It all started in Babel, the vibrant capital of Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq, some 5,000 years ago. In those ancient days, Mesopotamia was a melting pot, a mishmash of belief-systems and teachings. Much like in today’s New York, or Paris in the 19th century, the prevailing atmosphere was one of “anything goes.” And indeed, everything went there… astray. Today’s tormented Iraq was once the cradle of human civilization, and that ancient civilization’s off-the-mark choices created a “cultural big bang” that is the forbearer of today’s global crisis.
We all know that feeling when we wake up one morning and feel like there has got to be more to life than what we have. But do we really know what we want from our lives? Can we really tell what would make us satisfied and fulfilled? That same question was on the minds of many people in ancient Babel, and the amassment of this discontentment triggered a critical shift in global human evolution.
Previously, all of Babylon’s people were “of one language and of one speech” (Genesis 11:1). But the accumulating dissatisfaction drove them in two distinct directions: one was to embark on a pleasure-hunt, learn all they could about our world with one aim in mind -- discover what pleasures they could extract from it. The other direction was simply about asking questions. Its advocates wanted to know why the pleasure-hunt, why there are stars in the sky, why there are people, and why was there suffering. And a single question hovered over all the why’s: Who did all that?
On the “pleasure-hunt trail,” people began to invent, innovate, progress. They devised plans for faster progress, developed languages, and set out to discover other places where pleasure could be found. Because different folks have different strokes, they became splintered, divided, and eventually alienated.
The cultural big bang was now a fact. And the more alienated people became, the more they pursued different ways of seeking pleasure. Some believed that if we pray to nature’s forces, they will be nice to us and grant us the whims of our hearts. Others believed that there was only one force, and if you talked directly to it, and pleaded it to grant your wishes, you’d get what you want and be happy. And there were those who said that neither way works and you should stop wanting altogether: “Manifest plainness, embrace simplicity, reduce selfishness, have few desires” (Lao-tzu, The Way of Lao-tzu). Eventually, the diverse concepts created diverse cultures, and because each culture believed that its concepts were the most rewarding, anyone who disagreed naturally became an enemy, a threat to my prospects of pleasure and contentment.
After many centuries of battling and quarreling, people began to realize that perhaps their way was not the way to happiness. They realized that each person was different and that other people could actually enjoy different things. Thus appeared pluralism. Pluralism was very important because it allowed people to experiment with different ways of life, different ideas, and different ideologies.
Today, at least in what we call “the free world,” anyone can think anything and do anything, as long as it’s legal. The only difference is that nowadays everyone can see that the other pleasure-hunt trails are unsuccessful, too.
This is the essence of the global crisis. We, all of humanity, are beginning to see that there is nothing we can do to guarantee our happiness, or even our personal security, not to mention that of our children. This is why the fastest growing disease in the West is depression; the young today simply see no hope for a better future.
But 5,000 years ago, when the pleasure-hunt had just begun, its antidote was made available as well. Among those who chose the “questions-trail” was a young man named Avram, whom we know today as Abraham. His father was an idol builder, and traditionally, the father’s trade was passed on to his sons. Avram learned the trade and began building and selling little idols that people could put in their homes and pray to.
Avram never really understood the point in praying to idols that he knew for certain were worthless, because he built them. The questions and doubts wouldn’t leave him, until one day he stopped and asked, “Is the world without a leader?” (Midrash Raba, 39:1). Many asked this question, but for reasons beyond the scope of this column, Avram’s cry went answered. “The Lord gazed upon him and told him: ‘I am the leader of the world’” (Midrash Raba, 39:1).
Following this discovery, Avram changed his name and he became Abraham the patriarch, propagator of a new line of thinking, which extolled not the pleasure itself, but the contact with its giver. Abraham explained that to receive pleasure, we need to know the universal law that governs all of nature, become similar to it, and thus, automatically, the pleasures of the entire universe will be ours. Our problem, he said, is not that we want to enjoy, it is that we do not want to know its source.
In the years following his discovery, Abraham developed a teaching method for achieving this contact with the giver via similarity to Him. He taught that He is not a being, but a principle by which everything operates, a principle of giving.
When Abraham realized he held the key to a happy, more fulfilling life, he began to share his knowledge like there was no tomorrow. But his revolutionary approach was not favored by the king, and he confronted Abraham. In consequence, and especially since Abraham won the debate, Abraham had to leave Babel. He fled from the king toward Canaan, and the rest is history.
Since that time, sages have been developing Abraham's method, giving it different names in different times, but keeping it essentially the same. The great 16th century Kabbalist, Rabbi Chaim Vital, wrote that throughout the generations, the teaching has always been the same, but in it’s purest form, it is called “the wisdom of Kabbalah,” the wisdom of reception (of pleasure).
These days more people than ever feel that a key element in their lives is missing. The pursuit of pleasure has proven to be quite futile and has basically exhausted itself. People want to know why they cannot be happy. For such people, the wisdom of Kabbalah offers a genuine and valid answer, which has been waiting for millennia to be discovered, and is now stepping into the center stage so we can all benefit from it.
Using it, we can unite the divided cultures, heal the alienation, and use the individual skills we have acquired for the good of all humankind. This is the missing element, the adhesive that can make us one language and of one speech despite eons of animosity. With it, we will be one language, one speech, and one mind. And we will never part again.
-- -- --
Rav Michael Laitman, Ph.D. in Philosophy and MSc in bio-cybernetics, is founder and president of Bnei Baruch -- Kabbalah Education and Research Institute in Tel Aviv. The author of 30 books on the subject, his daily lessons are aired live on global television and the internet. He has an extensive website on Kabbalah and his email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. © copyright 2007 by Michael Laitman.