By Rabbi Sam Yolen, Congregation Beth Israel, Lebanon
A very well-known origin story of a spiritual leader begins in this common way. There is a young person who grows up sheltered within the walls of a palace. This youngster learns the ins and outs of courtly life and is protected from the suffering and travail that persists outside the walls of the kingdom.
Yet one day, this young royal breaks free from the reins of their pedigree, and for the first time in their life, witnesses suffering. This hero is challenged to reconcile their jaded and stilted upbringing with an unimaginable degree of pain, usually through empathy. This protagonist experiences the heroic “Call to Action.”
If this sounds like Moses, you’re right. But it’s also Buddha, King Arthur, Luke Skywalker, and many, many more.
It’s actually the subject of the book The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Cambell, who popularized the “monomyth,” a composite mythology that defines the maturation of a spiritual leader. In The Buddha’s case, a twenty-nine year old Siddhartha meets elderly and sick people in his travels outside the palace walls. He discovers the first of four noble truths, “Dukka,” which means suffering. When confronted with his fellows suffering and the reality of death, Buddha is determined to leave his family and commits himself to asceticism.
Moses’s journey is similar. Moses is raised in Pharoah’s palace and is distanced from the suffering of his people. He has no comprehensive understanding of his upbringing or the reality of Israelite slavery beyond the knowledge that Israelites are his people. One day when Moses is grown, he witnesses an Egyptian beating his kinsmen and kills the Egyptian. You would think that the Hebrew slaves, saved by Moses’s passionate act of vengeance, would be grateful for their deliverance, but it is not so. “Why did you do that?” one Israelite says, “Do you mean to kill us too?” And thus Moses flees to Midian where he must live like a fugitive ascetic.
In both expositions of this story, Buddha and Moses grow up in a palatial lifestyle that is devoid of a connection with real people. In fact, almost every spiritual leader in these versions of the “monomyth” comes from a land that is inaccessible to the common folk.
The reason why these stories garner so much power for us in the modern world is because they speak to a deeper sensation that we are all feeling our way through. Sometimes, the nature of our upbringing (the metaphorical “palace”) is insufficient to prepare us for the vicissitudes of the future. Sometimes, the suffering we have avoided for so long must be abruptly seen and empathized with. A real heroic “call to action” challenges us to run from the person who we thought we were, so we can mature fully into the person we are meant to be.
The Chinese philosopher Confucius was another hero who could be described using Cambell’s “monomyth.” He’s quoted, “In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country poorly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.”
Read that quote again - it is deep. I’ve often interpreted this to mean that when a society is fundamentally on the right track, it allocates its resources towards the alleviation of the hardships of penury, thus people who are impoverished are a testament to the state's failure, and it is shameful for society.
On the other hand, in a country poorly governed, no one cares for the downtrodden. Excessive wealth and lavish luxury are insensitive to the hardships of the people, yet the ruling authority doesn’t care about the people! It’s the callousness of the wealthy toward the poor that invites the potential for a bloody revolution.
Extreme wealth gaps and ostentatious shows of excess often create societal unrest, especially when the dominant ideology is no longer supported by the majority of the citizens. Who could know this feeling of institutional decay better than those who grew up in it? Like Confucius? Like Buddha? Like Moses? Or even like Luke Skywalker? This is why these stories are so relatable to the youth growing up today - because they are witnessing the same degenerative environment as our mythic spiritual leaders, and they are forced to confront or ignore it.
As we have watched the extenuated economic impact of COVID, we have witnessed drastic and dangerous trends. We have seen small businesses shut down and large multinational corporations gobble up properties. We’ve transitioned schools to remote learning and back again. We have seen the difficulty of our children adapting to unprecedented and arbitrary circumstances. We have seen record stock market highs and record drug overdoses and record consumer price inflation and record loss of confidence in core tenets of America’s constitutional democracy.
We have seen the Jewish identity being challenged from the left, from the right, and from the center. We have had to grow a backbone and be strong, to speak out for what’s right, and simultaneously we have had to empathize with all of the other sufferings that challenge us to mature into our own spiritual leadership. We have walked a very tight rope.
Under all of these given circumstances, the most important thing we can do, the most sage advice a spiritual leader can give us in our contemporary society, is to fully disconnect and then to wholeheartedly reconnect to the communities that feel right to us.
Like Moses, Buddha, or any other great prophet, we have to experience a clean break from the trappings of our preconceptions, and only then can we come back and reintegrate all of that new information about the world and it’s suffering into our newfound theology. We have to let the dust settle and maybe even change our news sources, or our environment, or our technology, or our diet, or even more. We have to rely on personal anecdotes and empathy over blanket statistics. We have to find compelling stories that speak to our heart and allow us to live a life filled with intellectual and ethical integrity. And also, we have to be accepting of those who do not hold the same story as ourselves. We have to appreciate the many truths abounding in this time of confusion, and we have to practice radical compassion with all people.
Our children will be the leaders of tomorrow, forced into renovating the American dream to fit the crises of climate change, resource depletion, and increased biohazards. But for our children to do what any one of our mythic heroes did, they need to mature in an environment where they can empathize with the suffering of others, and they need to be strong enough to brave the consequences. When Moses is finally overcome with passion, and uses violence to save his enslaved brethren, he is mistakenly petitioned by the fearful Israelites, “Who made you chief over us?” they said, trapped in their sad diminutive way of life. “Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”
“Yes,” I imagine Moses saying back to his Hebrew brothers against the landscape of desert pyramids. “Part of you needs to die in order for you to fully live in freedom.” But that is not chronologically accurate in The Bible - Moses isn’t ready to say that yet. God still has promises to make to Moses, and wonders to perform for him and Pharaoh in order to extricate the Israelites in a saga of ultimate deliverance.
The ugly truth remains though, in the beginning of these mythic stories. When a person is expected to mature in a decaying society, growing up can surely feel like a death. Maybe an ego death, maybe the death of a way of life, or a death of cultural norms, but a death, nonetheless.
The young must adapt to a very foreign world of suffering in order to be fully actualized in this new story. As adults in the room, we should be sensitive to the youth growing up amidst this incredible pressure, and we should strive to see society in the eyes of our mythic spiritual leaders - with compassion toward the suffering, and with eyes toward the future.