Focus On Progress

We are living in unique and exciting times. Changes of a breathtaking nature are taking place, altering the structure of whole societies, and of our individual lives. This book is written for those people who welcome and encourage such changes, with the intent of clarifying the mindset and the goals that will empower us to proceed through these transitions with responsibility, purpose, and direction.

Our society is in a state of flux. The structures of life with which we are familiar are giving way to new systems, as evidenced by the collapse of communism and the re-thinking of capitalism, the breakup of nations, the melding of the planet into one economic whole, and the explosion and merging of previously discrete bodies of information.

This momentous overturning of things can be seen as indicative of a spiritual evolution. We stand at the threshold of the Redemption, the era of Messianic fulfillment promised by Israel's Prophets and the Talmudic Sages. Indeed, we are in the process of crossing that threshold.

How do we act in such an environment? Let's share two stories:

When NASA first began to consider the possibilities of extended space travel, its scientists decided to experiment with the effects of weightlessness on plants. Several seedlings were sent aloft in one of the first satellites.

The seedlings were in space for several months. Everything was structured to provide them with optimum conditions for growth. When the satellite returned, the biologists were amazed at the results; they had never seen plants like this before. Roots were growing out from every side. In several places, a stem had started to grow, only to have its growth aborted; leaves had sprouted at random. The researchers came to an obvious conclusion: When plants do not have up and down clearly defined for them, they don't grow correctly.

The second story takes place in a very different setting. Reb Mendel Futerfas was held for 14 years in Soviet prisons and labor camps. During this time, he spent most of his free hours in prayer and study. Nevertheless, he chose not to remain totally aloof from the gentiles who shared his lot, and spent a few hours each day conversing with them.

Included in this group were many types of people: political idealists who had fallen out of favor with the Stalinist regime, businessmen who had run undercover private enterprises, and ordinary people jailed for crimes the criminal nature of which neither they nor many of those who arrested them understood.

Among the latter was a circus performer whose claim to fame was his skill as a tightrope walker. He and Reb Mendel had a standing argument. Reb Mendel could not understand why a person would risk his life walking on a rope several storeys above the ground (for this was before safety nets had become standard circus practice).

"There must be," Reb Mendel maintained, "some hidden cables to hold you in case you slip."

For his part, the tightrope walker maintained that there was no need for cables. "It is not all that dangerous," he said. "One begins practicing on low ropes, and having gained experience, the risk of falling is minimal."

The argument continued until after Stalin died, and the prison authorities relaxed their rules. Several months before May Day that year, the guards told the prisoners that they would be allowed to prepare a makeshift circus to celebrate the day. Our acrobat suddenly came alive, becoming the center of attention. He organized various performances, the highlight being his tightrope walk.

He made sure Reb Mendel was in the audience. After the other acts were completed, the drums began to roll. He climbed the pole to the rope. His first steps were timid -- after all, it had been several years -- but within a few seconds, it all came back to him.

He began to twirl a hoop with his hands and wave to his friends. As he neared the end of the rope, he hesitated for a moment, made a fast turn, and then proceeded to the other side. On his way back, he exuded confidence; he performed several stunts and caught hats thrown to him. Completing his act, he climbed down and ran to Reb Mendel.

"You see, no cables holding me up," he gleamed in satisfaction.

"Yes. You're right, no cables," agreed Reb Mendel.

"You're a smart man," the performer continued. "Tell me. What's the secret? Is it in the hands? The feet?"

Reb Mendel paused to think. The performer had moved his hands freely, and it did not appear that his footwork was the determining factor.

After reviewing the scene in his mind several times, Reb Mendel replied: "It's the eyes. At all times, your eyes were riveted on the opposite pole."

The performer nodded in agreement. "When you see your destination in front of you, you know where to put your feet.

"And what is the most difficult part of the process?" he asked Reb Mendel.

Reb Mendel thought again and replied, "the turn."

"That's right," agreed the performer. "For then, you lose sight of the first pole and the other has not yet come into view."

Topsy-turvy conditions, the appearance of sudden turns, and the loss of familiar landmarks have become the rule and not the exception in our society. We appear to be living in a period of general discontinuity. Today, in all areas -- politics, science, economics, and health -- things look uncertain. Chance and change have become intermixed. Titles like "The Age of Unreason" and "Thriving on Chaos" are bestsellers even in the sedate business market. We are told to apply "upside-down thinking" to succeed in a society that refuses to allow us the time to stand still.

What is happening? In previous generations, sweeping change took time. Forecasts for the future were made with assurance; things were predictable. In the past century, and particularly in recent decades, advances in science, travel, and communications increased the rate of change. The introduction of the microchip and computerized systems of data management accelerated the rate of change so radically that it has gone off the graph.

Moreover, it is not only the rate of change that is unique, it is the nature of the changes that are occurring. The majority of us grew up with a Newtonian concept of the universe. This means that readily discernible causes are seen to produce predictable effects -- a "clockwork universe." This vision spurred the Industrial Revolution, and enabled Western ideas and methods to attain a dominant position in world thinking.

Einstein's Theory of Relativity hinted at the existence of a higher degree of interrelation. People began thinking of non-linear systems, i.e., systems whose organization is not predictable in terms of the information within our grasp at any given moment.

This line of thinking has spawned a new theoretical approach referred to as the mathematics of chaos. Generally, we conceive of chaos as confusion or disorder. This new approach understands that what may be chaos to us is nonetheless the reflection of a hidden order motivated by a deeper and more abstract reality. Complex behavior appears random, and yet conforms to a pattern. For large, dynamic systems are organized according to different structures than those perceptible by our ordinary conceptual paradigms.1

In previous generations, our lives followed more clearly mapped-out routines, and so we had less difficulty charting our future. But now, these maps are continually being redrawn, for the shifting reality in which we are living upsets our existing frameworks of reference. In such an environment, how does a person prevent himself from becoming as disoriented as our weightless plants? -- By having the tightrope walker's sense of direction and purpose.

