A proposed solution for New York traffic echoes the ancient wisdom of the Talmud
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to end traffic congestion in Manhattan. However, as sympathetic as New Yorkers may be to Mr. Bloomberg’s vision, his proposed method is most likely to produce madness.
To curb the number of vehicles entering downtown (which has grown annually by an average of 8000 per day since the 1920s, according to U. S. News and World Report), the proposed law would encourage (or coerce) commuters to rely on public transportation by imposing a daytime tax of $8 per car and $21 per truck traveling onto the island. City officials believe that this “congestion pricing” would reduce traffic by as much as 12 ½ percent.
Whether or not commuters can be persuaded to practice even occasional abstinence in their love affairs with their cars makes for interesting speculation. However, the concept itself is sound. In fact, it has been used for some time on a much larger scale, implemented throughout every borough of the world by the Mayor of the Universe.
EXPRESS LANES TO FREEDOM
The most the dramatic experiment in mass transit came 3320 years ago when the Almighty split the Sea of Reeds, allowing the Jews to pass through and escape their Egyptian pursuers. In contrast to Cecil B. DeMille’s famous recreation, the sages teach that the sea opened up into twelve distinct passageways, one for each of the Tribes of Israel. As they passed through, the water separating the passages turned clear like glass, so that each tribe could see its fellow tribesmen traveling alongside them.
The design of this miracle teaches three lessons. First, the division of the sea into separate passageways demonstrates that there is more than one way to have a relationship with G-d. The Almighty does not want us to be automatons or clones, sheepishly following whoever is in front of us. Each individual is unique, and his divine service should be tailored to the nature of his singular soul.
Second, the water turning clear like glass reveals the lengths to which we must go to master the human ego. Had the walls of each passageway remained opaque, each tribe would have thought that it alone had discovered the correct avenue to reach the other side, and that it alone was traveling in the right direction to serve G-d. When they saw the other tribes traveling along side them, the Jews of each tribe recognized that they were not the only ones who had discerned the proper path.
The final lesson can be learned from recognizing that there were a limited number of paths. Anyone who did not follow one of the twelve passageways was, literally and figuratively, under water. Every spiritual movement does not become legitimate simply because it declares itself so, no matter how sincere its leaders or followers may be. Every self-proclaimed “holy man” is not genuine simply because he hangs out his shingle or attracts parishioners. Natural laws govern the operation of the spiritual universe just as they govern the workings of the physical world. One cannot render those rules null and void simply by wishing them out of existence or declaring them defunct, any more than congress can annul the force of gravity.
THE PRICE OF PRIDE
There is yet one more insight to be gained from the illustration of the Jews’ passage through the sea, one that is echoed by the New York mayor’s effort to cure his city’s traffic woes.
Consider the car as an allegory for personal autonomy. In a very real sense, we are all control freaks. We want to control our destiny, to chart our own heading, to have our hands on the wheel. Often the greatest demonstration of inner strength comes through humbling ourselves, giving up control and placing our fate in the hands of another. Often this is a concession we are either unwilling or unable to make.
But do we consider the cost? For car owners, the cost is rolled up in the price of the vehicle itself, of gas, insurance, repairs, parking fees, tolls and, perhaps, congestion tax. Public transportation is far cheaper and often more efficient. But still we refuse to relinquish control.
In business, the most efficient workers are those who work as part of a team, who coordinate their efforts with the efforts of others and trust their coworkers to get their own jobs done. Those who try to do everything themselves, or to micromanage others at their work, create confusion, inefficiency, and frustration.
Our relationships, marriages, and families function best when the individuals within them tend to their own responsibilities and allow others to look after theirs. Hovering, ordering, or criticizing before a spouse or child has even had a chance to complete an assigned task breeds resentment and destroys trust.
Spirituality is much the same. We like to think that we are in control of defining our own relationship with the Almighty. We strike out in whatever direction seems right to us, often without any roadmap or compass to guide us in distinguishing good from bad, right from wrong, moral from immoral. We believe that intuition alone will get us to our goal, when we have only the faintest notion of where we are trying to get.
Worst of all, there is available transportation ready to take us to our final destination in the most efficient way. By keeping G-d’s laws and following in His ways, we guarantee ourselves the smoothest possible journey through this world until we arrive at the World to Come.
THE FAST TRACK
But still many of us won’t give up control. So the Almighty levies His “taxes,” creating obstacles that make the paths of personal autonomy increasingly difficult. We feel stifled in our jobs, unhappy with our families, and discontented with the direction of our lives. So we seek out “detours,” looking for fulfillment in the least likely places: alcohol, drugs, gambling, or extramarital affairs. We think change will make us feel better, but we usually find ourselves worse off than before.
Rabbi Elyahu Dessler explains that we find ourselves in emotional or spiritual darkness at those times when we have cut ourselves off from the source of spirituality in the world. But when we “look into the darkness,” when we recognize that we have created the darkness for ourselves by distancing ourselves from the ways of the Creator, then and only then will we begin to find our way back to the light. By giving up control over our destiny, we regain mastery over our soul.
Whether taxing drivers will solve New York’s traffic problems remains a mystery. But it is in our hands to solve the mysteries of the spirit by following the well-trodden path of the generations that have gone before us. By retracing their steps, we can have confidence that we are not solely dependent upon our own devices to chart our way out of the darkness of confusion, but that we have a clearly marked path to follow toward the light of true meaning.
This article first appeared in the Jewish World Review.