a meaningful journey

December 4, 2008
By Rachel Delshad, Fort Lee, NJ

A Meaningful Life
In today’s world, people continuously strive to find a higher meaning in life. In Jonathon Boyarin’s essay, “Waiting for a Jew,” Malcolm Gladwell’s essay, “The Power of Context,” and David Abram’s essay, “The Ecology of Magic,” one could see how these three authors journeyed to find a higher meaning they once had or hoped to achieve. In conclusion, however, they all came to despair and realized that their voyages were failures. In Boyarin’s essay, we see how his quest to reconnect to the spirituality he felt when he was a child could never occur, because he believed he lived in a world lacking spiritual wholeness. In Gladwell’s essay, Gladwell goes on a quest to find out how people could fix the corrupted environment. However, he believes he has failed when he realizes that the corruption society faces deals with an unalterable disruption in psychological development. Furthermore, in Abram’s essay, Abram travels to the East to understand magic, and ends up creating a relationship with nature that he never had before. Unfortunately, his relationship with nature ends once he returns to his ordinary life back in the Western world. In analysis of these three authors, one can see how they can be equated to a “Ba’al Tshuva.” A “Ba’al Tshuva” is a person in Judaism who has journeyed from being a spiritually corrupt person to a spiritually elevated person; he or she goes on an internal quest where he or she is able to gain a connection with God through repentance. The essayist’s pursuit of meaning allows them to gain new perspectives on life, just as the “Ba’al Tshuva” has gained perspective transitioning from spiritually impure to spiritually pure.

Before understanding why each author believes they have failed in finding meaning, and how the idea of the “Ba’al Tshuva” allows each author to benefit from their experiences, we must understand how each author attempted to gain meaning. Boyarin shows how he attempted to find meaning through Judaism by learning Yiddish. Upon learning the language he says that the “Most important [aspect] for my sense of identity, phrases here and there in my internal dialogue are now in Yiddish, and I find I can reflect on myself with a gentle irony that was never available to me in English” (Boyarin 86). This shows how he is attempting to reconnect with Judaism and his past by speaking the language that reminds him of the spirituality he once felt for the religion. Similarly, Abram journeys to Indonesia to find purpose through Eastern magic. On his journey, he ends up seeing the beauty nature has to offer. While sitting in a cave one day, he watched a spider spinning a web: “I had the distinct impression that I was watching the universe being born, galaxy upon galaxy…I have never, since that time been able to encounter a spider without feeling a great strangeness and awe” (Abram 14). Never before was Abram able to have this deep appreciation of life until he was placed in an environment that shaped that admiration for him. As for Gladwell, he goes on a quest to fix the corrupted environment people live in. He believes that by connecting individuals to the realities of society, people will understand the imminent need to shape the environment they live in for the better. He believes that “an epidemic can be reversed...by tinkering with the smallest details of the immediate environment” (Gladwell 188). In other words, just by changing the minor problems in society, people will once again be able to live in a clean and safe environment. It is clear that the essayists have all attempted to find meaning through one thing or another. However, that attempt of connecting has seems ineffective to the essayists.

Unfortunately, for the three authors, they fail to retrieve the meaning they were searching for. Boyarin believes that he is on a quest “with an illusion of wholeness” (Boyarin 79), where he “search[es] to realize that a fragile illusion of wholeness was destroyed when [his] family and almost the others left Farmingdale” (Boyarin 96). This is an example of how Boyarin believes he can never regain a connection back to his childhood because it all happened to be a childhood “illusion.” The same situation is shown in Abram’s essay. When Abram came back to the West, he felt he lost the connection he once had with nature:
I could no longer focus my awareness on engaging in their world as I so easily done a few weeks earlier, for my attention was quickly deflected by internal, verbal deliberations of one sort or another --by a conversation I now seemed to carry on entirely within myself (Abram 19).
Here, Abram begins to forge a new identity by having created a meaningful relationship with nature, which he then loses when he comes back to the West. Additionally, Gladwell’s attempt to connect people to their environments by “tinkering with the small details of the immediate environment” is unsuccessful when he comes to realize that the problem lies within people. The persons in Gladwell’s essay are considered to have “a personality type [that is] distinguished by an insensitivity to the norms of normal society. People with stunted psychological development do not understand how to conduct healthy relationships” (Gladwell 187). Consequently, Gladwell shows that psychological underdevelopment inhibits the growth of a clean society; therefore, impeding his quest for purpose in life. In time, all three authors are convinced that their journeys have produced aimless results; however, we come to see how they are indeed wrong.
By bringing in the idea of the “Ba’al Tshuva,” we see how each essayist has, in actuality, benefited. A “Ba’al Tshuva” is a person who started life on the road of spiritual corruption. Along that road, he or she is brought to understand that his or her way of life is not spiritually correct and that he or she should learn the path of righteousness. As a result of that realization, the person is able to take a path towards virtue. His or her corrupted spiritual state essentially allows him or her to acknowledge that he or she must change and repent. From here, we can understand how each essayist went on a journey that has allowed him to see a greater picture of life, a certain picture that one would not have seen if he did not go on that journey. Although the “Ba’al Tchuva” goes on a quest and finds meaning through God, he or she may accidentally stray and return to his or her old ways, as the essayists have done. However, because of one’s voyage, one has found new insight into life where one can choose to be good or follow one’s old ways of corruption. One’s voyage allows him or her to acknowledge that it is his or her choice to decide.
The concept of the “Ba’al Tchuva” correlates with these three essayists; we see how they too have gone on a similar quest. Although Boyarin believed that his life was “an illusion of wholeness,” his journey actually allowed him to be “aware of [his] inescapable Jewishness” (Boyarin 84). He is now on a new “highway” of thinking where he understands that he “need[s] to cultivate [his] Jewishness” (Boyarin 85). In addition, he realizes becoming a student of anthropology, “Allows [him] to reason that if [he] concentrate[s] on Jewish culture, no one will accuse [him] of cultural imperialism” (Boyarin 85). In other words, Boyarin thought that he failed in reconnecting, but in fact, he has acknowledge the balance he needs in his identity with being Jewish, as well as being an anthropologist. Similarly, although Abram thought that he has failed at gaining a connection, he was still able to hear “the thrumming of the crickets, and even the songs of the local blackbird, [which] readily faded from [his] awareness after a few moments, and it was only by an effort of will that [he] could bring them back into the perceptual field” (Abram 19). This shows how Abram is still able, with “an effort,” to acknowledge his connection he thought he only once had with the environment. He now has that internal “highway” in his mind to go back and find meaning through the environment if he wanted to. That, is something he gained because of his expedition. On a similar note, Gladwell also gains something. He explains how “there is a world of difference between being inclined toward violence and actually committing a violent act” (Gladwell 192). This makes it clear to see, how, at the end of the day it is up to people to decide whether to commit a crime. Moreover, they do indeed have the psychological competence to make that decision on their own; Gladwell could have only realized this on his quest. Supplementing these authors ideas with the concept of the “Ba’al Tshuva” makes it clear to see how their journey’s have allowed them to see both extremes of certain ideas in life, allowing them to choose the more fulfilling road to walk on.

The author's comments:
I hope that people can come to understand that no matter what journey they embark, there is always something for people to learn from, regardless of what they believe.

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