What would you ask of a time traveler from a hundred years ago? And if you traveled a hundred years into the future, what would you want to tell the people you found there? Perhaps it would sound something like this:
What did you do to handle the overpopulations we predicted? How did you protect the seashores? What did you do to keep the ozone layer intact, the energy supplies, the trees? Have you eliminated ignorance, brutality, greed?
There might be no better way to discover unexamined truths about ourselves then by composing a letter to our grandchildren’s grandchildren. This was certainly on the mind of award-winning essayist Roger Rosenblatt a quarter century ago when he penned his deeply thoughtful Letter to 2086:
This letter will be propped up in a capsule at the Statue of Liberty, to be opened on the statue’s bicentennial. Go ahead. Undo the lock. I see your sharp, bright faces as you hoist us into your life, superior as cats to your primitive elders. Quaint, are we not? Beware of superior feelings. The message is in this bottle.
As a student of Jewish philosophy, I don’t believe in coincidences. So when my neighbor — out of the blue — handed me a long forgotten back issue of Time Magazine, the cover article by Mr. Rosenblatt resonated with the faint echo of providence. And although the intended audience still reside three generations in the future, this letter offers a tantalizing window into the past, as well as an illuminating perspective on how much has changed and how much has remained the same.
Everybody seems to know everything everywhere. The television news displays a riot in an overcrowded Tennessee prison, a newly discovered poem by Shakespeare, an earthquake in Mexico, a bombing in Libya, starvation in Africa, a dinosaur bone.
Mr. Rosenblatt paints an impressionist masterpiece that, in surprisingly few words, successfully captures the persistent tensions of the Cold War and the Mideast, the growing division between rich and poor, the opening volleys of the culture wars, the growing malignancy that is our political system, the advancing disintegration of the traditional family, the discrediting of Marx and Freud, the pending infantilization of American youth.
But there’s a lot that he missed (though not, to be fair, through any fault of his own). Who could have anticipated the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc within half a decade? Who would have imagined the national (and even global) obsession with reality television or predicted wide-scale ignorance as a consequence of information overload? And even the most prescient science fiction writers never foresaw a society in which everyone carries in his pocket a computerized telephone the size of Captain Kirk’s communicator with the processing power of Mr. Spock’s tricorder.
In outlining the “secrets of the age,” Mr. Rosenblatt bats about .500. He accurately records the resurgence of faith and religion, with the accompanying specter of violent religious extremism; but he misses the equal and opposite reaction of rabid secularism and its adherents’ blind faith in technology and human reason. He identifies the mindset that was yet to be labeled “non-judgmentalism,” but he fails to appreciate how the failure of our collective moral compass would come to threaten the stability of civilized society. He perceives a resurgence of individual empowerment and personal responsibility, but he closes his eyes to the erosion of a national work ethic amidst the growing culture of entitlement.
In short, he wants to believe that we are learning from history. But Friedrich Hegel’s sobering observation remains unshaken: the great lesson of history is that no one learns anything from history.
After all the bull’s-eyes and near misses, however, one short paragraph eclipses all the others:
“[W]e are learning that democracy can kill democracy. For one thing, excessive freedoms have made it almost impossible for an ethical conscience to assert itself. People have been free to ignore social obligations, to abuse one another, to kill themselves.”
Perhaps most dangerous of all, suggests Mr. Rosenblatt, is the influence of public relations. “That enterprise,” he wisely observes, “has taken the expansiveness of democracy and honed it to a point from which a few manipulate the many.” All too true. But the author is not worried, he says, since the country is aware of the danger and its people “are beginning to resist our manipulators… In the sweet and deadly mass marketing of thought, we are quietly reclaiming our individual lives.”
It’s a pretty thought, but one so far removed from reality that we have to wonder how Mr. Rosenblatt’s otherwise dispassionate vision could have turned so inexplicably rose-colored. When we reflect that in 2008 an upstart politician with virtually no experience and no credentials effortlessly dispatched a field of more capable and more seasoned presidential candidates, that a late-night comedienne’s impersonation of an obscure Alaska governor was among the main factors in deciding that year’s election, that four years of Carter-style mismanagement failed to dissuade the majority of an electorate from returning to office, on the basis of “likeability,” a demonstrably disingenuous and imperious chief executive — when we look back at all the damning evidence, it’s a mystery how any thoughtful commentator could have concluded that independent thinking had any chance at all to survive mass-media manipulation.
But this is not Roger Rosenblatt’s fault. He was looking at a thin slice of history, and history does not reveal itself in slices. Like continental drift and the advance of glacial ice, history creeps along with an inertia that can only be measured over the expanse of centuries and which can never be held at bay.
That being so, the relevance of historical, social, or political trends seems purely academic. If we are carried along by the tide of history not only helpless but utterly unaware, is there really any profit in trying to capture the zeitgeist of our times?
There is. Like a kayaker seeking out the place in the current that will speed him along without dashing him upon the rocks or trapping him in the eddies, each of us is master of his own fate, even if we cannot control the course of events that swirl around us. The paddler will never change the river, but he can force the river to carry him where he wills if he possesses the vision and the ability to navigate its waters.
