Sinai: 3316 Years Ago and Today
3316 years ago an event took place that changed the world forever and offers us a crucial lesson in our time. That event defined a vision for life – the very thing that we are sorely missing today.
With all the gifts we were blessed with, our freedoms, our prosperity, our high standard of living, we lack the most important ingredient of all: a vision for the future.
The paradox is this: Generations past, when tyrants ruled and oppression was the norm, the difficulties of life helped crystallize our beliefs. Our adversaries force us to hold on to some vision, to some dream for a better future, or else our spirit would have been annihilated. In truth, this may have not been a real vision for the future as much as a yearning that helped people get through their hardships. Indeed, back then they did not have the luxury to spend time defining a vision for the future. When you’re running for your life you can’t be waxing eloquent with visionary aspirations.
But today, with all our success and opportunities, the biggest question, both individually and collectively, lingers: Where are we headed?
Can you, can anyone answer this question today?
This is what true leadership is all about: the ability to present a visionary approach to life, one that offers us hope, direction and focus. Do we have any such leader today?
The most efficient operation of all, more than any corporation, is war. Why? Because in war we have a tangible, clearly defined enemy. That clarity creates powerful focus and goals, more than any business plan could ever proffer. War also creates a compelling sense of urgency: The stakes are stark and high – life and death. A war with no cause – Vietnam is an excellent contemporary case in point – can never be won.
Peacetime does not offer us the same clarity. When you have no defined enemy that you are fighting against, what do you stand for? What drives you? What challenge do you need to overcome?
The Jewish people are a perfect example of this phenomenon. Embedded in the psyche of many Jews today is a profound paranoia. Centuries of persecution have defined the driving engine of this people. We always had an enemy that defined our identity. But what identity emerges when we have no enemy? We know what we must do when we are under attack. But what guides us when we are free?
This problem lies at the heart of the present crisis in Israel. Glaringly lacking is a vision and sense of direction. The leadership in Israel has been rendered into firefighters, extinguishing blaze after blaze. But beyond immediate damage control, what vision and direction does Israeli leadership offer? No country can afford not to have vision and direction, especially one under attack.
As sad as it is, Muslims often sound more persuasive about their right over Jerusalem than do our Israeli brothers and sisters. They have passion, cause, direction. They are ready to die or it. As misguided as it may be, it is compelling. What compelling vision do we offer in return?
Zionism, as many isms before it, offered a powerful cause: After years of persecution, after the Holocaust, come join us as we rebuild our homeland. Let us plant vineyards, let us plow the land – let us turn the desert into a metropolis, and Jewish home. This calling spoke to the hearts of thousands. It elicited the pioneering spirit of the early settlers of the land.
Many causes before it did the same. All revolutions – the American, the French, the Russian – were driven by a common enemy, by a common challenge, which when mobilized turned into a force for powerful change. The definition of revolution is a strong or radical change to an existing system, the overthrow of a previous regime or paradigm. But is revolution possible when there is no defined adversary?
We know what to do in times of crisis. We have the “Anti Defamation League” and other “anti” entities; but what do we stand for when we have no enemy or crisis?
This is the presenting challenge of our times. Amplified especially in Israel, where there is an enemy, yet no vision.
After years and years of putting out fires, we have become masters of defense. And indeed, we may even have lost our vision of the future, due to years of neglecting – or not needing – to focus on a vision. Modern prosperity has contributed to creating a reverie of complacency, which paralyzes us when we are rudely awakened.
Our current condition has resulted in three type of Jews:
1/ Religious Jews driven by observance. If you ask them about the secular world, many would answer: we don’t care about the world. Our job is to build strong, religious families and communities. They have a vision, but in most cases their vision is localized, even provincial.
2/ Jews driven by cultural, humanitarian causes, civil rights, social activism and other noble ventures. Some of these causes may be global ones.
3/ The majority that are driven by neither, and don’t have an idea what it means to be Jewish, except as defined by anti-Semitism or in times of crisis when Jews are under attack.
In a recent interview, financier Michael Steinhardt, who has poured tens of millions of dollars into efforts to preserve Judaism for the next generations, stated his disappointment. He feels that the $40 million he has so far given for Jewish survival has not accomplished its goals. Makor, Birthright and other programs he helped finance have all achieved good things – but they have not seriously impacted the secular young Jews as he intended. They have not changed anything in a fundamental way.
Many Jewish philanthropists are plagued by this problem. They want to have a serious plan to address Jewish continuity, or as some call it today, Jewish renaissance (which implies positive growth, and not just the opposite of possible extinction implied in the word “continuity”). They are terrified of the “religious” solution – either because of its narrow agenda, fed by the limited attitudes of many orthodox Jews, or basic distrust of religion (for many good reasons), or simply their own ambivalence regarding G-d and faith.
Instead they opt for a secular solution, which suffers from an equally compelling problem: It is diluted at its core. It may have good intentions and even produce positive results. But for all its universal qualities it lacks power. Indeed, its universal scope seems to be dependent on diluting spiritual passion and absolute drive toward a clearly defined destination.
So what we have is one of two options: Either narrow religiosity, which may have passion and commitment, but lacks universal appeal and global objectives. Or we have a universal, non-denominational, non-sectarian approach, embracing people of all backgrounds, but lacking in return a passionate and driven focus.
What they are looking for, in truth, is: Vision – a spiritual vision for the future.
And this, I humbly submit, is a third option – which is the true nature of Torah and Judaism as given to us at Sinai 3316 years ago (the theme of this week’s Torah portion).
