“Man is the playground for the unpredictable emergence and multiplication of needs.”
These words of Abraham Joshua Heschel echoed as I looked at my pile of laundry this morning and wondered at the tremendous amount of clothes I own. In the bible a set of clothes was one of a person’s most valuable possessions.
“We usually fail to discern between authentic and artificial needs” Heschel continues, “and, misjudging a whim for an aspiration, we are thrown into ugly tensions.”
Reading the Book of Nechemiah this afternoon I found myself wondering about the connection between what we consider our needs, and the emergence of the Pandemic. This Fifth century BC waiter prays to God day and night, confessing “the sins that we, the children of Israel have sinned to You; I sinned, and so did the house of my father.” Even though the destruction of Jerusalem and the exiling of Jews from Judea took place before Nechemiah was born, still he asks what he and his people are doing to perpetuate this disaster. I find this inspiring. A disaster that happened to the Jews because of geo-political events largely beyond their weak, little kingdom’s control, is seen as an opportunity to self-examine. This has something to do with what Heschel calls “needs as spiritual opportunities.”
In this moment, when the pandemic seems to be easing off, maybe we can ask ourselves what we did to move our world into the space in which such a thing took place. Maybe we can contemplate our relationship with needs, which the pandemic called into question.
“We cannot make our judgements, decisions and directions for action dependent upon our needs,” says Heschel. What an incredible, radical and baffling statement! If we can’t make judgements based on what people need, what are we supposed to base those judgments on?! Heschel calls on us to dissociate ourselves from what we consider to be our needs, and instead base our actions on something far deeper and more elusive.
“To understand the problem of needs, we must face the problem of man, the subject of needs.”
We have to understand ourselves in order to distinguish between our authentic and artificial needs. Our perceived needs also help us understand ourselves by producing a variety of human tendencies: anger, anxiety…