A person who knows where he is going knows where to put his feet. When the leader of a desert caravan or a ship's captain was unsure of the direction in which he was going, he would look into the night sky and find the North Star. As civilization advanced, the compass was invented.

A person who has an inner sense of purpose has a needle constantly pointing him true-north.

What is meant by inner purpose?

A person once complained of depression. Nothing in particular was wrong. On the contrary, both at home and at work, he was considered moderately successful, but as he approached 40, he was haunted by feelings of futility.

A friend told the present Lubavitcher Rebbe Shlita of the problem and the Rebbe advised him: "Share this insight of our Sages2 with your friend: 'I was created solely to serve my Creator.' "

It made a difference. The person's attitude changed. After he saw the pole, he learned where to put his feet.

This insight is augmented by a classic Chassidic narrative involving the present Rebbe's ancestor, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi:3 When Rabbi Zalman began to spread Chassidism throughout Russia, the government thought he wanted to lead a revolution against the Czar; Rabbi Zalman was arrested and held for questioning.

As the interrogation went on, many Russian officials were impressed by his wisdom, and arranged informal meetings with Rav Zalman. One of these officials, the Minister of Culture, was a learned man who had studied the Torah. He had a question.

"Why," he asked, "when G-d came to punish Adam after he ate from the Tree of Knowledge, did He ask him 'Where are you?'4 G-d is omniscient. Why did He have to ask Adam where he was?"

Rabbi Zalman looked the minister in the eye and told him: "The Torah is eternal. G-d's question to Adam is addressed to every man, at every point in his life. At all times, G-d is asking us: 'Where are you? What are you doing to fulfill your purpose in life?'

"For example, you are so and so many years old [Rabbi Zalman mentioned the minister's exact age, although he had no ordinary way of knowing it]. G-d comes to you and asks you: 'Where are you in your mission in life? Do you know what you are expected to accomplish?' "

Deeply moved, the minister was very helpful in clearing the sage of the charges for which he had been arrested.

When we have the courage to look at ourselves honestly, we gain inner power and a handle on our future. When we consider our spiritual purpose, we encourage inner dynamism. We insure that this future will not be self-oriented, and thus tap a source of energy higher and more potent than that contained in our individual being.

Our Sages5 describe every person as an entire world, and the world as a personality in macrocosm. Conceiving of ourselves as a world, i.e., multifaceted and multi-dimensional, enables us to develop harmony between and within the different aspects of our beings. Conversely, viewing the world as a macrocosm of man also provides us with constructive insights. Just as an inner sense of spiritual purpose is the key to an individual's success and happiness, so too the world at large will thrive from gaining awareness of its spiritual purpose.

What is the purpose of the world? Our Sages state:6 "The world was created solely for Mashiach." More specifically, they tell us7 that G-d created the world because He desired a dwelling among mortals. This implies that the infinite dimensions of G-dliness will be revealed within the finite framework of material reality.

These concepts are reflected in the world's cultural history. In the first phases of human development, mankind knew no boundary between the physical and the spiritual. Spiritual concepts were interpreted in material terms, and man's conception of reality was a mixture of fact and fantasy. Slowly, scientific thought began to take hold, progressing to the Newtonian concept of existence mentioned above. Man began to appreciate the framework of existence in which he lived, and learned how to function more efficiently within it.

As the time for Mashiach's coming draws near, Infinity has begun to enter our conceptual frameworks. Or rather, our conceptual frameworks have begun to appreciate the Infinite. We are witnessing an explosion of knowledge in all fields, introducing non-linear frameworks of reference that are mind boggling. The Kabbalah predicts8 such a blossoming of thought, and teaches that this will prepare the world for the Era of Redemption.

Augmenting our awareness can precipitate these changes. The first step in this direction is a change in mindset, for ideas and information are the forces molding our society today. A revolution in thinking will send ripples of change throughout the world.

To speak in metaphoric terms: Ships have long been guided by the movement of a rudder. As ships grew larger, the rudders necessary to turn them also increased in size. Moving these larger rudders became difficult. Therefore, a small rudder referred to as the trim-tab was attached to the large rudder. This smaller rudder is easier to move; it then moves the large rudder, which in turn changes the course of the entire ship. In today's world, each of us can be such a trim-tab. The direction in which we point our lives can thus affect the direction of the vessel that is humanity.

Living with the Redemption9 on a conceptual level, learning about the ideals which G-d envisions for our world, and integrating these principles in our lives, can serve as a trim-tab for every individual, channeling the direction of global change. By anticipating the Redemption in our minds and lives, we can precipitate its coming.


1. Among the corollaries to this concept is the renowned butterfly effect; i.e., that the fluttering of a butterfly's wings in Singapore affects the weather in Michigan.

2. Kiddushin 4:13.

3. Likkutei Sichos, Vol. I, Yud Tes Kislev, p. 73 ff.

4. Genesis 3:9.

5. Sanhedrin 37a.

6. Ibid. 98b.

7. Midrash Tanchuma, Parshas Bechukosai, sec. 3. See the chapter entitled "The Biggest Question of All" which focuses on this concept.

8. Zohar, Vol. I, p. 117a. See the chapter entitled "The Blossoming of Knowledge" which elaborates on this idea.

9. See the essay of this title in Sound the Great Shofar (Kehot, 1992).

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