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Bold Vision Realized, One Step At A Time
Human beings are blessed with the ability to see. Our vision encompasses that which we can literally see, and that which is beyond our scope. The latter vision requires imagination, challenging us to create new paradigms. That, in part, is the mission of Judaism and the Hebrew Bible, to help us visualize a moral universe.
Yet such a grand, elevated mission lives in tension with visualizing vastness. It's the challenge the late Carl Sagan dealt with in helping us to grasp the (literally) astronomical scale of the solar system. Given the vast scale, Sagan knew that the human brain simply could not assimilate such numbers. For example, the Earth is about 8,000 miles in diameter and 93,000,000 miles from the Sun. For most of us mortals, these numbers really aren't helpful in giving us a sense of the distances involved. To honor Sagan's contribution to understanding the inaccessible, the hard to imagine, designers brought the scale down to Earth. They created a model five billion times smaller than the real thing. This way, you can walk the solar system in Ithaca. You can stroll from one planet to the next, and really get a sense of their size and distances from one another and relationship to the sun. You can visualize the solar system without being overwhelmed by it. In fact, the model literally places you in the middle of it. Like Judaism and Torah it places humanity in a central role.
Take the radical biblical vision, for example, "You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants." (Leviticus 25:10). Our ancestors, divinely inspired, knew that freedom is not a privilege but the birthright of every human being. That's visualizing vastness. Our ancestors, along with a vision of the world as it should be, were grounded in the realities of the world as it is. They recognized that slow pace of human progress would be eclipsed by the enormous vision of a world without slavery. Better therefore, to make strides toward the liberty, than gain nothing at all.
Age has a way of putting idealism in perspective. It has for me. Of course, I wish that the Hebrew Bible would have abolished slavery altogether. Yet, even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who drew inspiration from the Hebrew Bible, recognized that, " The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." And bend it does in Torah. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks sums up, "Every seventh day, slaves were granted rest and a taste of freedom. In the seventh year, Israelite slaves were set free. If they chose otherwise, they were released in the Jubilee year. During their years of service, they were treated like employees. They were not to be subjected to backbreaking or spirit-crushing labor. Everything dehumanizing about slavery was forbidden. Yet slavery itself was not banned."
Like Sagan's solar system model, whose scale is an accommodation to human comprehension, so too does Torah live in the world of human nature. Surely, an omnipotent God could eradicate slavery in a heartbeat. Yet the moral universe envisioned by Torah, is one in which humanity grows to make elevated choices; choice that reflect the goodness of God. The great medieval rabbinic sage, Maimonides, said as much in The Guide for the Perplexed. Such changes in human nature, like all processes in nature, are gradual; radical social transformation requires time.
Proverbs tells us, "Without a vision a people perish." That is true for us as Jews as Americans. Drawing from the grand vision of the Hebrew Bible, the founders of our nascent United States chose the words, "You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants," on the Liberty Bell prominently exhibited in Independence Hall in Philadelphia. God-willing, as a Jews and Americans, we, one step at a time, move closer to the realizing the vast vision proclaimed by our ancestors, that rings in our ears today.
Rabbi John Linder