The world, as we know it, is an illusion; true reality is much deeper than we know in our existence. The only reality is what is always present, the presence that exists in any location, any time, and any situation. While religion steers us to grasp deeper levels to existence, it is also a guide that allows people to embrace the concrete illusion while allowing us to transcend it.
There have been a few individuals who have managed to live in the realms of sky and earth. One of them was Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a force behind twentieth century Jewish renewal. I recall a moment several years ago when I was immersed in a very intense campaign. I represented an Orthodox stance on a major issue and other denominational leaders stood in slightly different positions. Reb Zalman called me. I was on a bus so I couldn’t hear him so well but he kept repeating “Achdus Yisrael! Achdus Yisrael!” (We need Jewish Unity). There was such a spiritual fervency and richness to his advocacy. It felt as though he neither wanted to hear nor be heard, but rather to have a meeting inside of a concept, a gathering within a value.
Each person should strive to be a tzaddik, a wise soul, living both in the ideal world but also in this broken world, in the mundane and the holy, in the weekday and the Sabbath. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz wrote:
In Jewish thought, the holy person is known as a tzaddik –a word with many connotations. The Talmud describes one whose conduct is in accord with religious tradition as a tzaddik. Over time, the term has come to mean someone larger than life, a human being with a truly sublime presence. As the seminal work in Chabad Chasidut, the Tanya, tells us, for the tzaddik, spiritual and worldly desires are all connected with the divine (My Rebbe, 2).
This requires enormous discipline. Even more, a shift in perception is required. Martin Buber explained:
To Hasidism, the true meaning of life is revealed in the deed. Here, even more distinctly and profoundly than in early Christianity, what matters is not what is being done, but the fact that every act is carried out in sanctity – that is, with God-oriented intent – is a road to the heart of the world. There is nothing that is evil in itself; every passion can become a virtue, every inclination a “vehicle of God” (On Judaism, 47-48).
What is remarkable about the Jewish path toward illumination is that it is both public and private; collective yet intimate. Before going out, we must turn in. Our holy interior is often where we find our greatest fears, imperfections, pains, and struggles. Consider Leonard Cohen’s words “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” Those cracks in us provide real possibility for illumination.
Once we have the self-awareness and humility to see ourselves, understand ourselves, and control ourselves, we can engage in public leadership. We will start to notice that the opportunities to do good will start landing before us constantly. Then there is only one option: mitzvah ha-ba le-yadcha—if a mitzvah fall into your hand, seize it (Mechilta, Bo).
The Jewish path is unique because Jews are so strong in our convictions, yet still so open to other views. Consider Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ explanation:
Moral truths are absolute but not universal. They are covenantal, meaning we are called to live them out, not in the same way, but each culture and faith in its own way. God reaches out to us as Jews, asking us to be true to the covenant of Sinai, bringing the Divine presence into the world through the lives we lead, the relationships we form, the homes we build, the communities we create, and the ideals we pass on to those we bring into the world. Ours is not the only way to live, but it is the Jewish way – the particular example that illustrates the general rule that you can be different and yet human, strangers and yet the beloved children of God. I know of no other faith that has taught this principle so clearly, so consistently, so courageously. The Jewish people in its very being constitutes a living protest against a world of hated, violence and war – the world of the palace in flames (Letter in the Scroll, 97)
Our thought cannot remain in the realm of the theoretical. There needs to be action Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik understood the importance of modern leadership but he also may have relegated the majority of Jewish thought to the abstract realm in a way that held Modern Orthodoxy back:
The foundation of foundation and the pillar of halakhic thought is not the practical ruling but the determination of the theoretical Halakhah. Therefore, many of the greatest halakhic men avoided and still avoid serving in rabbinical posts. They rather join themselves to the group of those who are reluctant to render practical decisions. And if necessity – which is not to be decried – compels them to disregard their preference and to render practical decisions, this is only a small, insignificant responsibility which does not stand at the center of their concerns. The theoretical Halakhah, not the practical decision, the ideal creation, not the empirical one, represent the longing of halakhic man (Halakhic Man, 24).
The stakes are high in this life. We can’t merely seek the calm and quiet path but must rather pursue the path toward the ultimate good. In Hobbes’ Leviathan, the end goal is peace not justice. The pursuit is not toward the good or just society as Plato or Aristotle would have it but rather to society order that stops the blood-shed. Can we shoot for more than a less violent world?
Today, we must reawaken ourselves to seek out our inner greatness: accepting challenges, failures, pains, and struggles to live in the real world and fight for a better world while keeping our eyes on the dream of utopia, the vision of our ancestors of a redeemed world. Each of us has the potential for greatness. Further, each of us is mandated to unlock our inner potential to let our light flourish and help bring redemption.
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 seven books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”