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Like I Care: Mussar and The Matrix

By: Rav Uri Cohen

Bart: Nothing you say can upset us. We’re the MTV generation.

Lisa: We feel neither highs nor lows.

Homer: Really? What’s it like?

Lisa [shrugging]: Ehh. . .<1>

Isn’t there something to be said for apathy? After all, “A rock feels no pain / and an island never cries.” What’s wrong with being “comfortably numb”?<2>

Actually, the Torah considers such numbness to be a sin and a curse. The last of the litany of sins we confess on Yom Kippur is “Al cheit shechatanu lefanekha betimhon levav.” The same phrase appears in the extended tokhachah (rebuke) that we recently read: “Hashem will strike you with insanity, blindness, and timhon levav” (Devarim 28:28). What exactly is timhon levav? It has been translated variously as “astonishment of the heart,” “dismay,” or “confusion.” But Rashi paraphrases “timhon levav” as “clogging of the heart” (otem halev). Just as cholesterol clogs the physical arteries and contributes to heart disease, so too apathy clogs the spiritual arteries and contributes to hardheartedness. This is indeed a sin and a curse.

The great ba’al mussar, Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, known affectionately as the Alter (“Old Man”) of Kelm, expands on Rashi with the metaphor of sleep:

Timhon levav is the closing off of the heart, as if a deep sleep overwhelms the person. It’s similar to when a person is put to sleep [with anesthesia] for purposes of an operation on one of his limbs. While he’s submerged in a deep sleep, he feels nothing when they cut into his flesh. So too when a person’s heart has been struck with “clogging of the heart,” he is stuck in a deep sleep and doesn’t wake up even if his life is in danger!<3>

Yes, there is something appealing about a life of neither highs nor lows, a life that is tranquil because of indifference. That’s why, in the film The Matrix, the traitor Cypher makes a deal with Agent Smith to get replugged into the matrix. But we intuitively understand that’s not what life is supposed to be about. As one philosopher comments on Cypher’s choice:

Yet to live a life of tranquility so understood rightly strikes us as barren, dry, uninspired, as forsaking precisely much that is of value in human life.<4>

What’s wrong with the matrix is what’s wrong with timhon levav: there is something spiritually dangerous about numbness, apathy, and sleeping through life. As the Zohar proclaims, “Woe to those who sleep with their eyes closed tight and do not know or see how they will get up for the Day of Judgment.”<5>

Waking up is a major theme in The Matrix. It starts with a message on a computer screen: “WAKE UP, NEO.” It ends with the song by Rage Against the Machine entitled “Wake Up!” In between, the main character wakes up in many different ways.<6> Interestingly, one of The Matrix’s writers and directors, Larry Wachowski, stated explicitly that this is what the movie is all about: “The idea of The Matrix is that it’s very easy to live an unexamined life. It’s very easy to not be aware of what’s going on . . . .”<7>

The ba’alei mussar would agree that our job is to wake up and become more aware of ourselves and our lives. But how do we wake up without a phone call from Neo? We listen to the shofar on Rosh HaShanah. According to the Rambam, the message of the shofar is:

Wake up, sleepers, from your sleep! Those in a deep sleep, get up from your deep sleep! Examine your actions, do teshuvah, and remember your Creator!<8>

If the matrix represents the unexamined life, then the antidote to the matrix is the shofar.

NOTES

 

1. The Simpsons, episode 9F09, “Homer’s Triple Bypass,” original airdate December 17, 1992.

2. Simon and Garfunkel, “I Am A Rock,” Sounds of Silence (1966 album); Pink Floyd, “Comfortably Numb,” The Wall (1979 album).

3. Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv (1824-1898), cited in Yalkut Lekach Tov, Devarim vol. 2, p. 97.

4. Charles L. Griswold, Jr., “Happiness and Cypher’s Choice: Is Ignorance Bliss?” in William Irwin, ed. The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real (Chicago: Open Court, 2002), p. 137.

5. Zohar, Lekh Lekha 77a. For the reference, I am indebted to Mois Navon, “The Matrix – A Mystical Modern Midrash,” Chidushei Torah@NDS, vol. 6 (2005), p. 45. http://www.chidusheitorah.com/sites/default/files/navon_1.pdf

6. “It’s instructive to notice how many times in the film Neo ‘wakes up’ – from sleep, from unconsciousness, or finally, at the end, from physical death. Waking up is a process.” See Chris Seay and Greg Garrett, The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in The Matrix (Colorado Springs: Piñon Press, 2003), p. 90.

7. Larry Wachowski, interviewed in Eric Harrison, “It’s Time for a Reality Check,” The Los Angeles Times, April 6, 1999. http://articles.latimes.com/1999/apr/06/entertainment/ca-24488/2

8. Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4.

 

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