Skeptic: If you're so smart, why ain't you so rich? If it's as simple as all that, why is it taking thousands of years for man to be convinced? If all we have to do is open our eyes to a truth which is staring us in the face, why hasn't it already happened? Maybe I'm blind, but is everyone else blind, too?

Believer: No, it's not as simple as all that. The truth is indeed staring us in the face, but the factors which are blinding us from fully perceiving it are formidable.

Skeptic: What happened to your "light and darkness" metaphor? Didn't you say that light is real, while darkness has no substance? That the moment a light is kindled, darkness fades away?

Believer: Certainly. Light is a positive force, while "darkness" is nothing, only the absence of light. This is why all the good that has been accomplished throughout the generations has an accumulative effect — each positive deed brings us that much closer to perfection, whereas evil is transitory and of no enduring significance. But that fact that darkness is insubstantial does not mean that it is not formidable. As long as it exists, the darkness which clouds our vision and distorts our priorities poses a difficult and complex challenge. Because this moral and spiritual blindness is deeply entrenched in human nature and behavior.

Skeptic: But as you see it, the world has already seen the light. The global consensus is against war, against hatred, against exploitation. So why is man still acting the way he does?

Believer: The Talmud has an axiom that says: "A prisoner cannot release himself from prison." This basic truth applies to every aspect of reality: in mathematics, an equation cannot amount to more than the sum total of its parts; in physics, a river cannot climb higher than its source; in philosophy, an argument is only as strong as the axioms it is based on; in psychology, the mind can relate to something only in the context of self. Etc., etc., etc. The bottom line is, no entity can transcend what it itself is

Everyone is for world peace. But within the miniature universe that is man, "world wars" are raging all the while: conflicts between mind and heart, between conviction and habit, between spiritual aspirations and material wants. We fluctuate between self-interest and our moral conscious, between indulgences of the moment and our long term goals. How can we hope to create an harmonious universe if we are forever battling our own selves?

Skeptic: You know, I'm afraid that behind the philosophical sheen that coats your words lurks a self-righteous preacher, lambasting lust and greed as the undoing of humanity. You're assuming that man's base and selfish drives are what stand in the way of a better world. But I don't think that we can be so quick as to do away with them — they might prove to be not quite as dispensable as you would like to think.

Believer: Why do you say so?

Skeptic: Earlier, you referred to the collapse of communism as an example of the ultimate supremacy of right over might. But do not forget that there is another side to the story — the economic side. Obviously, we would like to pride ourselves with the notion that we won the Cold War on moral grounds; but in the view of many sociologists, it was more a matter of economics than ideology. The undoing of communism was not so much its G- dlessness, its violations of human rights or its corruption of power, as its inability to function economically!

In terms of natural resources, the Soviet Union was arguably the richest country in the world. It had the agricultural capacity to sustain half the world! So why was it unable to feed its own people? Because it had neutralized the most powerful — if not the only — incentive that drives the human animal to do anything: the drive for self advancement.

On paper, communism is beautiful — almost messianic in its idealism and perfection. Everyone giving it their all for the common good. Each contributing according to his abilities and receiving according to his needs. No greed, no jealousy, no exploitation. What selflessness! Compare this with capitalism or even socialism — everyone grabbing as much as they can for themselves, slaving and flattering and bullying their way to the top, all for the sake of satisfying their vanity and material appetites (and if the sight of human suffering makes the capitalist somewhat uncomfortable, he allows society to place some minor curbs on his greed and to provide a "safety net" for its victims...)

And yet, as our experience has undeniably shown, a system which runs contrary to the "base and animalistic" drives of man just won't work. No one will do anything. Worse still, it becomes the environment in which the most horrendous atrocities are committed in the name of the highest ideals. On the other hand, a society such as ours, in which the dominant elements are individuality and self- interest, is the soil in which justice and equality may take root and flourish, albeit imperfectly.

Your holy books might not agree with this, but, ultimately, "lust and greed" is what drives the machinery of civilized existence.

Believer: Let me tell you a story that is related in the Talmud. Once, the sages of Israel decided to make an all-out effort to eliminate the evil inclination. They all gathered at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and fasted for three days and three nights, praying that the world be cleansed of its animalistic nature.

G‑d acquiesced to their request. The evil inclination, in the form of a lion of fire, was handed over to them as their captive. For three days it was held in a cage of lead. The result? The world ground to a halt. Men and women felt no inclination to marry. Chickens stopped laying eggs. No one showed up for work in the morning. So instead of killing the lion, as originally planned, the sages blinded it in one eye and set it free.

Skeptic: That's exactly my point: there is no escaping our basic natures. So all this talk of a selfless utopia is not only a naive fantasy — it is a dangerous one as well. We basically have two choices. We can try to suppress the animal in man, as many authoritarian regimes and ideologies have attempted to do, with disastrous results. Or, we can accept our limitations. We can accept that man will always act in self-interest, and respect each other's right to do so. We can accept that there will always be injustice and suffering in the world, and seek to minimize it.

Believer: So that's all we can do — seek to lessen evil?

Skeptic: What other approach is there? How else would you deal with the human ego without throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

Believer: What you say is correct if we assume that there is no more to the human "I" than meets the eye. That the "self" is intrinsically selfish. I disagree. I believe that there is a higher ego implicit in the quest for self-fulfillment which so dominates our lives.

Chassidic teaching explains our moral schizophrenia in terms of two souls which each of us possesses: the "animal soul" (nefesh habehamit) and the "G‑dly soul" (nefesh ho'elokit). The animal soul is the essence of physical life: it focuses exclusively on self, its every act and desire motivated by the quest for self-fulfillment and self-enhancement. The G‑dly soul is its diametric opposite: it is driven not by ego and self-interest but by a quest for self-transcendence and self-negation.