In the slippery grammar of Biblical Hebrew, there is technically no present tense. Although we translate ani holeich contextually as “I am walking,” the words translate more literally as “I am a walker.” This is not mere semantics. According to Jewish philosophy, there is no present; rather, we exist in a state of constant transition between the past and the future. Man is not meant to be static. His existence is one of perpetual re-creation, in which he is charged with the often overwhelming task of transmuting the lessons of experience into the choices that will define the person he will become. His goal is to transform himself, over the course of a lifetime, from an animalistic creature of the flesh into a divine being guided by the promptings of his soul.
This is no small undertaking. Indeed, the Talmud records the sages’ opinion that the process would span the entire history of mankind:
The world will last six thousand years: two thousand years of Chaos, two thousand years of Torah, and two thousand years of the messianic era. Because of our moral failures, the years that have gone by have gone by.*
Simply stated, the sages foresaw that human beings would engage in a battle for economic, military, and political supremacy for the first two millennia of recorded history. Only with the arrival of the Jewish patriarch Abraham would this dynamic begin to change; only then would the moral and ethical teachings of Judeo-Christian tradition begin to take root throughout the world. From that point forward, the struggle between man’s higher and lower selves would ensue: competition vs. cooperation, selfishness vs. social responsibility, visceral gratification vs. spiritual refinement. Man’s ultimate victory in the battle for moral elevation would naturally and organically usher in the advent of the messianic era.
Ideally, that process should have taken only a third of human history. But the power of human self-interest is not easily tamed, and the influence of the human soul has not prevailed. The ages have continued to go by, and the world remains locked in a seemingly hopeless stalemate as man’s battle against himself wages on.
Even as the second two-thousand-year “era” came to a close, it seemed unimaginable that man’s physical nature would ever submit to the dominion of his spiritual self. It was then that the culturally dominant elite sought to press their advantage against an unyielding Jewish intelligentsia by marshalling the full weight of logic and sophistry to refute the predictions of Jewish tradition.
The Talmud records a series of cryptic debates between the sage Rabbi Joshua and Elders of Athens, the wise men of Greek letters whose academies survived under the Roman Empire until the early part of the sixth century. In one such debate, the Elders asked Rabbi Joshua, “Where is the midpoint of the world?”**
Rabbi Joshua raised his finger in the air and declared: “Here!”
“Prove it!” the Elders demanded.
“Bring ropes and measure,” the rabbi replied.
Although couched in the language of a riddle, the meaning of the Elders’ question was to the point: According to you Jews, the middle stage of human history is at an end. The messianic era should be upon us. And yet the world is as far away as ever from the victory of the soul. Man has embraced the supremacy of his physical nature, and you Jews who stand for mankind’s divinity remain in exile, feeble subjects broken beneath the might of Rome.
In short, the Elders asked Rabbi Joshua, why will you not concede that history has passed you by?***
The battle between man’s higher and lower impulses has waged since the beginning of time and, as long as mankind is not up to completing the task, will continue until time’s end. But like any war, the contest takes place at the battlefront, which in this arena is the constantly shifting moment between the past and the present. The opportunity for the soul to prevail may have arrived long ago, but victory is never farther away than the next moment of human history.
The physical impulses of man may be strong, but eventually they will tire. When they do, when mankind is forced to confront the failure of secularism, the corruption of power for power’s sake, the manipulation of hearts and minds in pursuit of profit and unreachable utopian dreams, then the divine spirit of man will prevail.
I cannot prove it to you, concluded Rabbi Joshua, for you deny the very existence of the soul and therefore cannot comprehend its inevitable victory. Having never contemplated or attempted the denial of your baser impulses in pursuit of loftier ideals, you are no more able to accept the transcendence of man’s divine nature than you are able to calculate the measure of the earth with ropes. But those who have harnessed and experienced the indomitable strength of the supernal soul have no doubt that it will eventually guide man to his ultimate spiritual transformation.
No, Jewish tradition does not believe in coincidences, even in the most pedestrian events. For myself, I can’t help but wonder at the improbable appearance of a 26 year old issue of Time Magazine between the afternoon and evening prayers. And how remarkable is the small but insistent miracle that I would have been 26 years old when the issue hit the newsstands, placing its publication at precisely the midpoint of my life as I came to hold it in my hands?
Indeed, Rabbi Joshua teaches us that we are always at the midpoint of our lives, just as Judaism teaches that mankind is perpetually poised at the midpoint of Creation, one moment away from Chaos and one moment away from fulfilling the purpose for which we were created.
Will the soul have prevailed by the year 2086? We can hope that it will. But whether it has or has not, we can be certain that until it finally does the battle for the spirit of mankind will continue between those inspired to reach for their higher selves and those mired in the self-indulgence of moral anarchy, between the small, still whisper of our inner voice and the trumpeting cacophony of the relentless media.
To paraphrase Roger Rosenblatt, we will prevail when we have successfully resisted our manipulators; when, in the sweet and deadly mass marketing of thought, we have quietly reclaimed our individual lives. Then the world will be ready for the End of Days.
* Babyonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97a-b
** Ibid, Bechoros 8b
*** Rabbi Elyahu of Vilna; see The Juggler and the King by Rabbi Aharon Feldman, Feldheim publishers, Jerusalem, 1990.