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Monday
Dec162013

ELECTRIC LIGHT

Chassidic thought was first unveiled by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760). These profoundly spiritual teachings were later harnessed into a comprehensive and methodical philosophical system by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (the Alter Rebbe, who was born in 1745 – the same year as Volta).

The power of electricity is one of the most mysterious, hidden forces of nature. We can’t fully explain where it comes from, but we are undoubtedly aware of its power. We cannot perceive it with any of our five senses, but we know it exists through its causation and effects.

Electricity as we know it today was first documented by the Italian physician and physicist Luigi Galvani (1737-1798) in 1771, when he concluded that electrical currents caused muscles to contract. The power of electricity was first harnessed by the voltaic cell, essentially the world’s first battery, invented by Alessandro Volta (1745-1827) in 1800. Galvani discovered the quality of electric energy to galvanize. Volta developed the ability to capture the energy for practical use as volts.

In one of the more mind-boggling “coincidences” of history, during the same period a different type of electric storm was brewing in Eastern Europe: The “discovery” and development of Chassidic thought (a.k.a., Jewish mysticism), the hidden inner dimension of the Torah. Chassidic thought was first unveiled by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760). These profoundly spiritual teachings were later harnessed into a comprehensive and methodical philosophical system by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (the Alter Rebbe, who was born in 1745 – the same year as Volta).

In 1798, the Alter Rebbe was imprisoned and accused of treason, both earthly and heavenly. He was eventually exonerated and released on the 19th of Kislev. The period that followed the Alter Rebbe’s release – coinciding with development of the voltaic cell and the first commercial and industrial applications of electricity that made it a ubiquitous part of modern life – also marked an explosive new era in the revelation and dissemination of Chassidic teachings. On both scientific and spiritual frontiers, the subsequent advances created a new reality, and the world would never be the same.

But beyond the curious historical confluence of events, the substance of these two advances also bears a striking similarity. Electricity, despite being a powerful force, remains hidden. Yes despite being hidden, it is the force that most effectively illuminates the darkness, not to mention powering the myriads of technological wonders that contribute to the advanced standard of living we currently enjoy.

Chassidic thought operates under the very same principles. It is hidden, concealed beneath the veneer of the revealed dimension of Torah, dealing with subjects so elusive and abstract that no other school of thought dares approach them. Yet, at the same time, it is this hidden, mystical wisdom and the way of life it engenders – the way it illuminates what the world is really all about and empowers the individual to seize the opportunity to be part of that purpose – that enable us to overcome the dullness of material life and infuse physical existence with meaning.

Reprinted with permission from Exodus Magazine

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