“And He said: it is not enough that you should be My servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and return the survivors of Israel; I will also make you a light of nations, to be My salvation to the farthest reaches of the world.” (Isaiah 49:6, my translation)
Something that I have really been struggling with over the last few months is a deep uncertainty that the path I am slowly carving out for myself, namely the life of an academic, is simply not the right path for me. I know that I love this life, and I am not worried that one day I may come to not love it — if that were to happen, which I find unlikely, I would change accordingly, and there is no way to plan any more than by doing that which you deeply feel will be fulfilling to you as you know yourself presently. No, the problem is that, even if an academic life is the one that would be the most meaningful for me, it would not be the right one, because of the willful blindness that I would be embodying towards the general suffering rampant in the world, and the way in which I could instead use my life to tip that imbalance however minutely towards human flourishing.
This inner struggle is made all the harder because with each day I become more comfortable in the academic world of text study, of intellectual sparring, of cerebral education. And so pulling myself out of it in order to pursue a life that will be more true to the purpose that I see humans as having in living on this planet becomes both a harder and longer fall (from a place of ever-increasing comfort and familiarity to the nerve-inducing newness of a completely different focus for my life) and something that I put off further into my own future. How does one find a balance between these two, when both require many more than one lifetime of immersion and dedication?
Eleven months ago, not surprisingly given the shared geographical place and intellectual context of that time and this, I knew this to be the challenge facing me. But I turned away from that challenge, and settled back into the path I had made for myself, and continue to make for myself, almost entirely housed in the halls of academe.
As often happens with such existential angst, an answer was provided to me by a wise friend out of the blue. She said that, in order to bring light into the world, one must maximize the light in oneself first. And how can I do that without engrossing myself with that which is most meaningful and fulfilling? Only by doing this can I then have the capacity to share that excess light that spills over from my own life into the lives of those who I touch. Whether intentional or not, this teaching takes the passuk from Isaiah quoted above that leaves many modern Jews uncomfortable and gives it the gloss that I think it needs. This commandment, commonly known as the need to be a ‘light unto the nations,’ is not a particularistic commandment for Jews, but a particularly wise piece of advice for all individuals, both for their own benefit and for those around them. Returning to my own case, then, this teaching would point to my needing to give to myself in order to be able to give to others. Practically, this would mean satisfying my own search for fulfillment or meaning through academic study and contemplation so that I can then present the best version of myself to the world around me.
This advice nourished me for all of one day before it was confronted with a problem that can only be ignored by the act of willful blindness that I mentioned earlier. That problem is simple: a life of academic study does very little (directly) to alleviate the suffering in this world. What if I need to change myself in order to find the life work that is simultaneously fulfilling and meaningful to me AND directed towards what I believe to be one of the key goals of all humans on this planet: to leave the world a better place than it was when I got here?
It is no shock that combining someone with a passion for text and quiet, contemplative thought with a tradition that prizes those qualities, and placing such a person in intensive educational environments to nurture just those skills, will produce a person primed to do just those things (eventually moving from full-time student to student-and-teacher) quite happily for the rest of their lives. But this is a choice facing me, to continue on this path, and, as I see it now, the easy choice.
How could it be possible that spending my life engrossed in text when I could be engrossed in actively training myself how best to make use of the great resources at my disposal to better the world be an optimal path? How will I ever know whether I can fill myself with the same light and sense of meaningfulness doing more to benefit this world as I do now studying texts without spending an equivalent amount of time doing the former as I have doing the latter?