Think about this. Long before the West, the Chinese had invented ink, paper, printing, porcelain manufacture, the compass, gunpowder, and many other technologies.
But they failed to develop a scientific revolution, an industrial revolution, a market economy, and a free society. Why did they get so far and then stop?
The historian Christopher Dawson argued that it was the religion of the West that made the difference. Alone among the civilizations of the world, Europe “has been continually shaken and transformed by an energy of spiritual unrest.” He attributed this to the fact that “its religious ideal has not been the worship of timeless and changeless perfection but a spirit that strives to incorporate itself in humanity and to change the world.”
“To change the world” is the key phrase. The idea that together with God we can change the world and make history – and not just be made by it – was born when God told Moses that he and his contemporaries were about to see an aspect of God no one had ever seen before.
I still find that a spine-tingling moment when each year we read Va’eira and recall the moment history was born, the moment God entered history and taught us for all time that slavery, oppression and injustice are not written into the fabric of the cosmos and engraved into the human condition. Things can be different because we can be different – because God has shown us how.
Adapted from “Covenant & Conversation,” a collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem (www.korenpub.com), in conjunction with the Orthodox Union.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth since 1991, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Koren Sacks Rosh HaShana Mahzor” (Koren Publishers Jerusalem).