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Real New Age Religion

Re'eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17 )

by Rabbi Stephen Baars

"Whatever has been, it is what will be. And whatever has been done, it is what will be done. There is nothing new under the sun! Sometimes a person will say: 'Look, this is new.' But really it has previously existed." (King Solomon, Ecclesiastes 1:9-10)

If you study Western advertisements, you will see that the most common word is "new." The newest car, the newest fashion, the newest computer, and the newest laundry soap!

"New" does not mean better or more effective. So why does "new" appeal to so many people - even more than "tested," "reliable" or "improved?"

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This week's Torah portion begins as follows:

"Behold! I have placed before you today, a blessing and a curse. The blessing is if you follow the mitzvot of God your Lord, which I am prescribing to you this day." (Deuteronomy 11:26-27)

The Chasam Sofer (19th century Hungarian rabbi), questions the need for the term, "this day." He explains that whenever the Torah uses the term "this day" it requires us to consider the mitzvlot as though they were new and fresh - as if you heard of them for the very first time "this day."

Therefore, the verse implies that "blessing" comes only when we observe the mitzvot with the appreciation of their freshness and newness.

But why are we required to add this ingredient of newness? Isn't adherence to God's mitzvot high enough to warrant a blessing on its own?

The drive for newness, says the Chasam Sofer, is part of human nature. That's why auto manufacturers will change the shape of a car even though it has exactly the same engine and interior. These external, cosmetic changes justify the use of the word "new."

The Torah is telling us that the same is true with morality and values: They will not have lasting appeal unless they can retain a degree of newness.

It's not enough for a parent to say: "That's the way we've always done it." Modernity reigns, and what the previous generation has to say is innately old, and lacking the excitement of "new."

Parents are therefore faced with a formidable paradox. They want to give their children wisdom to use as they grow, yet that very wisdom will be undermined as soon as it becomes old!

It is thus reasonable to assume that your children will very likely reject your values for something more "modern." If you don't provide and relate to life as real and new, and teach your children to behave this way, then you and your progeny will look to other areas to find the newness in life. That may be in anything from astrology to Zen Buddhism...

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When you really think about it, nothing is really new. It is all really an "improvement" on something old. For example, people have always had the need to communicate over long distances. At one time, the Pony Express was "new." Then came the telegraph, the telephone, the fax machine, and now email. It's all essentially an improvement on the same concept - the need to communicate.

Physics states: "Energy (or matter) is neither destroyed nor created, but only changed into another form."

This is true for "metaphysics" as well.

There are really no new ideas, no new religions, no new movements. They are just a rephrasing or repetition of something said long ago. Human drives and desires don't change. What Shakespeare said was said by someone before him, perhaps not as eloquently, but it was said nonetheless. Were this not so, no one would have been able to understand Shakespeare - he would have been saying something no one could relate to. Shakespeare was talking to people about the things they were already aware of. He only rephrased those themes in a unique, witty manner.

"New Age" religions and movements are only old-time religions with a different label. It's last year's engine, chassis and interior - with this year's body. It basically feels the same and it won't get you anywhere different. It just looks different on the surface.

If there is one lesson to be learned from the civil rights, new age and environmental movements, it is that each generation is searching for a new movement!

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How then can the Torah impart freshness and newness to ideas that are thousands of years old? How can we be expected to treat the Torah as if it was new - when it is not? Do we have to deceive ourselves in order to receive the blessing mentioned above?

The Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto - 18th century Italy), in the introduction to his classic ethical work, "The Path Of The Just," explains that the concept of "new" is not describing something which never existed before, but is rather an enabling way to use pre-existing ideas.

All of life is here now. Nothing "new" will happen or be thought of. The trouble is, we lack the skill and expertise to apply what we have.

The only things that are truly "new" are the techniques that enable us to get the fullest out of the "old life" we already have. We have to take life, which can easily get "old," and make it fresh again. To find the original feeling of aliveness that is always inherent in life itself. That's what NEW is all about.

The sign proclaiming "New" that's hung outside a restaurant or amusement park is saying: "If you didn't discover how to use life more fully in the other restaurants or amusement parks, then try us - perhaps we can make your life 'new' again!"

But really, all the menus and all the rides in the world won't improve your quality of life. They are only avoidance mechanisms and distractions. When life becomes dry and old it's much easier to buy a new dress or a new car than to really rejuvenate life permanently.

The above verse is saying, if you truly look at the commandments of the Torah, you will see they embody the concept of "new." They help us focus on life's freshness and meaningfulness. In other words, it's our responsibilities in life that make life new. We sometimes get a sense of this when we put new effort into our marriage, friendships, etc.

However, if a person does not feel that life's responsibilities are a source of newness, then he will surely look to other places for his need for the "new."

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"Honor your parents" is new. Shabbat is new. Charity is new. Kashrut is new. All the instructions of the Torah are, if you take the time to investigate them, tools for opening up vast treasure troves of pleasures. The mitzvot are newer than any car or menu, and they can truly revive our hidden recesses of untapped joy.

The Torah is our instruction book for living. It does not come from man, it was not invented here on earth. Rather, it is infinitely deep insights from God Who is above the earth and above the sun.

The drive for the new and the desire to enhance our lives, causes us to seek in many places. We waste much time, and often cause much harm. To make life "new" again, don't buy a new wardrobe or a new car. Find a new way to make an old relationship meaningful.

We are all ready to try a new ski slope, a new restaurant, or even a new fashion, in the hope some new opening will appear in our lives. But how about something really new. Our 3500 year old Torah is the newest thing around! Try a new mitzvot and live a little!

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Question 1: Look at your five most cherished possessions. Do they produce the same level of excitement now as when they were new?

Question 2: It is possible to have your car working like "new again" - if you are willing to pay the mechanic's price. If you could, what three things in your life would you like to inject that feeling of newness back into?

Question 3: Think about what method you are currently using to inject "newness" into your mundane activities. Is your technique genuinely effective, or is it merely "masking" a greater underlying need?

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