Windows of Opportunity
We all know what chaos is. It carries the popular meaning of a massive and dangerous breakdown of order or consensus. We see it all around us in the world: dysfunctional individuals, dysfunctional families, dysfunctional businesses and economies, dysfunctional governments, dysfunctional societies and failed states. The causes range from wars to natural disasters to the unpredictable behavior of human beings and the unpredictable behavior of nature. The initial emotional reaction of people is one of fear, denial and aggressive assault against the disorder.
However, scientists who study chaos in its various manifestations point out that in the instability of systems, windows of order and stability suddenly appear. Observers of an animal population from year to year come to regard the constant changes, physical, social and psychological, as completely random. But suddenly in the midst of this irregularity, they begin to see stable cycles. In the affairs of nations as in the lives of individuals there are also windows of opportunity when chaos is interrupted by stability. Prophets, mystics and intuitives have known when these islands of stability appear in the sea of chaos and have guided their people to set their life course to them.
Jews throughout the world celebrate Passover this week. The nation of Israel was born in the Exodus. In the chaos of Egyptian slavery, Moses, with God’s guidance, recognized an exit window and led the Hebrews through it. African-Americans have long seen their own experience of slavery as a replay of the Israel’s experience in Egypt. Their spirituals are filled with Hebrew images. They regard the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a latter day Moses who, with God’s guidance, launched the Civil Rights Movement that resulted in the opening up of windows of opportunity for them.
But ours is a planet of very low consciousness in which the turbulent seas of chaos predominate and often swamp the islands of stability and opportunity. This is the theme of the biblical book The Song of Songs read on Passover at many seders and in the synagogue. On one level the Song of Songs is the description of the tragic and paradoxical delay of the young woman, Shulamit, drunk with love and overwhelmed with yearning when her lover knocked on the door. This great moment that she had looked forward to with impatience and longing materialized unexpectedly. Yet precisely on this very night a strange and stubborn laziness overcomes her. She refuses to get out of bed and open the door for her lover. When she finally does open the door, she finds he has gone. The rest of her life is a search for her lover, but the lost opportunity does not repeat itself.
How many individuals have lost ideal marriage partners because of inconsequential and inexplicable reasons that delayed them in making a commitment.? How many have lost golden employment opportunities for the same reason?
In the history of nations there are similar windows of stability and opportunity in the storms of international affairs. On a second level the Song of Songs is about the Jewish people and its response to God’s knock on the door, the divine openings of opportunity in its history. In reviewing the history of the Jewish people, the medieval Jewish poet-philosopher, Judah Halevi, points to the Edict of Cyrus the Great of Persia in 538 B.C.E. which allowed the Jewish exiles in Babylonia to return to the Land of Israel and rebuild the Second Temple. But only a part of the people were prepared to do so. The majority and the people of wealth and rank remained in Babylon unwilling to leave their houses and easy circumstances. When the window closed, the God-given opportunity was lost. Judea became a poor sparsely populated, isolated province of the Persian Empire instead of a major Jewish center as it was before the exile. The Second Temple built by the exiles was a weak, pale replica of the First Temple built by King Solomon which it might have rivaled had all the exiles returned.
A similar window of opportunity opened in the chaotic aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust. The historian Paul Johnson and, in a religious context, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the late religious leader of modern Orthodox Jewry in North America, both described the birth and survival of the State of Israel in a narrow window of time. Stalin in the Soviet Union and Harry Truman in the United States, defying all expectations, both recognized the newly declared state. This remarkable unanimity, reflecting different motivations, was a political conjunction of opposites that would have been impossible only a short time later. Yet, as Rabbi Soloveitchik pointed out, as did Judah Halevi in the Middle Ages, the people of wealth, influence, education and ability remained in the diaspora. Had they come to Israel in a mass immigration (Aliyah) and settled the Negev and the Galilee, creating a power center in the Near East, much of the suffering and many of the challenges to the new Jewish state would have been more quickly overcome.
On a third level the Song of Songs is also a parable of the spiritual search for God as the Rabbis of Talmud and Midrash recognized centuries ago. The young woman is every awakened person of higher consciousness and the lover is God. “I sleep, but my heart is awake” (Song of Songs 5:2). How well this describes meditation. When God knocks and calls to us with guidance, insight and hesed, love, we are slow to respond. We are comfortably settled. Everything is okay. We are satisfied with what the late Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel called our religious behaviorism, devoid of passion and commitment. We do not want to rise and open to the mysteries of the night, to a new and more intimate encounter with the Beloved. Who knows what kind of demands this encounter will make upon us? So we ignore the opportunity and when the meaning has drained from our lives and we search for it again, it is gone. As Judah Halevi wrote in the Kuzari: “For the Divine Power inspires human power only in such measure as the latter is prepared to receive it; if the readiness is little, little will be obtained and much will be obtained, if it is great.”