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2 SHOFAR JEWISH ETHICS AS THEOLOGICAL ETHICS Byron L. Sherwin Byron L. Sherwin is Vice-President for Academic Affairs and Verson Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Mysticism at Spertus College of Judaica. The author of 12 books and over 70 articles and monographs in Jewish ethics, mysticism, law philosophy, education , and Holocaust studies, Dr. Sherwin has most recently written In Partnership with God: Contemporary Jewish law and Ethics. Professor Sherwin is President of the Midwest Jewish Studies Association. Confronted as we are with the inevitable reality of human mortality, conscious of individual finitude when set against the infinite plentitude of creation, our quest to locate a source of meaning and purpose becomes increasingly vital. Reflection upon the ultimate questions of human existence causes us to pause to consider how to infuse meaning into the blink of eternity that is each human life. Few statements pose the problem as poignantly as this citation from the writings of the seventeenth-century philosopher, Blaise Pascal: When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant and know me not, I am frightened, and I am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then? Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and this time bee~ allotted to me? The eternal silence of those infinite spaces frightens me. The transient nature of life is also keenly recognized by classical Jewish literature . For example, in the High Holiday liturgy, we read: The human origin is dust and its end is dust. ... The human creature is like a clay vessel, easily broken, like withering grass, like a fading flower, IBiaise Pascal, Pensees, para. 68. Trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (London: Penguin, 1966), p. 48. Volume 9, No.1 Fall1990 3 like a wandering ~oud, like a fleeting breeze, like scattered dust, like an ephemeral dream. In a similar vein, a midrash comments on the verse in Psalms (144:4), "One's days are like a passing shadow," as follows: "What kind of shadow? If life is like a shadow cast by a wall, it endures.... Rabbi Huna said in the name of Rabbi Aha: Life is like a bird that flies past, and its shadow flies past with it. But Samuel said: Life is like the shadow of a bee which has no substance at all." 3 For Jewish tradition, the encounter with the tenuous nature of human life, with the certainty of human mortality, is not meant to be an invitation to morbidity, but a collision with realities that offer an opportunity to confront the quest for and the question of human purpose and meaning. Since life is a blind date with an uncertain future, each moment is considered a summons to begin or to continue the project of creating the ultimate work of artone 's own life. Hillel said, "If not now, when?" Commenting on this statement, a medieval Jewish writer observed that Hillel did not say, "If not today, when?" but "If not now, when?" because "even today is in doubt regarding whether one will survive or not, for at any instant one can die.,,4 Consequently, "one cannot wait even a day or two to exert oneself in the pursuit of human fulfillment .,,5 This attitude is similar to that articulated by Benjamin Franklin who advised, "Since you are not sure of a moment, throw not away an hour." In his famous treatise Common Sense, another "Founding Father" of the United States, Thomas Paine, wrote, "When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary." An identical statement might have been penned by anyone of the authors of anyone of the works that comprise Jewish ethical literature. Like Thomas Paine, they knew that building one's life as a work of art is the product of continuous deliberate choice and unstinting personal effort. In the art of living each individual is an apprentice. As Moses Maimonides observed, "It is impossible...


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