The Torah repeatedly warns against submission to the “el zar.” El zar is usually translated as, “strange god,” but it can also mean, “god of estrangement.” The el zar is the force of disconnection and alienation.
As the great contemporary sage Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe writes:
“What a frightening force is the el zar, which transforms a person into being a stranger to himself, to others, and to his Creator – truly a stranger, without emotion, without understanding, without connection, without love!” [Alei Shor, p. 83]
The Force of Disconnection
The el zar or Force of Estrangement (F.O.E.) is counter juxtaposed to the true God, the God of oneness. The credo of Judaism, “God is one,” means something more profound than “one” in the sense of “not two or three.” God’s “oneness” is pure monism, the ultimate unification of everything in reality and beyond.
When it comes to spirituality, human beings are as binary as computers. At any given moment, a human being is either serving God by moving toward oneness or serving the F.O.E. by moving toward disconnection and estrangement.
When a husband and wife argue, the F.O.E. rejoices. When adult siblings become estranged from each other, the F.O.E. scores a victory. When co-workers gossip about each other, the F.O.E. smirks and rubs its hands. When different groups of Jews hurl invectives at one another, the F.O.E. dances in glee.
Of course, the F.O.E. itself is a creation of the One God, who, in granting human beings free choice, offers the polarities of good and evil, love and hate, connection and disconnection. Like everything else in creation (except for human beings), the F.O.E. is a servant of God, entirely under His control. God unleashed the F.O.E. in the world in order to maximize the free choice of human beings. The Talmud refers to this world as “olam yididut,” a world of closeness or intimacy, a world of relationship. The choice, however, between relationship and estrangement is entirely ours.
Jewish theology also calls the el zar the “evil inclination” and “the accuser” (in Hebrew, satan). It is a wily force, which disguises itself as righteous indignation, adherence to principles, and a multitude of other lofty claims. Whatever its costume, the F.O.E. can always be recognized by its effect: it creates distance.
A Scrooge-like repudiation of other people obviously destroys relationships. Sometimes, however, the F.O.E. comes disguised as relationship itself. Such “relationships” are really anti-relationships, for, in the process of forming a bond, they destroy a potentially closer bond.
For example, an adulterous liaison may look like a relationship, but it destroys the quintessential relationship, which is marriage. A parent who spends hours a week helping the local homeless, but has insufficient time for his or her own children is also partaking of an “anti-relationship.” (The average American teenager speaks seven minutes a day with his mother and five minutes a day with his father.)
It’s obvious that bad character traits such as anger, jealousy, and pride estrange a person from others. Rabbi Wolbe reveals that bad character traits also estrange a person from himself.
In The House of Mirrors
One who lacks positive relationships with other people is locked into a house of mirrors. These mirrors, however, are not the narcissistic reflecting glasses that treat an egotist to her favorite view: herself. Instead, they are like the “house of mirrors” (usually next to the “haunted house”) in an amusement park. They distort the image they reflect – this one short and fat, that one tall and skinny, and all of them wavy and warped. Bad character traits give a person a distorted image of herself, until she becomes as estranged from her true self as she is from others. This self-estrangement is most apparent with the trait of anger. After people calm down from an angry outburst, they often say, “I’m sorry. I lost myself.” This is literally true.
According to Rabbi Wolbe, the power of jealousy and pride to estrange one from oneself is more subtle. It works like this: Let’s say Susan is jealous of Marlene. She thinks, “Marlene is so thin, has a gorgeous house right out of Better Homes and Gardens, and always knows the right thing to say.” In focusing on Marlene’s advantages, Susan becomes oblivious to her own good points: her sense of humor, her affability, and her compassion. By seeing herself only in terms of what she lacks that others have, Susan acquires a distorted self-image. Jealousy has locked her into the house of mirrors.
Pride works in a similar fashion. If Elliot is swelled up with pride because he graduated with honors from Harvard Business School and succeeded in becoming the CFO of a Forbes 500 company just three years later, he is focusing on part of himself-his intelligence and business acumen. He is apt to be oblivious to many of his other qualities, such as his abruptness and stinginess. And he may blame his bad temper on the ineptitude of his co-workers. Clearly, Elliot does not know himself. The F.O.E. has him by the throat.
Across The Board
Rabbi Wolbe makes a startling revelation: A person who serves the F.O.E., the force of estrangement, will be disconnected consistently in all his relationships- with God, with other people, and with himself. According to Rabbi Wolbe’s principle of consistency in relationships, such a person’s piety and charity is not motivated by love (=giving), but by selfish interests.
The F.O.E. is vanquished by the development of good character traits. The more one practices (not just talks about) generosity, forgiveness, and love, the more one serves the God of Oneness. The result is improved relationships in all spheres. The essence of relationship is love, or, more accurately, ahava. While the Hebrew word ahava is translated as “love,” it literally means “I will give.” True love is giving. While a healthy relationship usually consists of mutual love or mutual giving, the contemporary insistence on mutuality (“I’ll make dinner if you do the dishes”) is the converse of love; it’s a symptom of mutual taking.
All human babies are born takers. To learn to love, or give, requires tremendous effort and dedication to spiritual growth. The optimum laboratory for such inner work is close relationships. Inner growth is both the prerequisite and the product of successful relationships.