Ve'etchanan: "Handling" the Truth

“Opium of the Masses” [das Opium des Volkes] is how Karl Marx famously (or infamously, depending upon one’s perspective) referred to religion, although the phrase did not originate with him.    

His philosophy seems to have been. “It’s better to be unhappily lucid than happy through delusion.”  Concerning politics, I generally agree with this philosophical paraphrase, which is not only consistent with, but necessary for, democratic government.  

But the principle is not uniformly applicable.  “Opiate,” by which I mean palliative mechanisms generally, are often a highly desirable alternative to the “unadulterated truth” – and may even be medically and/or emotionally necessary.  Which parent has not occasionally “sugar-coated” the facts to make them more palatable to children?  Who does not prefer to have severe pain relieved though drugs, from aspirin for a headache to, in extreme cases, “Opium?”  We even have the example of G-d compassionately “lying” to Abraham about why Sarah laughed at the prospect of her pregnancy.  [Genesis 18:12-13]. 

Although critics of religion, such as Marx, decry religious “delusion,” (and here I am only accepting that characterization for sake of argument), I believe that truth and lucidity are often overrated.  A key benefit of religion is comfort.  "We are not alone.  There is purpose to life, and even to suffering.  There is a reason to act morally, beyond utilitarianism.   Our existence, and those of our loved-ones, won’t end with death.  Those who do evil and prosper will receive their punishment."  Are these delusions?  Who can “prove” one way or the other?  But even if they are, they are useful and perhaps necessary to cope.    

Certainly, religion is, like science, an attempt to understand the world (and universe) around us, as well as to understand the human condition.  But religion, much more than science, is a response to our emotional lives.  We are primarily emotional, not rational!  

It should be unsurprising, therefore, that religion seeks to address and even to manipulate our emotions. Why would we expect, or even want, religion to be strictly “factual?”  If it were so, it wouldn’t fulfill our needs.  (Nor is religion unique in “manipulating” our emotions.  Personal relationships, music, art, politics, sports, advertising – just about every effort to influence another involves “manipulating emotions.”)  

Like other religious calendars for their adherents, the rhythms of the Jewish year afford us continuing opportunities to express ourselves emotionally, both individually and as a people.  I would even say both that:

1.  Emotional expression is a very important reason to observe Jewish holidays, including unhappy ones, [cohesiveness of the Jewish people being another], and that

2.  Jews who pride themselves on rationalism and thus choose not to observe rituals they regard as irrelevant, silly, and/or superstitious, may be diminishing their spiritual health.  (I say this partly from my own experience.  After many years of secular graduate study, I entered rabbinical school partly in the hope of developing my mostly-neglected spiritual side, and found that Jewish ritual, including holiday emotion-targeted ritual, provided that access). 

This Shabbat, designated “Shabbat Nachamu,” marks the beginning of the “seven weeks of consolation.”  It follows the “three weeks” of increasing despair, which culminated in the fast of Tisha B’Av this past Sunday evening through Monday evening.  “Shabbat Nachamu” comes from the first verse of the week's Haftarah reading, Isaiah 40:1: “Comfort, oh comfort, My people, Says your G-d.”  

What comfort is offered?  Divine assurance that our people’s period of suffering has ended, that its iniquity has been pardoned (the pardon of Yom Kippur being primarily individual, rather than communal).   That G-d’s glory will be revealed; that G-d’s word is reliable and eternal.  That the young, weak, and vulnerable will be led with gentleness.  Whom among us does not need such forgiveness, gentleness, and consolation?  

In the movie “A Few Good Men,” Jack Nicholson responds to Tom Cruise’s courtroom challenge with the phrase “You Can’t Handle the Truth.”   When painful and cruel things in life happen, we often can’t.   At least not without reassurance that may not be grounded in fact, may be based only upon optimism, or is simply (but importantly) an expression of compassion.  

Religion provides needed solace and strength to face reality.   We should thank G-d both for painkilling medicine and for emotional consolation through religion.    

I wish the entire Jewish people a Shabbat of shalom and of nechamah: peace and consolation

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3