Torah and Judaism is not “religious” in the conventional, stereotypical sense of the word. It is not just for a certain group of Jews and it is not merely a technical system of do’s and don’ts. More than anything else, it offers the entire universe a vision – a vision of how life can and should be lived to its fullest.
At Sinai G-d gave the universe a Torah, which is not just a book for religious Jews. The Torah is a universal owner’s manual for all aspects of life. Indeed, the Midrash calls Torah an architect’s blueprint, which the Cosmic Architect used to create the universe. He then gave it to us as companion as how best to live our lives.
G-d, who is neither Jewish nor non-Jewish gave all His Divine creatures His Divine mandate and blueprint how to live the most meaningful life possible. The Torah’s universal vision is for all people, of all backgrounds, Jews and non-Jews, believer or not.
And what is this vision?
Briefly, the Torah tells us:
Your quintessential personality is Divine. You were created in the Divine Image and your mission is to allow your soul to express itself through your body, and spiritualize your material corner of the universe.
Each of us is charged with certain “mitzvot,” obligations and connections, that allow us to refine and spiritualize our lives and our surroundings. You are charged with a Divine mission to use all you skills, your personality, your opportunities to take the material world and use it for higher, spiritual ends.
And you have this choice every moment of your day: In every one of your encounters, interactions and experiences you have two choices: You will either use this moment only for personal, selfish gain or you will use it also for a higher cause that benefits others, the world and G-d.
Ok, but this a vision for all times, when we face enemies or not. What unique vision does the Torah offer us TODAY, for the future that lays ahead?
Well, let’s go back to last week’s article, where I cited some authors who explain the great contribution of the Jewish people to the world. The Jews, they write, gave us a new vision of men and women with unique destinies. The Torah teaches us a vision that life has purpose and progresses forward toward a destination. History has a beginning and is guided by Divine Providence for a purpose. Everything in creation is suffused with reason. This vision, as they write, would thousands of years later inspire the Declaration of Independence and our hopeful belief in progress and the sense that tomorrow can be better than today.
In the words of John Adams:
“I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation…. They are the most glorious Nation that ever inhabited the earth… They have given religion to three-quarters of the Globe and have influenced the affairs of Mankind more, and more happily than any other Nation, ancient or modern… [even if I were an atheist] I should believe that chance had ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization.”
So what would Adams say today? – It’s sad that we need to turn to him for an answer, but hey, we get it wherever we can. His answer would be: Look into your own Torah and you’ll have your answer.
Freedom and prosperity create a stage where the Divine vision of life can finally be realized. The Torah tells us that the vision of the future is a world that will be filled with Divine knowledge as the waters cover the sea. A world where material activities will simply be a means to spiritual gains. Today we invest our time, energy and resources to primarily achieve personal gain and profit. Days are coming when that same investment will be driven by spiritual goals that unite the planet and all its inhabitants.
So, in generations past the Torah vision of life created civilization. Yet, due to oppression the vision was not fully implemented. Today, as freedom reigns, we can finally bring revolution to the world. The vision for today is that because the world is a freer place we can now search out and embrace the true vision for life.
Days are coming, we are told, when every person on this earth will recognize that he or she is unique and indispensable in the Divine plan. Each of us a necessary musical note in the large cosmic composition. We need each other to play the music together.
Christain, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, whatever name or title you give a person – every one of us, regardless of background, has this mission, and we must live up to it and help each other reach that place.
The unprecedented prosperity of our times – the freedoms and opportunities – have in some ways eliminated the common enemy. But they have also set the stage for a world where we can use these gifts as tools to achieve spiritual transformation.
Days are coming when we see our present prosperity and accelerating technology as a Divine gift to change the world in which we live.
And if you need it, we DO have a common enemy today as well. The enemy’s name is complacency. It is not an adversary from without, but one from within.
Years of oppression, followed by modern affluence have allowed us to wander away from our greatest need aspiration of all – a life in pursuit of purpose and vision.
3316 years ago at Sinai this vision was established loud and clear. One powerful thing of the Sinai vision is that despite the fact that the Jewish people had just left 210 years of Egyptian oppression, they did not define themselves by their oppressors. They received a vision of life that was independent of their circumstances. Therein lies the power of a vision: It is self-standing and independent, originating and connected to a higher place – not defined by conditions around us.
People who held onto the Sinai vision were never fundamentally shaken or affected by even the most difficult challenges. No adversary, no enemy, no persecution could shake someone who had a vision for the future – a vision of a time when there would be no more war and hatred, a time of peace and unity, a time when we could access the deepest recesses of our soul.
Yet, one could argue that their oppression fed their faith. Had they not had a clearly defined enemy, they would not have that crystallized focus. Today, our challenge is to access the vision without the enemy attacking from without.
So, where will this vision come from? Will new leaders arise? Or will it perhaps emerge in a grass roots awakening?
One thing is for sure: If you recognize the vacuum you are well on your way to discovering the vision. We cannot afford to wait for someone else to inspire us; we need to be visionaries in our own right.
Life today can often appear aimless. What is even worse is that many of us don’t seem very perturbed by that fact. We have many ways to keep ourselves distracted.
But can an honest person really live a life with no deeper direction or destination in sight? What are the consequences of life with no vision for the future?
People have always responded when presented with a vision, with a dream, with hope.
3316 years ago G-d gave us a vision for life. Are we ready to embrace it?
Can we afford not to?