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!
Those blessed with the gift of higher education and the power that comes with knowledge must play a more significant role in the creation of a more just society. Passivity in the face of immorality and injustice has played a terrible and significant factor in the descent and impotence of man. As the philosopher Richard Rorty concluded:
The Foucauldian academic left in contemporary America is exactly the sort of left that the oligarchy dreams of, a left whose members are so busy unmasking the present that they have no times to discuss what laws need to be passed in order to create a better future.
Let us reject the academic Ivory Tower and use our knowledge to perfect G-d’s creation as we seek out Or Mashiach. The power that comes with light can cause one to misunderstand and misperceive his or her own greatness. From Berakhot 7a:
It has been taught: “God is angered every day.” (Psalms 7:12) … [And when is He angry?] A baraita was taught in the name of R’ Meir, “When the sun shines [in the morning] and all the kings of the East and West place their crowns on their heads and bow to the sun, HaKadosh Baruch Hu immediately becomes angry. “
We all have unique gifts to share that are made all the more powerful when we are illuminated with the Divine light. However, the prerequisite for being shone on with Divine light is the understanding of the source of our energy and success; and to achieve this understanding requires that we strive with all our might to learn, and that this endeavor is made with the humility it so requires.
Let us take to heart the understanding that we were endowed with Or Bereishit, blessed with Or Sinai, and that now it is our duty to seek Or Mashiach through the spiritual and actual cultivation of the light that is within us all. Judaism is unique in its situational balance between the past and future, leading many among us to seek the comfort of the past and resist the responsibility that comes with being a modern people. We must not act in such a fashion. Me must embrace our identity as a people blessed with incredible tradition, and utilize the knowledge, spiritual revelation, and ethical obligations that come from our past to make the world we inhabit presently a more holy and just place not only for ourselves but for all forms of life. This is our duty – this is how we seek Or Mashiach.
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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