, I didn’t see how anyone could object to me ruining the McDonald’s jingle.
So, I pretended to be one of those “cool” DJs who would make interesting sounds with scratched disks. I had about ten minutes of fun. Somehow, the musical result that I got did not resemble anything that I had seen on the newly launched MTV. I did, however, succeed in ruining the needle on the record player. This time my mother got smart. She made me pay for the new needle. It cost forty-six dollars. That was months of babysitting money. I vowed never to experiment again.
The difference between the two incidents was that I now owned the results of my behavior. I wonder what would have happened if my mother had woken me the first time around to clean up the suds. I probably would have enjoyed the bizarre fluff on the kitchen floor, and it could have been a funny bonding experience between myself and my mother. As it was, I never even got to see the mess that I had made.
The lesson that I needed to learn was that of responsibility. As long as my mother “owned” the results of my actions, I didn’t have to. It was only when I was the one who had to deal with the consequences that something shifted. As long as we don’t feel that it is our world and that we personally will be dealing with the results of how we treat it, we will live in the moment, regardless of the long-term effects of our actions.
|I now owned the results of my behavior
We see this very clearly from the beginning of time. When Adam and Eve were placed in the garden, they were told to “work it and guard it,” but at that point, they had invested absolutely nothing in their world. Everything that they saw was G‑d’s and not their own. They may not have intended for things to turn out as they did, but if they had personally invested as much in the world as G‑d had, they would have been much more careful about how they treated it.
Until we all feel a personal responsibility, and a partnership with G‑d, for how this “earth experiment” turns out, we will continue with our mistakes. We have to own a significant amount of stock in the company to care about its welfare.
This dynamic comes up again in the story of the golden calf. If you read the chapters in order, it is really very disturbing. G‑d sends ten miraculous plagues, the sea splits, enemies are destroyed. Bread falls from the sky, water pours from a rock. They come before Mount Sinai and prepare for the most momentous occasion. They hear the voice of G‑d, their Redeemer. He lays the bedrock of world morality as a gift to the Jewish people. One of the basic rules is “no other gods.” Forty days later Moses comes down the mountain with the most magnificent betrothal rock anyone has ever seen, only to find the “bride” bowing to a golden calf.
We’ve heard the story so many times that we are not disturbed by it anymore, but we should be. Can you imagine? It is as if a couple were on their honeymoon, the groom walks away for a minute, and he returns to find that his bride left him for another man! It just doesn’t make sense.
When G‑d gave us the Torah, He had invested everything in the project. We had invested very little. He had created the world; taken us out of Egypt; turned nature, the work of His hands, upside down—all to bring us to the point of accepting the Torah. We were a bunch of newly freed slaves. We had little to invest, and even less to lose. While there were other issues that led up to the calf, much of it was simply the fact that we did not feel that we owned our world.
Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah, describes “awakening from above” and “awakening from below.” G‑d is always conscious, looking for ways to draw us close; but in order for us to be able to receive His gifts, we must awaken ourselves. When spiritual bounty comes into the world from an awakening from below, it can be much more powerful than the gift of an awakening from Above. It has the power of partnership.
|We had little to invest, and even less to lose
This lesson of balance and responsibility is one that applies to all our important relationships. Management theories, parenting skills, marriage improvement techniques, are all based on building a sense of ownership and responsibility.
Jewish history has been a process of us growing into ownership of our very specific role in humanity. Each time we were exiled from one place to another, we made a decision. Is this Jewish commitment that I have more important than my job, my family’s stability, in some cases my life? Each time we subjugated ourselves to the spiritual path, we bought stock in the company.
The question has been asked: if two Holy Temples in Jerusalem were already destroyed, who’s to say that when the redeemer comes, we won’t goof again and lose the third Temple? I think the answer is clear. The third Holy Temple will be our own spiritual dishwasher. We will own it; we will understand its value. For this exile we are enduring is not for nothing. It is teaching us responsibility and consequences, and is making us very aware that how things are is not how things should be.