November/December 2017 ~ Cheshvan/Kislev/Tevet ~ Vol. 5778
As winter encroaches, my thoughts and dreams transition to finding warmth and hope, to finding those fleeting moments of light, in the mystical. And towards this, I turn to the great mystic, scholar, and
social reformer, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, May His Memory Be A Blessing. Heschel so brilliantly can help us to understand the nature of the world in which we live, and the role that the Jewish tradition has assigned to us within this world.
Heschel challenges us to imagine the universe prior to Creation, where all that existed was God. And in order to create the world, God performed an intentional act of Tzim-Tzum, self-contraction. God literally contracted Him/Herself, thereby allowing the space for our world to be created. Then God placed the Shechinah, God’s indwelling, the Divine presence, within this world, which ultimately proved unable to contain the GodSelf. The world, the first Creation, burst, and in a cataclysmic moment, those sparks of God were hurled together to form our current world.
From the standpoint of this metaphor, the universe is broken, and God, in the very act of creating the world, chose to limit Divine perfection. God, therefore, needs human beings to repair our world, to gather up the sparks of Divine Holiness that are scattered throughout creation, a Tikkun Olam.
This audacious myth, Heschel points out throughout his writings, asserts that God is in need of each of us if holiness is to be achieved in the world. That our human actions have cosmic import. That the very presence of God in the world is dependent upon how you and I act in our everyday lives. That at the very core of the Jewish tradition is the notion that there is holiness in the world and that we are all responsible, accountable to God, for having such holiness realized.
Heschel taught that we tend to read the Torah looking for mighty acts that God does. All the while, we are not seeing that God is waiting for human beings to take action, that God needs His children to take care of each other. “Zeus loves women; God loves widows,” he wrote. Do you want to love me? God asks, then love the way I love. Love who I love. Love those who are the hardest to love… the stranger, the vulnerable, those who are different, those who just don’t fit in. The ultimate moral test of a community is to include those who have been downtrodden and forbidden to speak, to give them, and therefore all of us, a voice, dignity.
At the same time, Heschel understood and presented with radical honesty that there is so much healing that is beyond our reach, even if we’re commanded to try and achieve it. And so, he reminded us of our great Sages from the Talmud. Through them, a wisdom tradition formulated over two thousand years ago; we are embraced, assured, and protected. Our lives, they tell us from across the generations, are too short. The day is long and the work is great, and we’re not commanded to finish the work, but neither are we allowed to desist from it. “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hivatel
mimena” – “You are not expected to complete the task, but neither are you free to avoid it.” (Rabbi Tarfon,Pirkei Avot 2:21)