Jewish tradition proposes that there are three lights that illuminate the world:
1. Or Bereishit – the light of creation
2. Or Sinai – the light of revelation
3. Or Mashiach – the light of redemption.
Typically, mystics engage in Or Bereishit, and therefore this light can be left out of the intellectual history of time for the moment. The competing lights that will be discussed are Or Sinai and Or Mashiach: one light pulls us back and one light pulls us forward.
I think that what is so unique and meaningful about the Jewish religion is that while we keep creation and revelation burning brightly and strong, we are focused primarily on redemption. Theologically, we are focused on cultivating and taking the light of Or Bereishit and Or Sinai. We then utilize these lights to ultimately move us toward Or Mashiach – a redeemed soul, a redeemed Torah, a redeemed society, and a redeemed G-d, so to speak.
For many Jews, the idea of modernity runs counter to our tradition, our livelihood, or even worse, our religion’s very survival. However, to be “modern” does not mean that that we are situated in the present – that perspective is reactive and reveals a potentially short-sighted religiosity. To be modern means that we are situating ourselves in the future – at the forefront of social change and paradigm shifts guided by Torah and fueled by Or Mashiach.
Traditionally, Jewish thinkers embraced the idea of yeridat hadorot, that man has been in descent since revelation and that we have been rendered impotent. Yet even if this idea is embraced, there is still some virtue in being a small and impotent, but still elevated, people (i.e., “midgets on the shoulders of giants”).
Religion and its tradition primarily situated in the past can give birth to a comfortable religious stagnancy and instill an exclusionary spirit in the people. This enables one to simply retreat from modernity into the ghetto. The brilliant Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once taught, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” In a similar vein, Oliver Wendell Holmes, the great Supreme Court Justice, once admonished a young colleague that “it is required [that you] share the passion and action of [your] time at the peril of being judged not to have ever lived.” We must leave our comfort zone to engage in our time and strive for a better future.
In the fifth century BCE, Protagoras led the philosophical transition from focus on the universe toward focus on human values. This monumental shift in philosophical thinking and understanding helped set the intellectual stage for important philosophers such as Socrates and Plato to explore eternal truths, including virtue, justice, and the nature of human experience. Protagoras was responsible for a paradigm shift that proved crucial for the development of intellectual history and character development. Since the Era of the Enlightenment, however, we have swung too far toward individualism, while neglecting the import of collectivism and our individual responsibility to society and the world in general. Today, we must work to interweave the two more deeply and meaningfully: a focus on the meta-picture (the cosmos, universe, globe, nation, society) from the perspective of the individual.
In Carl Stern’s interview with Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel (NBC-TV on Sunday, February 4, 1972), Rabbi Heschel said:
I would say, let them remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can, everyone, do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all the frustrations and all disappointments. And above all, remember that the meaning of life is to build a life as if it were a work of art. You’re not a machine. And you are young. Start working on this great work of art called your own existence.
When we focus on redemption, we are stirred to remember our true significance that every little action we take has an effect that matters. One of the great tragedies of the human condition is that millions of people live honest and earnest lives filled with love and dedicated to the service of others, but pass from the world never fully appreciating their own greatness and holiness, since they don’t fit within our society’s current definition of “hero,” nor did these people ever seek accolades for doing what they simply considered to be the right thing. Societally, we can keep a high standard for excellence while concurrently supporting and honoring those who contribute to the true betterment of our society by serving others. All of us are unique and blessed with ideas, gifts, skills, and feelings that we can contribute to making the world a better place, and our uniqueness means that our contribution is one that no one else can make!
About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the executive director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the founder & president of Uri L’Tzedek, the founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of books on Jewish ethics, most recently “The Soul of Jewish Social Justices.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”
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