The G‑dly soul is like a small flame set beside a great fire: the flame incessantly pulls towards the fire, seeking to be drawn in and consumed by the fire's greater being. Were the flame's desire to be realized, it would cease to exist as a distinct entity; nevertheless, such is the nature of the flame. Similarly, "the soul of man is the lamp of G‑d" (Proverbs 20:27). Although the basic nature of every created entity, including man's own animal soul, is to tend towards self-preservation and self-advancement, man also possesses another, higher self: a soul that is a "lamp of G‑d." A soul whose very "I" is defined as the desire to shed its identity and be nullified within its infinite source.

So while the Animal soul seeks the fulfillment of self, the G‑dly Soul gravitates to its Divine source, striving to be fulfill the purpose of its creation and thereby connect to the all-pervading reality of G‑d. As both these souls have the same brain, heart, hands, etc. at their disposal, this makes for the perpetual struggle of life: the struggle between substance and spirit, between self-assertion and self-nullification. Any thought, desire, or act of man stems from either of his two souls, depending upon which has gained mastery over the other and is asserting itself through the person's behavior...

Skeptic: Excuse me for interrupting you, but this sounds like your basic religious theology — the old dichotomy between good and evil, the cosmic struggle between G‑d and Satan...

Believer: Not exactly — remember that Judaism sees evil as a non-entity, akin to the non-phenomenon of darkness. So obviously evil is not a counter force to good, only the (temporary) concealment thereof. Notice that I said nothing about evil, only a bout self versus selflessness...

Skeptic: But aren't you saying that selfishness is the source of all evil?

Believer: Yes, selfishness is often the source of evil, but it can also serve as the source for good. Left to its own devices, the self-oriented drives of man tend to the most immediate and superficial of gratifications, to the utter disregard of any one or anything else — even his own long-term good. But when the G‑dly soul dominates the mind with its perception of the Divine truth, the animal soul is also affected. The "selfishness" in man can then be refined and re-directed as a positive force.

Moses described the education of the animal soul when he exhorted the people of Israel "to love the Lord your G‑d... for He is your life" (Deut. 30:20). The animal soul loves its own life. When it recognizes that "He is your life" — that G‑d is the source and sustainer of its very being — its entire perception changes. The very same ego that craved the most base and material of pleasures is now drawn to attach itself to the Almighty, out of the realization that such an attachment would constitute the ultimate enhancement and perfection of self. So it will devote itself to the fulfillment of the Divine purpose for creation, sacrificing its present material expressions of selfhood for the promise of a higher and more fulfilling existence

This, to me, is the meaning of the Talmud's story about the attempted assassination of the "evil inclination." The objective must be not to kill the ego, but to temper its extremes so that its essence may be revealed and re-directed; to strip away its external, negative expressions and uncover the positive force at its core.

In the quest for material gain, men and nations may (and inevitably will) clash over conflicting interests. But when humanity uncovers its true self, the pursuit of self-fulfillment becomes a harmonious endeavor. For while each one of us has his own unique mission in life, these are all complimentary parts of the overall Divine plan.

Skeptic: But haven't you contradicted your own premise? If nothing can transcend itself, how can man, whose soul, as you point out, is comprised of conflicting drives and desires, unify his splintered self? Is not man, too, like the prisoner who cannot free himself?

Believer: My whole point is that, ultimately, these drives aren't truly conflicting. That's why I gave you that whole speech about the "G‑dly soul" and the "animal soul." True, the animal soul is selfish while the G‑dly soul is utterly selfless; but when properly guided and directed, the selfish animal in man strives for the very same goals as does his G‑dly self.

In other words, man is a "prisoner" who, in some deep secret place, holds the key that opens the gates of his cell. Nevertheless, until he accesses this key and use it, we cannot reach beyond the limitations of his present condition. So as long as we have not harmonized our conflicting drives within, we cannot hope to bring true and enduring peace to the world without.

Skeptic: You still haven't solved the problem of disharmony within the human soul. You still have a human being who is polarized between altruism and transcendence on the one hand, and an "animalistic" drive for self-fulfillment on the other — albeit a "kosher" animalistic drive for self-fulfillment.

Believer: But that's what harmony is! The co-existence and integration of diverse elements. Beauty is rarely to be found in a single color, a single note of music, or a single syllable of literature; it is the synthesis of contrasting elements that makes the picture, the symphony or the poem harmonious and beautiful. Similarly, the very essence of life is the tension between the personal "I" and the cosmic "we," between immanence and transcendence, between self and self-negation.

This is also reflected on the physical level: look at to and fro of life — the contraction and expansion of the heartbeat, the intake and expulsion of breath — and you will behold the vacillation from being to nullity and back again.

But this tension itself can be a source of harmony, when these opposite tendencies become the diverse motivations to a common end. When both the animal and G‑dly souls devote themselves to the same goal, each for its own reasons — the G‑dly soul to be drawn and nullified within the all-embracing Divine reality, and the animal soul to gain the ultimate in self- fulfillment and self-realization.

The same is true of the harmonious world of Moshiach. It is not a world of seamless homogenity. If perfection, on the human level, were to come in one flavor, the Messianic Era could be populated by a single human being who is the ultimate realization of man as created in the image of G‑d. Who needs another six billion of the same thing?

The world of Moshiach is the same world we live in today. It is a world comprised of differences and contrasts: male and female, intellectuals and sensualists, scientists and artists, etc., etc. But when each individual and element has attained its most perfect and ultimate state, diversity will not be the instrument of conflict but of harmony.

Skeptic: You're making the prospect of a perfected world seem even more hopeless than I say it is. If man has to wait until he achieves inner harmony and perfection before attempting to improve matters on the global scale, the human race would not survive long enough to allow him to do so...